Afterthoughts on the creation debate


My thoughts on debates and whether skeptics should entertain challenges

In weeks leading up to the Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate I have surprisingly read a great deal of opposition to the debate from atheists, scientists, and skeptics.

As a skeptic, some values I hold most dear are the open exchange of ideas and a commitment to defend my beliefs in an open forum while allowing for those who disagree to present their rebuttals.

I have, on numerous occasions, said that I am both willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided sufficient argument, evidence, and reason are presented. Along with this commitment, I have issued public challenges — mainly to theists — for people to defend their ideas in recorded, open-to-the-public, and formal debates.

Keeping my promise, I have participated in multiple debates and discussions which I thought were tremendously beneficial not only to myself, but also to the community at large even if only hundreds watched [see my discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols, debate with Pastor Michael Brewster, debate with Dr. Rhonda Chervin, and debate with Pastor Marcelle Dotson].

I have invited people to appear on Brave Hero Radio to defend their ideas; appeared at Christian events with intentions to challenge various beliefs by speaking with religious individuals; responded to others’ debate challenges; and even attended the Women in Secularism 2 conference even though the climate was extremely hostile, speakers at the event vilified me, and attendees attempted to ban me from the event. I invited discussion at Women in Secularism 2, but not one person attending or speaking at the conference engaged me in discussion despite my multiple invitations during and before the event and their long-running vilification camapaigns.

"Does the Christian god exist?" debate with Rev. Brewster
“Does the Christian god exist?” debate with Rev. Brewster

Debates allow us to present a thoughtful defense of our beliefs not only to an ‘opponent,’ but also to people who agree with us, disagree with us, or are not sure where to stand on a particular issue. Those with flimsy ideas that may not hold up to close scrutiny are exposed and their ideas are refuted. Rather than suppressing speech or failing to entertain challenges to beliefs, debates provide an excellent vehicle by which to educate and be challenged.

Those who refuse to defend their beliefs when presented with challenges often display doxastic closure – an unwillingness to challenge their beliefs when faced with objections. Some who refuse to defend their beliefs often resort to threats of legal action, campaigns of vilification, and heavy-handed moderation [blocking] on their websites resembling echochambers. Sadly, many individuals like this exist in the ‘online atheist community.’ You know who they are.

I am, though, sympathetic to concerns about debates presenting a view as valid or ‘on balance’ when a perspective is tremendously irrational. Shall we entertain debates with people who argue that arson is justified in any and all situations? Shall we debate those who want to believe the world is flat? Some argue that creationism, being tremendously irrational, is not worthy of debate, but while this may be the face other considerations remain which I think justify a debate.

Live-tweeting from Women in Secularism 2
Live-tweeting from Women in Secularism 2

Creationist views are sadly widespread in society and a great deal of misinformation surrounds evolution. A debate is a great opportunity for those who accept evolution to educate people and challenge the falsehoods of creationism. While not all creationists will be swayed, beliefs will be challenged and many ‘on the fence’ will be exposed to ideas.

At times, a commitment to debate may be difficult and we might not want to argue outside our expertise, entertain just every challenge, or spend time in seemingly endless Facebook threads. I have even banned some individuals on my websites, but only do so in extreme circumstances. All sorts of nonsense invades my social networks and I am simply not interested in responding to everything. More recently, as my lack of activity on this website has suggested, I have been focusing on other matters – especially while working and enrolled in graduate-level classes.

Go forth and debate.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Abbie Smith

    The ‘problem’ with debating Creationists is that it lets them pretend that there is a ‘debate’. We saw it last night with Ham trotting out videos of his Creationist ‘scientist’ friends, and let him use the line ‘We are all looking at the same evidence! But some scientists say evolution and some scientists say Creation!’ Nye didnt, in my opinion, counter that properly.

    That being said, Nye *is* a science proponent/communicator more than a scientist these days– and Ham is a Young Earth Creationism proponent. In that sense I didnt have a problem with it as much as I would have if, say, an active researcher from a university in Kentucky did the debate. It was a genuine science outreach opportunity, especially since it was on their ‘turf’ and again, not at a real university (one of the Creationists I debated, his group tried *desperately* to get our debate on campus, again, to give it an air of authenticity).

    I dont think the event was a slam-dunk for our side at all, but I think it served its purpose well.

    • Did you notice how Nye kept calling the place a “facility”? It was almost like he couldn’t bring himself to say “Museum”.

    • There is a live debate, in the sense that most Kentuckians (and perhaps most Americans) do not accept scientific fundamentals which are at odds with Biblical fundamentalism. Seems to me we should take almost any chance to encourage those who have been sheltered from such learning to start reading up for themselves.