Bill Nye

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Executive Director of The Planetary Society received the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s “In Praise of Reason” Award at CSICON 2011 in New Orleans, LA, USA. Photo courtesy Brian D. Engler, via Wikimedia Commons.

When I first heard that Bill Nye and Ken Ham would be debating evolution at the Creation Museum, I thought it was a big mistake. Others, like Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, agreed, and atheists and theists alike debated whether the debate would truly help either side.

But as the Nye-Ham debate set the Internet ablaze yesterday (#creationdebate and related topics ruled Twitter for the night), I couldn’t help but think of one of the only people I know who has actually visited the Creation Museum.

One of my uncles is a member of a theologically conservative Christian church that meets in his living room, where members gather to get “slain in the spirit.” My grandmother once gave his children a book on evolution; he returned it to her within a week.

I only learned that he’s visited the Creation Museum in a recent conversation with my grandmother. He didn’t tell me, because we haven’t spoken for years.

Our fractured relationship was preceded by years of simmering tension, which began when I came out of the closet as gay in my early teens. This tension reached its first breaking point when I attended a family Thanksgiving dinner while I was in college. A paper tablecloth covered the dinner table, and family members were encouraged to write down what they were thankful for. My uncle, having arrived earlier, had already covered the tablecloth with expressions like “Christ’s precious blood.”

At the time I was beginning to realize that I am an atheist, and I responded to his writing with an aggressive form of passive-aggressiveness: Near each of his contributions, I wrote phrases like “the ability to think for myself” and “being able to take the Bible seriously without taking it literally.” When that didn’t satisfy me, I confronted him.

We didn’t talk for a while after that. But when a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage came up for a vote in my home state, I sent a mass email to his side of the family that culminated in an ultimatum: I would no longer attend family gatherings unless every member voted against this amendment.

My uncle and I haven’t spoken since.

I do not believe that we are duty-bound by blood or anything else to maintain relationships with people who do not respect us, who hurt us, who see or treat us as subhuman. But I do regret that ultimatum. I regret it because I drew a line between us, and then walked away.

That kind of separation can be necessary in many instances, for reasons of safety or emotional wellbeing. But I’m not certain that it was for us.

My uncle actually did demonstrate a willingness to listen to my perspective a number of times over the years. But I wanted him to agree with me, or I didn’t want to talk about it.

While I believe he is wrong—about homosexuality and evolution and the existence of God and many other things—I wonder how our conversations might have gone had I approached them differently.

Last night I found myself wishing that I had responded to the email he sent a number of years ago offering supposed evidence for the parting of the Red Sea, instead of rolling my eyes, laughing, and hitting “delete.” Last night I wished, at least for a moment, that I had worked just a bit harder at maintaining a relationship rather than shutting him out of my life.

I’m not interested in sweeping disagreements under the rug; that certainly didn’t work for us. And I refuse to bow to bigotry. But what if, instead of just telling him that I thought he was wrong, I had explained why I see some of his views as hurtful and harmful? What if I had unapologetically presented my perspective, and then listened to his? What if I had worked to strengthen our relationship so that we were more inclined to hear one another?

Perhaps then we might have watched last night’s Nye-Ham debate together and had a friendly debate of our own. Or perhaps not. But the reality is that I don’t know, because I don’t really know him anymore.

I’m still mostly convinced that the Nye-Ham debate shouldn’t have happened at all (this compelling piece on what happened at the debate articulates a number of reasons why)—but I don’t know that disengagement is always the answer, either.

Of course it can be: I wouldn’t engage members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and I’m not particularly interested in befriending people who think I shouldn’t have equal rights. But sometimes the simple act of speaking with someone you disagree with can reap surprising dividends. And while there is certainly a huge difference between talking with a relative and agreeing to a legitimizing high profile debate, there may be a silver lining to Nye-Ham: A number of people who don’t talk to one another much have an opportunity to do so.

I sincerely doubt many minds were changed by last night’s debate, and I still agree that the very idea of debating evolution and creationism as if they are equally valid perspectives is problematic. But perhaps Nye made an important contribution just by showing up, smiling, and shaking Ham’s hand, demonstrating to those in attendance that he is a human being.

And if my uncle watched last night’s debate I kind of hope that, when he saw Nye smile, he thought of me and wondered about these things, too.

31 Comments

  1. The only problem with the NYE/HAM debate is there aren’t enough of them.
    They should meet again next year and rehash this same topic on a bigger stage.

    Debating with religious people is almost never a waste of time.
    Minds don’t change right away, but many do eventually.

  2. Your editorial here is lovely and quite sensitively written. I think though that we need to keep a perspective on the changing nature of reality and the issues confronting us, because ignorance or denial is not a neutral attitude. It can be quite destructive. Currently we are facing one of humanity’s greatest survival dilemmas in climate change. This has been denied strenuously by a large percentage of people on “the right” (and I apologize for the generalization) in the US, including the purposeful misleading of many and the dissemination of false information on the issue. Unfortunately too often people either deny the reality of climate change, though the science is essentially settled, or they leave it “in God’s hands”, bringing about a delay in action and or an incapacity to confront this issue while we still have time. The denial of science is a form of ignorance more than anything else. It offers no credible replacement, even when seen through the prism of true religious faith, or even the bible itself, which we know was rewritten and restructured by people for various reasons over the history of Christianity. Personally then I consider their attitude to present a direct threat to my children’s future. Generally I would not impose on the sanctity of another person’s faith. However when that person or persons’ belief system begins to impose on others in a dangerous fashion, debate begins to be borderline unacceptable. Sometimes to debate with someone is to pay them the compliment that their arguments are worth listening to.

    • @ Paul Rossi: “Sometimes to debate with someone is to pay them the compliment that their arguments are worth listening to.”

      Beautifully stated. My family is devided on science versus religious theology, as is the author, Chris Steadman. I watch the intellectuals feel attacked by the ‘believers’, and fear that the Creationist Evangelicals fear for ‘scientifically inclined’ souls.

      I believe there is something of merit on both sides. Debates need not be approached as a WAR – as are so many issues, historically. How similar we all are, actually, is as defining as how different we are.

      I would love to believe that as 21st century modernists, we could all change the course of history by debting, llistening, and agreeing to disagree, with reciprocal respect. More laws, taboos or further fracturing into more religious groupings perpetuates conflict.

    • “Currently, we are facing one of humanity’s greatest survival dilemmas in climate change”….YIKES! Sounds even scarier when you say it that way. I do wish the climate would “change” from the -F temps in the upper Midwest, though.

  3. A well-written, thoughtful post.

    I wonder if the “Red Sea” evidence your uncle sent was about this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11383620

    Basically, it offers compelling evidence that such a “parting” was at least scientifically possible at a particular spot at that time in history. If correct, it means that the Moses Red Sea story could have been based, at least in part, on something that actually happened. (Doesn’t mean it *did* happen, but it could have. As someone who is interested in mythologies of all types and their origins, I find that fascinating.)

  4. Chris, you sound like you’re real fun at parties. /s

    You say your uncle’s view are “hurtful and harmful”. How is the phrase “Christ’s precious blood.” harmful? How is a ban on gay marriage harmful? You know what your family members are doing at the gatherings you refuse to attend? They’re having fun and probably ignoring you. They want to talk about family stuff, not constitutional amendments. Your uncle’s views are backwards, but it’s *your* actions that are alienating. Get off your high horse and stop taking your family for granted.

    • Re: “How is a ban on gay marriage harmful?”

      It’s “harmful” because it purposely denies an entire class of people the ability to do something and gain both legal and societal benefits that accrue from it.

      Re: “Your uncle’s views are backwards, but it’s *your* actions that are alienating.”

      Most rifts of this sort don’t occur without the involvement of both parties. In other words, as the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Blaming one side or the other for a family rift is usually not accurate, and frequently unhelpful.

      Re: “Get off your high horse and stop taking your family for granted.”

      Why is it solely up to the writer to “get off his high horse”? Why can’t his uncle … or any other militant Christian vehemently opposed to someone’s “gayness” (for lack of a better word) … be asked also to “get off [his] high horse”?

      Speaking only for myself, I still have not been able to figure out how or why anyone else’s “gayness” is anyone else’s business. No one has provided me a cogent, rational explanation for widespread anti-gay sentiment. It’s not my bag, and I guess it’s not a lot other peoples’ … but really, in the end, what does that matter?

  5. While I agree with the open nature of your response to this debate, I disagree with Dr. Nye having taken part in it. It’s (1) a nearly impossible conversation to have and (2) I hate seeing such an institution (the creation museum) garnering any sort of attention.

    1) Scientists and creationist approach the world through completely different lenses. One “believes” and has “faith” while another objectively gathers empirical evidence with which they statistically support observed phenomena. They just aren’t on the same page, it’s not so much a debate as two simultaneously occurring lectures.

    2) Creationism is dangerous. They most profound, productive, intelligent thing anyone can say is “I don’t know”. This, firstly, is a sign of confidence, and secondly, it is the opening phrase for every discovery humankind has made. It leads to technologies that improve our lives, discoveries that blow our minds, and just good old productive science. Creationism claims to have one book, that explains everything. It takes away the option for someone to say “I don’t know” and it places all the “answers” in their hand. This is dangerous, and I hate to see a man of science, like Dr. Nye, lending any credit to this institution by humoring this debate.

  6. Jim, you asked, “How is a ban on gay marriage harmful?”

    I ask, how is *not* harmful? Seriously, how can you even ask that question?

    Have you dehumanized LGBT people to the point that you believe that telling them that they are second class citizens, that their love isn’t worthy of respect, and that they don’t deserve the same rights taken for granted by the rest of us is NOT harmful?

    And please don’t respond with nonsense about “civil unions” – aside from the fact that those do not include all of the rights granted to married people, the fact is that the doctrine of “separate but equal” does not and has never worked to create equality.

    • About same-sex marriage ban: Since there are MANY fiscal and societal advantages offered in marriage, the banning of same sex unions seems unconstitutional. Why are only heterosexual partnerships offered legal family plans in trust, estate matters, pensions and health benefits, for example?

      {Insert sarcastic tone, here.} If one is asexual, single or simply ugly, is he/she automatically excluded from marriage or any fiscal union benefit? FOOD for THOUGHT.

    • ….soooooo, gay people, because they cannot get married, are being harmed in your eyes because of that…..what? How about a bi-sexual person who wants to be married to a man AND a woman at the same time. Why just stop at two people in a marriage? They all want their love “worthy of respect” too, right?

      • Bisexuality is not the same as polyamory. The first term deals with sexual orientation. The second deals with having multiple simultaneous relationships that have the depth of monogamy and incorporating honesty in those relationships with everyone involved. You can be bisexual and not polyamorous. You can be polyamorous and not bisexual. You can be polyamorous and never have (or want) a threesome. You can be polyamorous and have orgies. Bisexual couples with the traditional combination of XX and XY chromosomes can get married in all 50 states. Polyamorous couples (assuming that marriage is something they might want) can’t get married anymore (it was common in the Bible), but that’s a debate for another time… it involves particularly tricky legal questions when it comes to divorce/child support/custody/alimony/etc… .

        If you’re going to maintain the position that only straight people should have the benefits of marriage that gay and lesbian (and bisexual couples who love one another like me and my partner, for instance), you should at least take the time to familiarize yourself with the people you want to deprive of their rights, and what it means to have their families tell them they are evil for being true to who they are. They look a lot like you, and deserve more than a dismissive assumption that they’re just being mean to their family. You have no clue what kind of passive aggressive or outright abusive backgrounds they have had to endure until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

        • Repent, for what in nature do you follow? Nothing, while the love between you two is god, the lust between you two is of the snake. If you want to stand blameless before god, then quit the sex, and hold your partner as your witness. Unless you and him fall into temptation and therefore are unworthy of. You know what you do, and therefore to you that is a sin. Have you learned nothing? No forgiveness and no compassion, you dwell within your own passion and neglect your family’s, when they have followed natural path and created you. For you cannot create life, so what you know and love is death of the body and death of your soul. For you not know how many others follow this example, again I say repent and stand firm, hold to the truth and the order. as if it has to be said for it to be known. Eyes that do not see, ears that will not hear. Double minded at best..

    • You’re putting words in my mouth. When have I “dehumanized LGBT people”? When did I advocate for “separate but equal” rights? I would say LGBT people deserve equal rights, but you told me not to respond with that “nonsense”. I’ll say that the government should get out of the marriage business, but you’ll probably argue with me about that too since you think you know me.

      Anyways, you completely missed my point that the author was being an ass, and don’t respond with any nonsense saying he wasn’t.

    • Gay marriage remains an oxymoron. The gay-marriage activists are winning but it’s still a mess and a sin, spiraling individuals, families, and nations (starting with THIS nation) straight downward.

  7. Chris;
    It feels a lot like the closed minded bigot between you and your uncle is actually you:
    “When that [being passive aggressive] didn’t satisfy me, I confronted him.”
    “I sent a mass email to his side of the family that culminated in an ultimatum:”
    “My uncle actually did demonstrate a willingness to listen to my perspective”

    You’re questioning the wisdom of having open, honest discussion. It seems to me that the marketplace of ideas is never a bad process, and that whenever you shut that down, everyone loses.

  8. While it was impossible to change Ken’s mind, as evidenced by his insufficient and delayed response to “What evidence could convince you that Creationism is false?”, Bill Nye, I believe, was there for a different purpose. His purpose was simply to show viewers and the audience why curiosity and questioning everything is so important for science. He succeeded.

  9. Inis Magrath

    Chris – since you say you regret cutting off all relations with your uncle I suggest you reach out to him and try to rekindle a relationship. You’re older and seemingly more mature now than you were then, and maybe you can find a way to be at all those family gatherings and share the warmth and love that families are supposed to enjoy. If it turns out that dear uncle is too unpleasant to be around, you can always walk away but this time have the opportunity to do it quietly with dignity and without creating any bad blood.

  10. Public debates and indeed many private ones should be presumed intellectually suspect. People interested in defending their positions have put finding the truth in at least second place. People trying to convince 3rd parties are on the same level as any commercial– just trying to sell something, with minimal reference to the problems in their particular premise and rarely an “I don’t know”. Debates about evolution with fundamentalists are usually sterile; there seems a notion that by defeating these strawpeople atheism proves itself. I would be more interested in hearing some discussion of various numerous experiences that have treated in a very scientific manner over the years by very religious people. There are thousands of years of life wisdom and discussion and extreme insights that just get ignored because on one side people think the Flintstones is true and other side points to these equivalents of 5 year old little leaguers and says look who we defeated– Major League Baseball has no talent!

    No debates without each side first expressing what set of facts, if true would lead them to change their mind. Then we can talk fruitfully and maybe even learn something.

  11. This whole debate is a sorry sideshow to the authentic dialogue going on between science and religion. Here is a link that’s a convenient entryway into the productive work being done:

    http://cosmostheinlost.com/2013/09/30/top-10-list-turned-supernova-science-religion/

  12. When it comes to disputes with people I follow an old adage:

    You can stop seeing friends.
    You can divorce your spouse.
    But to get rid of family, you have to kill them.

    You are not going to get rid of your uncle by shunning him. So the choice is either 1) be miserable, be left out of family affairs or 2) at least come to some sort of cease-fire agreement.

    Civility with an underlying veneer of hostility is an essential part of dealing with family. Don’t fight it.

  13. Chris, I love how bravely and generously you share parts of your life to give these important questions support . You have achieved such a great deal in your work already- I watch with warmth, your continued progress .

  14. Trying to debate creationism using literal accounts and 6,000 year earth is only giving the evolutionists and advantage. If we look at genetics and how some diseases like cancer are created ( http://www.kyrani99godnscience.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/the-big-c-cancer-explained/ ) and the fact that biology is purpose driven we have a good chance to show that some sort of creationism has taken place.

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