Are Creationists Worth Debating?

Young-earth creationist and convicted tax fraudster Kent Hovind is a living testament to the fact that even paragons of ignorance can be well-spoken and capable of having a great deal of influence on people. While many well-educated and critically-thinking people may wonder just how such influence can be gained by someone who, like Hovind, has no authentic credentials whatsoever, it is instructive to remember that having the gift of gab is often more than sufficient. Hovind has a certain charismatic charm and allure about him that attracts people and makes them want to hear him out. He possesses a distinct sense of humor that even I find entertaining. Some have argued that Hovind owes much of his popularity to those of us who are active in the online atheistic and skeptical community, that we have provided him a platform by paying him too much attention and challenging him too often. Others in the active secular community contend that Hovind would have grown in popularity even without our critical attention since his target audience is the fundamentalist Christian demographic, which currently outnumbers the secular movement in this country.

Hovind’s recent release from federal prison in July 2015 has again opened up this discussion within the atheist and skeptical community. So, should scientifically-informed atheists and skeptics engage Hovind in debate?

Prominent evolution scientist Richard Dawkins has famously argued that evolutionists should, as a matter of principle, refuse any challenge to debate creationists. By agreeing to debate creationists, evolutionists run the risk of contributing to the public’s impression that creationism stand on a playing field equal to that of evolution as a viable scientific theory. As Dawkins explains in a 2006 article published to his website,

Some time in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: “Don’t do it.” The point is not, he said, whether or not you would ‘win’ the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.” Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

I am largely in agreement with Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould on this point. Formal debate often represents little more than an art form involving the use of clever and strategic rhetoric that appeals less to fence-sitters and more to those who have already come down firmly and decisively on one side or another of a given issue. Rational evidence-based arguments rarely make an impact on people who have an a priori commitment to the opposite viewpoint, especially when the viewpoint upon which they have settled is of a dogmatic and/or religious nature, such as biblical creationism. It does not matter how many times and in how many ways a scientist can explain why evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics or why the noxious spray of the bombardier beetle does not debunk evolution. Nor does it matter how many hundreds of transitional fossils a scientist can present. Such explanations and evidence are not going to satisfy young-earth creationists, who have built an erroneous apologetic frame around these and numerous other scientific facts and principles.

However, I think there are legitimate ways in which skeptics can informally challenge creationists in public forums and venues, as well as good reasons why such informal “debates” can serve a beneficial educational role. It is unfortunately the case that most of the general public is completely ignorant of evolutionary biology. Creationists are eager and willing to take advantage of this ignorance at every opportunity. Allowing creationists a brief place in the public spotlight through widely-publicized dialogue may be an effective method of exposing their fallacies, dishonesty, and intellectual bankruptcy to a wider lay audience. But such interactions should never be organized or framed as a formal debate.

In a recent video on his YouTube channel, the redoubtable Aron Ra, a formidable opponent of creationism and a tireless advocate of science education, has offered a brilliant alternative to debating science deniers:

Have your creationist and someone with savvy in science both answering a series of questions where every query must be answered by both parties, so that we get to see how science explains this and how faith fails to explain that. A good example question might be why we have fingernails. Then we hear the competent evolutionary explanation, followed by some lame excuse (“That’s how God did it” and “Who are we to question God because the Lord works in delirious ways.”) Each contestant could submit a dozen or so questions that they would like to have asked, but they’re still going to be at the mercy of the audience, and that audience should be mixed so that we’re sure to have some number of religious dogmatists who need an education too.

So, are creationists worth debating? Within the context of formal debate, the answer is no. Such debates are notoriously unlikely to result in anything approaching a constructive dialogue. Professional scientists should devote their limited time to doing research that will advance knowledge in their respective fields. However, students of scientists may find that debunking creationists’ claims will serve to hone their own understanding of the science they are studying and refine the critical thinking skills they will need in their future professions.

This can be accomplished without dignifying anti-scientific and faith-based positions by participating in formal debates with creationists. As the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has suggested in his recent book Faith versus Fact, there should be a monologue rather than a dialogue, “one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening.”



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