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.