There has been a lot of talk this week about the rather wonderful and remarkably civil debate between Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Ken Ham (Head of Answers in Genesis) about whether Creationism is a viable model for our origins, and I have loved it all. These types of conversations are important and I am thrilled to see such a variety of people jumping into the discourse.
The day after the debates, Buzzfeed posted questions from creationists to evolutionists, and from evolutionists to creationists. Some of these questions were funny. Some were a little smug. And most seemed to be written as a bit of a “zinger.” A single question that automatically disproves the opponents view. And though I always love a good debate and feel that this one is especially crucial, I don’t think the conversation as it presently exists is going to get us anywhere.
Because here’s the thing: Creationism vs. Evolution is not a debate of Science vs. Science. It’s just not. This is a debate about theology and textual criticism, and until we can move that conversation into that field, we will be stuck at a stand-still.
Let me explain. A Young Earth Creationism model (YEC) has no evidence to support it outside of the biblical text. Yes, some YEC proponents claim to have some data that backs up their case, but that’s only because they were explicitly looking for it. If you completely remove the biblical narrative, if none of us had ever heard the story of a six day creation or counted the genealogies that indicate a 6,000 year old earth, there would be no reason to believe—or even consider—that the creation model is a viable theory.
Does that mean that the debate is over? Not at all. It is extremely important to remember that to people like Ken Ham, the bible is all the data that we need. It is solid empirical proof. They view it the same way that scientists look at carbon dating. Actually, it is better than carbon dating, It is irrefutable. So if the bible says that the earth was created in six literal days, but the science does not back that up, then the science must be wrong. This is why the conversation goes nowhere. Evolutionists posit what they consider to be strong evidence, but creationists will only view evidence through the lens of the biblical account that they emphatically know to be true.
To give an example through analogy, if a physics experiment seems to disprove what we already know about gravity, no scientist would automatically be convinced. Sure, it is possible that everything we know about gravity is wrong, but it is far more likely that the experiment was just flawed somehow. That is how creationists view any scientific data that contradicts “what they already know” about the bible. Except in the case of creationists, the conversation ends there. No further research is required. The science is just wrong.
So does that mean the debate is over? Are we at a stand still? Not quite. All this means is that we have an initial hurdle that must be jumped before we can explore scientific data on an equal footing: we must first examine if the Genesis account should be taken literally before we can take what it claims as evidence concerning our origins. And though it should go without saying (but actually does need to be said), I will point out that creationists are not idiots. As Ken Ham pointed out several times during the debates, there are some very, very smart people who believe in the YEC model. They are just people who believe that what the bible says is true. Which is all the more reason to see the bible as our starting place.
Theology and textual criticism. Not physical science.
There was a particular moment on Tuesday night when Ken Ham was asked whether he believed that all of the bible should be taken literally. He responded by saying that the bible should be read “naturally.” That is, that we should consider the genre that the biblical writer was using when interpreting the scriptures. That is, we should read poetry (such as Psalms) as poetry and history (such as Genesis) as history. It was here (in my opinion) that Ken Ham completely lost the debate. And had Bill Nye pursued a degree in the humanities instead of mechanical engineering, he would have recognized that opportunity and pounced.
If we are to read Genesis naturally, then we must first establish what genre it was written in. As one can imagine, there is some debate on the issue. Many Christian and Jewish scholars alike believe that Genesis was presented as allegory or mythology. Such a view is consistent with the similar creation myths that predate the book of Genesis by hundreds of years. It is important to not that such a stance does not necessarily mean that the bible isn’t true. Myth and allegory are just ways of explaining truth in a way that is easy to understand. They are metaphorical devices. If we were to read the bible in this way, we could still glean the moral truths found in Genesis without having conflict with scientific data. This is a worthwhile debate to have.
Ken Ham, however, takes Genesis as a historical narrative. Which is perfectly fine. However, he does seem to have some misconceptions as to what “historical narrative” actually means. As anyone who has studied history knows, our understanding of the past is not set in stone. It is fluid and controversial. Historical narratives are not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. Historical accounts are frequently flawed and misleading. Sometimes the author was biased, sometimes misinformed, and sometimes the author just flat out lied. This is especially true when examining documents from antiquity, as they frequently mixed in magic and mythology with their narrative and were not all that concerned with “fact” as we understand it in the modern sense. This is simultaneously the most frustrating and most fun part about being a historian. It is our job to sort it all out.
So how historically accurate is Genesis? Let’s start the conversation here. We may just find that someone can be a bible believer and an evolutionist at the same time.