Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jason Rosenhouse's Among The Creationists

Recently I finished reading through Among The Creationists by Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematician blogging at ScienceBlogs. The book was not quite what I expected, it was certainly unusual, and it thus seems best if those interested in reading it approach it with the right expectations. Despite the idea one could get from the title, it is not a collection of amusing anecdotes presented to the reader as an invitation to point and laugh, nor is it a point by point refutation of creationist arguments.

It is instead a rather unusual mixture of (nonetheless amusing) anecdotes from Rosenhouse's visits to creationist conferences and institutions that show the creationists with all their human dimensions, a quasi-ethnological examination of the creationist subculture in the USA, and carefully formulated thoughts on the compatibility of science and religion as well as evolution and religion, plus a very personal chapter in which the reader can learn, among other things, that the author dislikes mayonnaise, a sentiment that I personally can understand quite well.

The book has two related major take-home messages:
  • Creationists are not idiots, they are people like you and me, and their motivation for rejecting evolution is understandable given the things they hold dear.
  • The workarounds generally suggested by well-meaning liberal Christians and science communicators, such as "why don't you just believe that god created life through evolution" are not as simple as they look because evolution, while not decisively disproving a creator god, does have extremely unfortunate implications for such a god's character.
The first one shows that Rosenhouse is a much better person than I am. He is clearly able to develop real empathy for fundamentalist believers, and that allows him to explain their motivation and to examine the controversy in a deeply insightful and very useful manner.

Myself, I find it unfortunately very hard to feel such empathy and virtually impossible to really understand such a worldview. My instinct is to consider somebody who starts from the assumption that a certain superstition is true and who then rejects all contrary empirical evidence to be, yes, and sorry, an idiot. And I know that that is a character flaw. They did not chose to be born into a religious subculture. They did not chose to be told throughout their childhood and youth by the people they trust most, by everybody they trust, that a certain belief system must be protected at all cost or all that is good and holy will collapse. If I had been born into such a life, what would I believe today, how would I reason?

And that is ultimately why I would also recommend this book to others. There are intriguing insights into the workings of creationist conferences, it is amusingly written in some parts, I find much to agree with on the parts dealing with philosophy of science, but what I found really most valuable was the empathy it conveyed. The real strengths of Among The Creationists are that it shows the human side of the people the author nonetheless strongly disagrees with, and that it shows how and why they are so fiercely dedicated to creationism despite it being so much at odds with demonstrable fact. And it may just help me to develop a kinder and more tolerant attitude towards them and other fundamentalist believers.

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