03/20/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

The Creationist View of Intolerance

Not everything has to be ridiculously complicated. For example, if a good friend were to mention to you that she was planning to take her husband to an expensive restaurant for their anniversary where you received food poisoning the week before, would you mention it to her? Would it be wrong not to pass along the information? Of course you would say something! Imagine how terrible you would feel if you said nothing and the two of them got sick.

What if a co-worker said she planned to purchase a car from someone you knew had set back the odometer, would you mention it to her? Would it be wrong not to pass along the information? Again, of course you would say something. What kind of colleague would you be if you took no action to help her from being scammed?

Or if a group at your university was planning to invite a speaker to campus who had given an embarrassingly bad presentation the last time he had been to the school, would you mention it to the group? Would it be wrong not to pass along the information? Of course you would mention it. What kind of faculty member would you be if you didn't share information about the quality of a speaker's ideas or the depth of his knowledge?

Wait just a minute, once you enter the realm of the supposed controversy between evolution and creationism, common sense is lost, nothing is easy and well-meaning people are attacked for doing what we all would normally think is simply appropriate behavior and good citizenship.

Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis, recently criticized my friend and former colleague, James McGrath, for doing just what was outlined in my third example above, going so far as to call James an "intolerant academic" in the headline to his diatribe.

What's this all about? James, who teaches at Butler University, received an email from a campus group announcing that Terry Mortenson, a staff member at Answers in Genesis, was going to give a talk at a lunch seminar in April. James responded to the person who sent the email, pointing out that when Mortenson was previously on campus his talk had some serious problems. (I was at that previous talk and I'll comment briefly on it in a moment.)

Based on his experience with Mortenson and with Answers in Genesis, James wrote that they "persuade many people that they have to choose between what science concludes and Christianity, and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, many people who then discover the weight and extent of the scientific evidence then leave their faith." James is a devout Christian and isn't happy when folks like Ham and Mortenson drive people away from his religion.

Please note, James hasn't done anything to keep Mortenson from returning to Butler. He simply shared his opinion of the speaker and noted, "I do not know whether there is any hope that the invitation extended to Answers in Genesis could be reconsidered, but it ought to be." Does that represent the height of academic intolerance? Not in my book.

Let's take a look at Mortenson's last visit to Butler and further explore why James might want to urge his colleagues to reconsider who they sponsor as a guest speaker. A significant part of Mortenson's presentation dealt with what it means to read the Bible literally. A large part of his argument was based on the meanings imbedded in the original biblical text. After his formal presentation he was questioned about his language skills and, at one point, a member of the audience recited a portion of the first beatitude from Matthew 5 in Greek, followed by a question. Mortenson responded by saying, "I don't know modern Hebrew."

James commented on this exchange by writing that Mortenson "was unable even to recognize audibly the difference between Greek and Hebrew. Yet he spoke as though he knew the Biblical languages, and disputed my claim that Genesis 1:6-8 refers to something solid that can aptly be translated 'dome'."

Mortenson also commented on this exchange and what he said will likely make most of you uncomfortable. "During the formal Q&A time a Jewish professor was really irate. ... After some back and forth ... he said something to me in a foreign language very quickly. I replied 'I don't know modern Hebrew' (since I knew he was Jewish and was assuming that's the language he had just spoken)."

As I said, I was present and I didn't think that the professor was particularly irate. Nor did I think he was speaking very quickly when he began his Greek quotation. More than that, however, I'm completely taken aback by Mortenson's defense: "since I knew he was Jewish and was assuming that's the language he had just spoken." Perhaps Mortenson "knew he was Jewish" in the same way he "knows" how to interpret the Bible. In fact, the professor was not Jewish, he was an Armenian Orthodox Christian.

Yes, this is very weird, but it is the standard operating procedure for many creationists. There really are some facts out there. In this case, the fact is that the professor was not Jewish. Simply asserting that he was and then using that manufactured fact to explain the next piece of the story is both dishonest and misleading. As James put it, "It is a case of Ken Ham's people claiming to know things that they don't, setting themselves up as authorities when they have only ignorance and ideologically-driven skewing of the facts to offer."

As I said, not everything has to be ridiculously complicated. Issuing a warning, whether it be about bad sushi or bad theology, encouraging your friends to be careful about what they purchase, ought not open you up to charges of being intolerant. I'm disappointed that Ham can't see that simple point.