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.