(CNN) — It says something when a person shows up at the Creation Museum wearing a top that says, “This is my atheist T-shirt.”
At least that’s what I think it said. I saw it in a blur as she passed in the parking lot; a thirtysomething with a young boy in tow, striding through the bitter winds of Kentucky to visit a place that proclaims those who deny the existence of God are dead wrong.
I thought about chasing her down to ask her what had compelled her to come, but it would have been a foolish question.
She was here to see a fight. And I was here to play the referee, to moderate a debate on a question that has raged for well more than a century: Was humankind created by God in a rush of divine power, or did we evolve over time with only nature to take the credit?
Or as the organizers put it: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”
About 900 people snapped up the tickets to this event just a few minutes after they went on sale, and I was told they expected at least “hundreds of thousands … maybe a million or more” to watch as it streamed online.
It was not just the topic drawing the throngs. For this crowd, the debaters really mattered.
On the left (literally for the audience, and figuratively in every other way) was the champion for the evolutionary side.
Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” made fundamentalist Christian heads snap recently when he declared it was flat-out wrong for children to be taught creationism.
I met him in a room behind the stage as the audience milled around, waiting for the event to begin. Having just spoken to an adoring crowd of science fans at a university the night before, he feared he was in hostile territory.
“I think my agent is the only one on my side,” he said, only half-joking. “I think the other 899 people in here don’t really see it my way.”
It was hard to tell. Aside from the woman with the T-shirt, there were others wearing pro-Nye gear, but no good way to count them.
Still, it looked like his supporters were probably in the minority, and I mentioned to him that some scientists were grousing online he was validating the creationist argument by even showing up. “So why are you here?” I asked.
“I’m here for the U.S. economy,” he said. “See, what keeps the United States in the game for the world economy is our ability to innovate, to have new ideas, and those inventions come from science.
“And you see creationism as sort of poisoning the well for science?”
“Yes. I mean, I’m all for (creationism) in philosophy class, history of religion class, human psychology class,” but bring it into science class, and Nye gets upset.
And that is what disturbs Nye’s debate opponent. Ken Ham is a rock star in the creationist community who is quick to point out his own educational credentials and those of other scientists who support creationist views.
He is one of the founders of the Creation Museum, where dinosaurs are depicted as living alongside humans and the Great Flood of Noah is an indisputable fact.
He believes it is fundamentally unfair of folks like Nye to push creationism further into the educational shadows and to deny what Ham sees as its scientific components.
I first met him back when the museum was being built, and he greeted me in his affable, Australian manner just outside the room where Nye was waiting.
“I must admit I’m a little nervous,” Ham told me looking out at the audience. “I want to passionately present my case and defend what I believe, but we never imagined it would become this big. It’s amazing. Just shocked all of us.”
It was impressive to see how much interest the event generated. A riser with a phalanx of production cameras sat in the middle of the room, 70 or so journalists were clustered to one side of the stage, and security officers seemed to be all over the place.
I was told that metal detectors were being used to screen the audience, and I saw what I presume were explosive-sniffing dogs quietly working the hallways.
Both sides in this debate know the subject matter can spur extreme feelings, and they did all they could to make sure extreme actions didn’t follow.
Just the same, one organizer pointed out a corner some 30 feet behind my spot on the stage. A door there opens to the parking lot, he said, “just in case, for any reason, you need to get out fast.”
The advice was appreciated but unnecessary. The crowd proved to be polite, attentive and admirably restrained through the entire 2½-hour debate.
So were the debaters. Although they were firmly on opposite sides of the fence, Ham and Nye presented their arguments calmly and respectfully. Neither tried to shout the other down.
I spent my time listening to what they had to say, watching the clock to make sure they got equal time and trying to ensure people in each camp felt their man was treated fairly. Both debaters shook hands at the end to rousing applause. It was not a fight after all.
MORE ON CNN: Ken Ham: Why I’m debating Bill Nye about creationism
Considering the depth of feelings people have about this issue, I asked both men before we began if they expected to change anyone’s opinion.
Ham said, “I will present (my information) trying to change people’s minds, but knowing as a Christian it is God who changes people’s minds, not me.”
Nye said, “Here is my hope: I will remind Kentucky voters that this is a serious issue and that it is inappropriate to include creationism as an alternative to … the body of knowledge and the process called science.”
By the time the debate was done, a fierce winter storm had settled in. I waded through the Creation Museum parking lot ankle deep in snow, with sleet pelting down. And I think it was a worthwhile evening — a debate humankind was created to have, or perhaps to which we evolved.
By Tom Foreman, CNN
CNN’s Tom Foreman moderated the “creation debate” Tuesday night in Petersburg, Kentucky, between Bill “the Science Guy” Nye and creationist Ken Ham.
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