Science, Theology, and None-of-the-Above (i.e., “creationism”): On the recent flap between Bill Nye and Ken Ham

(Diatribe warning – proceed at your own risk.)

Those of you with a more conservative past (like me) may have noticed a couple of weeks ago when some comments made by Bill Nye “the science guy” elicited a small flurry of response from the Answers in Genesis people, headed up by Ken Ham. Let me be clear at the outset: I’m rather upset about all this. “But why?” you may ask. I’ll tell you. Because polls from a few months ago show that 46% of the USA population believes in creationism – not that God is somehow involved in the process (theistic evolution got 32%), but in straight up creationism. Furthermore, the trend-lines are moving in the wrong direction: over the past 30 years, creationism is up 2% while 6% have moved from theistic evolution to exclusively naturalistic evolution. (source)

“Well sure,” you may say, “those are not encouraging numbers. But why do you care so much personally?” Because I have to teach religion and theology to ~250 undergraduate students each academic year and, given the demographics of the student body I’m dealing with, it is safe to say that I have a sizeable percentage of creationist students in my classrooms. That is why I care about this at a personal level, aside from the intellectual level where I recognize that creationism is nonsense.

(I'm also concerned insofar as this is one bedrock piece of the general epidemic of anti-intellectualism and denial-ism in the USA populace these days. The present election season has brought this out quite clearly . . .)

“But why are you so sure it’s nonsense?” I’m glad you asked! (See what I did there?) It is nonsense because it is both bad science and bad theology and – even more problematic from my particular professional point of view – it is bad science because it is bad theology.

Creationism is Bad Science . . .


Creationism is bad science because it wants to use something that is not available to empirical investigation (i.e., God; as John 1.18 reminds us, “No one has seen God at any time”) as an explanation of / interpretive framework for empirical science, and to leverage that explanation / framework to dispute broad scientific consensus surrounding another (more properly scientific) explanation / interpretive framework. This is basically an exercise in a priori rather than a posteriori thinking, where the former thinks in terms of principles (know from revelation, metaphysics, etc.) and works down from there to the actual phenomena in the world. In the latter, one works from the phenomena as one finds them in the world and attempts to "think after" them, investigating further until one reaches knowledge of what they are and how they work. Modern science is based on the latter, and maintaining the former is nothing but an attempt to roll the clock back behind Galileo.

This significantly undermines the way Ken Ham and other creationists posture as holdouts of true, objective science against atheists over-hasty to short-circuit true scientific investigation. Furthermore, and as Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) points out (specifically with reference to those who deny that global warming is real and caused by humans), true scientific breakthrough has historically advanced rapidly to broad acceptance. But this has been true neither of climate change denial or of creationism. In fact, in each of these cases, those who claim to be defending the true radicality of science are actually clinging to an outdated ideology.

Furthermore, Ham likes to make a distinction between historical science and empirical (or "observational") science where the latter is concerned with repeatable observation and where the former is concerned with extrapolations to the past without such experimental foundation. (Coincidentally, this distinction has unique to Ham at al and is not a fixture of contemporary philosophy of science.) The point of this distinction is to drive a wedge between technology and scientific explanation of origins. However, I would point out that contemporary physics messes up his fine distinction insofar as it deals is repeatable observation coupled with advanced mathematics in such a way as to scientifically explain the universe’s origins. In fact, it is unclear to me how one can accept relativity and quantum physics while also maintaining Ham’s distinction. Perhaps Ham and the creationists would like to dump all this as well. Fine; but that also substantially increase their "scientific" burden of proof and multiplies the number of fronts on which they have to thumb their noses at broad scientific consensus.

. . . because Creationism is Bad Theology


Now we come to the issue insofar as it resides squarely within my wheelhouse. As I intimated previously, Ham’s creationism is bad science predicated upon bad theology. It is bad theology that is motivating the bad science. So, where’s the bad theology? Ken Ham’s whole project is motivated by and predicated upon the absolutely ridiculous notion that a text predating modern scientific investigation by approximately 3000 years might be even remotely interested in (much less capable of accurately) offering something like a scientific explanation of the world and its origins. But Ham refuses to acknowledge this. Creationism literature frequently refers to origin narratives in scripture as “eyewitness accounts,” the implication being that God was there, saw it, and passed that information along in scientifically accurate ways.

But to claim this is to mistake the sort of text with which we have to do, as well as to discount the rhetorical aims of that text. Even the conservative evangelical Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy acknowledges that biblical interpretation must take into account the sort of text in question. Here is the majority of article 13:
“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”
This angle gets picked up again in the commentary section. Here is a long quote:
“We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman's milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.

So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.”
I do not quote this material because I agree with it 100%. But the Chicago Statement is a recognized piece of evangelical theological heritage that I would say falls just a bit on the right side of mainstream evangelicalism. This is damning for creationism and Ham because it identifies them as even further to the right, merging into fundamentalism. In other words, something like an “average” evangelical doctrine of scripture rules out creationism.

Moral of the story? Even if you want to have a half-way responsible evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy like that found in the Chicago Statement, such a position rules out creationism. Even what I would describe as a minimally responsible theological position on scripture, like that found above, sets creation aside. That so many evangelicals are also creationist is a theological inconsistency. In any case, Ham and creationism takes an incredibly conservative (and, to add my professional opinion, seriously misguided) doctrine of scripture (remember that even B.B. Warfield, one of the earliest defenders of the doctrine of inerrancy when it was developed at Princeton in the late 19th century, accepted evolution) and uses it to fund bad “science.”

To state it another way: there is no theologically good reason to accept the Ham / creationism approach and reject overwhelming scientific consensus. It is simply unnecessary - and, let's be honest, improper - from an evangelical theological perspective.

Paul M. van Buren on Theology and Science


So enough beating up (for now). Here is a positive theological statement on how theology and science relate. If only good theology like this (and it is good, even if some of his terminology is out of date as far as the philosophy of science goes) could find its way to people . . .

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, 142. As usual, bold is mine:
The Christian is interested in the cosmos because it is part of God’s creation, and to the extent that he has to come to terms with the cosmos, it matters to him that he understand that with which he has to do. . . . Because the human being is human and not God; he has his place in creation, and his concern is and ought to be those matters which have to do with being human. His concern is, in the widest sense, existential. Insofar as the cosmos truly impinges on my existence, it is a matter of my concern. This implies that as time progresses and scientific development progresses, the cosmos will increasingly become an existential concern for humanity.

But even now, the cosmos, the whole universe, is my Christian concern, for to some degree it is already the object of well-attested scientific investigation. Because others have delved deep into the inner workings of the universe, it is also my concern as a Christian. But it is not as though I can learn more about God by learning more about the universe. What I must do, out of respect for the scientist, is to make it clear to him that theology is not science and does not presume to be science, and as a Christian I am also bound to bear witness to him that science is not theology and cannot rightly presume to be theology. Theologians aren’t scientists, note well. But also, scientists aren’t theologians.

The scientist can no more answer the question about God from his science than I can answer the question about the chemical development of the universe from the Christian faith. We must be very clear about this, or else we will sadly fail to understand what we say in the Christian doctrine of creation. The doctrine of creation speaks solely of God’s relationship to creation and of creation’s relationship to God. The scientist cannot even speak, scientifically, of creation as an event, of this world or this universe as a created order. And of course, he cannot speak at all from his field on the subject of God and his relationship to what he investigates, for science by its very nature can deal only with matter. It can presuppose creation, or it can guess at some other explanation. But science is investigation, not explanation, and there can only be conflict between theology and false science, or between false theology and science. Between true theology and true science there can be no conflict. Ultimately they can only be in harmony.

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