A Creationism Debate I Can Endorse

May 16, 2014

I have no expectation that televangelist Pat Robertson cares what I think. It’s even possible that, when it comes to creationism, his interests and mine may not be in full alignment.

But I think he should take Answers in Genesis and noted Ark enthusiast Ken Ham up on this offer:

I wonder if Pat Robertson would be prepared to discuss these issues with me or one of our AiG scientists [sic] on the 700 Club? Or maybe in some sort of debate format at Regent University? We are certainly willing to do that—maybe all of you reading this could challenge CBN/Regent University to allow such a discussion, debate, or forum to occur publicly. I wonder if Pat Robertson, who is allowed to state these things so publicly through CBN will agree to have his statements publicly challenged and tested!

I came across that challenge thanks to Right Wing Watch (where they watch Pat Robertson’s show so you don’t have to). Apparently Pat Robertson has been repeatedly taking swipes at young-earth creationism, calling it “a joke,” and insisting that you’d have to be “deaf, dumb, and blind to think that this Earth that we live in only has 6,000 years of existence,” adding, “it just doesn’t, I’m sorry.”

Ken Ham has various reasons to object to Robertson’s statements, and to challenge Robertson to a debate. He may believe that the 84-year-old Robertson would have more trouble with the rigors of a long stage show than Bill Nye did. Or that Robertson’s scientific misstatements on his widely-viewed 700 Club could leave an opening for Ham in a debate.

But in the end, I think Robertson would win such a debate, and so (in a way) would science education. First off, as to Robertson’s physical stamina, we shouldn’t forget his claim to have leg-pressed a full ton. Even if the octogenarian can’t really leg-press a ton and do multiple reps at 1400 pounds (he can’t), he still seems to maintain a heavy regimen of public events and television appearances, so I think he could handle a little time on stage with Ham.

Robertson’s media skills also nullify whatever advantage Ham might gain from a scientific slip up, especially since the debate wouldn’t be about science. Ham, Robertson, and the audience would all catch on fairly quickly that the point of the debate isn’t whether oil was formed from Jurassic dinosaurs, but whether Christians should be allowed to accept the scientific evidence for an old age of the earth.

That would be a key contrast with Ken Ham’s debate earlier this year with Bill Nye. Nye is famous as “the Science Guy,” and wisely steered clear of theological debate. He did emphasize throughout his performance at the debate that Ham’s theology is just one theological angle, and a minor one at that. But Pat Robertson would be in a position not merely to mention the existence of different views, but to lay those views out for all to see. And I think that would be to the benefit of a whole lot of people.

It’d benefit evangelical Christians by reminding them that even within their theological community, there are a range of responses to science, and they don’t have to set themselves at odds with science just because some of their fellow evangelicals interpret the Bible as saying something at odds with what science textbooks say. That is why Ham is so scared of Robertson’s repeated criticisms (and why Robertson seems to find Ham worthy of a response). Robertson may be the most visible American evangelical leader since the retirement of Billy Graham (who, despite what an earlier version of this post claimed, is still alive but has stopped making public appearances), and Ham would love to ride Robertson’s coat tails to evangelize and convert Robertson’s audience to his view, or even to take over Robertson’s role in pop- and evangelical culture and seize hold of that massive audience by force majeure. And Robertson sees Ham leading a large chunk of his flock toward absurd beliefs, and wants to hold onto them.

It’d also benefit the broader American Christian culture. For whatever reason, the media and the political sphere often treat American evangelicals as the default form of Christianity in the US, with Catholics treated as something vaguely “other” and mainline Protestant churches (the largest bloc of believers in the US) completely ignored. That means that Catholics and mainline Protestants wind up taking theological cues from evangelicals (however inadvertently), hence (in part) the spread of creationist ideas since the ’20s and anti-abortion politics since the ’70s. Seeing two evangelicals staking out a range of views on whether people of faith should automatically reject any science that might seem at odds with their religious faith could only help members of less conservative churches think more deeply about their views on science and religion.

And, in turn, that conversation in the pews could only help science teachers and other advocates for science. Too often, the loudest voices in a community can exert a heckler’s veto over lessons on evolution, the age of the earth, or climate change, and insisting that a lesson is anti-Christian can make school districts especially skittish. But whatever one might think of Pat Robertson, “anti-Christian” is not an adjective you’d probably apply to him, and the more prominently and publicly it is made clear that debates over young- earth creationism are debates within (a corner of) Christianity and about theology, it takes pressure off of teachers, communicators, and policymakers. The more clear it is that they are being asked to join a theological debate, the more safely they can decline without being perceived as at odds with Christianity itself.

I also happen to think Robertson would beat Ham in a debate about the age of the earth, and that wouldn’t be so bad, either.

Now, I still think debates about scientific matters of fact are bad ideas. John Oliver, on his new HBO show, did a brilliant (albeit profanity-laden) explanation of why debating science is so stupid, and that all applies as much to debating the age of the earth as to debating climate change. But this would be about debating evangelical theology, and on that front I think debate is probably a much fairer and more appropriate approach.