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Jason Rosenhouse

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What One Atheist Learned From Hanging Out With Creationists

Posted: 03/21/2012 5:47 pm

In May 2000 I began a post-doctoral position in the Mathematics Department at Kansas State University. Shortly after I arrived I learned of a conference for homeschoolers to be held in Wichita, the state's largest city. Since that was a short drive from my home, and since anything related to public education in Kansas had relevance to my new job, I decided, on a whim, to attend.

You might recall that Kansas was then embroiled in a battle over state science standards. A politically conservative school board had made a number of changes to existing standards, including the virtual elimination of evolution and the Big Bang. This was very much on the mind of my fellow conference attendees, most of whom were homeschooling for specifically religious reasons. The conference keynoters all hailed form Answers in Genesis, an advocacy group that endorses creationism.

As a politically liberal mathematician who accepted the scientific consensus on evolution, this was all new to me. Curious to learn more, I struck up conversations with other audience members and participated in Q&A sessions whenever I could. The Wichita conference became the first of many that I attended over the next decade. This immersion in the creationist subculture taught me a few things about America's hostility to evolution.

Some of what I learned was predictable. Though my conversation partners typically spoke with great confidence on a variety of scientific topics, it was rare that they really understood much about the theory they so despised. For me this problem was especially acute when they discussed mathematics. I lost track of how many times folks would tell me that probability theory refuted evolution, and then defend their view with absurd calculations bearing no resemblance to reality. If you are possessed of even a rudimentary understanding of basic science, then you quickly realize the extent to which they have neglected their homework.

Also unsurprising was the insularity I found. For many of the people I met, evangelical Christianity represented a tiny island of righteousness adrift in a sea of secular evil. At virtually every conference one or more speakers would warn of the seductions of "the world's" wisdom, which is to say the world outside of their own tiny enclave. As they saw it, evolution was just one tool among many in the arsenal of God's enemies.

But I also learned some things that surprised me. On many occasions I asked people the blunt question, "What do you find so objectionable about evolution?" Never once did anyone reply, "It is contrary to the Bible." Conflicts with Scripture were certainly an issue, and these concerns arose almost inevitably if the conversation persisted long enough. They were never the paramount concern, however. It is not as though they thought evolution was an intriguing idea, but felt honor bound to reject it because the Bible forced them to. Instead, they flatly despised evolution, usually for reasons having nothing to do with the Bible.

They were horrified, for example, by the savagery and waste entailed by the evolutionary process. You can imagine how it looks to them to suggest that a God of love and justice, who declares his creation to be "very good," would employ a method of creation which rewards any behavior, no matter how cruel or sadistic, so long as it inserts your genes into the next generation.

And what are we to make of humanity's significance in Darwin's world? Tradition teaches we are the pinnacle of creation, unique among the animals for being created in God's image. Science tells a different story, one in which we are just an incidental, unintended byproduct of a lengthy evolutionary process. It is logically possible these stories are just two facets of the same reality, but there appears to be serious tension here nonetheless. Nor should we ignore the pernicious effect of evolution on the traditional argument from design. To accept evolution is to accept that if we are the result of a divine plan, it is one that was set in motion billions of years ago. For many, such a God is simply too far away.

Many Christians have resolved these issues to their own satisfaction. The literature defending "theistic evolution" is large and erudite. I can understand, though, why so many people are not impressed with such efforts. Too often the arguments therein just seem hollow, ad hoc or even desperate. They seem like so much armchair philosophy, as though the writer thinks the task of reconciliation is accomplished when a logically possible scenario containing both God and evolution, no matter how implausible, is produced. More than anything else, my time with the creationists has shown me that the task of reconciling science with faith is far more difficult than is sometimes pretended.

If, indeed, it can be accomplished at all.