Why I Refused to Watch the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254

Last night marked the eve of the great debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and Creationist Ken Ham. Ostensibly, what was being debated were views of the origins of the universe and the development of biological life, with Bill Nye advocating for the Enlightened, evolutionary view of history and Ken Ham arguing the Fundamentalist, creationist position. This is an issue that has been an important one, particularly as one of the nails in the coffin of Far-Right American Christianity. But as the debate edged closer and closer, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. Something wasn’t sitting right with me.

The amount of hype that I noticed surrounded this debate led me to reflect on it as a kind of bread and circuses, the only endgame of which was to reinforce deeply held ideological beliefs by militant fundamentalists and militant atheists. I began to feel that both camps would be watching to substantiate their own feelings of superiority and commitment to their ideals. I tend to associate far more with liberal Christians and atheists than I do fundamentalists these days, and I noticed the implications by such folks that this would be a debate between the secular, Enlightened, Progressive Science community – the Holders of Truth without Ideological Commitments – and the Religious, backwards, gullible community – the Regressives of Society, Laden with Ideology and Poison. I can’t directly speak to the way that the Creationist camp presented it, but I don’t imagine it was anything but a reversal, portraying themselves as the Faithful bearers of Truth, simply believing the words of the Bible without any particular ideological commitments, while Bill Nye represented the transgressions and hubris of Secular Society and Science.

As the debate aired, and in its aftermath, these observations were reinforced as comments from the secular crowd repeatedly expressed surprise and indignation that Ken Ham was appealing purely to the Bible to make his outrageous claims, unwilling to even countenance some of Nye’s arguments. What is troubling to me here is not so much that Ken Ham was unwilling to dialogue, or that his position is facile and even willfully ignorant. Rather, what troubles me most is that the secular/liberal community, for all its vitriol about Creationists and the idiocy of fundamentalists, was surprised when Ken Ham turned out to be exactly who they tuned in for him to be. He was never going to change his mind, because the debate was never about “science.” (We’ll set aside the fact that Bill Nye was never going to change his mind, either). And such debates can never be about science, because they are far more deeply informed by ideological commitments. And one of the results of deeply held ideological commitments is the belief that one has no ideological commitments, and is simply presenting the plain truth of the matter, open for anyone to see if they’re not stupid.

Let me be clear here: I agree with Bill Nye. I believe Creationism to be not only wrong (and pretty silly) but also harmful.1 I believe that out of a deep commitment to the Christian tradition and a deep reverence for the sacred text of that tradition, which is belittled by the simplistic claims of either fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist atheists who do not allow the text to be challenging, ambiguous, narratival, and alive. But I did not need to watch Bill Nye publicly debate Ken Ham to know that – and neither did anyone else. No one I know who actually tuned in to the debate hadn’t already made up their minds, because the debate was never about our minds.

Finally (and this brings us back to bread and circuses), even if it had been about minds, what the hell does it matter? If Bill Nye had managed to convince every single person who was watching that debate that evolution is the correct way to view history, would our world have changed for the better? Would a belief in the Triumph of Science, in the Progress of Reason, somehow lead to a more just order in which the death penalty in America is abolished? In which the prison-industrial complex and its attendant system of mass incarceration is dismantled? In which there is more public housing for the poor and homeless? Conversely, would Ken Ham’s Creationism, had it changed the hearts and minds of every man, woman, and child in the audience, lead to any sort of Beloved Community? Would it lead to the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed, the thirsty being given drink, the prisoner being visited? Would it lead to the end of militarism, racism, and materialism? No. A thousand times no.

An answer of “yes” to any of my questions posed above betrays an ideological commitment to one of those two camps – which are actually more closely aligned than either of them wish to admit. (Yes, I have my own ideological commitments here. I understand that.) Because an answer of “yes” prioritizes belief over action; abstraction over concreteness. It encourages us to live in our heads and search for the right thing to believe, rather than enter into relationship with the suffering of the world and engage the meaning that bubbles up from underneath. It belies one of the fundamental conceits of modernism – and fundamentalism is born from modernism – that simply knowing the Facts/the Truth is the single most important thing. And while people were watching that debate, patting themselves on the back for being “well-informed” or “faithful” or “on the Right side of History,” millions of men and women and children slept outside on the streets of our cities. People were brutalized by the police. Women inmates were raped by prison guards. Our country continued its use of drone warfare. The Police State expanded. Capitalism infected another soul. The State took another life.

And the Empire doesn’t give a fuck what Ken Ham, Bill Nye, or any of its lower classes believe about the nature of biological or human progress.

1 I am also attempting to make cultural observations here and not indictments of individuals. For his part, Bill Nye seems to be a very solid dude, respectful and intelligent. I do not mean to imply that he was consciously propagating this. Simply, rather, that he was used in this way by the spectacle of the debate.

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5 Comments

  1. Did’t watch it: what is the use We are loosing so much of nature and the only support system for our kind in the universe we know of.Turning the heads of a few Ostriches wont save the flock. This is way pessimistic I know but I just read the dire state of Monarch Butterfly’s we could loose this amazing migration spectacle and its ecological nich in one or two years. It appears they may never rebound to earlier numbers and we do not know how that will upset the delicate balance of nature at least for our sakes.I saw a grand total of 10 this fall. Damn depressing when in the recent past there were thousands. LEMILLAR, depressed in TexaS

  2. And the Empire doesn’t give a fuck what Ken Ham, Bill Nye, or any of its lower classes believe about the nature of biological or human progress.

    Sure it does. That’s partly why the Masonic British elite projected colonialism and their own economic models onto biology and nature in the first place.

    The link of Darwin to Malthus has been recognized and accorded proper importance from the start, if only because Darwin himself had explicitly noted and honored this impetus. But if Darwin required Malthus to grasp the central role of continuous and severe struggle for existence, then he needed the related school of Scottish economists…to formulate the even more fundamental principle of natural selection itself.
    ….
    In fact, I would advance the even stronger claim that the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith’s economics transferred to nature. (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould :122)

    See also: (The Pure Society: from Darwin to Hitler by Andre Pichot)

  3. Conversely, would Ken Ham’s Creationism, had it changed the hearts and minds of every man, woman, and child in the audience, lead to any sort of Beloved Community?

    If you had watched the debate then you would know that he presented the gospel. And there is historical evidence that it can change the world.

    Would it lead to the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed, the thirsty being given drink, the prisoner being visited?

    It might. Unlike Ken Lay giving the Selfish Gene to his employees and engaging in survival of the fittest games before Enron collapsed, etc.

    Would it lead to the end of militarism, racism, and materialism? No. A thousand times no.

    There is historical evidence that Darwinism, a projection of colonialism onto nature, was used to justify all those things. The main difference between Darwinism being used to justify such things and Christianity being abused or perverted to justify such things, is that people have to reject the teachings of Jesus in order to do all that. In contrast, they can easily accept the teachings of Darwin. For example, as a National Socialist put it:

    Our whole cultural life for decades has been more or less under the influence of biological thinking, as it was begun particularly around the middle of the last century, by the teachings of Darwin…
    (Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in
    Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People by Max Weinreich
    (New York:The Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1946) :33)

    Yet the teachings of Darwin were a projection of colonialism and pseudo-scientific views of “economics” onto nature:

    …the anthropological fable is a work of imagination, a historical scenario, yet offered as an explanation of one or another social phenomenon of either that time or our own. It is a kind of reverse science fiction*, situated in the past rather than in the future. …
    What claim can this kind of historical fiction make to be scientific? It simply cannot, even in the loosest sense of science. It is just that the anthropological fable appeals to ideas of competition, struggle, selection, etc., ideas of Darwinian biology–or rather, socio-economic ideas that Darwinism borrowed and naturalized, thus giving them scientific backing. Returned to the sociology from whence they came, they are endowed with a kind of scientific aura, and their use in anthropological fables confers on the latter a dignity to which they have no right.
    The problem is that Darwinism, properly speaking, resorts to just this kind of historical scenario in its explanation of the origin of species. The simplest of these scenarios, in its modern form, sees a certain characteristic as appearing by chance mutation and, once shown to be favourable to its individual bearer, being preserved by natural selection. This basic model can be given added sophistication, mathematical for example, but the fact remains that the Darwinian explanation still consists in imagining a historical scenario… To criticize the explanatory principle that the anthropological model provides in social Darwinism is equally to criticize the Darwinian principle that explains the evolution of species by reconstructing historical scenarios. It thus amounts to an attack on science (since Darwinism is deemed scientific, at least among biologists)….
    (The Pure Society: from Darwin to Hitler by Andre Pichot :47-49)

  4. Did’t watch it: what is the use We are loosing so much of nature and the only support system for our kind in the universe we know of.Turning the heads of a few Ostriches wont save the flock.

    You don’t believe that Christians can care about the environment or animals before heading the way of the Dodo?

    History shows otherwise:

    …characteristic of Puritan sentiment is [a] sixteenth-century condemnation of bear-baiting which, remarkably…makes a test of genuine Christian confession:

    What Christian heart can take pleasure to see one poor beast to rent, tear and kill another, and all for his foolish pleasure? And although they be bloody beasts to mankind, and seek his destruction, yet we are not to abuse them, for his sake who made them, and whose creatures they are. For notwithstanding that they be evil to us, and thirst after our blood, yet they are good creatures in their own nature and kind, and made to set forth the glory and magnificence of the great God and for our use; and therefore for his sake not to be abused… we are not in any wise to spoil or hurt. Is he a Christian man, or rather a pseudo-Christian, that delights in blood?’

    From the 1640s the English Puritans had some opportunity to legislate against cruelty. Bearbaiting had been attacked as a full ugly sight as early as 1550, and Parliament ordered its suppression in 1642. Cockfighting was attacked by Perkins among others and finally prohibited by Cromwell in 1654. […] Opposition to animal cruelty resumed with the Methodists and evangelicals of the eighteenth century who inherited a strong Protestant sentiment opposed cruelty and were again able to bring their theology to bear upon public policy. Horace Walpole is said to have remarked in 1760 that a certain man was known to be turning Methodist; for, in the middle of conversation, he rose, and opened the window to let out a moth. […]
    As the eighteenth-century Christian Humphry Primatt wrote: If I know that a man is cruel to his beast, I ask no more questions about him. He may be a noble man, or a rich man. . . or a church man, or anything else, it matters not; this I know, on the sacred word of a wise king, that, being cruel to his beast, he is a wicked man.
    (Six Modern Myths About
    Christianity & Western Civilization
    By Philip J. Sampson :84-85)

    Perhaps Christians can and should care more than Darwinists, given that Darwinists can imagine everything in terms of survival of the fittest.

    Just a thought… but what if modern Scientist Inc. working for corporations or the petrodollars of the American oligarchy are actually generally destroying the environment? Ironically it may be that the “primitive” Amish and other assorted rubes and fundamentalists, are actually saving it. After all, they’re not the people sending huge oil tankers across the ocean. They’re not the people trying to create a fossil fueled lifestyle to people. In fact, they arguably have a more sustainable form of living.

    So I guess the Amish are saving the lives of butterflies. Not to mention that they seem to be less likely to be put in Corrections Corporation of America than the Enron employees that read the Selfish Gene and began to think that Darwinian fairy tales have something to do with reality.

    We’re all headed the way of the Dodo. The butterflies, the Amish, us, everything…. There is nothing new under the sun. Although that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better than we’re doing in the meantime.

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