Bill Nye Gets Religulous with Bill Maher

Bill Nye, a.k.a. “the Science Guy,” recently took a break from his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” to visit “Real Time with Bill Maher.” What did science’s bowtie wearing ambassador discuss with comedy’s favorite atheist? Photographs of Pluto, recent floods in Colorado—and, of course, the abject absurdity of religious people.

From Maher, that’s to be expected. From Nye, it’s downright disappointing. Nye is a gifted teacher, and one of science’s foremost ambassadors. In the past, he’s spoken forcefully, but tactfully, against science denial. More broadly, he’s dedicated his life to improving scientific literacy in the United States, so helping a talk show host heap scorn on significant segments of the American populous is unlikely to further his goals.

Honestly, it’s not rocket science. When you’re on a talk show and your interlocutor says something provocative and extremely dumb, look stern. Don’t nod and smile.

Unfortunately Nye does just that when Maher explains, “…religion is the enemy of science. People say we can reconcile science and faith. No, we can’t.”

It goes without saying, but there are many scientists who practice a religion (and still more who will chat happily with religious people), yet seem mentally fit. Clearly, they’ve found some way to reconcile these parts of their lives. Is that way philosophically valid? Useful? Honest? That’s another conversation. But some kind of reconciliation is going on, even if it’s not reconciliation that would personally work for Bill Maher.

Nye could have said, “Gee, Bill, that’s a pretty broad claim there, and you don’t seem at all prepared to substantiate it. Let’s move on.” That would be a firm, diplomatic solution. Instead, he just lets himself be drawn into a conversation that’s guaranteed to piss off people of all kinds.  

Early in the interview, Nye seems eager to steer clear of these minefields. When Maher first brings up religion, Nye explains that he doesn’t want to tread on anyone’s faith. The second time Maher brings up religion, Nye promptly explains that he was actually just joking: 

Maher: Well, you cast a jaundiced eye at me about religion [earlier].
Nye: No, I was giving you a hard time.

Sarcasm ensues. This tone plays well to Maher’s audience, but unless Nye gets control of his message, those are the only ones who will be willing to listen to him.

Ridiculous things go on in the world of creationism, things that might deserve a little sarcasm, but to conflate creationism with religion is as sloppy as it is offensive. As America’s science teacher Bill Nye is well aware that you should never belittle your students—or even condone that kind of belittlement from someone else. Nye may need to consider whether he’s more interested in being an educator or a pundit.