Bill Nye the Anti-Creationism Guy
by Benjamin Studebaker
A few days ago, before it went viral, I happened upon this video from Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy) commenting on creationism:
The video certainly struck me as interesting, but not particularly controversial. Big Think, the YouTube channel that put out the video, frequently posts intellectually engaging videos that encourage viewers to reassess their ideas or consider new ones, and videos like this one are what I’ve come to expect from them as a subscriber. However, a few days later I discovered that it had attained over a million views, and as I check today the count is over three million. I’d like to discuss Nye’s comments and why they seem to have struck a nerve, for good or for bad, with so many people.
The response to Bill Nye’s comments around the internet has ranged from passionate defense to vitriolic hatred–a fallacious Twitter rumor sprung up declaring Nye dead, and the comments on YouTube and around the internet have more or less turned this into a classic internet flame up over the validity of religion. I do not see why it should be so.
Nye’s argument more or less goes like this:
- Many people are scientifically illiterate; this is bad for society technologically, intellectually, and so on.
- This is in part due to the propagation of science denial, commonly via creationism.
- Science denial in all its forms (of which creationism is the most common) is consequently a dangerous and harmful idea and consequently worth opposing.
There is nothing in this argument that is strictly speaking religion-rejecting. It is, for instance, theoretically possible to conceive a person who believes in a god yet also recognises scientific fact as valid. Such a person would simply say that the rules that govern the big bang or evolution are divinely ordained. There would be no substantial conflict. The only reason anyone takes issue with Nye is the proliferation of religious literalism.
Literalism is the notion that everything in religious texts is literally true, with no symbolism or metaphors, such that it is perfectly comprehensible with no serious contemplation or interpretation required. It is popular with many evangelical Christians and, most famously, with young earth creationists. Looking at the bible, it s clear that literalism is a belief that can only be held by openly self-deluding conspiracy theorists.
Take the following biblical passages:
The LORD is king, robed with majesty; the LORD is robed, girded with might. The world will surely stand in place, never to be moved.
This passage, if interpreted literally, claims that the earth does not move. No rational person believes that the earth does not rotate on an axis or circle around the sun.
He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble.
This passage, if interpreted literally, claims that the earth sits on pillars. This implies that it is flat. No rational person believes that the earth sits on pillars or is flat.
There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
This passage, if interpreted literally, claims that there are giant mythical sea monsters patrolling the seas. If you imagine that “leviathan” means “shark”, Job 41 makes some interesting claims about sharks:
Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering.
Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together;
Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth.
The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
Literally, none of these claims are true about any living animal in the world. We know that whales and sharks have been hunted and killed by humans in the past, and that they are not fire breathing.
Now of course, objections are being raised–“these quotes are symbolic, they do not mean precisely what they seem to mean!” Why of course, and that is why literalism is factually disproven and invalid, while there can be no definitive, 100% certain verdict on religion, even for the most ardent atheist or believer. This is why disagreeing with Bill Nye strikes me as so ludicrously delusive. Nye never once asks that we abandon any supernatural belief in any religious entity that might provide the genesis for the scientific facts that we have discovered, he merely wishes that we would stop denying scientific facts. That should be a completely doable prospect for any person anywhere, regardless of religious persuasion or the lack thereof.
It is the absence of agreement with Nye that is shocking, and the level of not only scientific, but of biblical ignorance that it entails–either literalists have not read the bible in detail or have shockingly backward views regarding basic science established by the Greeks and Romans and reestablished once more by Galileo and Copernicus in the middle ages. The creationist sentiment, in and of itself, is negligible for Nye–only when it contradicts our scientific knowledge does he take issue with it. What sort of person willfully believes in the denial of observable empirical fact? What sort of person goes on the internet and proudly proclaims that level of ignorance? A crazy, demented individual.
You can be religious without necessarily damaging science or damaging society. What you cannot be is a religious literalist. It is literalism and ignorance that Nye attacks, not religion. That is wholly reasonable and completely uncontroversial. The existence of controversy surrounding these remarks merely serves to prove Nye right–that the number of people who cannot reconcile their literalist religious views with modern science and so choose to reject what they can see in evidence in favour of what they cannot, is far too high.