Why the Ham-Nye Debate Wasn’t Helpful

I’m writing part of this post on my laptop in a coffeehouse just off the Baylor University campus. For many who may not know, Baylor is a private Christian school; it’s motto is Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana (“For the Church, for Texas”). However, Baylor also finds itself at the culmination of an ambitious, decade-long initiative its regents called “Baylor 2012,” an aspiring, expensive plan to achieve higher levels of academic excellence in all aspects of university purposes and functions. One of the cornerstones of this plan was the construction of a massive science center that would revolutionize Baylor’s impact on the science and research communities, offering state-of-the-art training in competitive degrees such as chemistry and biochemistry, environmental science, geology, physics, psychology and neuroscience.

Also, the coffeehouse in which I sit is called Common Grounds.

It's a rule that the trendier the coffeehouse, the clearer the coffee pun must be.

It’s a rule that the trendier the coffeehouse, the clearer the coffee pun must be.

Because that’s the point. It’s the belief at the core of Baylor’s plan, it’s the hope residing deeply in so many of the educators and students working in this community, and it’s the cry of Christians all over our country and our world who are fed up with the prevailing view that science and religious faith are mutually exclusive – that they cannot coexist.

And then these same Christians and scientists turn the channel to CNN last Tuesday night and witness a “debate” between two individuals who have no interest in finding common ground between their respective fields of study. We stare at the screen, shake our heads, release a frustrated sigh, and listen as these two men only serve to fortify the wall they believe exists between science and religious faith. Thank you, gentlemen.

The only thing worthwhile about this debate was to whether neck tie or bow tie would prove victorious.

The only thing worthwhile about this debate was to whether neck tie or bow tie would prove victorious.

The Popularity of the Conflict Model

Here’s the main problem with the Ham-Nye debate. It took place within a “Conflict model” interpretation of the relationship between science and religious faith. The renowned scholar, Ian Barbour, who focused much of his attention and career on the interplay of science and religious faith, proposed a four-fold typology for understanding how the two fields of study can interact. In laymen’s terms, he figured there were four ways a conversation about faith and scientific research could go.

On one end of Barbour’s spectrum is “Conflict.” In this model, the fields are viewed as unable to coexist. One must be fully correct and the other must be fully incorrect. Many who embrace Barbour’s reasoning are quick to point out that this model is the least helpful, but the most exciting. Because conflict is exciting – it’s what drives action movies, political discourse and pretty much every reality TV show ever filmed.

"We need some conflict, stat! Let's have one of these ladies throw a party and then hide everyone else's Xanax."

“We need some conflict, stat! Let’s have one of these ladies throw a party and then hide everyone else’s Xanax.”

However, there are other ways to consider the relationship between science and religious faith. These models are less popular and more difficult for both “camps” to absorb into their understanding. However, they are perhaps more beneficial and edifying than the Conflict model.

Why the Ham-Nye Debate Wasn’t Helpful

Just because a debate, by definition and practice, is an argument between two different points of view, does not mean either point of view must be accepted to the complete exclusion of the other. A debate that truly educates and energizes deeper thought and study is one that is willing to concede that both sides have something to offer to the general consciousness.

Unfortunately, the two players in Tuesday night’s Creationism-Evolution debate are not interested in adopting that kind of overarching philosophy. Call it a fear of appearing weak or uncertain, or perhaps plain ol’ stubbornness, but I’m also apt to believe that fewer people would tune in for a debate that was clearly driven by a “Dialogue” or “Integration” model, in which common ground and the ability to learn from one another exists at the heart of the argument.

Everyone knows the neck tie and the bow tie hate one another with a passion.

Everyone knows the neck tie and the bow tie hate one another with a passion.

As Peter Enns put it in his own article on the debate, “Ham needs his theology just the way it is in order to maintain his strong grip on his understanding of reality. His theology requires a science that supports biblical literalism. Failure in this regard is not an option for Ham. … Nye is clear that he has no delusions of convincing Ham. The debate presumably is aimed at dissuading those who listen to Ham.”

Anyone else bothered by that? Sure, there is something satisfying when your belief about a certain something is proven to be the right one, but the deeper and more profound the question, the less likely you will ever arrive at such a feeling. Certainly within debate there is a loyalty issue; a person feels compelled to stifle dissent that might scratch and claw at the fabric of his or her belief. But that loyalty, and the desire to protect one’s viewpoint, only exists in those who are trapped in the Conflict model. And the longer you’re trapped there, the harder it becomes to see things even slightly differently.

It's a scary thing when these two guys prove to be a more agreeable pair.

It’s a scary thing when these two guys prove to be a more agreeable pair.

The Debate that Could Have Been

Sitting in Common Grounds, I can overhear students talking. Contrary to the stereotype that only Christians attend a Christian university, I can hear plenty of conversations and arguments ping-ponging back and forth across tables. Pro-choice or pro-life? Should homosexuality still be considered a sin? Is capital punishment unChristian? Should stem-cell research be banned? Should a Christian support alternative energy initiatives?

Which style of cravat is lamer?

Which style of cravat is lamer?

I can’t help but believe that every student who engages in these conversations walks away with a sharper understanding, not only of his or her viewpoint, but also of the other side and the data and conviction it also has to offer. The conversation partners are not only  better informed by the conversation/argument/debate’s end; they have been made, in some small way at least, more patient, perceptive, and gracious people.

Is that too much to ask, also, from a televised debate on one of the defining arguments of the last century? I don’t think so.

But after last Tuesday, I’ve come to suspect that more and more people – be they people of faith and/or supporters of scientific progress – are walking away from such contests with one thought clearer than all the rest. That the only relationship between science and faith is a warring relationship. That it’s a fight, a bitter dispute, and anyone who doesn’t dig a trench and draw a line in the proverbial sand is a weak, hesitant person, full of doubt and lacking conviction.

May we come to see that the exact opposite is not only the real truth, but also the only real hope for peace and progress we have left.

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4 thoughts on “Why the Ham-Nye Debate Wasn’t Helpful

  1. You seem to cast quite a bit of responsibility onto the Christian in this article. Every “complaint” one levels at the religious fundy with no chance of swaying is the Exact same Complaint that can be leveled against he “science fundy”. We fail to realize that much of the debate was not really about science. It is about assumptions. Nye along with other prominent scientists are under the illusion that they ONLY believe in things that have evidence. This is obviously not the case. We as a culture have also bought into the idea that values ought to be separated from facts. This too is misleading because our values necessarily influence the way we read facts.

    The debate that doesn’t happen often and ought to be pressed more, is on WHAT grounds is your assumption the ONLY assumption that is valid. For example: Nye starts with the “belief” that we are only to hold to what we can see/test/study etc. Thus by rule, God and miracles are out of the equation. Even if you presented evidence to the contrary he could not subscribe to them because of his previous commitments.

    This of course happens on both sides of the isle. The difference is most christians are aware that they have these assumptions, many of the mainstream advocates don’t believe they have any.

    Grace and Peace
    -Anon

    • civilanonymity, I understand the purpose of your encouragement to not leave out the “science fundy” crowd, as you call them, from responsibility. However, I don’t think I have left them out at all in what I’ve written. Nye was just as responsible to reach for common ground as Ham was. I stated their shared mistake multiple times throughout the post.

      However, your comment raises an interesting consideration. As a Christian, I must wonder who should be held more accountable for NOT seeking a more gracious, humble dialogue – Nye or Ham? I think it would be Ham, simply because, as a professing Christian who obviously sees a great deal of authority in the Bible, he must recognize the preeminence of ethical practices (of hospitality and neighborliness) when engaging with someone who he believes does not walk with the Lord. In other words, as an ambassador of Christ, who went so far in his patience and graciousness that he dined with sinners and hung out with traitors of his own people, Ham should be held more accountable to seeking a patient, gracious and humble interaction. Does he not believe Nye needs to experience the love of his Savior more than he needs to be rhetorically beaten into submission by Ham’s Creationist ideology? Does he not believe the former is more important than the latter, even and especially in front of a nationally televised audience?

      The Apostle Paul did not hang around Athens and wait for the Stoics and the other philosophers to ask him questions – he proactively sought a way to connect with them so that the truth of the Gospel could somehow be expressed in a way that did not ridicule their beliefs, but deepened and transformed them. This is the point of what I have written here.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am curious if you have read Dr. Albert Mohler’s response to the debate. I felt he hit the nail on the head.

        As for Paul in Athens he was not looking for common ground. He new the common ground. He illustrates his understanding of common ground in Romans 1. Another great help in this area is K Scott Oliphint.

        Thank you for taking the time to interact.

        Grace and Peace Brother
        -Anon

  2. It’s a hard row to hoe. If the YECs could, by some miracle, understand something like the timely words of Augustine, maybe it would give them pause.
    Augustine:
    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?

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