Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Creation Museum: Whole Lot of Hooey Going On or Beacon of Support in Uncertain Times?

The Creation Museum, located in Petersburg, Ky., attracts a lot of attention. Some people think it’s all a lot of hooey while others look to it as a beacon of support in uncertain times. I fall firmly into the first group. But still I couldn’t help but wonder, what goes on there, what exactly is the message, and is there anything for me there? So I decided to explore. And while I might not have had any life changing revelations, I might have learned a thing or two …

I really didn’t think I’d ever go to the Creation Museum. In fact, I’d spent the last few years avoiding it, the way I avoid crazy people in public places. But at the same time I was curious. Didn’t I need to know what was going on there? Didn’t I need to know what crazy lies and twisted half truths were being promoted in an effort to discredit the obvious and reasonable truths set forth by science? And with that mentality in hand (it’s the same reasoning I use to justify why I listen to people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the radio – I like to keep up to date on the idiotic things they say), I set off to visit the roughly two-year-old Evangelical theme park.

What I knew about the center before I got there was fairly limited. I didn’t want any significant research to taint my first impressions. What I did know was that there would be dinosaurs. A lot of dinosaurs. My longtime friend Mike, an atheist of the first degree, had often pontificated on the ridiculousness of museum creator Ken Ham’s insistence that man and dinosaur not only existed together but that man had domesticated and used dinosaurs as beasts of burden. (Ham, an Australian, is also the founder and president of the fundamentalist Christian ministry, Answers in Genesis.) Mike had – more more than once – proclaimed that the strong emphasis on dinosaurs by Ham and company was merely a ruse to engage children in the cult of creationism. Mike was never quite sure if this qualified as a stroke of brilliance or an act of malfeasance.

I also knew that the Creation Museum purported to attract visitors from not only throughout the nation but also throughout the world. How Ham decided on rural Kentucky as the perfect destination for this life affirming center is a mystery to me. Yes, despite living in the Tri-state area for nearly six years, I’ll admit it: I still hold in my mind a somewhat unflattering image of Kentuckians as hillbilly rubes. So, maybe based on that impression, I should be able to understand why Ham chose Kentucky. But logically, Kentucky seems so far from anywhere. Ham explained to an Australian reporter in 2007 that "Australia's not really the place to build such a facility if you're going to reach the world. Really,” he said, “America is." Ham says that two-thirds of the American population live within 600 miles of Petersburg, and I say, really? Are you sure you’re not making that up? And still 600 miles is a pretty long drive – the better part of 10 hours in the car, most likely with tired, cranky children.

Plus, once you get here, what else are you going to do? To my knowledge, there aren’t a great many family-friendly attractions in the area. There are some ramshackle farms and maybe an Amish market or two if you’re willing to look. But I’m guessing visitors to the Creation Museum might not be the types to rush over and spend a day at Kings Island. And anyone moderately well acquainted with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden knows there’s a pretty solid educational focus on evolution there.

So I guess what I’m saying is that patrons of the Creation Museum have to really want to go there, and I guess what I’m asking is does anyone else, anyone who is a non-believer in what Ham calls “creation science,” have a reason to go?

Bright and early on a Saturday morning, I hopped in the car and made the relatively effortless ride to Petersburg. I was greeted at the entrance to the museum center by a large metal dinosaur mounted to the front gate. Once I parked and headed into the museum – which was rather understated and unpretentious from the outside – I met two more dinosaurs, one of the wire holiday topiary variety (sorry, forgot that here the word “Christmas” is not the taboo it might be elsewhere), resplendent in green twinkly lights, and the other, a gentle giant – a brontosaurus, maybe constructed of concrete, maybe of fiberglass.

I mosey on in and plop down my $22.95 admission, and I quickly think something must be up. The largely volunteer staff must be able to identify the stink of a sinner on me. I mean, the man to my left at the ticket booth is welcomed with a hearty and heartfelt “God bless and have a blessed day,” while my sales clerk merely looks at me with disdain. She literally looks down her nose at me and barely speaks to me. Hmm, I wonder, surely I can’t have offended anyone already. I’m dressed rather conservatively, in jeans and a blouse, and I’m not sporting any tattoos or pentagrams. I choose to chalk it up to the fact that she must be having a bad day.

Oh, and those staffers? Each must supply a written statement of his or her testimony – a statement of what he or she believes regarding creation – and all must sign documents confirming they have read and can sipport the very long Answers in Genesis statement of faith before they can be hired. How's that for pre-employment vetting?

With tickets in hand, guests funnel into the museum by way of a green screen, which I deftly avoid. Had I been in the proper spirit, I could have taken home with me a souvenir photo of myself in the Garden of Eden, frolicking with the dinosaurs. I’m wondering if the Mennonite family in front of me, women in dowdy long dresses and wearing traditional white bonnets, men and boys in more contemporary clothing, are likely to purchase their photos. I also wonder if the pink flip-flops one Mennonite teen wears beneath her floral calico dress are sanctioned.

At last, I enter the museum itself. But am I’m immediately disappointed to learn there are no guides here; touring the Creation Museum is a self-guided experience, which is contrary to my expectations. I was expecting a heavy sell, full of fire-and-brimstone preaching.

Sure, my expectations in that regard turned out to be antithetical to reality. Not antithetical to my expectations, however, was the first exhibit, a scene I am sure I both scoffed and smirked at. For what to my wandering eyes should appear but a model of a small child, clad in animal skins, lying on the edge of a lake and playing with a squirrel under the shadow of not one, but two friendly dinosaurs that seem to watch protectively over him. Um, yeah, not buying it.

Now that the kids are hooked (“Mommy, mommy! Look. At. The. Dinosaurs!”), the next exhibit aims to set up the so-called scientific basis for creationism. The Grand Canyon, the exhibit emphatically promotes, was created in just four hours. Nope, not over the tens of thousands of years mainstream scientists suggest. And the fossils of dinosaurs? About 4,300 years old. They have to be, because the Earth, the moon, the stars, the universe – nothing is older than 4,300 years, and it was all created in just six 24-hour days. The book of Genesis says man and all living creatures of the earth were created by God on the sixth day. So it’s critical the museum takes a strong stance in promoting that man and dinosaurs coexisted.

“We all have the same facts. We just interpret them differently,” says Ham. It's the cruxt of creationism and it’s a point reinforced repeatedly through the museum. Believers believe in a very literal interpretation of the bible. I may have been raised with some foundation of religion in my family life, but I adapted more easily and willingly to a belief system based on science. And I say the belief that the Earth is only 4,300 years old is hooey. Neither do believers in creationism accept that the dozens of species of finches that exist are the result of evolution, nor the hundreds of breeds of dogs. No, God created them all, each and every one. He likes variety. And bacteria and DNA? Too complicated for science to effectively explain. A higher power must have had a hand in it. Also hooey, I say. Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one saying that.

“Faith is one thing,” Mark Terry, a high school science teacher from Seattle and one of 72 paleontologists who visited the museum as a group in May, told the Associated Press. “But when it comes to their science statements, they’re completely off the wall.” Another of the attendees, Derek Briggs, a Yale University paleontologist said “It’s like a theme park, but the problem is it masquerades as truth.”

Generally speaking, the vast majority of scientists accept that Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, and that dinosaurs were extinct more than 65 million years before humans as they are known to be in relative “modern times” came to exist.

More than 800 of those scientists, all presiding from universities in the states closest to the museum, have signed a statement debunking the so-called facts sprinkled on signage under the legs of dinosaurs and next to dioramas of Noah’s Ark. “We … are concerned about scientifically inaccurate materials at the Answers in Genesis museum,” the document reads. “Students who accept this material as scientifically valid are unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level. These students will need remedial instruction in the nature of science, as well as in the specific areas of science misrepresented by Answers in Genesis.”

I could go on with additional citations, but instead let’s just concede that within the scientific community there is significant opposition to the teachings of the museum.

As I move into successive rooms and exhibits, the tone begins to change: It becomes noticeably darker. There’s an emphasis on the degeneration of, well, civilization, I guess, as a result of man’s corruption of the word of God. And of course that all begins with the decision by Adam and Eve to forgo God’s word and eat from the tree. Before original sin, there was no aging (I guess without original sin there would be no Olay products?), no carnivores, no disease, no death, no natural catastrophe, no weeds, no burdensome work, no suffering … It does sound nice, idyllic, utopian.

But to show us all just how far man has fallen, the exhibits turn into room after room of wall-sized black and white photos that depict pain, death and suffering. Video shorts show a teenage girl crying on the phone to a Planned Parenthood employee about the results of a recent pregnancy test, a teenage boy partaking in Internet pornography and other youths mocking their church. Signs populate any available wall space in these areas, proclaiming “over 1.1 million marriages end in divorce in the U.S. each year,” “a person’s average first exposure to pornography is at age 11,” and “the average parent spends less than 30 minutes a day with their children.”

And? And I’ll take my faux science with a side of moral proselytizing, please.

I began to wonder, who are all these people here? Can they really all believe what this museum is presenting is the factual, historical truth? I look around. For the most part the people don’t look like freaks or googly-eyed morons. There are, as I mentioned, a good number of Mennonites out and about, sporting their Saturday finest. Several large groups, each sporting matching T-shirts – Mayfield Community Church, Boomerang Bible Camp – “Because the word of God comes back to you.” – move raptly from one exhibit to the next. A lot of people look like, well, me, or maybe my aunt or my neighbor. Everyone looks pretty normal. But yet there is something slightly abnormal about this scene, and it takes me a minute to put my finger on it. Then I figure it out: This is the quietest place on earth.

There’s no ruckus – despite all the children—no calamity, no loud noises or sudden movements. It’s like everyone here is using his or her inside voice – there’s barely a whisper. And when I really get in close and observe, I see people in what looks like deep prayer, silent reverie. One woman stands before a display that recounts all the ways God’s word has triumphed over corruption. Her right arm is folded into her chest; her left hand covers her mouth. She looks as if she is holding back tears, tears for the beauty and truth and reassurance she finds here. Three teens stand before a wall upon which headlines of the day have been pasted: “Just another school shooting,” “The battle over stem cells,” “What is marriage?” They contemplate. One boy turns around. When he sees me he says, “It’s kind of neat, isn’t it?” Two children play in a fountain, while their mothers solemnly read about the “judgment of the whole world.”

As I finish my tour, as I pass through the requisite gift shop and the cleanest, best smelling public restroom I’ve ever encountered, I come to a conclusion. It becomes obvious, in fact: This museum was built with the express purpose of giving creationists ammunition with which to defend their faith (however preposterous some of that ammunition may seem to mainstream America).
And there really is no one else here like me. These people truly are believers. And while all the fancy animatronics and professional quality videos and films were unlikely to sway me, that’s all right, because that is not the intention of the Creation Museum. Turns out it’s neither for nor about me.


  1. This is a really great post.

    As someone who's also generally faithless and has been to the Creation Museum, I find it to be somewhat troubling that its intent is to provide "ammunition" for their beliefs (and make no mistake, that's what it does). Seems to me that religion/spirituality/whatever you might call it is a deeply personal experience--and while your religion might call on you to proselytize, it shouldn't be used as ammunition, per se.

    The one thing that The Creation Museum makes clear that I didn't personally expect is that each and every item in the place is strictly about belief. I'd thought, admittedly ignorantly, that the exhibits would be passed off as fact, whereas they're passed off as fact based on their beliefs. To be sure, this doesn't necessarily make them right, but they're clearer about where they stand than I thought they'd be.

    In the end, the place amounts to not much more than an expensive curiosity--and an interesting one at that. I don't see it as the threat that many serious skeptics do, but it's still pretty alarming how wrong they seem to get... just about everything.