Mathematician Jason Rosenhouse hangs out with the creationists, and reveals how they think
A Review of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines,
by Jason Rosenhouse
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 256 pp.)
I’ve spent over 40 years of my life wrestling with the problem of creationism, while trying to maintain my research career, keep up with book deadlines, teach my classes, and take care of my family. As I described in my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, battling the evolution deniers seems to be a thankless, never-ending task because no amount of effort in science education or good science in the media seems to make any difference. Their numbers (around 40% of Americans) have remained constant in the polls over many decades, no matter what approaches are tried. This is an endless source of frustration for many of us, since creationism is like the many-headed Hydra in the labors of Hercules: every time you cut off one head, it grows back two more. Science never seems to make any progress in blunting their efforts to contaminate schools with their religious dogma. At the end of my 2007 book, I tried my best to delve into the psychology and motivation of creationists, and to understand why they can deny obvious reality and tell outright lies over and over again without any guilt or self-awareness.
But I rarely spend much of my precious time reading their literature any more (I’ve read much of it over 40 years, and it never changes), let alone paying my hard-earned money to hear them speak day after day. Listening to the way they lie and distort the facts, and call professional scientists evil, is too much for me to sit through without getting upset. But Jason Rosenhouse has a much stronger stomach for their garbage than I. He attended one creation conference after another, calmly listening to their preaching and talking to the attendees while maintaining his cool. For that alone, I am in awe of him.
Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia, having previously taught at Kansas State University, so he is close to the epicenters of much of the creationist movement in this country. He regularly discusses the topic on his EvolutionBlog. As he describes, he is culturally Jewish but became an atheist, yet he has the patience of Job to sit through days and days of creationist drivel and read their atrocious books without getting angry. He is genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them, and why they can shut themselves out of so much of scientific reality and believe so much that is patently false.
Rosenhouse’s approach in this book is to recount vignettes and anecdotes of his experiences at various creationist conferences and venues, intermingled with his dispassionate and extremely lucid dissection of the logical, philosophical, and scientific issues raised by creationism. He went, among other places, to the Creation Mega-Conference at Liberty University, the Darwin vs. Design Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. He’s a mathematician by training, so he is personally offended when he hears creationists abuse math or statistics, just as I am when they lie about paleontology and fossils. In his words, “I am not saying that creationists had interesting points to make, but had misunderstood some difficult, technical detail. I am talking instead about errors indicative of a total incomprehension of the subject.” For a mathematician, his level of philosophical sophistication is very advanced. In chapter after chapter, he runs circles around many of the specious arguments used by creationists and theistic evolutionists who try to squirm out of the problem with special pleading. It comes as no surprise that he is also a ranked chess champion as well—he sounds like someone who is brilliant, cool, analytical, and dispassionate. Through all of his sacrifices spending time listening to the creationists, he is still honestly seeking answers to who these people are and what motivates them.
I found the motivation part of the book particularly revealing, because he has the patience to listen to them carefully, and analyze how their thinking works. It turns out that the answer in pretty clear and something we’ve known for a long time: creationists place their religious beliefs first, and anything else that science or culture tells them must conform or be twisted to fit their worldview. These beliefs include the idea that God watches over them, that there is a heaven, that humans are the purpose and goal of the universe, and that their religion provides the only source of meaning and morality in life. With such a strong belief filter in place, it’s no wonder that science such a threat to their worldview. They reject not only the idea that humans are related to the rest of the animal kingdom, but any science (geochronology, cosmology) which places humans at the very end of billions of years geologic history or away from the center of the universe. As they say over and over again, they view “Darwinism” as “reducing us to animals,” in their minds denying our “special relation to God” as well as “reducing morality to survival of the fittest” (the common confusion between evolutionary biology and social Darwinism). No wonder they reject not only the biological and paleontological evidence of our evolutionary relationships with other organisms, but also most of astronomy, geology, anthropology, and any other field that does not conform to this narrow but comforting perspective.
Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, in his book The Great Derangement (2009), describes going undercover in an evangelical church for many months. He found that creationists live in a very cloistered cultish subculture, where they read only what their church elders tell them to read, attend many church meetings and intensive weekend retreats to receive constant reinforcement, and avoid listening to or reading any outside sources that might challenge their worldview. No wonder they never bother to learn about the actual facts of science or evolution, but instead they get a distorted view of science from their creationist leaders. Such cult-like isolation from the real world explains why no amount of presenting science to them in an appealing manner will ever reach them. As long as the conclusions of science threaten their cherished worldview, they are not going to change their minds or learn to distinguish real science from creationist bunk. Instead, as Rosenhouse details again and again, they are easily swayed by shallow intuitive arguments that sound good when you don’t think hard about them. But for a true skeptic like Rosenhouse, these arguments are very simplistic and unsatisfying, since he weighs evidence and looks at the totality of the argument from a much broader, less dogmatic perspective than do the creationists.
Among the Creationists is a very insightful book that allows the skeptic and scientist alike to better appreciate the forces that we are up against in the United States. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creation-evolution wars as a valuable resource for dealing with the never-ending battle with the forces that deny science.