Bill Nye Slams Creationism, But His Criticism Misses the Mark
Scientist Bill Nye has come under fire for comments he made in a video for the website Big Think in which he criticizes religious parents, instructing them to refrain from teaching their children creationism. Nye claims to not be attacking religion, saying, "You can believe what you want religiously. Religion is one thing, but science, provable science is something else. My concern is you don’t want people growing up not believing in radioactivity, not believing in geology and deep time. You don’t want people in the United States growing up without the expectation that we can land spacecraft on Mars."
As a religious believer, I understand why some Christians take issue with what Nye is saying. I also understand and sympathize with Nye. There has to be some middle ground, and I think a closer look at what is going on under the surface will help to reveal where the conflict truly lies. As a philosopher, I see the bedrock issue is that there is a clash of worldviews. The creation/evolution debate is but a symptom of a deeper conflict.
First, let's unpack a few things. By creationism, I take Nye to be referring not to the more broad idea that God somehow created the world and is responsible for its existence, but the much more specific claim that God created the world in seven literal days a few thousand years ago. To my mind, I am a creationist because I do indeed believe that God is ultimately behind all that exists. I think there are good philosophical arguments for God's necessary existence and virtually no positive arguments for atheism. However, I am not a creationist because I don't believe that God created everything by literally creating the world in seven days a few thousand years ago. That form of creationism relies on a very particular reading of certain biblical texts. So, if you, like me, reject or at least endorse a different reading of the Bible, then you can call yourself a creationist in the broader sense and still find common ground with Nye.
Part of the problem is overly literal readings of the Bible. The Bible is a very complex book. It was indeed written in contexts very different from the modern West. When we read the Bible, it is somewhat inevitable that Western ideas will color our reading. This doesn't mean that we cannot know or understand the message the authors intended, but rather that we must take care to disentangle our prejudices from what is actually in the text.
I was taught to the read the Bible as literature, and every form of literature has certain genres, themes, and tropes. When a friend writes in an e-mail that he was hungry enough to eat a horse, I don't imagine that he could literally a horse; similarly, when it says that God will hide me in the shadow of his wings, I don't imagine that God actually has wings. In fact, as a non-physical being, God doesn't have a physical body to speak of, let alone a set of wings. So, with every text of the Bible, I have to be concerned with the intent of the author, and be sensitive to what he is trying to communicate. Consider what pastor Timothy Keller, author of The Reason for God, has to say about the book of Genesis:
"Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song. There are many examples, including the seven-time refrain, "and God saw that it was good" as well as ten repetitions of "God said," ten of "let there be," seven repetitions of "and it was so," as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened." Perhaps the proper genre of Genesis 1 is not history or biography, but rather poetry or some combination of the two.
The deeper problem, as I said before, takes place at the philosophical level. There are those who take issue with any reference to the supernatural. To them, theism, regardless of its form, is unreasonable and therefore there will always be conflict with science because religion is nonsense. Alvin Plantinga, who has helped to reinvigorate theistic belief, brings much clarity to the situation. In a recent interview, when asked about the supposed conflict between religion and science, Plantinga responded that “the right word would be alleged conflict. For example, I argue that there's no real conflict between evolutionary theory—that is, the scientific theory of evolution apart from any naturalistic spin—and what C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity."'
But the caveat is "apart from any naturalistic spin." Naturalism as a philosophical system more or less rejects any conception of reality that would include reference to the supernatural. It utilizes evolutionary theory as a tool to explain the universe in purely materialistic terms, but remains specific from it. Naturalism embraces what is called causal closure -- the notion that for any given phenomenon or effect, the range of acceptable causes is closed to anything outside of the physical universe. Conflict is created when some conflate science and naturalism. Well-known examples of naturalists would are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. These so-called “New Atheists” like to walk around creating the false dichotomy between faith or reason. But a closer looks shows them to be naturalists, which is fine. But naturalism is a philosophical system that has to be evaluated on its own merits.
I don’t have space here to critique naturalism. But clarity is needed on both sides of the debate. And I hope that religious believers take the time to understand both their own faith, and the world around them better.