"Do fish sin?" was a question a puzzled Bill Nye, popularly known as the "the science guy," asked Ken Ham, a "Young Earth" creationist, who advocates a "literal" reading of Genesis, in their recent, highly publicized, debate. Nye is a science educator, and Ham is president of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Sin is not a concept in Nye's primary field, but his question went directly to a main point in Ham's argument, complete with slides, that death entered the world through sin. Fossil slides were also provided, showing one fish eating another.
Most of the time, in this lengthy debate, Nye did not venture into theology. Instead he stressed the need for "evidence" for the points Ham was making, stressing Ham's points were not "reasonable." Ham often answered these requests by saying "there's a book that talks about that," drawing chuckles from the audience in his constant insistence that the Bible has all the answers to questions of science. There was a frequent effort by Ham to compare something he called "historical science," i.e. his interpretation of Genesis, to "observational science," his term for empirical science.
Nye said he accepted the invitation to the debate, "because I felt it would draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States...Fundamentally, Ham's creation model is not part of modern science."
Ham also realizes the struggle is about the education of American children. "Our public schools arbitrarily define science as explaining the world by natural processes alone. In essence, a religion of naturalism is being imposed on millions of students. They need to be taught the real nature of science, including its limitations."
Make no mistake. This is a real struggle, a titanic struggle, and it will profoundly affect the future not only of American children and whether they receive an education in actual science, but also a huge range of policy particularly on energy and the environment.
I have actually visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and have written about it in my book Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World.
Creation Museum advertising describes how "Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden's rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil...Enter the Cave of Sorrows and see the horrific effects of the Fall."
But nothing had prepared me for the animatronic Garden of Eden that greets you as you walk in. Curiously, there is a dinosaur in it, looking like one of those awful velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movies. Two children, a boy and a girl, were playing quietly near the dinosaur, unafraid, as this animal known to be a vicious carnivore is tamely eating a plant. The dinosaur is not the only curious feature, since Genesis does not mention Adam and Eve had children in the Garden. 'How did that happen?' I wondered as I gazed at the elaborate moving display.
But the crucial theological issue is, why is the dinosaur eating a plant? Because before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, according to the theology that informs the Creation Museum, innocence for all creatures, including dinosaurs, reigned. This apparently included vegetarianism.
That's how we get to Nye's question, "Do fish sin?" Well, they do if they eat other fish, apparently. The Creation Museum is far more sin-centered than creation-centered in truth. Death is a penalty, and a corrupting effect of the Fall.
Death, however, is a natural fact of life, and has been a fact of life for all living things for all time, regardless of their vegetarianism. That is how nature works, how the created world works. For me, as a Christian, it is not necessary to deny empirical science in order to defend a distorted view of the relationship of faith to scripture.
Sin and death should not be the centerpiece of faith, but love of God and neighbor and care of the creation.
Nye, not a theologian, again got the point across when he noted that millions of Christians, and other people of faith, do not agree with Ham, do not deny evolution and do not see evolution as somehow opposed to God.
The debate came to its point when questions about evolution were asked. Evolution has become a key cultural site for religious and political struggle in this country. "Creationism" is the belief in a literal creation by God of everything in this world exactly as it is today. The most extreme of these views is the "Young Earth" movement represented by Ham and the Creation Museum. The earth, these folks contend, is only 6,000 years old, a biblically derived number.
Opposition to evolution and "Youth Earth" theologies has an end game. The goal is to sabotage the political change needed to really regulate emissions and to take other crucial steps to prevent even greater climate change catastrophes. If "science" can be brought into question, even opposed by a spurious "creation science," then the scientific documentation of the human causes of climate change are also questioned and brought into disrepute.
As the brutal effects of violent and erratic climate change accelerate, children will bear the brunt of the increased risk of health problems, malnutrition, and migration, as a 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contends.
Jesus put the well being of children at the center of the Kingdom, and asked parents, "if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead?" (Matthew 7:9)
There's a Bible verse to take literally, Ken Ham.
Follow Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sbthistle