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EVO: The Search for Eden

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The country was buzzing last week with the famed “Ham vs. Nye” debate between Creationism and Evolution. Who won? Who lost? Who cares? I always wanted to do a column on the touchy issues about evolution, intelligent design, and young earth creationism, so let's take a look at the debate from a Chicago Catholic perspective. The answers might surprise you.

When one interprets the issues raised from the perspective of Catholic teaching, there was a clear winner in the debate: no one. This is not only because both arguments in the debate aren't reflective of Catholic beliefs, but also because the two people chosen for the debate are not appropriate for the topic. While there's much to admire about Ken Ham and Bill Nye, they were out of their league discussing these particular fields. As one online commentator noted, having Ham vs. Nye debating evolutionary science is like having “Miley Cyrus vs. Justin Bieber debating different versions of String Theory.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps. But let's take a look the cards we were dealt:

Despite his nickname, Bill Nye the “Science Guy” has no formal education in the fields of science, nor has he ever worked as a scientist in general – let alone in the field of evolutionary science. Instead, he has a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering and worked for Boeing before becoming a professional entertainer. He is best known for hosting a kid's show about science. He's certainly a memorable television presence, and demonstrated numerous simple experiments on television with dramatic flair, but this is quite a bit different from actual scientific research or speeches in scientific study. Perhaps the biggest problem, as one critic noted: “Bill Nye still doesn’t understand the difference between historical science and observational science — so he may be known as ‘Bill Nye the science guy’ — but he doesn’t understand science correctly.”

On the flip side is Ken Ham. Ken Ham is best known as the founder of the Creation Museum, based on the premise that the planet is only 6,000 years old. Exhibits feature dinosaurs and humans interacting together – basically making it look as though The Flintstones was reality. Not surprisingly, the museum has been struggling lately. Ham is also the founder of "Answers in Genesis" a creationist website that uses biblical literalism to argue a protestant perspective that the answers to all of life's questions can be found by using the Bible alone. He rejects basic scientific methods like radiometric dating. His response to any question about why he believes what he believes is essentially “because the Bible says so.” Ham's statements and tactics have been criticized by other Christians and even old Earth creationists, as well as the scientific community at large.

Because of this lack of formal training in science, last week's debate had both participants raising a number of interesting questions that went unanswered by their opponent. Both failed to articulate the basic reason of “Why” behind the premise of their arguments: Ham never attempted to answer why the Bible must be interpreted literally, and Nye failed to explain why science alone can explain the origin of everything on earth when are numerous gaps in evolutionary history history and tons of missing puzzle pieces that we will likely never fully understand through scientific research alone.

The problem with the debate is also that both participants insisted on extreme either/or viewpoints. Ken Ham rejects the idea of modern research if the results contradict a literal reading of scripture, and instead relies on the Bible for 100% of his knowledge of the world. Essentially, Ham uses the bible itself a scientific textbook – claiming it can chronologically date everything on earth and demonstrate how all things were created. However, the Bible does not do so, and was never meant to be used as a science book, but as a guide on faith and morals that frequently uses allegory to make its points. Nye goes to the opposite extreme – as an Agnostic, he sees no reason why a person would consider a higher power or divine creator was involved in the process, and rejects the possibility of factoring that in. Instead, he relies on the limited scientific data he has available, and says it “proves” evolution happened a certain way. As for the missing links and gaps in the record – including major areas such as the the origin of life on earth, or the moment when mankind separated from apes -- he has no answer on how to explain or fill in those gaps.

The reality is that most people reject both viewpoints. Only a small percentage of Americans believe all evolution happened by random chance and there was no God involved in the process, and adherents of young earth creationism (the idea the world is only 6000 years old based on a literal reading of the Bible) tends to only attract fundamentalist protestants and Muslims in modern society. A more middle of the road approach – that the world is millions of years old and that life evolved on earth from simpler lifeforms but that God created and oversaw the process – is a much more common belief, and one that is shared by most Catholics, including great figures like John Paul II. Unfortunately, debates like the Nye vs. Ham event last week don't cover such territory, so we are left with those opposing extremes that do not usually reflect what we believe as Catholics.

Science vs. Religion is a false premise, because the Catholic Church essentially teaches that science and religion are not incompatible, and in fact, they compliment one another. Science can teach us many things that religious texts don't cover, and Religion can teach us many things that scientific fact will never address. It's perfectly fine to adhere to the idea of “Intelligent Design” and assume that life on earth must have come from a higher power, but this idea by itself does not rule out the creator used evolution, in spite of what many creationists want to believe. It's fine to believe in evolution, but this not mean you must reject the existence of God to be “enlightened”, as atheist evolutionists like Richard Dawkins claim. Neither “Bible alone” protestant arguments nor “Science tells us everything” atheist arguments express how Catholics view the world Bill Nye and Ken Ham – you may mean well, but your arguments are simply wrong.