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What one atheist learned from hanging out with creationists

By Jason Rosenhouse

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.

Jason Rosenhouse is associate professor of mathematics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is the author of The Monty Hall Problem: The Remarkable Story of Math’s Most Contentious Brainteaser, and co-author (with Laura Taalman) of Taking Sudoku Seriously: The Math Behind the World’s Most Popular Pencil Puzzle, both published by Oxford University Press. His most recent book is Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, again published by Oxford. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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Recent Comments

  1. Sy Lazovik

    It is shocking and sad that the greatest nation in the world, the same nation that sent humans to the Moon, that gave many scientific discoveries to the world and contributed so much at the advancement and improvement of humanity…is giving diplomas and doctorates to people that believe in stone age legends and myths, people for whom the moral code of primitive slave owners of the Middle East is more important that modern day humanist values…
    As a European, I really do not understand how can someone call himself educated and still refute evolution. I’m not very educated myself. Due to financial reasons, youth stupidity and the war in former Yugoslavia, I was never able to go to college. But it took me only elementary school biology classes in order to understand evolution, and it took me only reading a few books about astronomy to take Big Bang as a highly possible explanation. Reading History taught me of the origins of religion.How it is then possible that highly educated people in America cannot understand this things? Why does the U.S. educational system allow them to have titles, diplomas and positions? A biologist that believes not in evolution is like a chemist that does not believe in atoms, or a physician that doesn’t believe in germs.

  2. Theophile

    Hi Jason,
    Isn’t the greatest leap of faith in evolution, the survival of the fittest problem? Is the need to spend thousands saving a premature(would of died otherwise) baby that will need medical assistance throughout life to survive part of evolutions equation? Then why so many healthy born babies starve to death, when the last I heard, 1% of the “wasted” food in the US would feed the world. Isn’t that “survival of the unfittest”?
    Well I probably wouldn’t fit in so well at one of these “conservative” answers in Genesis group, as I would suggest the book of Enoch has plenty answers to past “extinct” unexplainable species. Along with the “all flesh” had been corrupted statement in Genesis.
    As a mathematician You might appreciate how back in the 60’s evolution/solar system forming, educational films, shown to students, started out with “Some scientists believe, around 4-5 million years ago….” Now its exactly 4.5 billion years ago! In the 70’s a living mollusk was carbon 14 dated as being 1400 years old, a few months after Mt St Helen some of it’s ash was dated as tens of thousands of years old(since erupting).
    So with faulty dating methods, and claiming millions of years, while scientists try furiously to gene splice a new species, they have decided to stretch it out to billions of years. Even if they can gene splice to “create” a new species, it will not prove evolution, because their result would be as “naturally evolving” as a ingot of Aluminum, and they needed pre engineered dna.

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