Today, I started listening to a new debate on Unbelievable between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and old-earth creationist Jeff Zweerink. Before listening, I tweeted that I was not sure it was still worthwhile to debate the young-earth creationist position. I should have qualified that a bit: if you are going to debate young-earth creationism, at least invite an articulate and learned defender such as John Mark Reynolds. Ken Ham may be popular, but if there was ever an illustration of the principle that popularity does not equal quality, this is it.
Forty minutes in, I decided I needed to take a break and vent. So now, without further ado, here are some of my complaints about Ham’s presentation.
First, Ham kept repeating the point that the Hebrew word for day (yom) is intended in Genesis 1 to refer to a literal day. Zweerink’s response was frustratingly vague and uncertain: the most he could do is defer to Hebrew scholars who disagree with Ham’s interpretation.
But the real issue is that Ham’s comment misses the point completely. To illustrate, imagine if somebody pointed out that the word “plums” in William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just to Say,” refers to that fruit of the genus Prunus, and then they concluded that it thereby follows that this is all that is meant by the word. Of course, this would be an absurd piece of reasoning since the word can have various literary functions within a text.
Yet, Ham’s reasoning about yom is exactly this, ahem, ham-fisted. The fact that the word yom is translated as a day tells us nothing about whether or not we should, for example, interpret it only as a straightforward day or alternately as a literary framing device in a cosmogonic creation narrative. And it was frustrating indeed that Zweerink was unable to respond directly to such an incompetent treatment of the text.
Next, Ham said he preferred to be called a biblical creationist rather than a young earth creationist because in his view he’s just reading what the Bible plainly says. Well, of course, he thinks that. But by that logic, we should all abandon specific qualifiers because every Christian thinks they’re being “biblical” in the sense of being true to the meaning and proper function of the text such as they understand it.
This is probably the single biggest problem with Ham: he is wholly unable to recognize that he has an interpretation of Scripture. Instead, he conflates his ham-fisted interpretation with the text itself, a fatal error that inures him from any possible critique.
And so, when Justin Brierley points out that light is hitting the earth every moment which has been traveling for millions (or billions) of years, Ham’s reply is that we don’t know everything about light. Well, of course, we don’t. Indeed, we likely never shall, and that means that Ham has just conveniently placed his interpretation beyond any critical refutation, ever. Now that’s the very embodiment of cultic and indoctrinational thinking.
Not surprisingly, at one point Ham invoked Trump’s mantra — “Fake News” — to marginalize and dismiss any media that is critical of his Ark Encounter theme park. Disgusting, but perfectly in character. Whether or not he uses the term, his entire mentality is to write off dissenting positions as fake news.
Ham also defends a truly ham-fisted naive empiricism which prides observation with the five senses over historical reconstruction. Since we weren’t there to observe the origin of the universe but God was (yes, Ham is also crudely anthropomorphizing God as a physical observer), we should take God’s word for it (which, of course, actually amounts to taking Ham’s word about God’s word).
However, that naive empiricist principle is absurd and manifestly false. We don’t prioritize purported observation above all other evidence. That’s why, for example, eye witness testimony can be overturned with DNA evidence.
At one point, Brierley asks Ham whether we can agree to disagree about this topic. Ham’s ham-fisted response is to reply: “Does it matter if we take God at his word?” The implication is: yes, it matters. But by that logic, any disagreement about anything in the Bible at all would constitute a hill to die on because it all involves a matter of “taking God at his word.” Sorry to be blunt, but this is just plain ignorant. Not every interpretive hill is one to die on.
Ham also laments the decline of church attendance in North America and Europe and actually links it to the decline of young-earth creationism. This is clearly another example of ham-fisted analysis. I can’t count the number of people I’ve met who were raised on young-earth creationism and left the church because they came to recognize that it is false and absurd. And they tossed Christianity in the process.
Once they learn that young-earth creationism is, in fact, a minority backwater in the history of Christianity, the response is typically along these lines: “Well, anyway, that ship has sailed.” Yes, tragically, it has, thanks in no small part to people like Ken Ham who inoculates people against Christianity by presenting it in an anti-intellectual and indoctrinational fashion that rejects evidence and demonizes dissenting opinion.
People like Ken Ham have done enough damage already. They don’t need another opportunity to do more. And that’s why I don’t think people like this deserve a platform in the public square, including on programs like Unbelievable.