Brad Kramer: Before last year, most people (including a younger version of myself) knew you as the white-coated Science Guy on PBS. Now, you’re seen as a defender of science, rather than simply a promoter. What motivated you, as a former host of a popular children’s show, to jump into such controversial issues, especially involving religion? What are you hoping to accomplish, especially with your new book?
Bill Nye: My book Undeniable is akin to a primer on evolution. As such, it has little to do with religion. With that said, no matter what you may believe spiritually or otherwise, the Earth is clearly not 6,000 or 10,000 years old. (Incidentally, my lab coats are blue. That they are often perceived as white serves as another example of the troublesome nature of eyewitness accounts.)
BK: While you say your book has little to do with religion, you write in the book that it’s unreasonable to see any sort of divine “plan” in nature (p. 78). Paired with strong endorsements from many prominent atheists and agnostics on the back cover, can you see how many Christians would feel your book has an anti-religious agenda?
Nye: Put briefly, no; I don’t perceive an anti-religious agenda, especially with regard to Christians and Christianity. The issue being debated was creationism, the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old. As I understand it, this involves the Bible’s Old Testament exclusively. As I understand it, Jesus of Nazareth and his worldview did not come to be until the New Testament times.
BK: It has been exactly one year since your well-publicized showdown with Ken Ham. Your remarks at the debate were very much focused on the age of the earth and universe, but your book is almost entirely focused on evolution. You hint in the book that you’ve had a learning curve about what really matters to people like Ham, and evolution is ultimately a more important battle line than geology or ice cores or other chronological evidences. What brought you to this realization? Would you have said anything differently at that debate, if you could do it over?
Nye: Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. The key to our being here now is time, 4.54 billion (Earth) years of time. Nuclear fission wasn’t discovered until long after Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace published their original books and papers, for example. Our ability to measure atomic masses wasn’t developed until long after their deaths. These features of nature enabled us to reckon the age of the Earth and compare it with speciation rates here. The debate was nominally about creationism as a “viable” explanation for what we observe around us. For my side, the debate went very well; I’m not sure what I would change, although I can imagine shortening my answers during the rebuttals, perhaps.
BK: You mention the debate was about creationism, a term that you and many people use to refer specifically to young-earth creationists. Yet we at BioLogos see the world as God’s creation AND accept the evidence for evolution and the great age of the earth. Would you put us under the “creationist” label?
Nye: As I understand your question, no. BioLogos community members would or do not insist that the Earth is 6,000 years old, the main tenet of creationists.
BK: There is a popular narrative, especially in the media, that portrays science and religion at war with each other. And, of course, there have been some spectacular episodes where this was true. Do you think there can be harmony between science and faith? What would that look like to you?
Nye: People get a lot out of being religious. They have strong senses of community and mutual support. So, what’s not to love? Our goal in science is to discover universal laws of nature. That pursuit fills me with wonder. If one’s faith requires one to abandon or ignore natural laws, well, that person is going to have trouble reconciling religion and science. Otherwise, I don’t see any conflict.
BK: You laud 19th-century chemist Michael Faraday in your book as a shining example of a “spokesperson” for science, quoting him as saying, “nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature” (p. 192). We think that’s awesome. Did you know that he was also a man of deeply committed faith and often said things like, “we ought to value the privilege of knowing God’s truth far beyond anything we can have in this world”? Does it surprise you that Faraday had a passion for both science and God without any conflict?
Nye: No, it doesn’t surprise me at all. The theory of evolution was not formally published until shortly before Faraday’s death. Evolution was yet to be discovered during Faraday’s life. Also, I don’t think that Michael Faraday would claim that the Earth is extraordinarily young.
BK: I read in Popular Science that you were raised Episcopalian, but have drifted away from Christianity. What influenced that journey? Is it fair to say that science now provides you with answers to the sort of “ultimate questions” that are usually seen as religious territory?
Nye: I abandoned my religious teachings after I read the Bible twice—cover to cover. It took me a couple of years. I followed along with maps and a few study guides. There are two questions that get to us all: Are we alone in the Universe? And, where did we come from? For me, science provides a much more satisfactory way to seek answers than does any religion I’ve come across. With that said, the universe is mysterious and wonderful. It fills me with reverence for nature and our place among the stars; our place in space.
BK: You say that science provides a more satisfactory path to answers than religion. Would you say that is true for any important question, like morality, the meaning of life, etc? Why or why not?
Nye: For me, the meaning of life is pretty clear: Living things strive to pass their genes into the future. The claim that we would not have morals or ethics without religion is extraordinary; I see no evidence for it. Animals in nature seem to behave in moral ways without organized religion, e.g. the bats I refer to around page 211. I feel that I’ve often pointed out that there are countless aspects of life and nature that scientists and scientific thinkers cannot explain. Why the universe is accelerating in its expansion and what came before the Big Bang serve as compelling examples. The process of science provides a way to seek answers to those questions. When or if answers are found, you can be assured those answers will lead to more questions. Is the troubling or wonderful? It depends on your view of your place in nature, your place among the stars; I suppose.
Reading their letters and the First Amendment of the US Constitution, I infer that this nation’s founders noted that religions have been at the center of great deal of trouble, so they precluded the US government from getting involved in religion, i.e. “… shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Over the centuries, various religions have laid claim to various morals; consider the difficulties outsiders are having today in the Middle East, for example. Promoting a religious agenda that is to apply to every citizen is inconsistent with our laws in the US. It seems to me that your community and mine can live and work together without conflict.
BK: How do you plan to build on the momentum you’ve gained through the debate and the book (not to mention countless media appearances)? What’s next for you?
Nye: The most serious problem facing humankind is climate change. That’s the topic of my next book. In my grandparents’ day there were about 1.5 billion people on Earth. Today there are a great many more than 7.2 billion. All of these people breathing and burning our atmosphere has led to an extraordinarily dangerous situation. I hope what I like to call the “Next Great Generation” will emerge and produce technology, regulations, and a worldview that enable as many of us as possible to live happy healthy lives. Incidentally, the creationists that I’ve encountered diligently deny that our Earth’s climate is being altered by people. This point of view and teaching is in absolutely no one’s best interest. Here’s hoping we can work together and preserve the Earth, for us—us humans.