AtC Reviewed in PSCF

I’ve recently had it called to my attention that Among the Creationists has been reviewed in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith. That’s the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists. They are generally sympathetic to evolution and mostly have little patience for ID and creationism. On the other hand, they definitely like their evolution with a heavy theistic gloss. When I wrote the book, I was especially curious about how it would be received in quarters like this. So let’s have a look.

The reviewer is Robyn Pal Rylaarsdam of Benedictine University in Illinois. Here’s his opening:

When was the last time you took a good hard look at yourself in the mirror? When was the last time you read a book that reflected an outsider’s unflinching view of your faith and your attempt to integrate faith and science? In Among the Creationists, Jason Rosenhouse, a self-described atheistic Jew, takes a look at Christian responses to evolution through his experiences at several different conferences dedicated to creationism and intelligent design. He describes in depth the Creation Mega Conference at Liberty University in 2005, the Darwin vs. Design conference in 2007 (Knoxville, TN), and the Sixth International Conference on Creationism in 2008 (Pittsburgh, PA), as well as a trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. Other smaller events provide short vignettes to begin the book, and are sprinkled throughout the book as well.

It should be no surprise that Rosenhouse is critical of creationism and intelligent design. However, unlike the “new atheists” who published several books in the middle of the last decade (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others), Rosenhouse seems to enjoy his one-on-one interactions with the fellow conference-goers, and his vignettes show him respectfully listening to them and, for the most part, being listened to respectfully in turn. His very attendance at the conferences and his trip to the creation museum illustrates that he is at least open-minded enough to want to know firsthand what he is critiquing. As he writes in the introductory section, “…we still have to live together. Given this simple reality, it cannot be the worst idea in the world to try talking to each other once in awhile” (p. 15). “For all my disagreements with their views, I like being around people who are fired up about big questions” (p. 209). As such, the book produces a very readable description of what “we” look like to scientists who do not have a faith in God; whether “we” are young earth creationists (YEC), intelligent design (ID) proponents, or theistic evolutionists (or anything between).

My first reaction to that was, “I am too a New Atheist!” It’s true, though, that while I am very sympathetic to what the NA’s are doing, and I think they performed a great public service by writing their books, I do tend to have a different temperament. I believe what I believe, but I’m really not very confrontational by nature. Some of the earlier drafts of Among the Creationists were considerably more polemical than the published version, but I was not satisfied with them. They just didn’t feel right to me. At any rate, I’m glad he found the book readable.

The descriptions of the conferences and conference-goers rang true to me. I have attended only one YEC conference, more than a decade ago, but the format and atmosphere was similar to what Rosenhouse describes with enthusiastic audiences, relatively simple arguments in the presentations, and extensive bookstore sales. Indeed, the friendly crowd and welcoming attitude toward curious outsiders would also describe the ASA annual meetings—although hopefully not limited to simple rhetorical arguments! However, Rosenhouse makes several less than flattering observations repeatedly in the book. First, he notes in several different places that while conversing with “lay” creationists one-on-one is usually pleasant, the speakers and leaders are aggressively negative toward those who accept evolution.

Actually, conferences of skeptics and atheists have a similar flavor as well, though obviously I think their arguments are generally much stronger than what creationists serve up. Large assemblages of true believers inevitably lead to some degree of group think and straw man caricatures of the other side, regardless of the specific issue. I have only attended one atheist conference, and while many of the talks were very good, some of the others had me saying, “Now just wait a sec! That’s not really fair…” It’s easier to be sympathetic when the weak arguments are in the service of causes you believe in strongly, but honesty forces me to admit that a dose of rigor might have helped the proceedings, at least at certain times.

Rylaasberg now provides several quotes of me saying less than flattering things about creationists. Then he writes:

Second, Rosenhouse notes frequently and with regret that children and teens attending these conferences are essentially brainwashed into accepting a nonscientific view of the world. He observes,

…If their children went their whole lives without ever hearing about evolution or about views of morality different from their own, that would be no loss whatsoever. (p. 7)

This criticism is less than compelling, as all parents expose their children to the family’s beliefs more favorably than to opposing viewpoints.

Since this is the only direct criticism Rylassberg levels at me, I guess I can be forgiving. But I would argue that it is he who is being less than compelling. Yes, of course, all parents expose their children to the family’s beliefs more favorably than to opposing viewpoints, but that’s not what I was criticizing the creationists for. Most parents also try to teach their children to be open-minded, and to understand the views of those with whom they disagree. That’s precisely what the creationists do not do. The full quote is this:

But even more than evidence of scientific error, what struck me at the Richmond conference — as at other evangelical and creationist conferences I have attended — was the incredible insularity of my fellow attendees. As they saw it, if their children went their whole lives without ever hearing bout evolution or about views of morality different from their own, that would be no loss whatsoever. Above all else their faith must not waver.

When it comes to insularity, there’s a massive difference in degree between the creationists and what “all parents” do.

Okay, let’s check out the conclusion.

Because Rosenhouse shows respect to the adherents of these ideas he believes to be faulty at best, altogether false at worst, the book was far more effective in prompting my own thoughts about living as both a Christian and a biologist who regularly uses and teaches evolutionary theory. He backs up his observations with quotations from conference proceedings, and has clearly done extensive background reading in the evolution-and-faith literature as well as in Christian theology.

Several years ago, I participated in a discussion of Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” with undergraduate students and science faculty at a Christian college. Rosenhouse’s book would be a far better choice for that venue, as it has little vitriol but a significant critique of the worldview of those students and their professors. Nonscientists who are actively involved in these topics would also benefit from reading this true outsider’s view of their activities. The respect that Rosenhouse shows for individuals with whom he disagrees is a proper starting point for each of us as we discuss the topic of evolution both within the church and in the world at large.

Well, that was pretty nice of him. Clearly, the take-home message is that you should go buy multiple copies of the book and read them immeidately!

Comments

  1. #1 derek
    March 16, 2013

    “That’s funny, you don’t look New Atheist!” :-) It’s something often blurted out by well-meaning people with an unexamined prejudice, that the person in front of them isn’t conforming to the stereotype.

  2. #2 Bilbo
    March 16, 2013

    Do I need to read the multiple copies immediately and simultaneously?

  3. #3 DrDroid
    United States
    March 17, 2013

    Hmmm… One definition of “vitriol” is “Cruel and bitter criticism”. I’ve read Letter To a Christian Nation and I suppose that if I were a Christian apologist I might find Sam’s criticism blunt, confrontational, and even cruel given my cherished beliefs. However, that says nothing about the truth or substance of the book. Sam is right on the money IMO. As for “bitter”? Perhaps, but given the long record of horrible things that have been done in the name of religion, I would say a little bitterness is more than justified.

  4. #4 anon
    March 18, 2013

    A little good news on the evolution front: some Christian home-schoolers are looking for science books that contain actual science.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/03/old-earth-young-minds-evangelical-homeschoolers-embrace-evolution/273844/

  5. #5 deepak shetty
    March 18, 2013

    but I’m really not very confrontational by nature.
    Except when it comes to agnosticism :)
    Any idea if/when the paperback will be out?

  6. #6 JimR
    March 18, 2013

    @ anon
    Interesting link. The confrontation between home schooled and YECs at some colleges reminds me of Jason’s comment that the math department is just left alone at the YEC schools.
    I hope these people using Waldorf materials recognize the influence of Rudolf Steiner and Theosophy in Waldorf schools.

  7. #7 Lenoxus
    March 18, 2013

    It’s popular to combine the continuum fallacy with the tu quoque fallacy, basically saying “Sure, X is pretty awful, but guess what — you and everyone else is imperfect!”. It happens that Jesus, of all people, has a famous rejoinder to it — that bit about removing the log from one’s own eye.

    In short: Yes, we all have biases, but there is a nontrivial problem with how creationists would raise their kids. But this behavior is totally consistent with their quasi-paranoid worldview about a worldwide Darwinist conspiracy. So it’s unclear what the best angle of attack would be — go after the YECs and they retreat, shield their kids, and see themselves as ever more persecuted; go after the IDists and theistic evolution folks, and they’ll point the the far-more-extreme science-denial of YEC.

    anon: That’s heartening. Of course, some of the usual problems arise in the nitty-gritty. From the article, final paragraph:

    For Seurkamp, the ability to reconcile science and faith is one of the biggest advantages of homeschooling. “God knew what his creatures would need to survive and thrive when he created them,” she says. “The ability to evolve and adapt is just one example of his creativity and infinite wisdom.”

    While species might be seen as having an “ability to evolve and adapt”, organisms only do to a very limited extent. Nothing can evolve/adapt its away out of getting eaten or otherwise dying, so it’s a bit too charitable to God to imply that he uses evolution to truly fulfill the needs of creatures, unless those needs are the replication of their DNA. Instead, we see a world where creatures suffer in ways consistent with evolutionary processes. And the processes require no outside explanation or cause— its major component, selection, exists by definition (as creationists sometimes point out!). It’s like giving God credit that 9-7=2 (which I suppose some theists do).

    Regardless of all that, I do in fact respect these home-schooling parents for wanting to give their kids science. What I don’t get is this: If they are in fact comfortable with the scientific consensus, why do they need a “Christian” biology textbook at all, instead of a decent standard one? Do they feel that even when the topic is paleontology, the text should make mention of God/Jesus once every twenty pages or so, just so the kids don’t forgot about him? Or is it that the parents are worried that non-Christian science books would explicitly deny God’s existence every twenty pages or so? (Relax, they don’t.) I get the need Christians feel for a Christian culture, but does that have to extend to everything? It would be like me refusing to learn cooking until someone publishes an “atheist” cookbook (not that I doubt one in fact exists). Surely the basic facts of the topic are the same either way?

  8. #8 Poincare
    March 18, 2013

    Repeating a question posted previously. Evolution poses a problem for many theists. Creationism can certainly pose a problem for evolution in that the politics of creationism can restrict funding for evolution related research. But setting those examples aside and even their potential long term effects, can anyone come up with examples that belief in creationism or evolution poses for people in their everyday lives? or the environment?
    Put another way, are there any arguments one way or the other that go beyond the philosophical?