Book Review – Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line

 

Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line by Jason Rosenhouse.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 272

 

 

 

 

October 2nd, 2012
Book Reviewed by Todd C. Wood

A few years ago, I gave a presentation at a church, and after the service, folks gathered around to ask questions.  One woman said, “I get so mad when I’m watching a nature program and they start talking about evolution or millions of years!”  Without skipping a beat, I looked her right in the eye and said, “Stop watching nature programs.”  My response left her mouth hanging open in confusion, so I explained that I also “get so mad” when creationists are stereotyped as foolish or ignorant.  Rather than deal with such nonsense, I just ignore it.  Life’s too short to keep exposing myself to maddening stereotypes.

Now the latest anti-creationist missive comes to us from Jason Rosenhouse, an atheist math professor at James Madison University.  When I saw the announcements for Rosenhouse’s book, I ignored them.  I thought to myself, “I’ve seen that song and dance before.  More reasons why creationists are so stupid.  What a cliché!”  After Michael Gulker, executive director for The Colossian Forum, asked me to review the book, I decided that I would at least give it a chance.  At worst, it would reaffirm my resolve to avoid the sleazier side of the creation/evolution debate.

It’s the I-thought-it-would-be-terrible-but-I-tried-it-and-it-wasn’t-that-bad genre.

By now, savvy readers will have recognized the genre in which I’m writing.  It’s the I-thought-it-would-be-terrible-but-I-tried-it-and-it-wasn’t-that-bad genre.  Kind of a cliché in itself, but the book really wasn’t what I expected at all.  Rather than smugly caricaturing creationists, Rosenhouse spent time at creationist and intelligent design (ID) conferences interacting with prominent creationists, as well as the rank and file.  He paints a complicated portrait of modern creationists – always critical, occasionally infuriating, but very often sympathetic.  At the heart of this book seems to be a genuine confusion and curiosity, or, as Rosenhouse puts it, “I do not understand how people come to believe such remarkable things” (p. 22).

The book is loosely organized around four main events: a 2005 “Mega-Conference” staged by the young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis, a 2007 ID conference called “Darwin vs. Design,” the Sixth International Conference on Creationism (2008), and a personal visit to the Creation Museum in 2010.  Since the book is a memoir more than a sustained argument, there isn’t a clear, linear structure.  The chapter topics bounce around between accounts of his visits to these venues, analysis of various creation/evolution arguments, and a few personal chapters explaining the author’s own views on religion.  If you’re willing to go with the flow of consciousness, there is much here that’s worth reading.

Even at its more critical turns, Rosenhouse presents some of his more important arguments in such winsome ways that they become really hard to resist.  Consider his discussion of one of the central tenets of creationism:

In their [the creationists’] telling, evolution was not merely wrong, it was ridiculous.  It was not simply that the evidence for evolution was weaker than claimed, it was that there was no evidence at all for evolution, and massive, irrefutable evidence for young-Earth creationism (p. 18).

As I read that description, I winced with recognition.  I too have tussled with folks who firmly believe that evolution is about to collapse under the weight of its own implausibility and lack of evidence.  I continue to try to correct this baffling and entrenched misunderstanding, and I think Rosenhouse provides an eloquent response:

It is highly unlikely that a clever amateur will discover a fatal flaw that has been long overlooked by the professionals.  More than anything else it is the unwillingness of creationists to consider this point that I find distasteful. … The implausibility of several generations of scientists being guilty of crass stupidity and gross incompetence never seems to occur to them (p. 36).

That’s a blunt assessment, but I can certainly appreciate his point.  Sometimes creationist rhetoric comes across exactly as he describes it: scientists are fools for believing in evolution, clearly a terribly rotten excuse for a scientific theory.  On the other hand, I know a lot of creationists who don’t buy into that hype at all.  As one of them recently told me, “Evolution isn’t going to collapse in some big upheaval.  Establishing the creationist view will take time and lots of work.  We’ll just have to keep chipping away at it, little by little.”  I suspect that any progress in that chipping away will only come as creationists take a more realistic look at the inadequacies of our own position, rather than the imagined faults of evolution.  That there are creationists willing to do that gives me hope for the future.

On other subjects, Rosenhouse provides quite simple refutations that are literally impossible to argue with.  Consider the common creationist argument that mutations are always detrimental or lead to a loss of information, as found in the work of Werner Gitt or John Sanford.  I have always felt uncomfortable with such claims, mostly from the perspective of their implausibility.  My own experience with genomics leads me to believe that most mutations do next to nothing, good or bad.  Leave it to a mathematician to notice a more glaring problem:

It is a logical impossibility for all mutations to degrade information.  Mutations can reverse themselves, you see.  If the mutation changing A into B causes a loss of information, then the reverse mutation from B back to A must represent a gain of information (p. 65).

Indeed it must.

Beyond such esoterica, I found his treatment of the diversity of Christian opinions about evolution reasonable and even helpful.  When discussing his experiences at the ID conference, he admits that ID does not equate to creationism, despite the rhetorically advantageous term “intelligent design creationism” that is commonly used by many anti-creationists.  This will no doubt be gratefully acknowledged by the handful of non-Christian ID advocates.  At the same time, he does not ignore the obvious connections between ID and creationism.

At its core, creationism is a cultural and political rebellion against a scientific theory that is believed to menace religion and morality.  Seen in this way, ID is absolutely a form of creationism, one that was born from the failures of previous strategies.  The substance of ID arguments is only superficially different from traditional creationism, while its morally outraged rhetoric is identical to it (p. 90).

I think creationism is far more than Rosenhouse’s reductive “core,” but the underlying observation of political affinities between traditional creationism and ID is correct.

The similarity of ID and creationism does not necessarily imply a cozy relationship, however.  On the contrary, Rosenhouse records one encounter with some ID advocates that is disturbingly familiar to me:

At some point I made a casual remark about creationism.  To judge from their reactions, I had just committed a grave faux pas.  They looked disgusted.  My original conversation partner referred to creationism as “crap.”  The woman was even more blunt, describing creationists as “idiots” and “Bible-thumpers” (p. 85).

ID advocates portray their movement as a “big tent,” including all forms of anti-evolutionism, but that public claim contrasts sharply with so many ID advocates’ personal disdain for creationism, as illustrated above.  Now that I think of it, it’s oddly reminiscent of their public denial of being creationists while at the same time advocating so many arguments recycled from creationism.

On the subject of theistic evolution, Rosenhouse expresses some of my own reservations.  For instance, Rosenhouse finds evolutionary theodicies convoluted and unconvincing.  This is especially the case with Francisco Ayala’s theodicy, which drew my attention only because of the boldness with which Ayala asserts that evolution is a gift to theology.  Ayala’s theodicy would putatively relieve God of responsibility for natural evil by making death and suffering an unavoidable consequence of the evolutionary process of creation.  According to Rosenhouse,

I fail to see … how Ayala’s suggestion advances the discussion at all.  Identifying the suffering in nature as a side consequence of the creative process God employed only absolves Him of responsibility if we can show that a more benign process is not possible.  But that is precisely the problem with which we began (p. 151).

That seems like such an obvious deficiency.  One wonders how such theodicies persist.

An evolutionary creationist might respond by proposing that somehow God was constrained to create using evolutionary processes, that creation could be accomplished in no other way.  On this point, Rosenhouse cites Michael Ruse’s argument that “natural selection is the only option” (quoted on p. 145) for producing complex adaptations, which Rosenhouse finds inadequate,

…since natural selection is plainly not the only option for creating human beings.  God might have created everything directly and supernaturally, precisely as the Bible says He did (p. 145).

Once again, I find myself in agreement with Rosenhouse.  Notions of God’s being limited to natural selection seem especially preposterous when some advocates of that idea criticize creationists as arrogant for insisting that God was constrained to create as Genesis literally describes.  But perhaps that’s a rant for a different essay.

More recently, I have noticed theistic evolutionists emphasizing the suffering of the Creator as one possible explanation for the natural evil inherent in evolution.  Playing off of Christ’s radical humility and suffering, such individuals argue that God’s intention all along was to humbly suffer with us, thus necessitating a creation of suffering.  In other words, God made us all suffer together for some larger theological purpose.  Here, Rosenhouse finds himself outside of the realm of science.  “[W]e have simply left behind any connection with empirical realities” (p. 148).  Though it’s likely that a clever theologian could invent answers to any objection, what bearing does this have on reality?  Why should we accept such clever answers?  What distinguishes such answers from ad hoc handwaving?  I could add here, what distinguishes a creation made to suffer because of human sin from a creation made to suffer for some mysterious reason of God’s?  Why is one any more compelling than the other?

Rosenhouse’s final judgment of theistic evolution is one of disinterest.  “If you are possessed of sufficient imagination to find such things plausible, then you are welcome to them” (p. 149), but given the weaknesses of theistic evolution that he discusses, “it is unsurprising that so many people find it impossible to think of Darwinian natural selection as the sort of creative mechanism a loving God would employ” (p. 152).  More bluntly, he concludes

If you want to redefine original sin, or summon forth strained interpretations of Genesis to reconcile evolution with Adam and Eve, then go right ahead.  But please do not pretend that this represents some convergence of ancient wisdom with modern understandings.  This is not science and religion in conversation.  This is science telling it like it is, and religion trying desperately to catch up (p. 177).

This is precisely the sort of language that raises the hackles of theistic evolutionists, but I find much truth in his assessment.  Regardless of which side of the creation/evolution debate we find ourselves, we evangelicals are still trying to figure out what evolution means for us and for our faith.  Meanwhile, science marches on, often without us.

This seems like a good time to discuss Rosenhouse’s “defense” of creationists, although I hesitate to use the term “defense.”  At no point does Rosenhouse relent on his own criticisms – even dismissals – of creationism, but he also spares no criticism of unfair or invalid anti-creationist arguments.  He dismisses the epithet “biblical literalist” as an oversimplification.  Instead, creationists argue “that if you are going to interpret a passage nonliterally there should be strong textual grounds for doing so” (p. 41), which is pretty close to my own position.  Descriptions of creationists who “read the Bible as a science textbook” also falls far short of reality in Rosenhouse’s view.  This is a phrase that I’ve heard repeatedly, and I’ve begun asking people to explain what it’s supposed to mean.  So far, all I’ve gotten in response is a bit of stammering about how the Bible isn’t intended to record scientific detail, which is so obviously true as to be trivially irrelevant.  In contrast to the dismissive theologians I’ve encountered, Rosenhouse recognizes the nuance of the creationist position:

Creationists do, however, believe that the Bible is inerrant on any subject it addresses.  If that means accepting what it says during its very rare excursions into science, then so be it (p. 43).

Even more surprising to me, he offers a remarkably compelling theological argument for young-earth creationism.

We might find it interesting and suggestive that the Bible, which mostly avoids scientific questions, opens with so much of a scientific nature.  Perhaps the conclusion is that God considered these particular scientific truths to be so important that they could not be omitted without compromising the story (p. 43).

Out of the mouths of atheists!

These seeming defenses of creationism could simply be dismissed as a scholarly attempt to state with precision what is or is not wrong with an opposing viewpoint (Rosenhouse is a mathematician after all), but I also detect hints of a humanitarian decency about him.  Early in the book, he confesses that interacting with creationists changed his outlook.  “They are no longer defined by a few odd beliefs you have heard that they hold.  They become actual people, with depth and personality and reasons for the things they believe” (p. 15).  This personal experience leads him to conclusions that I have to suspect aren’t very comfortable for him.  Whereas he affirms the usual claim that “the concept of an infallible source of information about nature entails the abandonment of the scientific method” (p. 51), attending the International Conference on Creationism (ICC) seems to have softened that judgment.  At the ICC, he found creationists

…who, so far as I can tell, are motivated by entirely the same considerations as mainstream scientists.  They are trying to understand nature as best they can.  That they begin from a premise most of us would regard as highly improbable has no relevance to that determination (p. 188).

Thanks.  I’ve been saying that for years.

Speaking of charity toward the enemy, there’s one other point Rosenhouse repeatedly brings up that I think is well worth mentioning.  There is a dominant narrative in modern evangelical Christianity, a reflection on life that I think overstates – severely – the personal value of Christianity.  It goes something like this: Without Jesus, life is terrible, empty, hopeless, but with Jesus, life is super awesome.  I think what this narrative wants to say is that Christ brings immense and inestimable value to our lives as Christians.  The love of God truly exceeds description.  Choosing to express this value by portraying life without Christ as miserable and empty is unrecognizable to many non-Christians.  Many non-Christians live a pretty decent, moral, meaningful life, and when evangelism gets stuck on total depravity, people just can’t relate.

Creationist fervor can carry this personal narrative to almost absurd lengths.  Evolution, we are told, isn’t just wrong or mistaken.  It’s actually the source of evil in society.  But hasn’t evil has been around a lot longer than evolution?  Evolution, we are assured, is a rejection of God.  Of course.  How silly of me.  Here I thought evolution was a scientific model intended to explain certain facts about biology.  Rosenhouse addresses the demonizing of evolution and atheism throughout the book, beginning with this passage:

I am an atheist.  That means that I do not believe in God.  It does not mean that I am metaphysically certain there is no God, that I wallow in nihilism and moral relativism, that I think science has explained everything, that I think religious people are stupid – or that I partake in any of the other asinine caricatures of atheistic belief you may have heard (p. 20).

Though I am a creationist, every year I attend a conference of evolutionary biologists, and there I find a startling contrast between reality and the picture of evolutionists one can infer from creationist rhetoric.  Far from being foolish or wicked, evolutionary biologists are instead immensely articulate, intelligent, and likable.  Most folks there are just geeking out about their monkey flowers or statistical models.  A few are ardently opposed to creationism, but most don’t care much about us crackpots.  The subject of God almost never comes up, and they’ve never held any anti-God or anti-morality strategy sessions that I’ve been aware of.  The “asinine caricatures” really don’t hold up.  I suspect that for creationism to survive, we have to start recognizing evolutionary biologists for who they really are, rather than pigeonholing them into ludicrous caricatures of our own invention.

Needless to say, I didn’t find the book entirely satisfactory and agreeable.  Some of Rosenhouse’s arguments were dismissive and occasionally even smug, but my most visceral reaction was reserved for his assessment of religion in a chapter called “Why I love being Jewish.”  The chapter opens with a contrast between religion as a set of propositions about reality, and religion as a “cultural identity.”  Rosenhouse then gives a passionate description of his cultural Jewish identity, which resonated with me, even though I am not a Jew.  I have no experience with Passover or bar mitzvah, but I can easily identify with the emotional touchpoints of childhood and home.  For me, like Rosenhouse, some of those touchpoints were religious.

Rosenhouse finds his cultural religion satisfying and admirable, but I struggle to relate.  Perhaps I’m reacting most to the missing ingredient in Rosenhouse’s experience of religion.  In the opening pages of the book, Rosenhouse notes,

…it is a source of frustration to me that most of my fellow Americans see things differently. …  I wonder what religious folks know that I do not.  Do they have some insight that I lack (p. 21)?

Actually I think I do know something – or someone – that Rosenhouse doesn’t.  I know it frustrates him, but my personal encounters and experiences with God speak more loudly to me than any rationality or logic ever could.  I wish that I could package my own faith and confidence and give it to Rosenhouse, but I can’t.  I wish that the path to God were as relentlessly rational and logical as Rosenhouse seems to want, but I’m not sure that it is.  Maybe someday Rosenhouse will recognize his own encounters with God for what they are.  Maybe someday God will open his eyes.  I hope so.

 

Todd Charles Wood is an associate professor of biology and director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College. In his spare time, he enjoys classic movies, making pie, and traveling with his wife.