June 19, 2012 8:19:37 AM
Jason Rosenhouse has a funny hobby. He is a professor of mathematics, and though he is proud of his Jewish heritage, he is an atheist. His hobby is to go to conferences of creationists, the people who have such faith in the Bible that they think the universe was created only a few thousand years ago and evolution never happened, and to see what sort of exchanges he might have with the conventioneers. In Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolution Front Line (Oxford University Press), Rosenhouse explains his hobby, his studies of creationist thought and literature, the arguments brought forth by both sides, and the chasm between them. Naturally, he thinks science has the better explanation of cosmology, geology, and biology, and his book is written with that in mind. He does get exasperated with what he sees as the downright insularity and extremism of creationists, but he avoids being condescending, just as he (mostly) avoids being so when he is face to face with them. It would be nice to think that his is a step to bring both sides closer, but his experiences in his often bizarre hobby have convinced him further that evolution and traditional Christianity cannot easily coexist.
Rosenhouse got his interest in creationism when there was a vitriolic anti-evolution letter printed in the student paper while he was doing his graduate mathematics work at Dartmouth. The letter contained views that were new to him: evolution was a tool of Satan, it was scientifically fallacious, it was brought about by scientists who were fervent atheists, it violated thermodynamics, and it could not produce anything as complex as the human eye. Rosenhouse didn't know any of this; he had "had the benefit of a public school education unencumbered by religious interference." He decided to learn more about both evolution and creationism, and he started reading creationism first, initially impressed by the attempts to make creationism sound scientific. It was only after boning up on evolution that he could answer such attempts, but even before that, his reading of creationist claims made him uneasy. The creationists used scientific jargon, but it was simplistic. They insisted not just that evolution was wrong, but that it was ridiculous, that there was no evidence at all for it opposed to massive evidence for creationism, and it was not science but it was the promotion of secular humanism. When it got to their specific treatment of mathematics, such as articles drawn from probability or information theory, they were on Rosenhouse's turf, and he was shocked. It wasn't just that they were making minor errors: "I am not saying that creationists had interesting points to make, but had misunderstood some difficult, technical detail. I am talking instead about errors indicative of a total incomprehension of the subject."
He wanted to know more about how these misunderstandings occurred, and he went, among other places, to the Creation Mega-Conference at Liberty University, the Darwin vs. Design Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (the last one more than one time). He does have conversations with the attendees and sometimes with the people giving presentations from the stage. Evolutionists who wish to take up his hobby will find tips here about what sort of replies make for factual rebuttals. It is also a matter of confrontation style. Sometimes he has found himself surrounded by a crowd of creationists which "treats the errant Darwinist like some sort of zoo animal," peppering him with questions. He has learned to resist firing a hot and witty reply. "However temporarily satisfying it is to fire a real zinger, any hope of doing long-term good comes from being scrupulously polite." He repeatedly reports that the politeness was a two-way street on the personal level, and is generally welcomed by other attendees in a respectful and friendly manner. There is advice here for creationists as well, the sort that say scientists are so disrespectful and rude. Not only is Rosenhouse not that way, he sees disrespect from the other side: "When I attend these conferences, I hear caricatures of science, I see misquotations of scientists' views, and very simplistic versions of evolution." Sharpen your arguments, he advises, not your contempt. It has to be admitted that although he does get into conversation with the creationists, the conversations do not go very far; at most, he can ensure that they have the experience of seeing a respectful evolutionist that does not conform to their caricatures, and he might instill some slight doubt in minds which are not already fully closed.
Rosenhouse brings up important points about creationist beliefs that should be remembered by those of the other persuasion. When he simply asked creationists bluntly what they objected to in evolution, he never got the reply that it conflicts with the proper view of a 10,000-year-old Earth or their old chestnut of thermodynamics forbidding complexity coming from simplicity, nor did anyone say, "It is contrary to the Bible." If he pushed the conversation, conflicts with scripture would come up, and those conflicts are what "creation science" is all about. Creationists refuse to accept evolution, he has found, because it simply horrifies them. Evolution means savagery and waste to them (that it often means cooperation is not the point), and God would not have allowed a creation he declared good to employ such a method of development. They are fearful that accepting Darwinism would throw away any morality, and the world would all go to hell before everyone goes to hell. They seem to think that creation and morality are tied to their particular deity, and to allow that it is all some sort of natural process would mean that people could not know right from wrong. They do not eschew evolution because they find creation science more convincing, but because they see themselves as a righteous few within a sea of secular evil.
Rosenhouse is almost never condescending, but he does delight in the absurdities he has found. At the Creation Museum, he finds "much to teach us about modern creationism. It is also surprisingly thought-provoking, if not quite in the way the directors intend." He watches an animatronic display in which Mr. P. Snodgrass, a science teacher who teaches impressionable children about atheistic evolution and an Earth millions of years old, is confounded and reduced to sputtering when the angels Gabriel and Michael confront him with their truths. "The angels make frequent use of words like 'cool,' 'whoa,' 'awesome,' 'gnarly,' and 'dude,' thereby leaving no doubt regarding the locus of hipness in this conversation." There is a plaque which helpfully explains the answer to the vexations problem of how scorpions and snakes, created during the perfect seven-day creation week and thus having no need to kill other creatures, got their venom. The plaque says we don't know exactly how venoms entered the world after Adam's fall, but the possibilities include: "Changed use of chemicals (chemicals that once had non-harmful functions at the creation turned to venoms after the curse). / Revealed information (the potential to make venoms was built into the original creation but not revealed until after the curse)." Rosenhouse remarks, "The other placards show a similar attention to detail." And then there is the delightful photo here of the life-sized model of triceratops. Any good natural history museum ought to have such a thing, but this one is there only to show the creationist belief that humans existed at the same time dinosaurs did. For this reason, it has a saddle on it. Signs insist, "CHILDREN ONLY."
Among the Creationists provides an excellent summary of the principles of evolution and the science backing it up, and though Rosenhouse disagrees with creationist ideas, he has done a good job of trying objectively to report on creation science and its stepchild, Intelligent Design. It will be obvious on every page which side of the argument he supports, but he understands the other side well. He also summarizes the attempts, anathema to literal creationists, of accepting theological evolution, but warns, "This is not science and evolution in conversation. This is science telling it like it is and religion trying desperately to catch up. After science has dutifully applied its methods, over the course of centuries and frequently in the face of religious objections, you do not get to redefine your words and pretend that religion had the right answers all along." The best part of his book is that Rosenhouse takes us to creationist venues that those of us who take the scientific side never get to see. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes about his explorations, and insight into why creationists believe the way they do, as well as good explanations why they should not.