The Science Guy, Debating Faith, and the Ethical Duty Not To Engage


Thanks for nothing, Science Guy.

You know, back when I was in college (stop me if I’ve told this story here before), a call-in show on one of the local TV talk shows (called “Cracker Barrel”)  staged a debate on the existence of God. On the “God exists” side was a religious fanatic named Mrs. Warren who had achieved Boston notoriety by picketing local banks for some reason; my father, in fact, had a confrontation with her in his capacity as a savings bank executive. On the atheist side was none other than Madeline Murray O’Hair, she of the Supreme Court case knocking down school prayer.

The “debate” was idiotic, unfair from the start since Mrs. Warren was a prattling dolt who also spoke in what sounded like a fake Italian accent, like Chico Marx, making it even harder to take her seriously. Mostly it was idiotic, though, because such debates can’t be anything but idiotic—the adversaries are not using the same assumptions, definitions, or modes of analysis. O’Hair would mention a scientific study, and Mrs. Warren would quote the Bible, which had to be true because God dictated it. As will always happen when one is debating a fool, O’Hair was dragged into the depths of stupid argument—and whatever she was, she was not stupid—by recounting that she realized that there was no God when her son was lost on a jungle expedition, and though she prayed for his return, he never came back. After being barely restrained by my roommates from calling into the show and shouting “MOM! I’m back! It’s a miracle!” (for some reason they thought it would be in bad taste), I got a toilet paper roll, put it up to the receiver and called into the show’s call-screener as “Jehovah,”from “Beyond.”

To my amazement, they put me through, and I heard the host cheerily utter the words, “Our next caller is Jehovah. Welcome to Cracker Barrel, Jehovah!” Echoing into my cardboard megaphone in my best Burning Bush voice, I told Madeline that I was the Lord God, and that I appreciated her testing the faith of the righteous with her blasphemy, and that despite the consensus among my archangel advisors in Heaven, I would not turn her into a pillar of salt.” Then the host said, “Thank you for your call, God!” and I was done. O’Hare was laughing.

The much-hyped debate over evolution between Bill Nye, a kids show performer with a legitimate science background, and Ken Ham, an extreme creationist whose views are ridiculous even by creationist standards, was just as foolish as the Cracker Barrel fiasco but far more harmful. To begin with, Nye’s willingness to serve as the defender of reason, science and the progress of mankind from superstition into enlightenment was pure hubris. The last time a well-publicized confrontation on this topic took place was in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925, when atheist lawyer Clarence Darrow maneuvered fundamentalist political legend William Jennings Bryan into an epic grilling on evolution versus the Bible. Ham is no Bryan, but Nye is no Darrow, and while the Dayton showdown left the creationist point of view looking shaky to the point of risibility, Ham was able to deliver what constituted zingers to the ears of those predisposed to assume that a Supreme Being is the answer to all unanswerable questions (or has the answers):

Question: “How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? Nye: “This is the great mystery.” Ham: God! How do we know? The Bible tells us so!

Point for creationism!

Question: How did consciousness come from matter?” Nye:  “Don’t know! This is a great mystery!” Ham: (with a victorious twinkle in his eye): “There actually is a book that says where matter comes from: it’s called the Bible!”

Another point for for creationism!

What a rout! The Bible has all the answers, but the Science Guy just has some, and admits that even those aren’t perfect!

This was a debate that could only persuade the ignorant, the intellectually lazy and the brain damaged. No one who vaguely understands science and evolution was going to be convinced by Ham’s appeals to authority (the fact that some inventors are creationists proves nothing, just as the fact that old wacko Pat Robertson says that Ham’s ridiculous 6,000 year-old Earth position is, well, ridiculous doesn’t prove that it is) and his reliance on the familiar cherry-picking tactic used to discredit everything from the conclusion that Oswald shot Kennedy to O.J.’s  DNA  to global warming. Most unconvincing of all, and proof positive of alternate evolution of reasoning ability on Ham’s part, Ham kept returning to the creationist’s bizarre distinction between “historical science” and “observational science,” which holds that anything you don’t personally witness can never be proven to have occurred. As I just suggested, this argument sounds solid if there is something the matter with you.

Not that Nye’s line of argument was anything to cheer either. He kept saying, infuriatingly, that the most important reason to teach evolution was that other industrialized nations teach it and the United States will fall behind if its young  don’t learn real science. That’s great, Bill: you have over a hundred years of physics, biochemistry, geology, astronomy, and paleontology at your fingertips, and the best argument you have for teaching the accumulated knowledge of our universe in the schools is “everybody does it” and “the ends justify the means”?

The best reason to teach evolution is that it’s the closest thing to the truth that we have right now, and we should be teaching children facts as we understand them, not theological mythology devised for a time when those facts were unknown and unavailable.

Mainly, though, Nye was wrong, as any scientist would have been, to allow such a debate to take place at all. There are some points of view and opinions that have been thoroughly and conclusively shown to advance chaos and impede human progress and civilization, and that are also beyond reconciliation with established facts. Among these are the belief that the Holocaust did not occur, that whites constitute a master race, and that women should be subservient to men. To structure a debate where one side is occupied by any of these discredited views (there are others, of course) creates a false dichotomy that elevates  invalid and toxic positions by according them the respect signified by rational rebuttal.

To begin with, rational rebuttal of any of these opinions, or the opinion that the Earth is 6000 years old, is futile, because these are not rational opinions, but unsupported conclusions based on ignorance, denial, or bigotry. More importantly, placing advocates of such positions on the same stage, before the same audience, sharing apparently equal status with their fact-based counterparts only spreads the misconception, much loved by creationists, that these opposing views are merely differing opinions, none necessarily more valid or correct than the other.

Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes— there is an ethical obligation to to deny a forum to a speaker and that speaker’s views, an obligation not to engage, but rather to make sure that those views are marginalized and widely recognized for the unquestionable fallacies that they are. There is a right to free speech. There is no right to have that speech respected. Nye, by dignifying resolute ignorance with the honor of his time, effort and attention, bestowed on creationism a momentary respect it doesn’t deserve. And some people, it is impossible to say how many, are more ignorant and confuses as a result.


Source: Christian Science Monitor, Time Live Science,

64 thoughts on “The Science Guy, Debating Faith, and the Ethical Duty Not To Engage

      • Bingo.

        Even more at issue: did anyone even watch this?

        I think I heard more about it afterwards as Google news links tried to hype it up than I heard of before it happened.

        Bill Nye trying to remain relevant vs Ham trying to become relevant.

        Almost like watching the vice presidential debates…

        • They’re both just plugging their personal brands.

          Materialist atheism and young-earth creationism are equally poor worldviews that require ignoring or explaining away whole sets of data. If you aren’t going to include more measured, thoughtful atheists/agnostics, old-earth creationists, theistic evolutionists, etc., then you have the equivalent of a communist and an anarchist debating politics.

  1. I think the great Christopher Hitchens said it best: “There is no debate. It’s over. It’s been over for a hundred sixty years.”

    On the other hand, there are so few opportunities for real science to reach public ears, maybe he had to take whatever opportunities he can to reach a wide audience. Hopefully, there are some kids with their minds turned on to science who took something from this. (There may also be more people turned onto creationism, but… maybe that’s where they were going anyway? I think religion’s voice is louder than science’s voice currently, and any chance it gets to be part of the discussion, it should take.)

    I don’t know. Deny them the debate and then they get to say we don’t have the answers, when of COURSE we do. There’s a wonderful web series called the Fundamental Falsehoods of Creationism my AronRa, which might even deal with some points that Ken made that day. (It definitely deals with some of the things those people holding the signs were saying, like “if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” Ugh.)

  2. “Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes— there is an ethical obligation to to deny a forum to a speaker and that speaker’s views, an obligation not to engage, but rather to make sure that those views are marginalized and widely recognized for the unquestionable fallacies that they are. There is a right to free speech. There is no right to have that speech respected.”

    Perhaps if more qualified and knowledgable people did the speaking? There must be a reason why the Pope, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson didn’t get involved.

    • Well said, wyogranny. Bill Nye is a scientist as much as Joyce Brothers was a psychologist. They may have started out that way, but they left their respective fields for the greener pastures of media stardom.

    • Oh my. I’m imagining it now, only it’s not a debate.

      Someone could do a miniseries like Cosmos, but about our understanding of life on Earth. The scope could include theologians, since today’s humans are a form of life and often religious. There are plenty of theologians who could explain why evolution is a design tool worthy of a Creator and why religious morality can still apply (e.g. humans were the first animals able to understand God-given law, to name a possibility).

  3. “This was a debate that could only persuade the ignorant, the intellectually lazy and the brain damaged”

    Just to be contrary, I’ll point out that those three categories include enough people to swing a school board election.

      • True enough, but if we talked about making people pass a basic citizenship/intelligence test before voting, they’d look at us like we were crazy.

      • Intelligence and ignorance are separate issues. An IQ 110 person who went to school in a place where creationists took over the textbook committee might have benefited from watching the Nye/Ham debate. There may be enough such people to justify the debate on utilitarian grounds.

        I too hate the idea of treating creationism as a legitimate scientific theory, but if debate is the wrong tool to combat it, it’s also proven insufficient to ignore and ridicule it.

  4. It is a debate that accomplishes nothing but serving the egos of the debaters. Both sides relying on faith in what is ultimately unknowable, one from a position that requires denial of the supernatural and one that is founded in reliance on it. Debates like this, when conducted by the competent, only leave the already convicted with stronger convictions. No one leaves persuaded by the other side. The inevitable conclusion is that the sides are mutually exclusive, so what good could come from this debate.

    Both men should have skipped this one. Neither helped their cause.

    • The problem is, it doesn’t matter if both men “should” have skipped this, at some point down the line of responsible theologians and responsible scientists, you’d run into someone not responsible in each camp to hop on and join.

      What this debate shows you, is that search stopped with these two, personalities that would NOT have skipped this one.

    • “one from a position that requires denial of the supernatural”

      That’s a key error that drives people into creationism. It’s more than possible to be religious and to accept that God can speak through telescopes and fossils and DNA comparisons.

      • OK, materialism requires a leap of faith to get past the First Cause problem. But it’s a damaging confusion to equate materialism with believing what Nature tells us.

  5. I heard about this one going in, mainly from a few skeptic podcasts and blogs bemoaning the fact that Bill had the hubris to do it. Science tends to win in the end, we’ve got evidence on our side, and all you’re doing is legitimizing the loon you’re “debating.”

    The aftermath was PRECISELY what I expected. A lot of basically decent but ignorant young-earth creationists secure in how the representative of their faith had stood up to the pressure, and a lot of scientifically literate but largely insufferable atheists bragging about how much better they are for not being so stupid, and coming up with new and interesting names for God to try and get a rise out of people (although “Big Sky Daddy” was intended as mockery, I kinda like it…)

    • “Big Sky Daddy.” You sure you don’t want to just go with “imaginary friend” or some other comment that mocks those who believe? How about just a big collective “fuck you” a la Dan Savage? And don’t forget the comment that Mohammed was a pedophile raider who put over the world’s biggest con job. Or why don’t you just go with “I’m right, you’re wrong, get the fuck out of the country!”

      Your relentless mocking and attacks have led me to abandon my cherished beliefs… said no religious person ever.

      • Well yeah, that was my point about the new and interesting names. I’m just saying, I’ve heard BSD used in a mocking and condescending tone, but that one I actually kidn of like.

        Like I said- the young earth creationists are wrong on this one, but as a whole are probably decent people to be around. Not EVERYONE who understands the science is an ass (I like to think I’m not, at least), but the internet atheists who delight in telling the faithful how stupid they are for being so stupid are, while right on the science, also complete toolboxes.

        • High profile goofs like Ham don’t help, when they become the face of the faithful. Bryan, after all, was an accomplished, thoughtful man, and a three time nominee for POTUS. He may have been wrong, but he was no fool. Anyone quoting the “observational science” nonsense deserves to be mocked, and hard. Nye let him off the hook.

          • And hateful jerks like some of those mentioned in this thread don’t help when they become the face of unbelief. BTW, I did a quick read of MMO’H’s bio, and nowhere does it mention her son vanishing into the jungle and not returning. She had 2 by 2 different fathers, one of whom broke away from atheism and is still around, one of whom was murdered with her (and I have to admit, my sympathy for her is limited, since, according to her surviving son, she was not that wonderful of a person). You sure it wasn’t some other man in her life she was talking about? (understanding this was some time ago)

            • Gee, maybe the other one came back!

              No, my memory of that is correct—how could I forget a 220 pound roomie sitting on me and telling me that he would NOT let me make a joke out a mother’s dead son? . MMO was perfectly capable of spinning tales on TV to make a cheap point. Not sure what was going on, but that was her story then.

                • So am I, since, disagree or not, you are usually pretty good about not using unsupportable facts, and it sounds like this was a pretty memorable night. From a quick sweep of online biographies, though, the earliest mention of her being atheistic is in 1954, when she attempted to defect to the Soviet Union because of its state atheism.

                  She would have been 35 then, and her sons were 9 and an infant then. I submit that she must have been atheistic for some time prior to that, since departing America for the USSR during the height of the Cold War was not something one did on a whim, so her timeline simply doesn’t fit with the facts.

                  Bottom line, Jack, I think she was feeding the listeners a line. She was, as you say, not above doing so, it’s well-documented that she loved insulting Christians and other believers, and she was quoted as saying it was perfectly all right to hate, so lying in order to make her point certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

                  Why am I spending all this time taking this story apart? Because I have no issue with what I’ll call benign non-believers, meaning people who’ve never had religion in their lives or have fallen away from it as they grew up and just generally follow their own path.

                  I have a big problem with religion-haters, who I think are as bad of haters as those who hate for skin color, sexual orientation, or any other physical characteristic or chosen belief, and I believe Ms. O’Hair, when you get past the rhetoric, and examine her behavior more closely, was exactly that.

                  I have a bigger still problem with those who throw insults at those who choose to believe when they do not. How is that any different than the Protestants in Northern Ireland hurling insults at a Catholic who happens to wander into their neighborhood (and vice versa) or the Muslims in Egypt treating the Copts like garbage?

                  I have a HUGE problem with those who waste the resources of our court system attempting to bully counties and municipalities over war memorials that just happen to have grave-marker type crosses on them or non-sectarian prayers to open Congress, or “In God We Trust” being on money.

                  BUT, at least most of these people have some kind of integrity, even if it supports a brand of intolerance. Ms. O’Hair apparently had very little. if any if she was spinning lies to support her hatred of all things religious. I believe that those of us who believe, since we are still protected by the First Amendment, have as much a duty to call hatred and lies directed at us out as any other community has the same duty.

                  • “I have a HUGE problem with those who waste the resources of our court system attempting to bully counties and municipalities over war memorials that just happen to have grave-marker type crosses on them or non-sectarian prayers to open Congress, or “In God We Trust” being on money.”

                    I agree on this.

          • Agreed, and even Bryan was far from the best “expert” to have called in concerning the Bible and history/science; he seemed more interested in criticizing evolution for its social implications.

            • Which is why Darrow had him trapped from the start. Bryan wasn’t a true fundamentalist unless he was in fundamentalist country, and he was on the radio, live. He had to sound like a reasonable fundamentalist, which is impossible.

            • What almost nobody seems to realize is that it’s the social implications that are scaring people away. Way fewer people would be passionate about creationism if they understood that morality can still exist even if humans were created by genetic changes and not by God breathing on clay.

              • If by “creationism” you mean “belief that the universe is created”, I am plenty passionate about it, and would be solely based on what science tells us about the universe.

                “If humans were created by genetic changes” presupposes that the entire mechanism (starting with the Big Bang) is already in place before some yet-unknown genetic change granted humans their unique morality. A worldview superior to theist creationism needs to explain that first.

                If morality exists without God, it exists for no reason other than consensus, and so it’s not entirely true to say that “morality can still exist” apart from a Creator. Objective morality cannot exist unless it exists in the form of invisible laws comparable to the laws of physics or logic. Subjective morality, such as can exist in a materialist framework, is subjective, and therefore a reasonable person (such as the school shooter in Europe a few years back) who grows up in an atheistic environment can, quite rationally, think to himself “why am I playing by these arbitrary rules?” and do something awful without violating any principles of science or reason.

  6. Exactly. I especially like your point that belief in evolution requires a similar kind of belief as creationism. Both contain unknowables that require the believer to take a leap of faith.

    • “a position that requires denial of the supernatural” does not require any kind of leap of faith! It requires a “leap of faith” NOT to believe in ghosts, magic, fortune tellers, curses, Santa Claus, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, dragons,Zeus, Thor,miracles? The default belief must be that what is unnatural and defies all the natural laws as we know them is all there is..that requires rationality, not a leap of faith.

      • Not quite, I think what she said was that belief in evolution requires a leap of faith, and I think you expanded on that. IF what she’s saying is that there are some gaps in the proofs for evolution, well, that’s a reasonable belief, we don’t have the whole record, though all the evidence we have POINTS to evolution. To totally disbelieve miracles you might be on a little bit shakier ground, since there are some miraculous cures and visions on the modern record (i.e. Lourdes), and the testimony of otherwise reliable witnesses like the WWI soldiers at Mons of 3 different nationalities (cf. “The Angel of Mons”) is not as easy to take apart as that of mystics or other otherworldly people (sorry for the repetition).

        As for ancient miracles, forget it, we’ll never know. Maybe Constantine was just politically savvy and realized Christianity was an idea whose time had come, and maybe God told him so in letters of fire. Maybe the Christian armies at Las Navas just had good intelligence, and maybe St. James pointed the way in the guise of a shepherd. Maybe Attila was put off assaulting Paris by the sight of the City’s formidable defenses, and maybe the prayers of a young shepherdess meant something. If you believe, no explanation is necessary, if you don’t, none is possible.

        The main point I’d like to interject here is debates like this are kind of pointless, as was pointed out above both sides usually come away claiming that the other side got “owned” or some other expression. What seems to be lost on both sides is that science and faith are for different purposes and different needs. Science answers the questions of “how?” Religion answers the question of “why?” How we came to be and how the body works is invaluable, but in the end it’s not going to tell us why we are here or what our purpose is in life. Some, in fact a lot, look to religion to answer those questions, and it isn’t really fair to fault them for that – in fact faulting them for it is where the anti-theists (those opposed to religion as opposed to atheists, who simply have none), lose a lot of their audience.

    • Evolution can be observed in the lab and over history. The only faith required is that we can understand the world by observation and reason.

      Science doesn’t require a leap of faith about poorly understood events such as the Cambrian Explosion. In fact, the scientific point of view is “We don’t know, so maybe I can get a dissertation out of collecting data and proposing an explanation based on that”.

      • There are tremendous leaps of faith required if one rejects, out of hand, the existence of the supernatural. Every workable theory that attempts to explain the universe requires a supernatural.

        A multiverse theory of origin is off-limits, for starters, if you don’t want any supernatural in your worldview. As are extra dimensional theories like string theory. Even Hawking’s M-Theory requires extra dimensions outside of time and space, which you might recognize as another way to say “supernatural”.

        Scientists have more or less conceded over the last 30 years that the universe could only have originated outside of itself.

        It’s not a problem of gaps in knowledge, it’s an issue of where that knowledge points as we accumulate more of it.

        A belief that only what can be explained by physical laws is not sufficient if that data reveals that the universe CANNOT exist solely according to those physical laws. This is the case, by the way.

  7. My personal belief is that the only thing that separates science from God is human limitation. Limitations of knowledge and imagination. From my point of view the connections between God and science that we miss are because we don’t have complete understanding of either.
    Maybe not exactly the creationist view or the science view, but so far scientific discoveries support my position that God created everything and thus everything discovered about His creations confirms His existence. This view is not popular with either side of course.

    • The problem from the religious side you’ll run into is from those who can’t understand that God gave them brains to think with, to learn and grow. All they need to know is that everything in the translation of the bible that their pastor uses is absolute truth, and anything that in any way varies is by definition a dirty dirty lie.

      From the other side, it’s the people who get the science but don’t understand its limits. God will never be proven scientifically, of course, but it’s a mistake to claim that “Science says god doesn’t exist, so shut up about your sky-friend!” It’s more accurate to say that science doesn’t CARE if god exists. We learn how a bacteria makes someone sick and how a medicine makes them better. It doesn’t matter if the bacteria is a random particle from a space explosion or a deliberately crafted organism from the mind of God- it just is what it is, and we only worry about what we can test about it.

  8. I still want to know – KNOW – what REALLY happened in the skies over Nuremberg, Germany, on April 14, 1561. A once-in-a-millennium weather phenomenon, I could believe. But as far as I know, the event remains unexplained – inexplicable – not observed repeated, not replicated.

  9. I didn’t watch the “debate”.

    Ken Ham does not represent me as a Christian, and his beliefs about creation are based more on his personal musings and cultural leanings than on the scripture. Frankly, he doesn’t know enough about either science or the Bible to be debating anyone.

    Bill Nye, on the other hand, wouldn’t have accepted an invitation to debate William Lane Craig, or Francis Collins, or Alister McGrath, and for good reason. Ham was an acceptably easy target.

    Nye is as qualified as anyone to make science accessible to a wide audience, but when he attempts to stump on religion, he does what most atheist proponents end up doing- making simple-minded and bad arguments against religion, misrepresenting and misinterpreting science, attacking straw-men, etc. Ham is himself a living straw-man for belief in creation- the worst possible person to present to the public as an “expert” on the convergence of faith and science.

    If Nye argues from the point of view of materialist atheism- that science “debunks” belief in God and the Bible somehow- then he’s almost as much of a charlatan as Ham. Ken Ham needs to defend his particular theories about Creation (young earth, etc.) and therefore must employ bad arguments that deserved to be put down. But if Nye takes the view that it is unreasonable to believe in a created universe, than he is himself making bad and outdated arguments, which deserve to be put down, and which Ham is not capable of properly debunking.

    The thing that infuriates me more than people like Ham, are observers who want so badly to be on the correctly “pro-science” side that they make broad, uninformed statements identifying atheism as the more “scientific” worldview (it’s not), and accept the false narrative that religion and the supernatural are at war with science. Atheists’ schtick is to fan that particular flame, but within the scientific community itself, most have already waved the white supernatural flag. When you start entertaining multiverse theory, Occam’s Razor dictates that you’d be on safer ground standing with the Bible-thumpers.

    The Big Bang Theory itself (resisted by atheists for years because of its very Biblically-sound creation implications), the fine-tuning argument (tweaking any number of fundamental constants of the universe), the fact that the universe is the product of innumerable invisible Laws in the first place, string theory and other workable models of the universe requiring supernatural dimensions….there are dozens of arguments, from science, strongly implying a designed universe originating from outside itself. Ken Ham is simply not the guy I’d want to make those arguments on my behalf.

    • Sorry, I left out a sentence fragment.
      “tweaking any number of fundamental constants of the universe, even a little, would result in a universe devoid of life”

        • Ugh, he tried the telephone game argument? I am glad I didn’t watch the debate. I can say without qualification now that Nye IS just as much of a clueless clown as Ham. They are just both completely ignorant about the other’s supposed area of expertise.

  10. “He kept saying, infuriatingly, that the most important reason to teach evolution was that other industrialized nations teach it and the United States will fall behind if its young don’t learn real science”

    Jack, you criticize that as fallacious, but it’s also factually incorrect. I met LOTS of creationist engineers at a successful aerospace company and have heard similar experiences from people in other companies.

    It is apparently possible to do engineering without being able to understand science or evidence.

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