Can We Tell Students the Truth about Truth?


I don’t know what to think.  For almost a hundred years, creationists and other conservatives have complained that mainstream science—often symbolized by the idea of evolution—threatened their children’s faith.  For just as long, leading scientists have insisted that there was nothing religious about real science.  But a recent chat with physicist Carlo Rovelli makes me wonder.

First, some premises:

1.) Public schools should not be teaching religious ideas to children.  Schools may and should teach ABOUT religions, but public schools should not attempt to push students toward or away from any faith.

2.) Public schools must offer students the best available scholarship.  In science class, this means students must learn the modern evolutionary synthesis.

3.) Secondary-school education–in the USA, that means high schools and middle schools–should train students to think in ways familiar to the scholarly disciplines.  So, in history class, we follow Stanford’s Sam Wineburg in hoping to teach students to engage in the “unnatural act” of thinking like a historian.  The same should be true in other disciplines.  Students should be learning basic principles of mathematical thinking, literary thinking, and scientific thinking.

So here’s our dilemma.  For a while now, conservative creationists have complained that public schools are teaching evolution as a religion.  Nonsense, mainstream scientists have responded.

Because, of course, if evolution were a religion, it should not be taught in public schools.  It could be taught ABOUT, but not taught as something towards which students ought to be pushed.

But as trenchant observers have observed, there are indeed some religious aspects of mainstream scientific belief.  Or, to put it more precisely, there are important ways in which the attitudes of mainstream scientists clash with certain conservative theological beliefs.  As my favorite atheist observer of American creationism Jason Rosenhouse argued, traditional Christians are correct in thinking that evolutionary ideas pose a drastic theological threat.

And today we come across more fuel for this dilemma.  In a recent interview in Scientific American, physicist Carlo Rovelli seconds the notion that mainstream science is–as much as it is anything–a skeptical attitude toward absolute truth.  As Dr. Rovelli put it,

I have no idea what “absolute truth” means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth.  Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain.

Tell me the absolute truth: Do these glasses make my face look fat?

Dr. Rovelli, Tell me the absolute truth…

I don’t need to be up on the latest in quantum physics to see how such an attitude could be problematic for the conservative parents of American school children.  If such children were being taught the basic principles of mainstream science, and if those principles coincided with Rovelli’s attitude, then conservative parents might indeed have cause for complaint.

A family wouldn’t need to be any sort of creationist to take issue, either.  Anyone who takes their Judaism or Christianity seriously might be chagrined to find their children coming home from school and telling them, “I find it funny when people say they know something is absolute truth.”


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.


Postmodern Creationism: A Better Story

Add a new category to the creationist bloc in America: postmodernists who don’t “believe” anything.

Journalist Virginia Heffernan has caused a mini-uproar this week by explaining why she’s a creationist.

In a recent essay on Yahoo! News, Heffernan argued that the stories of creationism are simply more “compelling” than those of mainstream science.  In her telling, she wanted to embrace science, since she loves technology.  But science just doesn’t have the right stories.  In her words,

I was amused and moved, but considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham.

Predictably, science pundits reacted with dismay.  University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne lambasted Heffernan’s “remarkable celebration of ignorance.”   University of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers noted Heffernan’s anti-science history: “every time she meets a scientist she opens her mouth and says something stupid . . . .”

Also predictably, evangelical Christians defended Heffernan.  In the Christian Post, journalist Leonardo Blair noted that Heffernan had become a “lightning rod for ridicule,” but that she has also won support from religious people for “standing by her beliefs.”

It seems to me, however, that both the fervent anti-creationist commentators and the evangelical pro-creationists ignore the central thrust of Heffernan’s essay.  Heffernan is not making a case for the truth of creationism.  Indeed, as she explains, “I guess I don’t ‘believe’ that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale.”  This is not a full-throated defense of Biblical creationism.  Instead, Heffernan is making a case for the plausibility of creationism.

And, as far as that goes, she’s right.  Creationism is more than just a religious belief.  It is a convincing and intuitive way of understanding humanity’s predicament.  This is why leading science educators have recognized that simply pouring more science on Americans will never convince them of the truths of evolution.

Heffernan’s attitude does not result from childhood brainwashing in the Bible.  Heffernan does not howl at mainstream institutions from the wilds of San Diego or Northern Kentucky.  She complains, instead, that it is hard to admit to creationism in New York restaurants, to acquaintances from her jobs, perhaps, at the New Yorker or New York Times.  With her handy PhD from Harvard, Heffernan’s attitude does not come from a lack of mainstream education.

Heffernan’s avowed creationism, instead, comes from an over-abundance of mainstream education.  Her attack on mainstream science comes not from Genesis, as she suggests elsewhere, but from Derrida.

Other creation/evolution commentators have made similar points, without going as far as embracing creationism.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, in his book Among the Creationists, admits that creationist explanations of life and humanity are much more appealing than the messy truths of mainstream science.

Unlike Rosenhouse, Heffernan takes the postmodern leap.  IF we have no Archimedean perspective from which we can judge competing truth claims, THEN we are forced to choose between competing narratives.  BECAUSE creationism has the better narrative, Heffernan concludes, she must call herself a creationist.

Plus, it generates better headlines to say “I’m a creationist” than to say “Creationism tells better stories of humanity’s origins, but I don’t really believe those stories, but you gotta admit, they are better stories, plus scientists can sometimes be jerks.”


Creation Wins the Culture War

Quick: What rhymes with mitochondria?

It’s a tough question, and it helps illustrate the uphill cultural battle evolution has faced for the past hundred years in America.

A fluffy piece in Sunday’s New York Times gives us an example of this persistent imbalance.

The article describes the results of an outreach program to New York City teens, Science Genius.  The program hopes to use hip-hop as a sweetener to connect urban youth to science.

A victory for evolution and mainstream science?  I don’t think so.  I’m no creationist, but I can’t help but conclude that pop music seems to be more suitable for creationism than mainstream science.

Though the supporters of the NYC program claim some limited successes, even those claims highlight the deep difficulties of engaging young people of every cultural background with mainstream science.

We don’t want to make too much out of just one example, but listeners are not likely to be much moved by rhymes like the following: “Bioclast, foliation, and that granite, . . . I can tell you something ‘bout an aphanitic.”

I applaud the student, and the program, but rapping the truths of mainstream science doesn’t fall as trippingly off the tongue as those of creationism.

How much evolution music can you name?  Good stuff?

Creationists, on the other hand, can claim all sorts of pop music from the headlining Jonas Brothers to internet-cluttering obscure artists across the world.  Christian and Creation rock has long been an enormous and aggressive cultural presence, as ex-fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga has remembered.

Where is the evolution-rock?

As critic Jason Rosenhouse perceptively noted in his book Among the Creationists, mainstream science does not have to worry about creationist challenges to the strength of real evolutionary science.  But creationists, Rosenhouse argues, DO have an easy time of constructing narratives that make sense to people.  Mainstream science?  Not so much.

Perhaps this is why people trust their intuition about creation and evolution more than they trust mainstream science.  As Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer noted in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, even the small minority of Americans who agree that mainstream science is firmly evolutionist support the inclusion of creationism in America’s classrooms.  That’s right: even those Americans who recognize that scientists agree about evolution tend to agree that creationism should be part of public science education.

Why is that?  At least part of the reason must be because mainstream science does not offer a compelling story to which Americans can cling.  There is no telos, no plot, no conflict (in the literary sense), no protagonists worth following.

Creationism, on the other hand, makes a good deal of intuitive sense.  It makes sense that a world so complex, so morally challenging, must have been created on purpose.

Evolutionary science, for its part, needs to make the case that humanity occurred somehow, but we don’t know exactly how.  It needs to explain that the feelings people have of purpose, of cosmological intent, are only vestiges of happenstance.

A hard bill of goods to sell on the pop-culture marketplace.  Just like it is hard to find a rhyme for mitochondria.




Rosenhouse Responds to a Critic

“Gall,” “tortured reasoning,” “gross theological ignorance,” and “demented” “troll[s].”  Discussions about creationism and evolution have it all!

A few days back, we posted a review of Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists.  As usual, any mention of this subject generated some heated comments.

This morning, Professor Rosenhouse offered a rebuttal of some of the critical comments.  He responded to the charges that he had misrepresented creationist claims, among others.

Everyone interested in the creation/evolution debate should check out his reply.

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.

Summer Reading List

Summer is here…or close enough.  What are people planning to read?  Seems like everyone and their brother are publishing their summer reading lists.  Hoping to beat Oprah’s 2013 list to the punch, here are a few from ILYBYGTH’s idiosyncratic dream library:

1.)    Jason Rosenhouse, Among the Creationists.

This is one I’ve been excited about for a long time.  Rosenhouse is an atheist mathematician with a familiar hobby.  For years he has traveled to creationist conferences and interacted with creationists and their ideas.  From the publisher’s description:

After ten years of attending events like the giant Creation Mega-Conference in Lynchburg, Virginia, and visiting sites like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and after hundreds of surprisingly friendly conversations with creationists of varying stripes, he has emerged with a story to tell, a story that goes well beyond the usual stereotypes of Bible-thumping fanatics railing against coldly rational scientists. Through anecdotes, personal reflections, and scientific and philosophical discussion, Rosenhouse presents a more down-to-earth picture of modern creationism and the people who espouse it. He is neither polemical nor insulting, but he does not pull punches when he spots an error in the logical or scientific reasoning of creationists, especially when they wander into his own field, mathematics.

Right up my alley.  I’ve got the book on my table, top of my list.

2.)    Amy Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

As we noted here earlier, this book suggests that higher education is a more ideologically complicated place than many pundits suggest.  Many self-identified conservative intellectuals have panned the book as “patronizing.”  Bruce Bawer at Minding the Campus skewered the title as an example of “the insularity and obtuseness of the academic left.”  I’m looking forward to reading the book more carefully myself.  Do these criticisms hold water?

3.)    Charles J. Holden, The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC .

For my next book project, I’m considering a look at conservative Protestant higher education through the twentieth century.  Holden’s new book examines the flagship “Southern” university in Chapel Hill during the formative decades between the World Wars.  As reviewer Wayne Urban noted in an H-Net review, Holden focuses on the ways UNC served as a bastion of “liberal” thinking and culture during these decades.  In my study of conservative evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s, I found that UNC did indeed often lead the charge for a politicized vision of what it meant to be both “intellectual” and “Southern.”  As I think about diving deeper into the world of “fundamentalist” university life, I hope Holden’s work will help broaden my understandings of the meanings of higher education in this period.

4.)    Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age .

This title is not particularly new, nor is it focused tightly on the areas I usually read about. That’s why I think it will make good summer reading.  According to a gushing review in the New York Times, Dreyfus and Kelly begin with the assumption that “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us.  We have kicked them out.”  Since I spend so much of my time reading arguments for the continuing centrality of ferocious, doctrinal monotheism, this argument looks like an intriguing counterweight.

What else are people planning to read this summer?  Books from outside your usual “work” fare?  Books recommended long ago but put on the ever-growing “to be read” pile?

Required Reading: Moran’s American Genesis

From time to time people ask me for a place to start.  For those who don’t want to dedicate their entire lives to understanding the creation/evolution controversies, they ask, what is one smart, short book that offers a useful introduction?

I am very happy to suggest a new book by Jeffrey Moran of the University of Kansas: American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science.  In the newest edition of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, I offer a brief review of this terrific book.

Moran was already the author of two essential books on my shelf, Teaching Sex and The Scopes Trial.  In American Genesis Moran does more than just hash over the history of controversy.  As I write in my NCSE review,

“Moran examines the history of antievolutionism as more than just religion, more than just science. As Moran explains, ideas about evolution offer a unique “mirror, however distorted, of [American] culture itself” (p 24). The most intriguing sections of American Genesis, accordingly, offer readers more than just a clear and compelling brief history of the American antievolution “impulse” (p x). Moran demonstrates the ways that anti-evolutionism has been both a bellwether and an influence on broader trends in American culture. In the first three chapters, Moran’s book approaches antievolutionism as a question not only of religion and science, but also of gender, region, and race.”

In just under 200 pages Moran crafts an argument that connects anti-evolutionism to the bigger pictures of American history and culture.  His book is consistently readable and wonderfully worthwhile for both experts and the general public.

Those interested in creation/evolution will find other items of interest in the most recent Reports of the NCSE.  The editors include a review of David Long’s ethnographic study of creationism among college students and Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists.

Worth checking out!