From creationist to scientist; personal journey reflects debate hurdle for 'science guy'

A display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., reinforces creationist belief that man and dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the same time.
A display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., reinforces creationist belief that man and dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the same time. Lexington Herald-Leader

It's rare to see a prominent scientist agree to a public debate with someone from the creation science movement. Giving equal time to both sides might be a foundational principle of American dialogue, but it paints the issue as more of a controversy than it actually is.

That's why it surprised a lot of people when Bill Nye, science educator and TV personality, agreed to debate the president of northern Kentucky's Creation Museum, Ken Ham.

Even so, it's not hard to see why Nye has chosen to engage creationism directly. The most recent polling shows one in three Americans still won't accept that all living things evolved from a common ancestor. Creationism may be pseudoscience, but its grip on the American public is hard for a science educator like Nye to ignore.

This debate is more than academic for me. I grew up steeped in creationism. I was homeschooled with creationist curriculum, my family took us to creationist conferences, and I was deeply proud that I knew the real story about evolution and the age of the Earth. I was taught there was absolutely no way the universe could be explained without creationism. Evolution was a fairytale based on faith; creation was good science. I was taught that Christianity wasn't consistent without creationism... that all "Bible-believing Christians" rejected evolution and long ages in favor of a six-day creation and a global flood.

My proudest teenage achievement was mowing lawns to earn $1,000 so I could help build the Creation Museum. My donation earned me lifetime free admission, a polo shirt and my name engraved in the lobby. I wrote back and forth with many prominent creationists and hotly debated origins with anyone who dared argue in favor of evolution. On two occasions I even wrote featured articles for the Answers In Genesis website — a high honor for a teen.

I'm writing all this because I don't know many people who were as far into the creation science movement as I was and came out of it. After graduating high school, I went on to college and got my bachelor's degree in physics; I now work in energy policy. Despite four years of physics, it still took me a long time before I actually came to understand evolution, geology and cosmology.

Now, I'm always learning, always finding out new information, always excited.

Because so much of what I'd been taught was flatly false, I had to re-learn practically everything about biology, geology and the history of science. I'm amazed by the amount of evidence I systematically ignored or explained away, just because it didn't match creation science.

Creationism isn't just one belief; it's a system of beliefs and theories that all support each other. We believed that unless we could maintain confidence in special creation, a young planet, a global flood, and the Tower of Babel, we'd be left without any basis for maintaining our faith.

This false dichotomy makes creationism strong. As long as people think the foundation of their religious faith depends on denial of science, it takes incredible energy to make them question the simple explanations given by the creationist movement. Ken Ham claims creation science keeps people from abandoning Christianity, but it usually works in the opposite direction.

Learning the history of creationism freed me to examine the evidence for evolution.

I had never known creationism was only invented a scant 50 years ago (six-day-young-earth creationism was never a fundamentalist dogma until the 1960s).

I had never known that most Christians accepted the Bible's creation account as deliberate allegory many centuries before scientists even knew the Earth revolved around the sun.

I hope Nye doesn't underestimate creationists. Between their strident religious confidence and the way they painstakingly dumb-down and oversimplify evidence to fit into 6,000 years, people like Ham can be tough nuts to crack.

In a debate like this one, demonstrating even the most elementary facts about evolution and the age of the universe would be a great success.

I want people to be free to learn, free to understand, free to explore the fantastic mysteries of the universe without being tied down to phony dogma. I want children to learn how to trust the scientific method and, more importantly, how to use the scientific method so their creativity and imagination won't be wasted trying to defend pseudoscience.

The universe has so much more to offer than could ever fit into a few thousand years.