In the News: Atheist Hate Crime

Three people are dead, shot in the head by a murderous thug. That thug was an outspoken atheist, and the victims were publicly identified as members of a religious group. Does this count as an atheist hate crime?

To be fair, many of the facts are still up in the air, but it does not seem disputed that Craig Stephen Hicks shot three of his neighbors dead. The neighbors were all Muslim, and Hicks was an outspoken atheist.

According to a story on Yahoo News, Hicks had posted the following rant on his Facebook page:

There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto, . . . the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend.

Is this an escalation of culture-war polemics to real-war violence? ILYBYGTH readers will recall the episode from August, 2012, when Floyd Lee Corkins shot a security guard in the office of the conservative Family Research Council. Is this another example of anti-religious terrorism?

For their part, leading atheists are scrambling to make sense of these charges. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has issued a statement blaming mental instability, not atheism, for the atrocity. Yet as Hemant Mehta (my personal favorite atheist pundit) has charged, if this shooter had been a member of any religion, leaders of that religion would be called onto the carpet to separate themselves publicly from the act.

Is it fair to ask if militant atheism somehow contributed to this heinous murder?

Evil and a Young Earth

It’s one of the oldest and toughest questions for monotheists. If God is all-powerful, and the world has evil in it, then God is responsible for that evil. Creationist leader Ken Ham recently argued that only a young-earth attitude can explain away this problem of theodicy.

Ham was reacting to a viral video of Irish comedian Stephen Fry. (Youtube has since taken the video down due to copyright claims.) In the interview, Fry blasted God as evil, capricious, and flat-out monstrous. “Because,” Fry explained,

the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?

Of course, theologians and atheists have wrestled with this challenge for centuries. Ham, the well-known leader of Answers In Genesis, explained recently that other forms of creationism could not handle the challenge.

Intelligent Design, Ham argued, fails because it argues only for a vague creator. If there is only a bland, inexact creator, then Fry’s challenge is correct. He, or She, or It, must have created everything, including evil.

Other creationists just don't get it...

Other creationists just don’t get it…

Evolutionary creationism, too, can’t handle evil, according to Ham. The sort of creationism embraced by the BioLogos folks stumbles in the face of Fry’s challenge, Ham says. “If God did use millions of years of evolutionary processes,” Ham wrote,

then He is responsible for all the death, suffering, disease, extinction, pain, cancer, and other evils in this world.

Only a young-earth approach gives a satisfying account of the origins of evil. In Genesis, as Ham reads it, God’s original creation was evil-free. Only when the sinful choices of Adam & Eve introduced evil into the world did things go awry.

For this to make sense, Ham says, we need a real, literal Adam & Eve. We need to take God at His Word. Otherwise, jokers like Fry have the last laugh.

Atheists and Creationists Agree on This…

You know what they say about the middle of the road: you won’t find anything there but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. In the creation/evolution debates, the John Templeton Foundation has staked out some ground in that dangerous middle. And predictably, the only thing that fervent creationists and obstreperous atheists can agree on is that the Templeton Foundation is terrible.

What does the Templeton Foundation do? According to their website, the foundation

serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

In general, the foundation uses its money to encourage dialogue between religion and science. With its prizes and grants, it encourages people to bridge the gap. For instance, the foundation provided millions of dollars to help launch BioLogos. How might scientists and theologians come together, BioLogos asked, to help evangelical Christians (and others) understand that evolution was nothing more than the “Language of God?”

Is "compromise" a compliment or a curse?

Is “compromise” a compliment or a curse?

Here at ILYBYGTH, this seems like an eminently worthwhile project. Time and time again, we have seen that science and evolution can wear very different cultural faces. Why bundle together ideas that do not necessarily have to go together? Why feed conservative worries that any understanding of science will somehow doom their children to atheism and immorality? Why not help Christians learn evolution? Why not recognize that some “creationists” really do embrace evolution? Why not listen to the life stories of Christians who have learned that evolution is not the devil spawn they were led to believe?

Partisans disagree. The Templeton Foundation has become the target of angry attack from the hardened edges of both creationism and atheism.

At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, leader Ken Ham recently blasted the efforts of the foundation. “Sadly,” Ham warned readers,

instead of pointing people to answers from God’s Word about history, organizations like BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation are actively discrediting the Bible’s history. Instead of encouraging people to start with God’s Word, they praise those who impose man’s ideas into the Bible.

Ham might not agree with science pundit Jerry Coyne on much, but they agree about the dangers of the Templeton Foundation. For different reasons, of course. Coyne blasts the foundation for watering down the message of real science, of truckling to culturally powerful and wealthy religious aficionados. “If there is to be interchange” between scientists and theologians, Coyne wrote recently,

let it be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, one in which science’s efforts knock the props out from under faith, one by one. And religion has nothing to say to scientists, at least nothing that will help us in our work. All religionists can do is educate us about the nature and influence of divine fairy tales that have inimically influenced world culture. Do we really need that?

Now, just because the Templeton Foundation has united both atheists and creationists against it doesn’t prove that the foundation is doing the right thing. But it seems logical to me that if our goal is to help people of every background understand the science of evolution, we should not spurn allies who promise to help. If theologians and scientists can come together to improve public understanding of what the Templeton Foundation calls the “Big Questions,” it seems to me an excess of self-righteousness to oppose it.

Asking the Right Questions about Creationism

Is America a “creation nation?” Or have polls tended to inflate the numbers of creationists out there? In an effort to give a more nuanced answer to these questions, BioLogos has published Jonathan Hill’s survey results. Hill offers some powerful insights into central questions:

  • How many Americans really believe in creationism, evolution, or some mix?
  • Who cares the most about it?
  • Who cares at all?
  • And, most important, what factors go into making someone a creationist or an evolution supporter?

You may have seen this report referred to in Emma Green’s recent Atlantic article. Until now, however, you wouldn’t have been able to read the report for yourself. Green’s article had the provocative title “You Can’t Educate People into Believing in Evolution.” True enough, but that’s not news to readers and contributors to ILYBYGTH. Those who take time to read what’s out there about creationism know that creationism is not simply a lack of knowledge about evolution. Rather, creationism is better understood as part of a religious identity.

Professor Hill was funded by a BioLogos grant to conduct a large representative survey in the USA. He found that the typical Gallup polls seem to distort the numbers. In those repeated Gallup polls, respondents have three options: (1) humans evolved guided by God, (2) humans evolved on their own, and (3) humans were created within about 10,000 years. In those polls, since the 1980s about 40-45% of respondents have chosen the “young-earth creationist” answer (3). Somewhere between 9-19% have selected the “atheistic evolution” answer (2), and the rest chose number one, the theistic evolution model.

Gallup Questions and Answers

Gallup Questions and Answers

As even the Gallup folks would likely agree, these positions are not very subtle. They don’t allow respondents to explain or describe their own beliefs. Rather, they push people to pick one of three limited options. Professor Hill’s survey allowed people to say they were unsure. It also asked respondents to address different aspects of these beliefs separately. Finally, Hill asked Americans to say how certain they were about their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, those questions yielded very different results. When people can respond to different aspects of creationism differently, they tend to be more nuanced in their responses. For example, in Professor Hill’s survey, only eight percent of people affirmed their belief in both six literal days of creation and the recent creation of humanity.

When taken together, Hill found that 37% of respondents were “creationists,” 16% were “theistic evolutionists,” and 9% were “atheistic evolutionists.” The rest held mixed beliefs or were unsure. When you limit these numbers to those who said they were “very” or “absolutely certain” of their views, then only 29% of respondents were creationists, 8% were theistic evolutionists, and only 6% were atheistic evolutionists.

Also intriguing, only those who hold creationist or atheistic evolutionist beliefs tend to be sure they are correct. They also tend to think it matters to be correct. About three-quarters of creationists said they were sure about their beliefs, and about two-thirds of them said that it mattered a great deal. Among atheistic evolutionists, about 70% were sure of their beliefs, and about half thought it mattered a good deal. In contrast, among those who were unsure about humanity’s origins, only about one quarter thought it mattered a great deal.

In our continuing sniping at one another over the issues of creation and evolution, these numbers themselves matter a great deal. Since large numbers of Americans don’t know about these issues and don’t really care, the debates quickly become dominated by those on either end who feel confident about their own beliefs and who feel sure that it is important to be correct on these questions. We might see a debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and creationist impresario Ken Ham, but we won’t be as likely to see a round-table discussion between people in the middle.

Professor Hill’s survey also buttresses another conclusion popular here at ILYBYGTH: creationism and evolution are not mainly about what you know. Rather, they are questions about who you are. People do not simply pick creationism or evolution out of a neutral grab-bag of ideas. Creationists do not tend to abandon creationism in large numbers when they learn the ideas of evolution. Rather, creationism and atheistic evolution both seem most prevalent among people with recognizable clusters of identity markers. As Professor Hill concluded,

The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

Read the results for yourself. There’s far more in the report than we can discuss here. For example, the survey raises a host of questions that we want to know more about:

  • Why are atheistic evolutionists so white?
  • Is certainty more important than knowledge?
  • How can we motivate those who don’t really care about creationism to get more involved in public policy debates?

Can We Teach People to Be Atheists?

What would the world’s smartest atheist do if he ruled the world?  Easy.  Teach young people to be atheists.

But Daniel Dennett recognizes that in the real world, teaching young people to be atheists would be “inhumane and ineffective.”  Dennett aired his views in a recent bit in Prospect Magazine.  Ideally, Dennett insisted, the only way to fix the planet would be to guarantee

high quality, non-ideological education for boys in girls in every community on the globe.  If we could just liberate the world’s children from illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition, their curiosity would lead them to solutions that were both locally informed and sensitive . . .

Sounds good, but as Dennett recognizes, the devil is always in the details.  As Dennett acknowledges, there is no way to impose the atheistic truth on people without generating overwhelming opposition.  Not that Dennett wouldn’t do it if he could.  If education could be injected like a vaccine, Dennett says, he’d be in favor of forcing it on people.  But it’s just not that easy.

Though Dennett talks sense, it’s difficult not to be creeped out by the iron fist Dennett prefers not to use.  Those who disagree with his notions of proper knowledge are politically powerful, he acknowledges.  But if it weren’t for that political power Dennett would prefer to see them purged of their “benighted attitudes.”  At some point in the enlightened future, Dennett implies, such people, the “Billions of people in the world [who] don’t see that yet,” will be somehow convinced to join the side of atheistic truth.

To be fair, though, the question lends itself to dreams of dictatorial ambition.  What would you do if you ruled the world?  Would you have the restraint that Dennett does?  Would you recognize that the solutions you’d want to impose on the world’s problems might just cause more problems?


Christian College Embraces Atheist Student

What would happen to an atheist student at a conservative Christian college if his professors and peers found out about his lack of faith?  Turns out, not much.

That was the experience of Eric Fromm, at least, at Oregon’s Northwest Christian University.  Fromm, the student body president at the 600-student school, worried about the reaction when he “came out” as a non-believer.

According to a story in the Eugene Register-Guard, the school community has turned out to be supportive.  Michael Fuller, NWCU’s vice president for enrollment and student development, said there was no conflict between Fromm’s views and the school’s religious mission.  “I want students like Eric here,” Fuller told the Register-Guard,

students who are looking to explore their faith and willing to look hard and make their faith their own. . . . If we all had our wishes, we wish Eric would be a strong Christian man. . . .  We’re an open and welcome community, and we meet students exactly where they’re at.

Those of us from outside the world of conservative Christian higher education might be surprised by Fuller’s and NWCU’s open attitude.  After all, Fromm himself wondered what kind of reception he’d get when he publicized his atheism in the school paper.

Maybe we shouldn’t be.  After all, Fromm’s story is not unique.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember the testimony of Brandon Ambrosino, who reported his experiences at Liberty University.  Ambrosino, like Fromm, fretted over his decision to come out as homosexual at the rigorously conservative Liberty.  Like Fromm, Ambrosino found his faculty mentors downright supportive.

If the mission of many conservative colleges is to provide a “safe” theological environment for students, one that will support their faiths, then we’d expect faculty and administration to take a harsh line against students who thwart that mission.  An atheist student or an openly gay student would seem to introduce threatening elements into that safe environment.  That would seem doubly true if the atheist were popular and influential, as Fromm seems to be.

In practice, however, conservative schools seem well able to handle student dissent.


Inconsistent Christians Don’t Need a Young Earth

If you don’t really understand it, you can still go to heaven.  But if you are logical, you can’t.

That’s the message about creationism and salvation recently from the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research’s Jason Lisle.

Lisle debated “old-earth” creationist Hugh Ross at the National Conference on Christian ApologeticsBoth men spoke with The Christian Post after their debate.

It’s possible to still go to heaven if you don’t embrace a young earth, Lisle said.  But that is only true if you are willing to embrace illogic and ambivalence.  In order for the Bible to make sense, Lisle argued, Christians need to insist on its obvious meaning.

One problem, Lisle noted, was that children tend to reject illogic.  “Some people,” Lisle told the CP,

will say they can live with the inconsistencies. They’ll tell me: ‘Well, it’s just Genesis that I allow the scientists to tell me what it meant.’  But, what we’ve found is that children will see that inconsistency, and they will be more consistent, they will reject all of the Bible. They’ll say, ‘Well, mom and dad don’t really believe in the Bible because they don’t believe in the first few chapters. Why should I believe in the Gospel?’ We’ve seen that happen. The statistics are just alarming. We see the students walking away from church in droves.

Christians CAN be saved if they don’t accept a young earth, Lisle concluded. However, it doesn’t make any logical sense for them to do so.  As he explained,

If you believe in millions of years, if you believe the fossils are millions of years old, you have death before Adam sinned, in which case death cannot be the result of Adam’s sin if it was already there for millions of years. If death is not the penalty for sin then why did Jesus die on the cross?

As astute observers from both sides have noted, this is one idea on which atheists and young-earth creationists agree.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, an atheist mathematician and student of American creationism, agrees with young-earth creationists that evolutionary science is a fundamental challenge to traditional Christian faith.

Those who hope to maintain faith—especially a faith built around a belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word—while embracing evolutionary science or the idea of a very old universe have a tougher case to make.  As Hugh Ross, the old-earth creationist, explains, “God’s revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict.”

Bridging the worlds of creation and evolution may make intuitive sense to Ross and many more Bible-believing Christians out there.  But the logical case for a rigid choice between either atheism or young-earth creationism remains compelling.  For those who believe in an inerrant Bible, the choice can seem all-or-nothing.


Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins

What happens to us when we die?

Does religion make society better?

Doesn’t science rely on faith?

Can’t intelligent people be both scientific and religious?

These are some of the questions leveled at leading science-atheist Richard Dawkins by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show recently.

For all of us interested in issues of science and religion, the short interview is well worth watching.

Stewart asks Dawkins some zingers, such as whether the world will be destroyed by human destruction or through more natural causes.  He challenges Dawkins to explain why faith is a negative force for society, even though it often seems so benign.

“It’s very easy to look at the dark side of fundamentalism,” Stewart said. “ … Sometimes I think we have to challenge ourselves and look at the dark side of achievement.”

Is science a threat?

Dawkins said he felt a little more optimistic about it.

As always, Dawkins expresses himself well.  Stewart gave him plenty of friendly opportunity to defend his argument that faith is inherently dangerous.


Atheist Creationists

Why do people believe that the world was created in pretty much its present form within the past 10,000 years or so?  Because the Bible tells them so?

Not necessarily.

A new YouGov poll reports that significant percentages of non-Bible-believing religious folks adhere to creationist beliefs, too.  Even more puzzling, many non-religious folks agree.

As reported by the National Center for Science Education, the new poll offers some minor changes to the traditional “sticky” number of around 45% of American adults who choose a young-earth creationist explanation of the origins of humanity.  In this poll, conducted earlier this month, only 37% of respondents agreed that “God created human beings in their present form within the last ten thousand years.”

But more interesting than the minor fluctuations in the total number were the breakouts by religious belief.  A whopping 59% of Protestant respondents chose the creationist answer.  30% of Catholics; 17% of Jewish respondents.

But here’s the kicker: 2% of atheist respondents also thought creationism offered the best explanation of humanity’s origin.  That’s a small percentage, of course, but a stumper nonetheless.  Did they not understand the question?

Even more puzzling, just under a quarter of “nones” chose a creationist answer, too.  That is, of those who identified their religion as “nothing in particular,” 24% selected a creationist explanation of humanity.  24%!

These numbers baffle me.  If a small but significant number of atheists can be creationists, and a large percentage of nones can be, then our notion of creationism as the province of a diehard subculture of “fundamentalist” Protestants doesn’t make sense.

We could add, of course, that in this survey the largest percentage of creationist respondents did not come from Christianity at all.  64% of Muslim respondents selected the creationist explanation.  Significant numbers of other non-Christians agreed: 35% of Hindus opted for creationism.

Who are America’s creationists?  Perhaps our image of a Bible-wielding tent evangelist needs to be updated.


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.

Get your copy today!

Get your copy today!

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.