By Roger Erdvig and Lynn Swaner
On Tuesday night Ken Ham, prominent creationist (CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum), engaged in public debate with Bill Nye (of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” fame) on the topic of the validity of creationism as an explanation for the origin of the universe. There were not many surprises in the debate– Bill Nye did not “convert” to a belief in creationism, nor did Ken Ham capitulate on his strong stance against evolution.
But really, public debates of this nature are not for the purpose of changing the mindset of the debaters. Rather, debates offer the public the opportunity to listen to two (or more) thoughtful individuals engage in a disciplined, well-reasoned dialogue about an important issue. Observers should come away with a greater understanding of the overall issue and of the opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people think of debates only in terms of the angry exchanges on talk radio and television news shows. These spectacles are not true debates. By contrast, last night’s debate was a thoughtful public discourse, and we can applaud both Nye and Ham for being respectful (for the most part) and being willing to debate in the first place. To look for a winner is to miss the point of such a debate (and if we are honest, most people’s opinions on who “won” will most likely be derived from their starting view of evolution versus creation).
So what was the point of the debate, especially if we cannot objectively and decisively declare a winner? We think there are three points.
The first point is that despite what we may have heard or read, the question of origins is still alive and kicking. The debate put this issue smack dab on the front page of CNN.com (which summarized the debate as “Nobody knows” vs. “It’s in the Bible”) and other national media outlets. The debate even received decent international coverage. Both sides may label the other position absurd, outlandish, and/or offensive, but the matter is far from “decided” culturally — according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, about two-thirds of Americans believe in evolution, and one-third believe that humans have always existed in their present form. Despite this reality, public science education accepts and teaches evolution as the only viable (and “established”) way to view origins. The debate brought to the forefront that not only is evolution rejected by a sizeable percentage of the American public, but also that the evolutionary stance of public science education is nothing less than “cultural hegemony.” Ironically, that term comes from the secular humanist playbook: a ruling group in a diverse society manipulates the culture — imposing their worldview until it is regarded as the cultural norm, accepted as natural and positive for everyone in that society — in order to preserve the power and status of the ruling group. So it goes with the evolution steamroller in American education, but for one evening the debate forced our society to be honest about the cultural relevance of the question of origins. The debate reminded us that people not only have the right to ask where humans came from, but also the right to open dialogue on that question.
The second point is that the debate underscored the importance of “worldview.” If you watched the debate, it couldn’t be clearer that what we believe about origins is central to our understanding or “view” of the world, and our place as human beings in it. The debaters themselves recognized this, often using the term “worldview” to describe the opposing position. The Bible itself, in Hebrews 11:3, acknowledges the role of worldview as it relates to origins: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Likewise Paul, when preaching in Acts 17 to Greek philosophers, used creation as his starting point to explain the “Unknown God” of the Athenians; he began by saying that God, “who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth…” (v. 24) is the One who “gives to all life breath, and all things” (v. 25) and “has made from one blood every nation of men” (v. 26). Without this understanding of origins, little else in the Bible (including salvation) makes sense or can be claimed as true — a point upon which both Bill Nye and Ken Ham agreed and demonstrated. Everything hinges on worldview.
A third point of the debate – and another point of agreement among the debaters – is that education is a primary agent of worldview development in children’s lives (we witnessed Ham asserting that public school textbooks deprive children the chance to consider creationism and thereby push a secular worldview, and Nye begging that science education be kept “pure” and “free” from the influence of “religion”). Make no mistake about it — the debate was as much about what our children should be taught about origins as it was about what we believe individually. As educators and parents ourselves, we need to take the cue from Ham and Nye and ask the important question of how our children’s worldviews are developing. We need to scrutinize carefully the primary, educational shapers of that worldview. Specifically, we need to think critically about the type of schooling our children receive, the worldview of the adults who provide the schooling, and the curriculum and materials used in that schooling. The implications for our children’s worldviews — and thereby what they believe, who they are, and what they do — are profound.
Given these three points, here’s our final opinion on the debate last night: We think it was wonderful. Even though a number of the answers were not fully satisfying and seemed rushed, we loved every minute of it — and delightfully, there were over 150 of those minutes. We were with a group of over fifty people who stayed engaged for the full debate, and in this age of sound-bite sermons that must be wrapped up in a half hour lest “you lose the congregation,” it was refreshing to see so many people, young and old, listening to sometimes heady dialogue for that long. We cannot all agree on a decisive winner, but the debate helped us understand the strengths and weaknesses of our own arguments, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of others. It also keeps those issues that matter most — our beliefs about where we come from, which in turn influence who we are and what we do with our lives, and the way we shape those beliefs through education — on the front burner of our culture.
For those reasons, Ken Ham and Bill Nye are to be commended for engaging in this critical conversation, and allowing us to listen in. They have helped to educate all of us.
Roger Erdvig is the Superintendent and Lynn Swaner is the Assistant to the Superintendent for Academics at Smithtown Christian School.
To watch the full debate from Tuesday, February 4, 2014, visit www.debatelive.org.