Creationists Are Right, Leading Atheist Concludes

Sorry for the overly dramatic headline. But that really is one of the conclusions of atheist mathematician Jason Rosenhouse.

They are not right that the earth is some 6,000 years old.  Nor are they correct that humans are the special beloved product of God’s magic touch.  But in his book Among the Creationists, Rosenhouse concludes that young-earth creationists are correct that the foundational idea of evolution poses a threat to the very core of Christian belief.

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Rosenhouse’s book is required reading for any outsider who hopes to understand the world of American creationism in the twenty-first century.  Rosenhouse deliberately eschews the simple, satisfying approach of most outsiders.  He does not belittle or deride these ideas or their adherents, though he does forcefully argue against them.

As Rosenhouse describes, he is a mild-mannered mathematician with an unusual hobby.  For the past several years, he has attended creationist conferences and pored through creationist publications.  This experience did not soften Rosenhouse’s intellectual opinion about the scientific illegitimacy of creationism. But it did open his eyes to the galaxy of different types and approaches to creationism. And it convinced him of the overriding need to maintain civility, especially in these difficult discussions.

Indeed, some of the most illuminating parts of the book are the vignettes Rosenhouse includes.  In one story (pages 8-11), he describes an impromptu conversation in a Subway restaurant outside of one of the creationist conferences he attended.  Rosenhouse overheard a group of Christian creationists—a woman and some teenagers—talking about the strangeness of atheism.  He offered his conversational services as a real live atheist.  The young people seemed interested and willing to talk cordially. A nearby woman soon interrupted and warned the teenagers away from Rosenhouse, who she suggested had “been educat[ed] beyond [his] intelligence” (10).  In the end, though, the Christian busybody warmed up to Rosenhouse and even prayed for him.

Did anyone convince anyone else?  No.  But was this conversation worth having?  I think so. Rosenhouse reported feeling that the adults were occasionally rude in their obvious opinion that he was some sort of “zoo animal” (10).  But he also noted that creationists like the ones at Subway almost always remained cordial and even welcoming.  Was he likely to convert to creationism or conservative Protestantism?  Not at all.  But his understanding of the entire dilemma did change in important ways.  How about the people he spoke with? Were any of them likely to embrace the obvious truths of mainstream science? Also not likely.  But my hunch—and Rosenhouse’s—is that such friendly conversations with a real live atheist do a great deal to keep open the minds of creationists everywhere.  As Rosenhouse states, “any hope of doing long-term good comes from being scrupulously polite” (10).

Indeed, Rosenhouse occasionally takes “our side” to task for its own brand of ignorance. As he points out, “Insularity is a two-way street” (15).  If some of the ferocious anti-creationists out there took some time to find out more about the real world of American creationism, they would without a doubt be surprised at what they found. For one thing, with a few exceptions, Rosenhouse’s loud-and-proud scientific atheism was welcomed to these creationist conclaves with politeness and even intellectual excitement.  Second, creationism is a bigger tent than many outsiders understand. One creationist conference organizer, for instance, complained to Rosenhouse about the “piles of garbage” that passed as scholarship among creationists (14).

Throughout the book, Rosenhouse succeeds at illuminating the intellectual world of creationism.  He takes such beliefs seriously, while never granting them legitimacy as scientific ideas.  For example, Rosenhouse laments the “tiresome” assumptions of some of his non-creationist colleagues about the biblical beliefs of creationists (43). Rosenhouse carefully explains some of the ways creationists interpret the Bible.  The label “Literalism” does not do justice to this tradition.  For most creationists—or at least for the “mainstream” tradition of young-earth creationism—passages in the Bible should be taken at their obvious meaning.  If something is clearly meant as a parable, it should be read that way.  But readers should not add in baroque interpretive schemes to warp the Bible’s clear meaning into more culturally palatable explanations. As Rosenhouse concludes, Genesis really does support a YEC interpretation. There is not much in the text to suggest that these passages were meant to be read as anything but real descriptions of real historical events.  More provocatively, Rosenhouse challenges us non-creationists to grant creationists their fair treatment. If creationists’ dismissal of all evolutionary science is absurd, so it is arrogant and self-serving for us simply to dismiss such a widely held belief (159, 167).

For those who have not yet read this book, all this might make it sound as if Rosenhouse fell in love with creationism as he falls all over himself to find the tiniest points of agreement.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Rosenhouse never grants the truth claims of creationists.  He sternly and repeatedly opposes both their notions and their tactics.  For instance, Rosenhouse revisits some of the oldest anti-creationism arguments.  Where did Cain get his wife? (164) Why do creationists only insist on some parts of Genesis, and not others?  Why, for example, do creationists not insist the earth is flat, with a dome-shaped covering? (163)  Just as a literal six-day creation seems to be the obvious interpretation of the Bible’s first lines, so a flat earth is the most near-to-hand interpretation of the text.  These old chestnuts, Rosenhouse argues, still have more than enough punch to deflate the most self-satisfied creation scientist.  More important, Rosenhouse points out that most creationist science is based on utterly false interpretations of basic concepts.  Even worse, creationists often suggest that evolution is only dominant due to a wide-ranging conspiracy, a claim Rosenhouse justly dismisses as pathetic (36).

Yet in spite of his firm opposition, Rosenhouse concludes that creationist reactions to the challenge of evolution are more intellectually respectable than those who try to marry creation and evolution. It makes no sense, Rosenhouse argues, to pretend that evolution does not fundamentally challenge traditional faith (219).  Some creationists respond in a way that makes sense; they reject evolution.  They may be entirely and sometimes cruelly wrong, Rosenhouse believes, but at least they have recognized the magnitude of the challenge posed to traditional Christian belief by evolution.

So stop reading this tripe and go get yourself a copy of Rosenhouse’s book.  For those of you who are creationists or recovering creationists, the volume will give you a sense of how the movement appears to a socially pleasant but intellectually hostile outsider. To us outsiders—liberals, scientists, and others who have only tangential knowledge about American creationism—this book is an absolute must read.  It joins other indispensable books in this field, such as Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, and Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods as starting places to understand this durable culture war battlefield.

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  1. Roy

     /  June 6, 2013

    Read Dr. Rosenhouses book last year. Terrific review of a valuable book.

  2. What “utterly false interpretations of basic concepts” does Rosenhouse provide?
    What exactly qualifies a mathematician as to the working of practical science?
    On what hard scientific basis can an atheist presume logic?

    • @ChazIng, I think you’ll enjoy the book. But I assume, too, that in the end, Rosenhouse’s presuppositions will not convince you. I won’t do justice to his argument in a short form like this, but let me give you a taste of one example of Rosenhouse’s approach. In chapter 12, “On Information,” Rosenhouse describes a presentation by Werner Gitt, “In the Beginning Was Information.” Rosenhouse describes the talk, then offers a non-jargony explanation of the problems with Gitt’s approach. The fundamental criticism, as I understand Rosenhouse, was that Gitt jumbled both technical and popular meanings of the term “information.” Gitt concluded that new “information” cannot come from gene replication. Therefore, all “information” must have an original source, a creator. Perhaps I’m mischaracterizing Gitt’s idea, but only out of ignorance, not out of malice.
      I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I wonder if you will take offense at Rosenhouse’s rhetorical tactic on page 64. Rosenhouse points out that “Gitt’s argument, for all its technicalities and liberal use of jargon, ran afoul of a few simple facts. When scientists attribute to the evolutionary process the ability to increase genetic information, they are not speculating or guessing. They can point to known, well-understood mechanisms that demonstrably have that power.”
      Rosenhouse’s argument works for me. But I wonder if you might think he is simply making an appeal to authority? Again, I don’t want to presume to argue your point. I think you will enjoy taking the time to read Rosenhouse’s book in its entirety for a better explication of his approach.

      • Rosenhouse’s chapter on Gitt is a rehash from a 2005 post here (is that legal?): [ ]. He claims that Gitt stated that (1.) “mutations ALWAYS degrade information” and (2.) he would be refuted if someone were to “produce a single natural mechanism that could increase the information content of the genome” and (3.) that a main creationist argument was the same as point (1.).

        First, point 3 is incorrect unless he is talking about pop-creationism [ ]. Second, Gitt (2000) states: “This idea is central in representations of evolution, but mutations can only cause changes in existing information. There can be no increase in information, and IN GENERAL the results are injurious.” He said this in the year 2000, some 5 years BEFORE meeting Rosenhouse. Third, I have sent an email to for a response from Gitt. I hope he responds.

        Now, even if a duplicated gene mutates, that shows a statistical increase in information (as Gitt himself has stated). However, does the mutation (or accumulations thereof) add novel function? If Rosenhouse has examples of this, that would be great. He states that there are “several well-known mechanisms which can lead to an increase in information content” but only lists one: “duplication and divergence.” His argument that if A mutates to B and then mutates back to A “must represent a gain of information” is a macro-evolutionary non-sequitur as A was originally coded and there is no new functionality despite informational ‘increase.’ This is just too silly coming from an academic and confirms (for me at least) that one should not trust a mathematician on practical science.

        Gitt, W. 2000. In the Beginning was Information. CLV: Bielefeld, Germany: 127. [‎]

      • @ ChazIng, I am less qualified than most to evaluate the legitimacy of these scientific arguments. But as a non-creationist, I find myself convinced even before we get into this sort of scientific detail. As Professor Rosenhouse argues far more cogently than I’ll be able to do here, there’s something decidedly fishy about the bigger claims of most creationist science. In the case of Dr. Gitt’s argument, I find myself unable to believe that such a ground-breaking notion, if true, has not been jumped on by mainstream scientists. Mainstream scientists would like nothing more than to discover such a whopping revolution in scientific understanding. If there is really such a glaring, gaping hole in mainstream genetics, why are not Dr. Gitt’s arguments embraced by more mainstream scientists?
        I do understand the standard counter argument. Mainstream scientists, some creationists might contend, are simply blinded to the obvious holes in evolutionary theory because of their ideological/theological commitment to a distorted vision of science and reality. I find this counter argument unconvincing.

      • I am confused by your answer. First off, this is about Gitt, not larger creationist claims. Second, it is unbelievable (to me) that Gitt would make the statements Rosenhouse asserts he did. Third, there is no groundbreaking notion proposed by Gitt. What gaping hole in mainstream genetics are you referring to exactly?

      • @ ChazIng, This is part of what I like so much about Dr. Rosenhouse’s book. Unlike most non-creationists, he recognizes the fact that most non-creationists are too quick to simply dismiss creationism without really understanding it. But he does not mean by this that he finds creationist arguments compelling. In this case, I agree with his argument that it seems implausible that creationist scientists have really discovered that a central idea of mainstream science is totally bogus. Of course, it is worth checking out the claim, but one is made instantly suspicious by the grandiosity of the claim.

      • If you are referring to macro-evolution, there is no reason to think that if an earth shattering discovery invalidating evolution was found that there would be widespread embrace by scientists. That is not how humans work and also not how science works. If Rosenhouse’s argument is that he doesn’t think that there are any valid flaws in evolution because it is mainstream, that is very tortured reasoning. As for so-called grandiose claims by Gitt, what is grandiose is that Gitt would not have said what Rosenhouse asserts given what he (Gitt) had previously published. Given that Rosenhouse refuses to actually engage in the full scientific arguments either for or against evolution (as far as I can tell from google preview), his book is of little value to anyone.

  3. In my experience, the creationist approach to “garbage” is pretty dodgy. Let’s be clear that when creationists complain about “garbage scholarship,” they’re almost always referring to Kent Hovind, who’s the purveyor of some of the most cartoonishly absurd creationist claims.

    But because creationism serves primarily as an apologetics tactic, most churches don’t care how you arrive to embrace creationism and therefore the Bible.As a result, the silliest creationist tracts and arguments are still freely circulated. If you come to Christ because of an argument that mainstream creationists dismiss, they’re not going to burst your bubble. Now if you try to turn around and use that argument as an apologetics proof yourself, then they might correct you. But at that point you’ll be confident in your belief in creationism, so your soul won’t be in danger.

  4. This sounds like a fascinating book, and actually fits in neatly with some discussion going on in the atheist blogosphere this last year on the importance (or lack thereof) of civility when engaging with people you disagree with.

    The book’s earned a spot on my Amazon wish list. Looks like a worthwhile read.

  5. From the first 3 pages, I charitably found at least 8 problems with Rosenhouse’s views. He is not investigating creationists in a scholarly manner. Given that the sub-title contains the loaded term “anti-evolutionist” and the warfare baiting term “front line,” it is difficult to take this book seriously. OUP states that this book: “Disucsses [sic] difficult questions related to science, religion, philosophy and theology”, but I could find little in all four areas, at least from that which is on google preview.

    Ch 2 contains the term “superficial sophistication” without explanation of the specifics and he seems to conflate ID with YEC and then YEC with fundamentalism.

    In ch 3, he talks about facts as if science deals with facts. Science deals with data and interpretations of said data. He says that it “is hard to imagine any view of the world less appealing to me than Christian fundamentalism.” Might I direct him to the nearest Islamic terrorist cell, he being a so-called ‘atheistic Jew.’ He then seems to bait some creationists with supposed antisemitism.

    Ch 4 is about his strange interaction with an evangelist and reading of anti-evolution books, for which he names none of the authors but alleges that they were of “a bright high school student” quality. He then claims that in probability and information theory that they made “errors indicative of a total incomprehension of the subject.” He does not even list a single creationist arguments but then writes about three scientists who he agrees with (and provides references for further reading)! Clearly no bias, of course.

  6. Ch 5 shows Rosenhouse relishing in gross theological ignorance. He makes no attempt to obtain more first-hand information about the views he disparages or to engage the wealth of scholarly theological books and articles which he can easily source from his library.

    Ch 11 deals with fossils but this is non-repeatable interpretative science, NOT hard, repeatable, testable science. It contains the circular logic that [T]he collection of fossils documenting the appearance of humans from ape-like ancestors is large and continues to grow.” How does he know that humans did not co-evolve with those ape-like creatures but rather evolved from some other creature? He assumes that homology indicates descent without any hard testable science proof to that end. Frankly, I don’t think a soft science area like paleontology can ever offer hard science for any of its claims. X may look transitional to Y but could simply be natural variation.

    Ch 12 on information science is lacking in technical sophistry and would seem to be incorrect in its recollection of past events.

    From what I could read on google, Rosenhouse does not present any non-theoretical case for evolution but rather gives what he supposedly recalls creationists say and cast them as simplistic idiots without scientific training or scientists who lie for Jesus. Creationists to him are simpletons or stealth liars, posing no threat to the intelligencia to which he is a card carrying member.

    • @ ChazIng, In the spirit of dialogue, is there anything you can think of to applaud in Rosenhouse’s book? You clearly read it very carefully. He disagrees fervently with creationist beliefs, but carefully defends both the personal attitudes of creationists and the internal integrity of creationist logic. Are there any similar things you can think of to admire in Rosenhouse’s work?

    • I haven’t read the whole book so it may be that he actually goes into something scientific in the chapters unavailable to me (here’s hoping). I haven’t read it carefully else I might have found even more to criticize. I don’t agree that he “carefully defends both the personal attitudes of creationists and the internal integrity of creationist logic.” If creationist arguments are of “superficial sophistication” and of “a bright high school student” quality, how can that be? He is saying that persons with PhDs are making arguments that are below someone with a BSc! Is this guy for real? Don’t you find that to be a smear Dr. Laats? Or am I misreading him? If there is one thing I admire about his book, it is his atheistic gall coupled with a lack of logic.

      • I don’t think of this book as a smear. That’s what I like about it. I don’t think you need to agree with someone else’s position in order to consider it carefully. I don’t think many people in this creation/evolution debate know very much about the true intellectual contours of the other side.

      • You are looking at Rosenhouse’s creationist portrayal and thinking he is a saint compared to someone like Dawkins. However, if someone were to tell you that your work is ‘superficially sophisticated’ and of “a bright high school student” quality, I doubt you would be as charitable.

  7. anon

     /  June 7, 2013

    But my hunch—and Rosenhouse’s—is that such friendly conversations with a real live atheist do a great deal to keep open the minds of creationists everywhere. As Rosenhouse states, “any hope of doing long-term good comes from being scrupulously polite.”

    Former Creationist here… I was a homeschooled kid who was so into apologetics that I donated money for the building of the Creation Museum. I knew a few Christians who believed in evolution, but they were pretty quiet about it. I did not run into ANY “out” atheists until I was over 20, but I wish I had met some sooner. It would have done me good. I was so, so curious about why people would believe crazy things like evolution, and thought that believing in evolution naturally should lead to despair and nihilism, so it took some major crises in my life before I actually decided what the heck, I’m going to face these questions head-on.

    It sucked to realize just how much I’d been lied to in all that Creationist literature over the years, but I’m really glad I did do the research. However, it took a LOT of pain to force me to do that. There is a great deal of fear driving Creationist beliefs, so if you are polite and casual in conversation with believers, while not letting them get away with fallacies, you can over time deconstruct some of the angst blocking the facts from being heard. Really, for eager young teens like myself, presenting oneself as an actual atheist (or theistic evolutionist) and simply being available for questions would go a long, long way. Nothing more needed.

    • @ anon, what areas did you personally research?

      • anon

         /  June 10, 2013

        @ChazIng, it would be difficult to enumerate everything I researched. I spent a few hundred hours on it one year alone. I don’t feel like getting into a debate over it, so please just believe that I did spend a LOT of effort on it and I prayed constantly at the beginning. Best wishes to you.

      • I didn’t want to debate and what I posted above is not debate material. Nonetheless, if you don’t have a scientific background, it would not be possible for you to properly understand issues relating to evolution despite hundreds of hours of reading (and Rosenhouse agrees with me). Best wishes anon.

  8. SLC

     /  June 12, 2013

    Re ChazIng

    If you are referring to macro-evolution, there is no reason to think that if an earth shattering discovery invalidating evolution was found that there would be widespread embrace by scientists. That is not how humans work and also not how science works

    This is an incredible statement. Just for example, consider the Theory of Relativity which was an earth shattering development. Consider quantum mechanics, another earth shattering development. Consider the Theory of Continental Drift, yet another earth shattering development. Although it is true that none of these developments were immediately accepted, they were eventually because of their vast explanatory power and the lack of falsification evidence. Even eminent scientists were dubious at first. Albert Michelson, whose experiments led to the Theory of Relativity never accepted it. Einstein, whose work on the photoelectric effect led to quantum mechanics was dubious about it, saying, “god doesn’t play dice with the universe”. George Gaylord Simpson, one of the developers of the evolutionary synthesis, rejected continental drift well into the 1960s.

    Contrary to ChazIng’s claim, the surest way to scientific fame and a Nobel Prize is the overthrow of an existing scientific paradigm.

  9. @SLC:

    Contrary to ChazIng’s claim, the surest way to scientific fame and a Nobel Prize is the overthrow of an existing scientific paradigm.

    Oh? Where did I say that?

  10. Response from CMI (US):

    Are you referring to the chapter “On Information” on pp. 61-65 in his book Among the Creationists? If so, it’s more of a narrative of what he claims happened at a 2005 creation conference. Dr. Gitt’s latest book, Without Excuse, covers information theory in far more detail than any possible rebuttal to the chapter in Rosenhouse’s book.

    Perhaps you can purchase and review Gitt’s book as well Dr. Laats.

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