In my previous article, “If you don’t debate young earth creationists, are you stifling the debate?” I argued for the general policy of not debating with young earth creationists or giving them a platform. One of my readers, Mark, expressed some reluctance with this policy. The concern was free speech. He wrote:
“I am a pretty big fan of free speech and the exchange of ideas, even ideas that I hate and that I personally think are harmful….”
No surprise, that would include young earth creationists.
I’m going to interact with Mark’s comment in a moment. But first a qualification for my original statement. Three years ago I did interview young earth creationist Terry Mortenson on my podcast (unfortunately, the audio is not presently available) and I found Dr. Mortenson to be a pleasant individual. What is more, I do think that as a general principle there is value in respecting dissenting opinions, not least because they serve as a counterbalance to the hegemony of settled opinion.
For those reasons I wouldn’t defend any universal prohibition on intellectual debates and exchanges with young earth creationists. Nonetheless I would continue to insist that they are on balance unfruitful for the reasons I’ve already given.
Having said that, let me return to Mark’s statement that he is a fan of free speech and the exchange of ideas, even those he hates and believes to be harmful. I know what Mark is saying. In the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And I will surely defend the young earth creationist’s right to say what they believe. (Will I defend it to the death? Probably not. To be honest, I value my life over the young earth creationist’s right to free speech: crass, I know, but at least I’m honest. Still, I will defend their right in my blog, and that ain’t nothing.)
The real question, as I see it, is not about the right to hold a view or have a conversation. Rather, the question is whether an individual or institution that provides a platform for exchanges chooses to sponsor a particular conversation.
Now here’s a true story. The year is 2002 and I am attending my first meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (It’s November and I’m sleeping in my station wagon. But that’s another story.) I’m excited to join the guild and so I’ve lined up a list of talks I want to attend.
Unbeknownst to me, the very first talk I planned to attend is shifted to another room. When I realize the fact it is already too late — the new presenter is just beginning his paper — and so I decide to stay and listen to the presenter as much out of courtesy as anything.
What followed was a surreal experience. After a few increasingly uncomfortable minutes it became painfully clear that the man speaking at the front of the room was a holocaust denier. And his paper on “church history” was, among other things, an attempt to rewrite Holocaust history.
The only thing I remember about that paper was an attempt to redefine the Holocaust. This is not to say that the paper didn’t technically belong at the conference. For all I know, the man’s focus on church history may well have fit his paper under the aegis of the Evangelical Theological Society.
And if there is an idea I hate and that I personally think is harmful, this is it. So in that sense I respect the man’s right to say what he said.
But it doesn’t follow that ETS needed to provide him the platform. The point is that every individual and every institution decides what its boundaries are and thus which conversations it does, and does not, wish to sponsor. A healthy individual and institution will choose to sponsor many conversations despite the fact that he/she/it believes one side is critically wrong. But there are limits. There is a point where one says that conversation is not worth sponsoring.
As I conclude, please don’t assume that I’ve demonstrated Godwin’s Law. In particular, to think that I’ve drawn any comparison between Holocaust denial and young earth creationism would illustrate nothing less than bald hermeneutical ineptitude. My point is not that young earth creationists are somehow like Nazis. Rather, my point is simply this: not every conversation is the kind that an individual or institution needs to sponsor. An individual or institution that hosts interviews, debates, or conference papers may choose for many reasons not to host particular debates or dialogues within their purview. And that point applies as surely to the age of the earth as it applies to the number of Jews killed by Nazis.
To sum up, free speech is one thing; the freedom to choose which debates or conference papers to sponsor is quite another.