Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Real Issue in the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate, or What Creationism Is Really About

Two days ago as I write this, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" and Ken Ham of the creationist group Answers in Genesis held a televised debate. Some of their supporters on both sides declared victory, while others declared Ham automatically won by having the debate in the first place. Me, I suspect that not many people on either side were convinced by the other. Nye was of course arguing against creationism. But Ham was really arguing for something else. That something else happens to be what creationism is really about. It's not about science, dead science, or pseudoscience; it's not about the origin of the world.

Creationism is really about the immortality of the soul.

I know this because I grew up partly in Ham's world and am familiar with the entire context in which creationism exists. Ham, you see, is a "dispensationalist". Science concerns itself with the nature of the real world, but dispensationalism is about the beginning, the end, and the fate of the soul. Creationism is only the beginning. The end consists of the Rapture, the seven-year Tribulation, the Antichrist, and the Last Judgment. To the dispensationalist, all of existence, including the origin of the world, is merely a prelude to the Last Judgment, the importance of which is that bible-believing Christians will become immortal residents of Heaven and infidels (including all scientists) will burn forever in Hell and suffer eternal torment dwarfing Hitler's holocaust and Stalin's terror combined.

The starting point of creationism, therefore, is the fear of death. Believe that existence is only six thousand years old, and you've made the second step to personal immortality, the first being to jettison your reason and surrender your soul to Christ. Hence, all of Ham's arguments were moral. Thus, if I had been debating him, my counterarguments would be moral too. The simple fact of evolution would be my starting point for a moral argument based on evolutionary psychology — that is, on the evolution of human morality throughout history from primitive tribalism to the universal humanism that serves as the foundation of today's global civilization. So let's take on a couple core creationist arguments:

  • Belief in evolution undermines morality: This assumes that the world is by definition empty of value because values are by definition supernatural. Live for this world instead of the next, and you too are without value like the world; ergo, you have no grounds to criticize Hitler for eating Jews. The fact blanked out: morality itself is evolving, from a jealous god's supernatural commandments that must be obeyed Or Else to the practical science by which large concentrations of people can live together peacefully. All the atrocities of the last century or so were committed by left-behind people who were nostalgic for the traditional world that was lost and unable to tolerate the new world we live in.
  • People must believe in God in order to be moral: in other words, a stern supernatural sky father must tempt us with the carrot of Heaven and threaten us with the stick of Hell, or otherwise we're by definition a race of made slashers compelled to eat each other. This is of course the famous Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which if you look at it carefully constitutes a monstrous slander against the human species. Humans are evil by definition, and morality is thus defined as obedience to the sky father's stern commandments. Never mind that the horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the Islamic terror were all committed by fanatical believers in God who obeyed his commandments without question; but then, they also defined killing infidels as moral.
Every point of evolutionary theory against which creationist debaters argue come down to the assertion that to not follow religion, especially dispensationalist Evangelical Christianity, is by definition nihilism. Here's where we believers in reality set ourselves apart: we are not nihilists. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural world, we believe that if we must live in the material world, it's our responsibility to live the best we can. This includes being good to each other and take care of the world in which we live. We can always be better; we can always improve ourselves and our society. To reject all this, to reject the world and society in which we humans exist, is the true nihilism, rejecting reality for a dream world that exists only in our fantasies and wishful thinking.

My point is: the reality behind creationism, the urge that drives it, is purely egoistic: it is the fear of death. The urge for salvation is ultimately the selfish desire for an immortal ego, a desire that can drive people to the most immoral extremes. For a non-nihilistic realist like me, it doesn't matter whether or not the soul survives the death of the body; all that matters is that we do our best to make the world a better place to live in, and not just for us humans. Science may be historically burdened with ethical problems, but at least it gives us the means to change ourselves for the better, ethically and otherwise. Evolutionary psychology can give powerful justification for a humanist ethics, especially once it recognizes our modern moral and cultural evolution. For after all, it really does come down to morality. But what kind of morality: the traditional one based obeying the commandments of a jealous god written down in a 2,000-year-old holy book, or one based in the requirements of living in the world with our fellow humans? That is what scientists and secular humanists should really be debating in the evolution/creationism issue, so it's what I'm debating right now.

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