SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

In the belly of the beast

by Donald Prothero, Jul 31 2013

A Review of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines,

by Jason Rosenhouse

(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 256 pp.)

I’ve spent over 40 years of my life wrestling with the problem of creationism, while trying to maintain my research career, keep up with book deadlines, teach my classes, and take care of my family. As I described in my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, battling the evolution deniers seems to be a thankless, never-ending task because no amount of effort in science education or good science in the media seems to make any difference. Their numbers (around 40% of Americans) have remained constant in the polls over many decades, no matter what approaches are tried. This is an endless source of frustration for many of us, since creationism is like the many-headed Hydra in the labors of Hercules: every time you cut off one head, it grows back two more. Science never seems to make any progress in blunting their efforts to contaminate schools with their religious dogma. At the end of my 2007 book, I tried my best to delve into the psychology and motivation of creationists, and to understand why they can deny obvious reality and tell outright lies over and over again without any guilt or self-awareness.

But I rarely spend much of my precious time reading their literature any more (I’ve read much of it over 40 years, and it never changes), let alone paying my hard-earned money to hear them speak day after day. Listening to the way they lie and distort the facts, and call professional scientists evil, is too much for me to sit through without getting upset. But Jason Rosenhouse has a much stronger stomach for their garbage than I. He attended one creation conference after another, calmly listening to their preaching and talking to the attendees while maintaining his cool. For that alone, I am in awe of him.

Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia, having previously taught at Kansas State University, so he is close to the epicenters of much of the creationist movement in this country. He regularly discusses the topic on his EvolutionBlog. As he describes, he is culturally Jewish but became an atheist, yet he has the patience of Job to sit through days and days of creationist drivel and read their atrocious books without getting angry. He is genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them, and why they can shut themselves out of so much of scientific reality and believe so much that is patently false.

Rosenhouse’s approach in this book is to recount vignettes and anecdotes of his experiences at various creationist conferences and venues, intermingled with his dispassionate and extremely lucid dissection of the logical, philosophical, and scientific issues raised by creationism. 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. He’s a mathematician by training, so he is personally offended when he hears creationists abuse math or statistics, just as I am when they lie about paleontology and fossils. In his words, “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.” For a mathematician, his level of philosophical sophistication is very advanced. In chapter after chapter, he runs circles around many of the specious arguments used by creationists and theistic evolutionists who try to squirm out of the problem with special pleading. It comes as no surprise that he is also a ranked chess champion as well—he sounds like someone who is brilliant, cool, analytical, and dispassionate. Through all of his sacrifices spending time listening to the creationists, he is still honestly seeking answers to who these people are and what motivates them.

I found the motivation part of the book particularly revealing, because he has the patience to listen to them carefully, and analyze how their thinking works. It turns out that the answer in pretty clear and something we’ve known for a long time: creationists place their religious beliefs first, and anything else that science or culture tells them must conform or be twisted to fit their worldview. These beliefs include the idea that God watches over them, that there is a heaven, that humans are the purpose and goal of the universe, and that their religion provides the only source of meaning and morality in life. With such a strong belief filter in place, it’s no wonder that science such a threat to their worldview. They reject not only the idea that humans are related to the rest of the animal kingdom, but any science (geochronology, cosmology) which places humans at the very end of billions of years geologic history or away from the center of the universe. As they say over and over again, they view “Darwinism” as “reducing us to animals,” in their minds denying our “special relation to God” as well as “reducing morality to survival of the fittest” (the common confusion between evolutionary biology and social Darwinism). No wonder they reject not only the biological and paleontological evidence of our evolutionary relationships with other organisms, but also most of astronomy, geology, anthropology, and any other field that does not conform to this narrow but comforting perspective.

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, in his book The Great Derangement (2009), describes going undercover in an evangelical church for many months. He found that creationists live in a very cloistered cultish subculture, where they read only what their church elders tell them to read, attend many church meetings and intensive weekend retreats to receive constant reinforcement, and avoid listening to or reading any outside sources that might challenge their worldview. No wonder they never bother to learn about the actual facts of science or evolution, but instead they get a distorted view of science from their creationist leaders. Such cult-like isolation from the real world explains why no amount of presenting science to them in an appealing manner will ever reach them. As long as the conclusions of science threaten their cherished worldview, they are not going to change their minds or learn to distinguish real science from creationist bunk. Instead, as Rosenhouse details again and again, they are easily swayed by shallow intuitive arguments that sound good when you don’t think hard about them. But for a true skeptic like Rosenhouse, these arguments are very simplistic and unsatisfying, since he weighs evidence and looks at the totality of the argument from a much broader, less dogmatic perspective than do the creationists.

Among the Creationists is a very insightful book that allows the skeptic and scientist alike to better appreciate the forces that we are up against in the United States. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creation-evolution wars as a valuable resource for dealing with the never-ending battle with the forces that deny science.

20 Responses to “In the belly of the beast”

  1. Karen says:

    Nice review. I’m a little amazed that anyone in the reality-based community has the patience to delve into this subject so deeply, but it sounds like a very good analysis for those of us who want to understand without doing the research that Rosenhouse has. :)

  2. Daniel says:

    I don’t see this as all that complicated. Literal belief in the Bible, or something close to that, just works for some people, for reasons that are personal to each believer. If that’s what you choose to believe, you necessarily have to reject evolution.

    Sure, it would be nice if the folks that go to these conventions, instead of floating a lot of scientific sounding mumbo jumbo, would be the same as most people I suspect believe in Genesis, and just say that’s what they want to believe, and they would appreciate it if others would mind their own business and not call them rubes, and compare them to holocaust deniers. Different people deal with cognitive dissonance in their own way. It should hardly be all that surprising.

    And I would also add that most creationists still don’t believe everything that’s in the Bible. For all the people surveys show believe in creationism, there are only isolated instances of people refusing to see medical professionals, and instead undergoing treatment that strictly conforms to Leviticus. Sure, some devoutly religious people pray when they find out they have cancer, or sometimes go to faith healers. But I suspect the overwhelming majority of them also see what a doctor has to say about their condition also.

    Creationists are also not necessarily unscientific in their world view. Someone like Andrew Schafly, a Princeton trained electrical engineer, and unabashed creationist, obviously knows a thing or two about science. Steve Jobs, another person who knew a thing or two about science, and who was not a creationist, decided anyway to forego science based medicine for alternative medicine, which eventually killed him.

    • Some of this in indeed true. But the key point is that creationists are using their power in numbers to tamper with science education in public schools, pushing out real science for their religious ideas in violation of the Constitution. I would be happy to leave them alone and ignore them if they would do the same and leave us alone, not force their religious viewpoint on others, and try to destroy public education with woo.

      • Daniel says:

        That’s fine, but the two authors you’re citing sure don’t seem to me to take the time to draw any kind of distinction, and don’t seem particularly interested in actually understanding why most people who reject evolution believe what they believe, despite the claims to the contrary. Taibibi is particularly guilty of this, although his Tom Friedman exposes are quite amusing.

        And the data I’ve observed and my own experience anyway would suggest that pernicious creationists you’re talking about, as opposed to those that believe in it, “just because”, are few and far between. Indeed a few of your posts have mentioned those occasions where school board officials that attempt to bring intelligent design, which is really “creationism-lite”, are often booted out of office. This would also explain why the religion-police wing of the ACLU expends more of its time as an anti-nativity scene rapid reaction force than litigating creationism in the public school classroom.

        Also, since I’m a lawyer, I feel obliged to address the Constitutional aspect of this discussion. Even the ACLU would concede that the Constitution does not forbid the teaching of pseudoscience in public schools. That is, a public school could teach the existence of Bigfoot or the ancient aliens theory in its biology curriculum. It’s only when you throw the word “God” in there that people get lawyered up. Whether it’s a distinction that ought to matter is an interesting discussion for a law review article. It just doesn’t really have anything to do with how dangerous creationists really are.

  3. Miles Rind says:

    I have not yet read all of Rosenhouse’s book, but, in view of what I know of his views on creationism from his blog, it seems to me that this review gives a somewhat misleadingly incomplete account of them on one specific but important point. Addressing the question of “how their [viz., creationists'] thinking works,” Mr. Prothero writes:

    It turns out that the answer [is] pretty clear and [is] something we’ve known for a long time: creationists place their religious beliefs first, and anything else that science or culture tells them must conform or be twisted to fit their worldview.

    This is certainly part of the answer, but it leaves out a crucial element, which is that creationists do not believe that (all) their beliefs about science and culture are derived from their religious beliefs. On the contrary, they believe that their religious beliefs, notably their belief in the divine origin of the Bible, are supported by science. When they make assertions about the unreliability of carbon dating and so forth, they believe that they are making true factual claims that can be verified independently of any antecedent religious commitments. To us outsiders it may be evident that they are deluded on this point: that they only embrace bogus claims about the natural world as a measure to secure their religious beliefs. But that is exactly what they think they are not doing.

    Rosenhouse makes this point in a blog post entitled “Why Do Creationists Believe as They Do?” (15 March 2012). (As I have only started to read his book, I can’t cite a passage in it, but I expect that he advances the same view there.) Here, Rosenhouse comments on a dispute between philosopher Michael Lynch and physicist Alan Sokal in which both authors assert that creationists take the infallibility of the Bible as an “epistemic principle.” Rosenhouse replies (bold type added by me):

    The question neither Lynch nor Sokal asks is: Why do fundamentalist Christians have so much confidence in the Bible? Lynch gives the impression that he thinks it’s just a first principle, something they accept without proof as the basis for all further reasoning. Sokal gives a very similar impression, by describing their faith in the Bible as an additional epistemic principle tacked on to the standard canon.

    This is not correct. As fundamentalists see it, their confidence in the Bible is the most rational thing in the world. They talk more about facts, logic and evidence than just about anyone else you’ll ever meet. It certainly is not the result of blind faith or anything like that. . . .

    In short, their view is that any reasonable person in possession of the facts should conclude that the Bible is the Word of God.

    Their arguments are not very good, of course. One of their favorites involves the many instances of prophecies in the Old Testament that came to pass in the New. They never seem to consider the possibility that the New Testament accounts were specifically written with the Old Testament prophecies in mind.

    An especially delicious argument they often use is this: They note that the Bible teaches that the Earth is young and that species don’t evolve. Then they summon forth the usual canon of creationist scientific arguments to show that the Biblical account is vindicated. The final step is to point to the eerie scientific accuracy of the Bible as further evidence of its divine authorship. It’s quite brilliant in its way. I’m sure, though, that I don’t need to point out that their scientific argument are really, really bad.

    In sum, Rosenhouse’s answer to the question of how creationists think is not just “something we’ve known for a long time,” namely that “creationists place their religious beliefs first, and anything else that science or culture tells them must conform or be twisted to fit their worldview”; it is something that many people, such as Lynch and Sokal, get wrong, namely that creationists believe that their belief in the divine origin and the consequent infallibility of the Bible is itself well supported by science.

    • Daniel says:

      I think both analyses are flawed in that creationism comes in all shapes and sizes. You often hear religious people say that, “nothing will shake my belief in God.” So I’ll take them at their word and say that God is the first principal, and their scientific arguments, if any, are pure post hoc rationalizations. At the same time there are folks like Michael Behe (who has a PhD in biochemistry and doesn’t appear to be a biblical literalist) of whom it’s safe to say are actually convinced that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific inquiry, and started by “looking at the evidence.” And then there are the people that fall somewhere in between, which I suspect is where most “creationists” are.

      • Miles Rind says:

        But, Daniel, there are not two analyses (at least, not in Rosenhouse’s writings, as far as I know); there is only one, though Prothero’s review omits to mention part of it, namely the point that creationists think that they have Bible-independent evidence of the truth of the Bible. So, as you say, their would-be “scientific” arguments are “pure post-hoc rationalizations”: the reasons that they offer for why one should believe in the truth of the Bible are not reasons why they in fact believe in the truth of the Bible.

        Not having myself done extensive interviewing of creationists as Rosenhouse has done, I am inclined to accept his conclusion that, by and large, this is how they think, though it is certainly possible that there are some who think otherwise. But the fact that some of them–you say “some religious people” but I will assume that you mean some creationists, since they are the only religious people pertinent here–say that nothing will shake their belief in God does not seem to me to count either for or against this analysis: a creationist who thinks that his belief in the Genesis narrative is supported by science and a creationist who has no such opinion will very likely both say that. The fact that most or some creationists think that their belief in the Bible is confirmed by science does not mean that they have any kind of scientific attitude in the matter, or that they even accept the possibility of error.

        I suspect that you have confused the idea (A) that creationists offer their would-be scientific arguments for the truth of the Bible as reasons why they believe in the truth of the Bible with (B) the idea that they offer them as reasons why one should believe in the truth of the Bible. These are not at all the same thing. To give an analogy, I may believe that Nelly is a phony because she gave me that impression at our first meeting (reason of type A), although, if I want to make a credible case that she is a phony (reason of type B), I am going to have to identify specific instances of phony behavior on her part. In this case, the reasons that I offer for believing that Nelly is a phony (type B) are not identical with the reasons why I believe that she is one (type A). This does not mean that there is anything confused, dishonest, or self-deceived, in my reasoning: what moves me to believe something (type A) is one thing, and what may serve quite generally as a reason to believe it (type B) is another thing. I think that Rosenhouse is making a claim of type B; i.e., his point is that creationists regard their belief in the truth of the Bible as justified by science, not that they regard it as derived from scientific findings (type B). I don’t think that even Dembsky would make a claim of that type.

      • Miles Rind says:

        Oh, NUTS! How I wish that one could edit comments. In the penultimate sentence of my previous comment, I wrote: “not that they regard it as derived from scientific findings (type B).” That should have said “type A” in brackets!

      • Daniel says:

        To be honest, I kind of lost you at the end. My point though is that these “undercover operations” or man-on-the-street interviews don’t tell us very much about the creationist mindset and their views towards science, especially when the person making the analysis, despite their claims to the contrary, really isn’t interested in actually trying to understand the phenomenon other than to confirm that anyone that rejects evolution is a rube that the enlightened have no use for. (Now that’s a run-on sentence).

        It’s simple cognitive dissonance. It’s a natural human condition, which you would expect to manifest itself when people are faced with idea of death and other unsettling inevitibilities. Rejecting evolution, does not prevent one from being a good engineer, surgeon, lawyer, plumber, banker, etc., or otherwise being good company. At worst it just means that you’re unqualified to teach the origin of species in a biology class, (which 99 percent of atheists probably are unqualified to do anyway) and that you should exercise your better judgment and, all things being equal, try to avoid voting for people with those types of inclinations for your local school board.

    • madscientist says:

      You’re simply repeating Don’s argument. The creationist may take some things from science and deliberately twist it to fill their god-shaped view of the world. They actively twist what science reports and make quite incredible claims about how science supports their religious beliefs and this is why they believe science supports their claims. So, for example, there are contemporary cases even of biologists who deny evolution, and cosmologists who, although they don’t believe the Genesis account to be an accurate story, still buy into the premise that the universe was created by some magic man. For the literal creationists in particular, radioisotope dating and paleontology are among their greatest enemies; I don’t know of anyone who has managed to come up with a generally accepted method for harmonizing dating and paleontology with the claims of Genesis. As I’ve already mentioned, there are creationist cosmologists but they don’t believe the Young Earth story of Genesis, just the “God did it” part.

  4. madscientist says:

    In other words, a religious upbringing is an abusive one which leaves the victim with a delusional view of the world. Why does it seem that so few are cured of the delusion? Even if we look back over 2000 years we find historical people eloquently presenting their case that religion is nonsense – and that was in an era where humans did not have the incredible understanding of the laws of physics which we have today. You don’t need science to dispel god, only sensibility.

    • Stephen H says:

      I was brought up in a strongly Baptist family. We went to church and Sunday School, and by the time I was eight or nine I was great at memorising those Bible verses. As teenagers our social lives were supposed to revolve around the church Youth Group.

      At some point, my sister and I somehow managed to start thinking for ourselves. She took a little longer, I think – but she was also the oldest and so rebellion was a lot harder. She was baptised into the church at around 15, and then the pressure was on me to “commit my life to Christ”. That pressure is incredible, and comes from church leaders, family and all the people you have grown up with. I wasn’t prepared to commit, and kept putting things off. I knew I was young, and didn’t want to make a promise I couldn’t keep.

      Eventually, I think when I was fifteen or sixteen, I had an epiphany. There was a special event in town, staged (and I use that term very deliberately) at the football stadium. An all-night event, gathering believers and those who might be converted – a missionary evening. I went with the youth group, of course. I don’t recall a lot of it, but at around 5am, after staying awake all night and constant repetition of “will you be saved?”, there was a call for people who had decided to “come to Christ” to come down the front and publicly dedicate themselves to the faith.

      I nearly went. And looking back on the event, it used the same tools and tricks as the Nazi Party to manipulate people, keep them sleep-deprived, surround them with “the faithful” and play the right music and message.

      I did not come down the front. Instead I thought (very sleepily) that there was absolutely no reason to hurry a lifetime commitment. If I felt this way tomorrow, fantastic. And I expected that “I must be converted, so this feeling won’t go away”. It did. And when I was able to look back on this mainstream religious event, I was also able to look at the evil involved.

      I had been brainwashed by my parents, then encouraged into an inner circle of “like-minded” people. I was expected to be Baptist, to live Baptist, to marry Baptist and to die Baptist. I think my father was dead by the time I made a final announcement that I was not “of the faith” – but he probably knew, because by then I was an alcoholic and getting into trouble with the law (minor, fortunately – and only brief). My mother insisted that I attend Church every Sunday while I lived under her roof – and occasionally that was straight after crawling out of a nightclub. I married someone whose family was Roman Catholic (OMG!), and was told that there would certainly be trouble ahead (25 years on, all is good).

      My sister and I (and my wife) continued to go to my mother’s church for special days (Easter, Christmas). Eventually, though, my wife and I realised that this was just giving my mother hope. Maybe we would realise the error of our ways. And so, while my sister goes, I do not. My mother still prays for me, but we have reached a point where if she raises the subject of religion our discussion is over – I have had enough proselytising, and any such discussion is bound to end in an argument.

      My mother has had a large hand in the raising of my nephew – who is now 21. My sister allowed him to go to church, but if he chose not to he could, and he is not now religious. Apart from anything else, his sexual inclinations are not in accordance with the church’s teachings – which in itself caused him enormous upset and confusion.

      My mother occasionally concedes that there “may be something” in evolution. We don’t discuss it now, because the subject will lead to religion. I do know that her reading on this and all science is all very much dictated by what the people in her church read. So she views most archaeologists (for instance) as “evil people” who are taking one piece of evidence and making guesses about things they can’t know. She’s a smart person, but deliberately blinkers herself and has very little ability to trust anyone outside her church. This is diminishing as she is retired and now receives no other form of feedback.

      In reply to madscientist, it is very hard to change your mind. I recently read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Thomas Kuhn points out that scientists don’t really change their minds – the old thinkers often die out before the new idea is fully accepted. We are just not designed to change our minds, and so if you get someone young enough they will stay in the church for life. It is so sad that we don’t classify this as child abuse.

      Oops – so many words, for a brief comment following a book review.

      • Max says:

        What does committing your life to Christ involve?

      • Stephen H says:

        It’s a public announcement that you are “a Christian” – in this case in front of about 10,000 onlookers including the people I went with from my mother’s church (about 20 people). The tactics that were used, in retrospect, were absolutely appalling.

        If I had taken that step and made a public announcement of faith, I would have been asked to swear to follow god all my life – still in front of all those people. Lots of congratulations, friends saying “you’re the best”, “that’s wonderful”, “we’re so pleased”. The following day I would probably have received a follow-up phone call. “Hi, I’m Pastor X (no, not Billy Graham this time) and I’d like to talk more about your life-changing decision. I’m excited, and I hope you are too”. Pamphlets, books, more phone calls – including from people I knew and some strangers – all making very clear how wonderful my decision was and that they were there to help me into my new life.

        Basically, I would expect to not have an opportunity to have a second thought for about a month. Everything would be glowing and wonderful. Maybe that cute girl from church would like to go see a movie (from a select list of course). In effect, pushing me very firmly into the religion before I could change my mind. Oh, and my mother would have been over the moon.

      • Max says:

        That doesn’t sound bad. Lots of congratulations, a date with a cute girl, making your mother happy, but no actual sacrifice of time, money, privacy, or anything? It’s not like they’d send you on a mission to another country the way Mormons do, right?

      • Daniel says:


        It’s interesting that you mention Mormonism, and it’s something that I’ve been meaning to bring up in the religion discussions here.

        To any outside observer, Mormonism’s version of the facts, shall we say, is very, very strange. It’s not a stretch to say that the Book of Mormon makes the Old Testament look like the Principia. The prosletyzing takes on cult-like form that’s something above and beyond what your typical Evangelical does.

        Nevertheless, Mormons are among the most successful people in the world, in terms of competence in chosen professions. BYU is an excellent university with great science programs. Mormons do very well in NYC white shoe law firms and investment banks (you might be against big business generally, but you don’t become a partner at Goldman Sachs or Skadden Arps by being an ignorant hick). It’s to the point where banks, law firms, the State Departments, the CIA, etc. actively recruit from Ivy league schools and BYU.

        One theory anyway is that Mormons gain a level of maturity that most Americans don’t obtain until much later in life because of the missions. They’re dropped in a completely foreign setting, often where they don’t know the culture of the language, and have to fend for themselves, whereas your typical educated American spends ages 18-22 getting drunk at Frat parties and being as promiscuous as possible.

        And if you’ve spent anytime around Mormons, they’re very pleasant — almost to a fault — and even when they’re prosletyzing they don’t really give you the hard sell. Also important to note that the Utah state legislature has repeatedly defeated efforts to put intelligent design and creationism in the curriculum. At worst, I’ve read anyway, biology teachers in Utah public schools are a bit subdued when talking about the origin of the human species, more out of politeness than anything else.

        I’m not saying that Mormonism is a force for good or bad. It just adds a little perspective for people that reflexively deride religious people and religion generally. (And perhaps one can tell that my biggest beef with some of the writers and comments here is this lack of perspective).

      • Trimegistus says:

        So that big rally was like an Obama campaign event?

        Sorry, but you went way off into Godwin’s Law territory here.

      • Stephen H says:

        Yes, I strayed into Godwin’s Law – but the similarities are there. This was like any event where you want to brainwash people into your way of thinking. Obama, Bush, Palin… (I’m Australian, so should probably leave your politics to you).

        I know that I strayed a long way from the message of the original post – it is something that apparently has waited a long time to find its way onto the page.

        The real message, though, is that just being sensible is not enough. If you are raised in a religious community by religious parents, you are likely to take on their beliefs. These institutions know that, and know the other tricks to use (which are freely swapped between “established” religions and cults) to get people through the door and keep ‘em once they’re inside. The human bullshit-detector is flawed, and can only do so much. We want to be wanted, and want to believe what we are told. Then once we believe one thing, it can be used to strengthen other beliefs.

  5. Mustang55 says:

    As Jung said, “Only a very few individuals succeed in throwing off mythology in epochs of exceptional intellectual exuberance–the masses never. Enlightenment avails nothing, it merely destroys a transitory manifestation, but not the creative impulse.”

    Don’t forget, evolution provided us with the imagination, and that’s all we had for a very very long time. We had no methods, no devices, no means of figuring out what’s going on. Our imagination filled in the gaps, and because we experienced that for so long, we’re used to it. It’s a habit of our mind. We go there automatically. Don’t need proof. It’s safe there, comfortable. A few epochs of intellectual exuberance, no matter how enlightening, are like pellets against a battleship. It will be some time before a majority are able to feel comfortable accepting facts as something to rest their faith on. For now, for those people, belief is all they need, because as a species for tens of thousands of years, that’s all we had.

  6. Elian Gonzalez says:

    Then the only good response is to deny them political power at the local, state and national level, and to keep their influence contained because they will wind up weakening the country even more.

    But there is an upside: an entire generation of easily manipulated workers who can do menial service tasks so long as you don’t argue that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.