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!