Bill Nye’s Reasonable Man—The Central Worldview Clash of the Ham-Nye Debate

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 – Al Mohler

Last night’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham attracted a huge international audience and no shortage of controversy—even before it began. Bill Nye, whose main media presence is as “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, co-founder of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum, squared off in a true debate over one of the most important questions that the human mind can contemplate. That is no small achievement.

I enjoyed a front row seat at the debate, which took place even as a major winter storm raged outside, dumping considerable amounts of snow and ice and causing what the local police announced as a “Class Two” weather emergency. Inside the Creation Museum there was quite enough heat, and the debate took place without a hitch. Thankfully, it also took place without acrimony.

The initial controversy about the debate centered in criticism of Bill Nye for even accepting the invitation. Many evolutionary scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, refuse to debate the issue, believing that any public debate offers legitimacy to those who deny evolution. Nye was criticized by many leading evolutionists, who argued publicly that nothing good could come of the debate.

Interestingly, this points back to the famous debates over evolution that took place in nineteenth century England, when Anglican churchmen faced early evolutionary scientists in (mostly) civil public exchanges. Back then, it was the churchmen who were criticized by their peers for participation in the debate. Now, the table has turned, indicating something of the distance between the intellectual conditions then and now.

Of course, Bill Nye might have felt some moral obligation to debate the question, since he had launched a unilateral attack on creationist parents in a video that went viral last year. In that video, Nye told creationist parents:

[I]f you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

But if Nye had launched the attack, he did not arrive at the debate in a defensive mode. A protege of the late Carl Sagan and the current CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye was in full form last night, wearing his customary bow-tie, and immaculately dressed in a very expensive suit. He took notes with a very fine writing instrument. I like his style.

Ken Ham is a veteran debater on the issue of origins, and he was clearly prepared for the debate. Ham’s arguments were tight and focused, and his demeanor was uniformly calm and professional. The format allowed for a full expression of both arguments, along with spirited exchanges and questions submitted from the audience. What the 150 minute event lacked was any requirement that the debaters answer each other’s questions. That would have changed the way the debate concluded.

The central question of the debate was this: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” Ham stuck to the question tenaciously. Nye, on the other hand, tried to personalize the debate and kept changing the question from creation to “Ken Ham’s creationism.” Ham was unfazed, and kept to his argument.

As the debate began, it was clear that Ham and Nye do not even agree on definitions. The most friction on definition came when Nye rejected Ham’s distinction between “historical science” and “observational science” out of hand. Nye maintained his argument that science is a unitary method, without any distinction between historical and observational modes. Ham pressed his case that science cannot begin without making certain assumptions about the past, which cannot be observed. Furthermore, Ham rightly insisted that observational science generally does not require any specific commitment to a model of historical science. In other words, both evolutionists and creationists do similar experimental science, and sometimes even side-by-side.

Nye’s main presentation contained a clear rejection of biblical Christianity. At several points in the debate, he dismissed the Bible’s account of Noah and the ark as unbelievable. Oddly, he even made this a major point in his most lengthy argument. As any informed observer would have anticipated, Nye based his argument on the modern consensus and went to the customary lines of evidence, from fossils to ice rods. Ham argued back with fossil and geological arguments of his own. Those portions of the debate did not advance the arguments much past where they were left in the late nineteenth century, with both sides attempting to keep score by rocks and fossils.

In this light, the debate proved both sides right on one central point: If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.

That’s because the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?

On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.

When asked how matter came to exist and how consciousness arose, Nye responded simply and honestly: “I don’t know.” Responding to the same questions, Ham went straight to the Bible, pointing to the Genesis narrative as a full and singular answer to these questions. Nye went on the attack whenever Ham cited the Bible, referring to the implausibility of believing what he kept describing as “Ken Ham’s interpretation of a 3,000 year old book translated into American English.”

To Bill Nye, the idea of divine revelation is apparently nonsensical. He ridiculed the very idea.

This is where the debate was most important. Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Both men said no. Neither was willing to allow for any dispositive evidence to change their minds. Both operate in basically closed intellectual systems. The main problem is that Ken Ham knows this to be the case, but Bill Nye apparently does not. Ham was consistently bold in citing his confidence in God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the full authority and divine inspiration of the Bible. He never pulled a punch or hid behind an argument. Nye seems to believe that he is genuinely open to any and all new information, but it is clear that his ultimate intellectual authority is the prevailing scientific consensus. More than once he asserted a virtually unblemished confidence in the ability of modern science to correct itself. He steadfastly refused to admit that any intellectual presuppositions color his own judgment.

But the single most defining moments in the debate came as Bill Nye repeatedly cited the “reasonable man” argument in his presentation and responses. He cited Adolphe Quetelet’s famed l’homme moyen—“a reasonable man”—as the measure of his intellectual authority. Writing in 1835, Quetelet, a French intellectual, made his “reasonable man” famous. The “reasonable man” is a man of intellect and education and knowledge who can judge evidence and arguments and function as an intellectual authority on his own two feet. The “reasonable man” is a truly modern man. Very quickly, jurists seized on the “reasonable man” to define the law and lawyers used him to make arguments before juries. A “reasonable man” would interpret the evidence and make a reasoned judgment, free from intellectual pressure.

Bill Nye repeatedly cited the reasonable man in making his arguments. He is a firm believer in autonomous human reason and the ability of the human intellect to solve the great problems of existence without any need of divine revelation. He spoke of modern science revealing “what we all can know” as it operates on the basis of natural laws. As Nye sees it, Ken Ham has a worldview, but Nye does not. He referred to “Ken Ham’s worldview,” but claimed that science merely provides knowledge. He sees himself as the quintessential “reasonable man,” and he repeatedly dismissed Christian arguments as “not reasonable.”

In an unexpected turn, near the end of the event, Nye even turned to make an argument against Christianity on grounds of theodicy. He asked Ham if it was “reasonable” to believe that God had privileged a personal revelation that was not equally accessible to all. Nye’s weakest argument had to do with his claim—made twice—that billions of religious people accept modern science. He provided a chart that included vast millions of adherents of other world religions and announced that they are religious but accept modern science. That is nonsense, of course. At least it is nonsense if he meant to suggest that these billions believe in evolution. That is hardly the case. Later, he lowered his argument to assert that these billions of people use modern technology. So, of course, do creationists. There are few facilities in the world more high-tech than the Creation Museum.

Nye is clearly not a fan of theistic evolution, since he argued that a purely natural argument should be quite enough for the “reasonable man.” He seemed to affirm a methodological agnosticism, since he sees the question of a “higher power” or “spiritual being” to be one of little intellectual consequence. He did argue that nature is a closed system and that natural selection can allow for absolutely no supernatural interference or influence. In this respect, he sounded much like Stephen Hawking, who has argued that God may exist, but that there is nothing for him to do.

Ken Ham is a Young Earth Creationist (as am I), but the larger argument was over worldviews, and the debate revealed the direct collision between evolution and the recognition of any historical authority within Genesis 1-11. As if to make that clear, in making one of his closing arguments, Bill Nye actually went back to cite “this problem of the ark.”

The ark is not the real problem; autonomous human reason is. Bill Nye is a true believer in human reason and the ability of modern science to deliver us. Humanity is just “one germ away” from extinction, he said. But science provides him with the joy of discovery and understanding.

The problem with autonomous human reason is made clear by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:18-23 ESV).

The problem with human reason is that it, along with every other aspect of our humanity, was corrupted by the fall. This is what theologians refer to as the “noetic effects of the fall.” We have not lost the ability to know all things, but we have lost the ability to know them on our own authority and power. We are completely dependent upon divine revelation for the answers to the most important questions of life. Our sin keeps us from seeing what is right before our eyes in nature. We are dependent upon the God who loves us enough to reveal himself to us—and to give us his Word.

As it turns out, the reality and authority of divine revelation, more than any other issue, was what the debate last night was all about. As the closing statements made very clear, Ken Ham understood that fact, but Bill Nye did not.

The central issue last night was really not the age of the earth or the claims of modern science. The question was not really about the ark or sediment layers or fossils. It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared “reasonable man” and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace.


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Young Earth Creationism, Faith, and a Few Random Thoughts

The teaching of young earth creationism (YEC) to Christian kids in homeschooled environments causes many of them to doubt or lose their faith, especially if YEC is taught as being foundational to our faith. The blog posited that YEC was taught as a primary ‘salvation’ issue – that Heaven or Hell depends on it.

That was the major theme of a ‘Christian’ blog post I found recently. I actually joined the discussion. I learned some amazing things!

Part of the initial post discussed a research project in 1997 that was conducted by a half dozen PhDs of various sorts to study the age of the earth. It seems they were proponents of YEC and resourced other YEC proponents in their study. Because they didn’t use resources ‘outside’ the YEC camp, their work was just a lot of circular reasoning. That caused a young lady to begin to doubt her faith and she has never recovered.

There were other accounts in the comments section saying the same thing; that the teaching of YEC cause some to doubt/lose their faith, nearly all because of having been taught in a homeschooled environment that believing in YEC was a salvation/gospel issue, as if one could lose his/her faith if they didn’t believe in YEC. .

While I can understand why exposure to ‘Evolution as fact’ in school/college venues might cause some doubt (and it does), I couldn’t understand why exposure to YEC would cause anyone to doubt their faith. At the same time, I assumed that the subject of young people doubting/losing their faith might be an important one to address in response.

Therefore, I initially responded that I didn’t think that genuine faith would never tossed out the window, that one having doubts would not completely abandon their faith; because it was a gift from God and whom God saves He keeps by his power. That was considered off topic and one of those nasty Calvinism things.

I decided to bring it down a level and suggest that there might be an issue of not being solidly grounded in the faith once professed for these young people who doubt/abandon their faith. That lack of grounding. might come from a lack of individual Bible reading/study, or having sat under good Bible teaching. Well, That idea completely flabbergasted the site host, who thought the things I was suggesting as causes for doubting one’s faith were ‘works-based’ It took awhile to process that one! How else do we become stronger in our faith without being immersed in sound Biblically teaching?

After a couple more back-and-forth exchanges I think I finally got it – the prevailing ‘theology’ of the majority of this particular group of bloggers. They seem to be into the ‘just me and Jesus – don’t really need anything else’ demographic that is rather large these days. We just need our ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus and we can dispense with old dead guys/creeds/ and the foundational truths that we’ve been told are significant for our spiritual growth and maturity. Focusing on our ‘relationship’ is not works based like studying the Bible and therefore it’s the ‘relationship’ that’s ‘ real faith.

I never did get to the point of suggesting that I don’t know of any advocates of young earth creationism that would tell anyone that their very salvation depended on believing in a young earth, including the founders of Answers In Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. What I did suggest, to no avail, was that the bigger issue at stake is the inerrancy and authority of scripture, and that the young v. old earth debate really points to that bigger issue. I did that while presenting the main issues that were addressed during the rise of the fundamentalist movement in America in the early 20th century, which had already been soundly bashed (fundamentalisms). That didn’t go well, maybe because believing in a young earth as essential for salvation wasn’t on the list.

So here I sit on a Sunday morning, still wondering just how far the ‘me and Jesus’ mantra has spread and just how badly young believers today have been deceived by other ‘Christians’ and are victims of very real ‘spiritual abuse’. How does any believer end up in the ‘me and Jesus is all we need’ camp? Maybe I’m just getting old, but for a lot of years now, my ‘relationship’ with my Savior has deepened through being immersed in His written word, and just believing it’s true going in. There are other things that have also helped deepen the relationship – studying church history and the creeds and thoughts of dead guys (and some living), but those are only secondary to being personally immersed in the written word.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Tim 3:16-17

If I don’t believe in the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of scripture, I might as well toss my faith out the door. Wasn’t the first lie that the serpent told Eve “Did God really say……?”

So much for Sunday morning thoughts. This was more for my own clarity than trying to actually teach anyone anything. I had to wade through over a hundred comments that were all over the map, but mostly bashing fundamentalism, homeschooling, John Calvin and anyone who says that that when and how God created our planet impacts our ‘salvation theology’ (although they wouldn’t use the word ‘theology’ – too many syllables and who needs it?)

Thanks for being patient in reading my ramblings. If you have any thoughts, please share. If you are reading and from the above referenced blog site, feel free to share, but not if you are just importing your ‘bashing’. Intelligent, thoughtful discussion is always welcome here.

Creation vs. Evolution — The New Shape of the Debate

From Al Mohler’s Blog

The debate over Darwinism rages on, with almost every week bringing a new salvo in the Great Controversy. The reason for this is simple and straightforward — naturalistic evolution is the great intellectual rival to Christianity in the Western world. It is the creation myth of the secular elites and their intellectual weapon of choice in public debate.

In some sense, this has been true ever since Darwin. When Charles Darwin developed and published his theory of natural selection, the most obvious question to appear to informed minds was this: Can the theory of evolution be reconciled with the Christian faith?

The emergence of evolution as a theory of origins and the existence of life forms presented a clear challenge to the account of creation offered within the Bible, especially in the opening chapters of Genesis. At face value, these accounts seem irreconcilable.

There were a good many intrepid and honest souls in the nineteenth century who understood the reality that, if evolution is true, the Bible must be radically reinterpreted. Others went further and, like the New Atheists in our time, seized upon evolution as an intellectual weapon to be used against Christianity.

There were others who attempted to mediate between evolution and Christianity. In the most common form of the argument, they asserted that the Bible tells the story of the who and the why of creation, but not the how. The how was left to empirical science and its theory of evolution.

In more recent years, this argument has been made from the evolutionary side of the argument by the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, who proposed that the worlds of science and religious faith were completely separate, constituting “non-overlapping magisteria.” In effect, he argued that religion and science cannot conflict, since they do not address the same questions.

The problem with this argument is obvious: Darwinism and Genesis do clearly overlap. The Bible does not merely speak of the who and the why. It also makes explicit claims concerning the how. Likewise, even a cursory review of the evolutionary literature indicates that evolutionary scientists routinely make assertions concerning the who and why questions. It is just not intellectually honest to argue that evolutionary theory deals only with the mechanisms of the existence of the Cosmos and that the Bible deals only with the meaning of creation.

Another approach had been taken by some Christian theologians in the nineteenth century. In their own way, even some among the honored and orthodox “Princeton Theologians” attempted to argue that there was no necessary conflict between Genesis and Darwin. They were so convinced of the power of empirical science and of the authority of Scripture that they were absolutely sure that the progress of science would eventually prove the truthfulness of the Bible.

What these theologians did not recognize was the naturalistic bent of modern science. The framers of modern evolutionary theory did not move toward an acknowledgment of divine causality. To the contrary, Darwin’s central defenders today oppose even the idea known as “Intelligent Design.” Their worldview is that of a sterile box filled only with naturalistic precepts.

From the beginning of this conflict, there have been those who have attempted some form of accommodation with Darwinism. In its most common form, this amounts to some version of “theistic evolution” — the idea that the evolutionary process is guided by God in order to accomplish his divine purposes.

Given the stakes in this public controversy, the attractiveness of theistic evolution becomes clear. The creation of a middle ground between Christianity and evolution would resolve a great cultural and intellectual conflict. Yet, in the process of attempting to negotiate this new middle ground, it is the Bible and the entirety of Christian theology that gives way, not evolutionary theory. Theistic evolution is a biblical and theological disaster.

The mainstream doctrine of evolution held by the scientific establishment and tenaciously defended by its advocates does not even allow for the possibility of a divinely implanted meaning in the Cosmos, much less for any divine guidance of the evolutionary process. There has been an unrelenting push of evolutionary theory deeper and deeper into purely naturalistic assumptions and an ever-increasing hostility to Christian truth claims.

On the other side of the equation, the injury to Christian convictions is incalculable. At the very least, the acceptance of evolutionary theory requires that the first two chapters of Genesis be read merely as a literary rendering that offers no historical data. But, of course, the injury does not end there.

If evolution is true, then the entire narrative of the Bible has to be revised and reinterpreted. The evolutionary account is not only incompatible with any historical affirmation of Genesis, but it is also incompatible with the claim that all humanity is descended from Adam and the claim that in Adam all humanity fell into sin and guilt. The Bible’s account of the Fall and its consequences is utterly incompatible with evolutionary theory. The third chapter of Genesis is as problematic for evolutionary theory as the first two.

The naturalistic evolutionists are now pressing their case in moral as well as intellectual terms. Increasingly, they are arguing that a refusal to accept evolution represents a thought crime of sorts. They are using all the tools and arguments at their disposal to discredit any denial of evolution and to marginalize voices who question the dogma of Darwinism. They are working hard to establish unquestioned belief in evolution as the only right-minded and publicly acceptable position. They have already succeeded among the intellectual elites. Their main project now is the projection of this victory throughout popular culture.

Among the theistic evolutionists, the issues are becoming clearer almost every day that passes. Proponents of theistic evolution are now engaged in the public rejection of biblical inerrancy — with some calling the affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy as an intellectual disaster and “intellectual cul-de-sac.” Others now openly assert that we must forfeit belief in an historical Adam, an historical Fall, and a universal Flood.

Thus, the vise of evolutionary theory is now revealing the fault lines of the current debate. There can be no question but that the authority of the Bible and the truthfulness of the Gospel are now clearly at stake. The New Testament clearly establishes the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon the foundation of the Bible’s account of creation. If there was no historical Adam and no historical Fall, the Gospel is no longer understood in biblical terms.

This is the new shape of the debate over evolution. We now face the undeniable truth that the most basic and fundamental questions of biblical authority and gospel integrity are at stake. Are you ready for this debate?