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.

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Fundamentalist Science, Spock, and Oprah

What do Science, Spock, and Oprah have to do with each other?

They help explain the thinking of anti-religion activists such as biologist Jerry Coyne.  The way some atheists figure, since religion is not logical, it should have no impact on our deliberations.  Oprah doesn’t agree. But who wields more clout in our culture, Oprah or Jerry Coyne?  Or, to put it another way, who is the star of Star Trek, Spock or Capt. Kirk?

Fundamentalist Science is highly illogical.

Fundamentalist Science is highly illogical.

I love to read Professor Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True.  He always makes intelligent arguments for the propriety of a scientific understanding of reality, and the dangers of “accommodationism” with religion.  Plus he has lots of pictures of cats and bugs.

Recently, two posts bumped up against each other that demonstrated the difficulties with Coyne’s approach to these issues, IMHO.  In one post, Coyne reviewed survey data that revealed the relative overabundance of atheism among America’s top scientists.  In the next, Coyne bemoaned the appearance of Oprah Winfrey as Harvard’s commencement speaker this year.  As Coyne pointed out, Winfrey has done a great deal to promote anti-scientific rubbish over her career.

Now, I’m no Oprah fan.  Nor am I particularly religious.  But I can’t help but notice that Coyne’s fundamentalist attitude about this subject fuels the bitterness of our continuing culture wars over the role of religion and science in the public square.  This kind of bitterness is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Science-advocates such as Coyne promote a particular vision of science as rigidly opposed to religion.  Coyne often protests against truckling to religious thought among scientists and science educators, such as the folks at the National Academy of Sciences or the National Center for Science Education. As I’ve noted before, Coyne’s extreme view of the necessary divide between science and religion puts him at times on the side of extreme creationists.

But Coyne’s religion- and Oprah-bashing put him on the side of some other curious figures as well.  Most famously in pop culture, Gene Roddenberry created Spock as the Asperger’s First Officer to balance Kirk’s testosterosity.  Spock always argued for the rule of logic and was always trounced by Kirk’s shoot-from-the-hip style of emotional leadership.

Smarter writers, too, have explored this Spock/Kirk, Coyne/Oprah divide. Most famously, Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov concluded reasonably and logically that God could not exist.  However, Ivan could not handle Smerdyakov’s gruesome conclusion to that logic.  Nor could Ivan counter Alyosha’s loving-kiss argument.  Like Spock, Ivan’s blind reason could not cope with the complexities of human experience.

Truth may not be democratic.  But our society is.  It is a good thing to have smart people complain about the influence of thoughtless media-mongers like Oprah.  But those smart people must also recognize that Oprah—unlike the elite atheist scientists—has her finger on the pulse of the culture.  She knows what people find important. She knows what people find interesting.  Oprah’s imprimatur does not make an idea true.  But it does mean that the idea matters somehow.

Dismissing such things out of hand demonstrates an unnecessary Spock Syndrome.  Simply because ideas are illogical does not mean they are not true, in an important sense.

 

Fear and Loathing in Fundamentalist America

Who hates whom?  Do “fundamentalists” hate the rest of us?

A new article about the hate-centric Westboro Baptist Church confirms what many of my secular, liberal friends and colleagues believe: fundamentalists hate.  Hate seems to be at the core of their fundamentalist identity.

But hate is a tricky thing.  Is it okay to hate the Westboro Church and its horrific tactics?  How about other fundamentalist groups?

Image Source: Top Ten Unbelievable Westboro Baptist Church Protests

Image Source: Top Ten Unbelievable Westboro Baptist Church Protests

The hatefulness of the Westboro sect is hard to deny.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jenny Deam offers a portrait of Westboro refugee Libby Phelps-Alvarez.  Phelps-Alvarez, granddaughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, shares a story of cultish indoctrination into the Phelps family business.  You’ve seen the images: soldiers’ funerals picketed by Westboro members holding up signs saying, “God Hates Fags” and the like.

As Deams’ story relates, Libby grew up with the family church.  She began picketing at age 12.  By her late teens, though, according to Deams, “Libby began to wonder: ‘Am I doing the right thing? Should I be telling people they are going to hell?’”

Eventually, Libby left her church and family.  But she seems strangely ambivalent about it. As Deams concludes, “Libby isn’t sure what she believes anymore. She no longer hates homosexuality, but her journey is far from complete: ‘Everyone thinks when you leave you do this 180. It doesn’t work that way.’”

Many other ex-fundamentalists take a much angrier tone.  For some, hating the haters has freed them to engage in their own brand of hatefulness.

Ken Ham has complained recently of vicious verbal attacks on him and his young-earth creationist ministry by groups of atheists.  Ham planned to speak at a Texas homeschooling conference, and Texas freethinkers posted their discussion about their planned response.

Most of their planning revolved around intelligent protests and information-sharing.  Vic Wang of the Houston Humanists made the intelligent point that their protests should not be against religion.  Rather, Wang argued, they should paint Ham as a specific sort of “extremist,” a “crackpot.”

Other speakers took an angrier tone.  “Sister Shayrah” equated creationism and conservative religion with child abuse.    She insisted that religious parents were free to teach their children their beliefs, but that no parent, in any sort of school, could be allowed to use religion as an “excuse for damaging or hurting or indoctrinating your child.”

Shayrah and other participants, such as Neely Fluke, noted that they had been brought up in the world of young-earth creationism and fundamentalist Protestantism.  That has left them angry.

I can’t claim to know what it is like to grow up in the world of fundamentalism.  Many of those who grew up that way, such as Jonny Scaramanga or “Forged Imagination,” have offered compelling insights into their feelings and transformations.

But whatever personal anguish or turmoil these folks may have experienced, it does not make sense in the cold light of cultural politics to use angry, confrontational language.  It doesn’t help.

Indeed, the beneficiary of this sort of anger seems to be Ken Ham himself. He has promoted this anti-Ham video on his blog and website.  As he says to his creationist readers,

Everyone needs to experience this video chat for themselves to get an understanding of the increasing intolerance and aggressiveness of many atheists against biblical Christianity. . . .

And let’s get churches in Texas aware of this intolerance by atheists and publically get out the word, including alerting the Christian media. Pastors should speak out about the increasing intolerance of atheists to their congregations. In fact, these video excerpts should be used by pastors across this nation to warn their flocks about the growing intolerance being directed at Christians and then equip their people to stand against these secular attacks. . . .

So, let’s use this video chat by atheists as a tool to offer some practical teaching about those people who oppose the Bible’s messages.

I can’t claim to know what it was like to be taught the doctrines of young-earth creationism or Protestant fundamentalism.  I understand that I might be angry if I had.  But like any political movement, venting too much spleen against our opponents only fuels the other side.  Hate may feel good sometimes.  It may feel righteous.  But it only digs deeper the culture-war trenches that have divided our country.

 

Does Science Hate God?

If God loves science and scientists love God, why do we keep hearing that they hate each other?

It’s the $64,000 question Daniel Silliman asked yesterday on his terrific blog.*  As Silliman points out, the “warfare thesis” between religion and science just doesn’t hold water.

Yet films such as The Unbelievers attract enormous attention and support.  In that upcoming documentary, leading science pundits Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss apparently insist that true science must crush false religion.

Silliman could have extended the point on the other side, as well.  Plenty of religious leaders have encouraged the legend of warfare between true religion and “science falsely so-called.”  Young-earth creation leader Ken Ham, for instance, insists on the importance of this “struggle over the question of authority.”

Silliman ends with a great question for fans of The Unbelievers:

The real question that this documentary raises, though, is why there’s such a market for the conflict thesis. Why does it persist in its obfuscations and false oppositions so long after it was demonstrated to be historically bankrupt as a theory and demonstrably empirically false?

Is it because a fight is just more interesting than a compromise?  Is it due to our reality-show culture in which viewers insist on drama?  Or are there substantial differences, necessary hostilities, that persist in the face of historians’ denial of the warfare thesis?

*You can tell it’s a great blog because he lists yours truly as one of his links.  Thanks!

Jerry Coyne Joins the Creationists

H/T: Sensuous Curmudgeon

Has Jerry Coyne really allied with creationists?

If you follow the creation/evolution wars, you’re likely familiar with the work of Coyne, a biologist and a leading voice in the long-running creation/evolution controversy.  Coyne famously argues that religion and science are incompatible.  In his book Why Evolution Is True, Coyne elegantly and concisely made the case for evolution and demolished the claims of creationists.

So how could this arch-atheist anti-creationist have joined with creationists?

In a recent interview with Haaretz, Coyne suggested that evolution went hand-in-hand with atheism, a strong central government and an expansive tax-funded social safety net.  In doing so, Coyne has added his voice to a long creationist intellectual tradition.

Science and religion, Coyne stated in this interview, “are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. . . . Such contradictions [between differing religious truths], of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.”

In order to approach truth, Coyne believes, we must move away from religion and toward science.  To help the process along, Coyne told Haaretz, society must embrace a bigger government and a more egalitarian economy.

“The Scandinavian countries . . .” Coyne argued,

Have the most highly developed social-welfare systems in the world, and they are also the least religious countries ‏(for example, only 23 percent of Norwegians and 34 percent of Swedes describe themselves as religious‏). They are also the most receptive to evolution.

When citizens feel as if they have a government-provided safety net, Coyne told interviewer Smadar Reisfeld, they are less likely to cling to the false comfort of religion.

If scientists hoped to convince Americans of evolution’s obvious truth value, they must overthrow the false idol of religion.  Instead, Coyne said, “the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. . . . A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created.”

So how does this sensible and pragmatic progressivism put Coyne in the creationist camp?

For generations, creationists have argued that evolution will and must lead to both atheism and socialism.  My hunch is that Coyne would not accept the “socialist” label, but Coyne’s vision of a government-led, Scandinavian-style social contract is precisely the sort of structure many creationists would call “socialist.”

At the dawn of the long creation/evolution struggle, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that evolution could only lead to atheism.  “Atheists, Agnostics, and Higher Critics begin with Evolution,” Bryan insisted in 1921, “They build on that.”  [Bryan, The Bible and Its Enemies: An Address Delivered at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1921), 19.]

As historian Edward Larson has pointed out, lawyers in 1926 Tennessee defended the anti-evolution Butler Law as a way to protect young students from creeping communism, not just a way to save them from the ideas of evolution itself.    [Larson, Summer for the Gods (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 215.]

Throughout the twentieth century, anti-evolutionists have insisted that evolution must lead to—or come from—both atheism and socialism.

By the end of the twentieth century, for example, leading creation-science pundit Henry Morris equated evolution with every ideological terror of the century.  “Marxism, socialism, and communism, no less than Nazism, are squarely based on evolutionism.” [Morris, The Long War Against God (Master Books, 2000), 83).]

Perhaps Professor Coyne might not relish the company.  But by insisting that thinking people must choose between science and religion, Coyne encourages creationist dogma.  By tying evolution to large government and restricted capitalism, Coyne agrees with generations of the most fervent creationists.

 

Richard Dawkins Encourages Creationism

Does Richard Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face science atheism push religious people to embrace a “creationist” identity?

That’s a common argument—one I heartily agree with—made recently by Andrew Brown in his Guardian blog.

In this case, Brown argues that Dawkins’ attitudes push British Muslims, especially disaffected youth, to adopt more radical creationist positions.

Brown reports a talk by Salman Hameed, who insisted that Muslims often feel forced to make a false choice between science and faith. Not surprisingly, many choose faith.  Hameed related a telling anecdote.  One young woman reported attending a lecture in which

the lecturer started by asking if there were any creationists in the room. She put her hand up, because she believes that God created the universe, and was immediately singled out for humiliation.   

In the case of young British Muslims, Brown makes a compelling argument.  Already facing a crisis of cultural identity, many young British Muslims come to see their religious identity as a way to channel their feelings of alienation.  In such a Dawkins-influenced climate, young British folks may feel pressured to reject modern science as part of their assertion of an oppositional Muslim identity.  As Brown puts it,

Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it’s wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins’ dismissal of Muslim creationism as “alien rubbish” was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as “alien rubbish”.

Brown is right on.

Offering a false choice between religion and science fuels creationism.  As Brown points out here, so does suggesting a false equation of “Western” or “White” with “atheist.”  Better, as Brown says, to engage in the arduous and awkward task of building true dialogue.

Ken Ham Is Right!

No, not about a young earth.  But Ken Ham, the obstreperous mastermind of Answers in Genesis, is right to complain about the language directed at him and his campaign.

I’ll say it again: I don’t agree with Ken Ham’s theology.  I don’t agree with his notion that a young earth is a central idea of Christian faith.  More important, I think Ham’s angry, combative tone drowns out much of the productive and respectful conversation that could go on about the issues of faith, science, creation, and evolution.

But Ham is right to complain recently about the ways his ministry has been attacked.  In his AiG blog, Ham pointed out the rhetorical excesses of some of his foes.  In a post on an Australian atheist blog, one Simon Doonar attacked Ham intemperately.  Here’s Doonar’s post in full:

“I hope that sometime in the future this kind of deliberate misleading of people and especially kids can be treated as a criminal breach of the law, and those who commit such breaches are excluded from society permanently.

“What these type of people are doing is damaging our species by inhibiting our ability to free our minds from superstition and the dream like notions of how we came to be and where we are going.

“And to think that this idiot believes that all the research and evidence which proves evolution can be simply brushed away by the simple answer of ‘where you there’. How can you possibly deal with this type of person, they are psychologically ill and like all dangers nut casers should be put somewhere to reduce the risk of them harming others.”

Doonar also included an angry frowny-face emoticon, but I’m not sure how to reproduce that here.

Now, I understand that such blog posts lend themselves to extravagant emotion.  But still, Doonar’s assertion that creationists should be rounded up and locked up terrifies me.  The notion that we need to criminalize ideas with which we disagree inches frighteningly close to lynch law.

If it were only one kooky Australian who had had a few too many Foster’s and allowed himself to do some angry blogging, we should perhaps pay no attention.  But Ham correctly points out that these sentiments, though usually expressed more calmly, haunt the edges of the creation/evolution debates.

For instance, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” recently implied that creationists should not be allowed to pass their ideas on to their children.  Less famous thinkers ask, apparently sincerely, if creationism equals “child abuse.”  Other hotheads call creationism “terrorism” and “child abuse.”

Again, I understand the Wild-West rules of the blogosphere.  People will say all kinds of stuff to get attention.  The more extreme, the more attention.  And I understand that Ken Ham loves this kind of extremism, since it allows him to play the misunderstood victim.

But as a historian, I get nervous when any group is talked about in these dehumanizing ways.  We don’t need to go all the way back to Quakers executed in colonial Boston to find examples of religious groups targeted for military-style attack due to allegations of “child abuse.”

Just a few years ago, the government raided the Yearning for Zion ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The raid was utterly illegal, utterly unconstitutional.  Yet it was approved and carried out due to accusations of child abuse, along with deeper cultural suspicions about the breakaway LDS sect.

Talking about creationists as child abusers and criminals does not help defang thinkers such as Ken Ham.  Ham thrives on such attack.  But it does reduce the possibility of constructive, respectful dialogue about creationism.