Last edited: 10/5/2022
Note: This essay is a work in progress.
Thesis: The repeated clashes between “fundamentalists” and “modernists” reflect a much deeper tension between faith and reason.
Back in 2014, Bill Nye and Ken Ham decided to square off in a debate. Bill Nye is best known as a “science communicator”, a person responsible for presenting scientific consensus and findings in a fashion easily digestible to the public. Ken Ham is a religious apologist and proponent of “creation science”, concerned with presenting Christian fundamentalist worldview in a fashion easily digestible to the public.
Their topic? Whether or not the reality of the Earth’s origins corresponds with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. The two clashed back in forth in the ways you’d expect, continuously coming to an impasse on all sorts of issues such as carbon dating and the amount of animals on Noah’s Ark.
For the most part I found it uninteresting, but there was a part at the end which really stuck out to me. Towards the end, during the open question section, an audience member asked both men “what would it take to change your mind?” Ham’s response was concise: “I’m a Christian”. Nothing would change his mind. Nye’s response, however, was simple: “one piece of evidence, that’s all it takes.”
I’m not here to relitigate the debate or even weigh in on the creation science debate itself, because I don’t have anything interesting to contribute. However, this last statement is what I really want to hone in on, because its implications are really interesting to me. In light of this, the rest of the debate is pretty much meaningless. What’s the point of debating or digging up all this evidence if finding it or not finding it makes zero difference to what you believe?
The real point of contention between these men has nothing to do with the age of the Earth or the ways of interpreting fossil records, but something much more fundamental. In a lot of ways, this debate, and this moment is a microcosm of a larger conflict: a conflict on how to approach the nature of knowledge itself.
For Ham, as a religious practitioner, knowledge is not something to arrive at, but the starting point: his perspective is fundamentally presuppositional. He already has it in his mind that divine revelation was compiled literally into the Scriptures. Any other evidence cannot provide further information; it can only reinforce what he presupposed or potentially undermine it.
Whereas for someone like Nye, knowledge is a product of investigation. He starts with methodology, and runs information through that to connect the dots into a larger truth. Whatever the conclusion actually is matters less to him than whether or not the rationale behind the explanation makes sense and meets some standard criteria of validation. This isn’t just some “secular science” as opposed to a “creation science”, this is science.
When people often speak of something being secular, they can just mean “separate from religion” or “atheistic”, but that’s far too narrow of a definition. To be secular is to take upon a fundamentally indifferent disposition, to not concern oneself with higher truths. The secular man does not simply reject the existence of higher truths, he calls into question whether or not this is something even worth asking.
It’s nonsensical to speak of a “secular science” perse because science itself is secular. At its most base level it exists as a set of methods and criteria for acquiring knowledge and assessing its certainty. It in itself does not presuppose any knowledge, nor does it place a priori moral judgements on what happens if A is true as opposed to if B is true. It simply is a machine, which when fed a set of inputs, will give you an output: whether or not it makes sense to call A true, and how certain you can be in such a statement. What you make of said output is up to you to figure out. There are no higher truths in science, just truths. And this applies not just to evolutionary biology either: natural sciences, social sciences, and even some forms of historical analysis have all held themselves to such a standard.
For the scientist, this even permeates the language. While we can’t speak of a uniform “scientific definition” for stuff like “truth” or “knowledge”, since that has long been a matter of philosophical debate, we can see type of definitions that are typically gravitated towards. If a scientist defines “knowing” as “justified true belief”, the definition is constructed in a fashion which is in its own way methodological and meant to easily communicate something unambiguous.
Higher truths, on the other hand, are considered higher because they operate on a separate level. When we speak of revelation, we speak of something not just pieced together but delivered. There’s no question of “what do we do with this knowledge” because the content of said knowledge in and of itself provides direction. We have a veritable stake in the existence of any higher truth, as a presupposition stands as a bedrock upon which we view the rest of reality. With these truths, we can speak much more confidently about “what we know”, but expressing “how we know” becomes more difficult.
And as a result, how we speak of and define those same terms “truth” and “knowledge” takes upon an entirely different character. If we were to use the scientific version of these terms, we would immediately be speaking of a possibility in which any of these higher truths could end up not being true, the same way arguing the “how” of Newtonian physics implies accepting that if someone showed a superior explanation with a different conclusion, that you would revise your understanding.
Modern Christians have long tried to convince themselves they can somehow bridge the gap between the “what” and the “how” of knowledge, but what they miss is that with the “how” comes the aforementioned possibility, and the very existence of the possibility problematizes revelation.
Virtually all scientific epistemology insists on a separation between belief and truth, and by the standards of what science defines as “objectivity”, the lines between revelation and belief rapidly become blurred. If a certain truth is scientifically objective, I should be able to take all of the observations available on it, present it to any person, and they should be able to logically deduce that my conclusion is the most sensible one. If the nature or source of that knowledge is not something that humans can fundamentally communicate to each other, then it by these standards would be considered “subjective”.
The “how” provides us a level of security, but also communicability. It’s no coincidence that the Christians most often in the position of Ken Ham tend to be apologists and evangelists. They’re confronted not just with internal theological questions such as “is the Trinitarian view the most scripturally consistent view”, but much baser ones such as “why should I believe, out of all the possible explanations, that the universe was created by the Abrahamic God”? It cannot be taken for granted that the Bill Nyes of the world share the same presuppositions, so it puts us in this very bizarre position to watch the two enter into dialogue.
But here’s the thing about dialogue: it’s two-sided, hence the “di” prefix. Dialogue is reciprocal, but also symmetrical. There’s a continuous push and pull, an implicit agreement that both sides are on some level open to changing their minds should the opposing case be more convincing. If only one side is willing to give, then what you have is essentially preaching. If neither side is willing to give, what you have is two people talking past each other.
But at the same time, the fruits of dialogue are attractive to Christians. It provides us with opportunity to evangelize, validate our own convictions, and even just try to prove to the larger world that we’re not idiots. So what a lot of apologists settle for is trying to have their cake and eat it too: selectively using and presenting evidence, but in a way which stops just short of acknowledging the possibility of an alternative truth.
And this is where the battles over the historicity of the Bible come into play. Scripture contains thousands of years of history contained within typically over a thousand pages. If we take this to be a divinely inspired historical witness, and not just simply some collection of allegorical or literary texts, we’re not just dealing with some simple moral or metaphysical statement. We are dealing with a collection of countless claims: claims about historical and material reality, claims which are by nature provable or disprovable. And for every hundred claims made, it doesn’t matter if ninety-nine turn out to be correct, if even one is wrong, that seriously calls into question the nature of its authority. But at the same time, if one is able to externally validate all hundred, that creates a very attractive proposition. One would be able to evangelize in the language of the Gentile, to demonstrate the merits of Christianity to a non-Christian. This, essentially, would be the holy grail of apologetics.
And through the history of apologetics, you really do get a sense of this duality. When evidence of the Hittite civilization — previously only documented by Scripture — was brought to light, many Christians rejoiced, referring to the archaeologist’s spade as the Bible’s best friend. But when scholarly consensus concluded that it is highly unlikely that the Book of Matthew was written by Matthew, that became a lot harder to swallow.
So, how did Christians respond? Some insisted that a lot of these areas of contention were overblown, and that Christianity need not conflict with science, but simply revise itself in response to it. Others, however, began to internalize the conflict. They began to conceive of secularity not as a fundamental disposition in human nature, but instead as a sort of conspiratorial, ideological force specifically hostile to everything Christian. Ken Ham has gone on record claiming that “science has been hijacked by secularists who seem to indoctrinate folks in a religion of naturalism”. He spoke of a scientific establishment who routinely persecuted and censored proponents of creation science. What he speaks of is not just an epistemological incompatibility, but an almost cinematic microcosm of the battle between God and Satan, picking up right where Augustine left off.
But in my view, such a simplistic portrayal of the situation ironically runs the risk of understating the nature of worldly corruption, understating the sheer radicality of the Gospel. There is a conflict between science and faith. Not a conflict between “true science” and “atheist science”, not a conflict between the Bible and evolutionists, but an actual conflict between faith and reason.