How insular are we?

I ran into a former student who once took my Weird Science course. She’s pretty religious and a creationist, and she told me that she recently watched a movie featuring Lee Strobel that she liked. It made her think of my course.

I’ve read a couple of Strobel books, and I regularly lend out his The Case for a Creator to students who want to learn more about creationism and intelligent design firsthand. It’s basic conservative Christian apologetics. In other words, intellectually dishonest propaganda. Strobel makes a point of repeating how he once used to be an atheist but then saw the light, and his trick of the trade is to go visiting conservative Christian scholars, interviewing them and popularizing their views in such a way as to give the impression that conservative Christianity is an intellectually formidable edifice. All the best science, all the best historical scholarship turns out to prove fundamentalist Christianity correct. Strobel creates this impression by being extremely selective in the views he represents, giving little indication of the fringe nature of most of his interviewees positions as far as mainstream academia is concerned. He certainly does not detail why in most of the intellectual world, such fundamentalism is not taken seriously.

And yet, Lee Strobel is apparently a big shot in popular Christian apologetics. I read this as an indication of the insularity of conservative Christian culture. Most believers who read Strobel and similar literature are apparently satisfied with such highly selective presentations. I expect most don’t know or perhaps even care about the misrepresentation of intellectual life in such apologetics. It’s enough that someone out there is doing battle for the Lord, I suppose.

Now, most people, I imagine, tend to read and watch things that they tend to agree with. Most people who read my books must be nonbelievers. But I have to say, I don’t think nonbelievers are anywhere near as insular as conservative Christians in this regard. If Richard Dawkins, for example, is an icon of nonbelief today, he may get a lot of criticism but it would be hard to make a charge of gross misrepresentation of the current intellectual landscape stick against him. And I don’t think people who own a copy of The God Delusion are quite as insular as the audience for Lee Strobel and company.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • RBH

    I can’t speak for “we” but I’m damned sure I’ve read a whole lot more creationism and ID books (ranging from Morris and Gish to Dembski and Behe) than any creationist I know has read of evolution.

  • tomas

    >>If Richard Dawkins, for example, is an icon of nonbelief today, he may get a lot of criticism but it would be hard to make a charge of gross misrepresentation of the current intellectual landscape stick against him.>>

    I think it’s pretty obvious that he badly misrepresents contemporary philosophy and theology. It’s almost funny how appalling the misrepresentation is, really.

    See for example his amateurish interaction with Swinburne’s work, including the intellectually dishonest, intentionally misleading accusation that Swinburne “attempted to justify the Holocaust.”

    Things just go so badly when Dawkins tries to talk about philosophy. It reminds me of someone else I know… ;-)

  • Jeffrey Shallit

    Tomas, if you’re going to criticize Dawkins for his “amateurish interaction with Swinburne’s work”, at least have the decency to provide the URL where the debate takes place.

    For example,,427,n,n
    is a good starting point.

    Frankly, I find Swinburne’s “work” to consist mostly of evading the hard questions.

  • vjack

    I agree completely. I think the question about how insular we are in the atheist community is an important one that needs asking.

    One big difference I observed was when Harris published The End of Faith. Even among those who loved it (like me), there was a lot of criticism over the part on various forms of spirituality and other new age nonsense. I could thoroughly enjoy the book and recommend it to others even while thinking that that chapter was an unfortunate inclusion. I don’t see fundamentalist Christians doing that.

    Having said that, I do worry that many of us (including myself) are becoming too insular.