Book Review: Among the Creationists

Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line
by Jason Rosenhouse
Oxford University Press, 2012
272 pages (Kindle)

Available
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Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line is not your usual book on creationism.

When he’s not playing chess, Rosenhouse (Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University) spends his free time hanging out with creationists at creationist conferences and wandering through the Creation Museum.  He does this not because he’s one of them, but because they fascinate him and he wants to understand their world. The book is partly the reports of an embedded journalist and partly the words of an anthropologist, eager to record and understand a rare subculture.

“After several dozen such events over a number of years,” he writes, “I found myself dissatisfied with much of the scholarly literature in this area. I felt there was a story to tell in what I had experienced and that I could paint a realistic picture of why creationists believe the things they do.”

Rather than spend time speculating on creationists, Rosenhouse puts himself into their world by dedicating hours of his time to listening to conference lectures, reading books, and engaging conference attendees in conversation over lunch.

In other words, he tries to get to know them and what makes them tick.

This book…is a memoir recounting some interesting experiences I’ve had socializing with people whose worldview differs greatly from my own. It is also an explication of the beliefs and attitudes that are common in the anti-evolution subculture. And it is a discussion of certain questions about the relationship between science and religion that arose naturally through my experiences.

As you can imagine, Rosenhouse could only blend in for so long. He’s an evolutionist and atheist and spotting one of these at a creationist conference, unless they’re picketing, is a bit like discovering a unicorn.

Historically speaking, since the days of Scopes Monkey Trial, Young Earth Creationism has been a hallmark teaching of fundamentalism and he recognizes that he is a fish out of water. “To enter the convention center or hotel ballroom of these conferences is to experience a profound sense of vertigo, as though the rules really have changed just by passing through the door.”

It should be obvious from the title that Among the Creationists is written for the outsider. As an outsider, Rosenhouse offers a good perspective on the vocabulary and concerns of creationists. He often describes and quotes creationist materials and arguments, but not with the goal of simply knocking them down, rather, he is providing examples for the reader to sample. He shows how creationists approach science, what they find problematic with evolution, and even offers his responses or reactions.

He explains to the reader that creationists do not see the entire Bible as a science textbook, and that they do in fact acknowledge literary genre. Common phrases like “Let Scripture interpret Scripture” are explained well. He puts a lot of hard work into communicating the creationist perspective.

Now ask yourself how it looks to them to suggest that modern science compels us to an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. Not only are you placing fallible human reason ahead of infallible scripture, but also you are telling them they need a team of biologists, classicists, and literary theorists to interpret the Bible for them.

Among the Creationists is divided into five sections with a total of 34, somewhat short, chapters. Each section engages another point on the anti-evolutionary front-line, like the “Creation Mega-Conference” (2005), “Darwin vs. Design” conference (2007), or the Creation Museum. Written from the perspective of these events, Rosenhouse builds a portrait of the creationist, the unique concerns he discovered at each event, and the differences between groups like Young Earth Creationists and those of Intelligent Design. The latter is helpful for those who are not aware of those differences or the fact that both groups rarely appear to get along.

A book like this could take many directions. It could easily turn into an apologetic for one side, but instead, it reads like a genuine attempt to understand the creationist position and a truly honest expression of Rosenhouse’s own perspective.

I was raised in the theology of Young Earth Creationism, and while I left that world a long time ago, I remain somewhat connected to it through friends and family who still thoroughly embrace it. Because of that background, there is a lot I recognize in this book. But if you are relatively new to the subject, Among the Creationists is not burdened by insider language and when particular terms are brought up, whether the result of discussing evolution or theology, there is a clear explanation of what is meant.

Rosenhouse’s style is memoir and, at times, very informal and fit for blogging. This is where I found genres mixing. Is it a dispatch? Is it the journal of an anthropologist? Is it a memoir? There are points when this was jarring. He includes several anecdotal moments, and these make his work accessible and interesting. He recalls, for example, lunch conversations with a youth group during a conference break, a few tense discussions-debates, and a girl that claimed his soul for Jesus. “I was too shocked to point out that my soul was not hers to claim,” says Rosenhouse, “Instead I thanked her awkwardly…”

Rosenhouse remains an unconvinced atheist in the end and he reasonably recognizes that probably all of those creationists he has encountered have also remained in their respective positions.

“People often tell me I am wasting my time at these conferences,” he writes, “…as though informing me of a possibility I had not considered. I have no illusions, or ambitions for that matter, that anyone is going to slap his forehead in response to some super-clever argument from me.” This does not mean that Rosenhouse—and perhaps those he came in contact with—are unchanged from their open dialogues.

I do not know if I have had even that much effect, but I do know these experiences have had a salutary effect on me. It is far more difficult to caricature and stereotype people you have actually met. Have a few conversations over lunch or during breaks at conferences, and suddenly they are no longer abstractions or types. They are no longer defined by a few odd beliefs you have heard that they hold. They become actual people, with depth and personality and reasons for the things they believe.

“Insularity is a two-way street,” he reminds the reader, and so he sets out to correct those with more ignorant fears of creationists. “People often ask if I have ever felt physically threatened at a creationist conference. The answer is no, never, not even once. It is rare (though it has happened) that I am treated rudely in any way at all. A far more common reaction is to have people approach me later to ask me to clarify my views, or to ask me questions.”

He also offers some strong, but important criticism for the creationist. “There are no experts on the ultimate nature of reality. We are all just muddling along, trying to formulate the most reasonable answers we can, based on what we know of the world. It is everyone, not just scientists, who need to be modest and circumspect when wading into metaphysical waters. It is very much in doubt, however, in comparing science with theology, that it is the former that must apologize for excessive arrogance.”

This book is also a benefit for the anti-evolutionist crowd.  If you are a convinced creationist, you will find that this book definitely provides you with a good insider look at how you are perceived by others. It is an opportunity to step away from the creationist’s book table and read something from the other side; you may discover your own misconceptions.

It is a chance to be among the evolutionists.

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Jason Rosenhouse blogs at EvolutionBlog at ScienceBlogs.com.

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