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I haven’t yet had the opportunity to watch the whole Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate from last night, although there is a YouTube video of the whole thing, so you can watch it if you want:

I have no idea why it starts with a 13 minute countdown. Just skip ahead.

Judging from the commentary on the internet however, I would have to say that Bill Nye probably came out on top. Rev. Ham, the founder of the “Creationist Museum”, basically spent the entire debate saying “The Bible is the only answer I need…” while Nye spent his time saying “The best scientific evidence says…” It pitted an argument from authority (i.e. the Bible is the Literal Word of God) versus the fruits of the scientific method. Oddly, however, a lot of hard-core Christians today are crowing because Nye repeatedly said “I don’t know,” as though that were some kind of admission of failure. “I don’t know” is an entirely valid answer in scientific discovery: usually it’s the place where you start from.

Part of me thinks that this was an admirable thing for Bill Nye to do — to engage Evangelical Christians on their own turf, respectfully and politely, and to try and explain to them the benefits of science. The rest of me knows it was absolutely futile because they weren’t going to listen. If you’re the kind of person that thinks the Bible — a self-contradictory aggregation of various texts repeatedly mistranslated over close to three thousand years — is the literal and unerring Word of God, then you are not the kind of person who is going to give a shit about logical, reasonable and methodical debate. Like the Reverend Kenneth Ham, you already have all the answers.

The usual caveat applies at this point: I don’t dislike Christians, per se. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my problem is with a certain kind of Christian: the kind which embraces willful ignorance. Best case, it leaves them open to manipulation by opportunists who cynically pick-and-choose which parts of the “literal” Bible they want to invoke for political gain. Worst case, it’s an escapist crutch through which they refuse to cope with the realities of the world.

That’s not to say that I’m much impressed by the cultivated air of cynical superiority which seems to be the currently-popular affectation among atheists, either. There’s very little which I find less appealing than some twenty-something prick smugly stroking his own ego to the tune of “pure reason” while simultaneously mocking and belittling those who do profess a spiritual belief. That kind of asshole behaviour is the other side of the coin to the rigid dogmatism of the Christian Right… but make no mistake, it’s all the same currency.

One of the reasons I’ve always liked the works of Carl Sagan is that he managed to find a middle path between the two. He refused dogma in both the religious and the scientific spheres. Although he was an avowed atheist, Dr. Sagan rejected cynicism: He held — and fostered in others — a deep and abiding wonder in the complexities of science and the universe it discovered. He delighted in saying “I don’t know” but he held everything up to the same stringent criteria. When he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia (a serious and eventually fatal illness) he faced — courageously and without flinching — his own mortality. His final two books The Demon Haunted World and especially Billions and Billions, written when it became clear he wasn’t going to recover, are particularly powerful reading. (If you haven’t read them, do so as soon as possible.)

The flip side of that coin is my own personal religious belief. I identify as a Neopagan in the Reclaiming tradition, and I am heavily influenced by the works of Starhawk. Being a neopagan and a rationalist might seem to be a bit contradictory to some — neopaganism being typically associated with mysticism and magick — but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, or even incompatible. Reclaiming is a very activist- and ecology-oriented tradition (it developed at the same time and in the same communities as Greenpeace did) and is focussed on venerating the complex and interconnected systems of our biosphere as an immanent manifestation of the Divine. The wonder and awe at the universe that Sagan instilled in me as a youth integrates, smoothly and naturally, with the notion that the universe itself is sacred.

In my opinion, someone who rejects the astonishing complexity of the universe does a profound disservice to their faith. Consider this: The universe is 14 billion years old. Billion, with a B. It is so unimaginably vast that we literally cannot see the edges of it… if in fact it has edges. Our planet is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Our biosphere began roughly 3.7 billion years ago, and has been increasing in complexity (by fits and starts) ever since via evolution. Homo sapiens is the only species in the history of our biosphere which has attained sentience and created a technological civilization. (Depending on how you define “sentient” we may or may not share our biosphere with several sentient but non-technical species.)

Or… Three thousand years ago God made the world in six days and then kicked us out of Eden for blatantly self-contradictory reasons.

So, either there’s an immanent divine force intimately connected with an evolving, changing Cosmos over almost-unimaginably vast stretches of time and space… or there’s a deity who put in short-week and then threw a temper tantrum. No offence to the Bible Is Literal crowd, but I feel like that kind of sells the Creator short.

The third option, that of a mechanistic universe with no intrinsic sanctity at all, has always struck me as kind of sad. It’s like being enamoured of the machinery in a clock tower without appreciating the view; sure, the machinery is fascinating and worthy of study, but there has to be more to the universe than just cold mathematics. And, of course, there is.

There’s life. There’s sentience. There’s us. We occupy a special, and apparently unique place in our biosphere and possibly the universe. As Carl Sagan once said: “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” Think about that. That is awesome, by which I mean it fills me with awe.

Biblical-literalists reject the scientific method and embrace a rigid and overly-simplistic worldview for fear that trying to understand the created world will somehow profane it. Rationalist atheists reject the sanctity of the universe for fear that acknowledging it will somehow invalidate science. But God didn’t make the world in seven days and the universe isn’t just rocks moving in curves: The key to reconciling this dichotomy is acknowledging that understanding does not detract from reverence and reverence does not disallow understanding.

The point that everyone seems to miss in the whole religion-vs-science “debate” is that it is possible to hold a spiritual belief while simultaneously embracing science. It is possible — and I would argue necessary — to have your cake and believe in it, too.