Well-known scientist Bill Nye and comedian Bill Maher raised the ire of conservative Christians with their discussion about creationism and evolution last week on Maher’s HBO show, but one of the finer points discussed was a Bible verse in the book of Genesis — one that seemingly shows a contradiction between science and the holy text.
But are they right that this particular scripture reference proves that the two are incompatible?
On last week’s show, Nye and Maher recounted a contentious speech that Nye delivered in Waco, Texas, back in 2006 in which some Christians in the audience actually stormed out.
In describing what unfolded, the Waco Tribune wrote at the time: “The Emmy-winning scientist angered a few audience members when he criticized literal interpretation of the Biblical verse Genesis 1:16, which reads: ‘God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.’”
In the 2006 speech, Nye said the sun is a star and that the moon, described as a “lesser light” is really just reflecting light — a potential contradiction in his mind when compared to the Biblical account. One woman was so enraged over his dismissal of the holy book that she walked out in the middle of the speech with her children.
Maher brought up the incident during his interview with Nye on Friday.
“I read that you were in I think it was Texas and you quoted Genesis … and you pointed out to the crowd that the moon of course is not a light itself. It’s just reflecting the light off the sun,” he said.
Nye confirmed the story and said that a woman grabbed her children by the wrist and led them out of the event. At the time, the Waco Tribune reported that she said, “We believe in a God!” before storming out.
In speaking about the incident, Maher added, “but you cannot see that and not know that religion is the enemy of science. I mean people say we can reconcile science and faith. No we can’t.”
Considering Maher’s and Nye’s views on Genesis 1:16, one wonders if their gripes are theologically sound. TheBlaze consulted our panel of faith leaders and experts to gauge their reaction to the claims made about Genesis 1:16. Each of them essentially told us that context and Biblical understanding are key to discerning the scriptural meaning.
Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of “Push Back: Reclaiming Our American Judeo-Christian Spirit,” said Maher and Nye have an “unsophisticated” knowledge of the Bible and that the two are “untrained” in making such proclamations.
“Mr. Nye should stick to science and Mr. Maher to raunchy and sarcastic comedy,” Spero told TheBlaze. “I don’t blame them for their shallow understanding since they have not devoted their lives scholastically to it.”
“They disingenuously set up Biblical straw men by offering interpretations designed to make the Bible look foolish just so they can make their biased points that serve their agenda,” he said.
Spero also said that he is hopeful that Nye takes a different approach to scientific study than he does to the Bible, noting the major impact that Jewish and Christian theology have had on science. In particular, he mentioned Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, among other enlightenment scientists, and the fact that they embraced a higher power.
“The scientific developments of the world came precisely from the Judeo-Protestant outlook that extolls man’s open-ended quest to decipher God’s universe,” the rabbi continued. “The Judeo-Protestant outlook should not be confused with Islam, Hinduism or medieval Catholicism; nor with the secular ideologies of left-wing communism that yielded practically nothing in scientific development.”
As for the direct critique of Genesis 1:16, Spero said that the Bible documents the fact that God made the sun and the moon and that both were created “to provide light.” However, the book doesn’t explain how the light is generated and leaves such intricacies up to “man’s unfolding discoveries.”
Dr. Darrell Bock, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of “Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith,” called Nye and Maher’s use of the verse “as thin as straw and just as strong.”
“The two lights is known as phenomenological language as when we say the sun rose. That is how we express it because the phenomenon we are describing appears to us like that,” Bock said. “So the sun and moon look like two lights and are in terms of the entity we see reflecting that light.”
Rather than being rooted in a matter of Hebrew or Greek, the professor said that the issue is simply one surrounding literary sensitivity. And rather than allowing Nye and Maher off the hook in their clumping together of all Christians, he noted that there is certainly intense debate among believers surrounding just how much Genesis has to say about creation.
“Certain things in those chapters are clear regardless of the discussed points. Genesis intends to say the creation is an act of God not a mere accident,” he said, before noting that issues pertaining to creationism are multifaceted and debated among people of faith.
Theologian R.P. Nettelhorst also called the argument that the moon is not a separate light “rather juvenile.”
“It’s akin to hopping on someone because they wonder what time sunrise is, rather than wondering what time the earth will have rotated for the sun to come into view,” he told TheBlaze.
Like Bock, Nettelhorst highlighted that the argument Maher and Nye results comes from not properly understanding the Genesis story. Noting that both the religious and non-religious contribute to misunderstandings between science and faith, he went on to detail what, exactly, the Bible’s first book is intended to do:
The book of Genesis has at least three obvious purposes. First, it is a reaction against the prevailing mythology and polytheism that dominated the world of the Ancient Near East. The Babylonian creation epic, known as Enuma Elish, described a battle between the gods and their ultimate decision to create human beings to serve them as slaves. The Babylonian gods include the sun, the moon, Tiamat (translated “the Deep” in Genesis 1:2) and so on.
In Genesis, the sun, moon, and Tiamat appear, but now they are objects devoid of both divinity and personality.They come into existence simply to provide light on the Earth (in the case of the Sun and moon), or in Tiamat’s case, along with the Earth, awaiting God’s words of direction: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (NIV) The book of Genesis has but one God who creates human beings not as slaves, but as the masters of the world. And so that is the second point made by the creation account: there is only one God, not many gods.
Third, the story of Genesis is designed to demonstrate that the one God worshiped by Israel does not belong to them exclusively. Although the gods of the nations around Israel were usually perceived as national deities, in contrast, the God of Genesis is the God not just of one nation, but of all human beings everywhere—because all human beings everywhere are part of one big family with a common ancestor.
So, there you have it. While Maher and Nye stand on one side, at least some faith experts disagree with their take on Genesis 1:16, especially their use of the verse to draw a line in the sand between science and religion. We’ll leave you with the original segment that sparked the debate, below: