Another take on the Creation Museum

If you weren’t aware, the Secular Alliance of IU went to the Creation Museum in Petersberg, Kentucky, on Saturday November 15. (Hats off to Eoban for jumping in and organizing it!) It was a chilly rainy day with not nearly enough coffee in supply, but at least the company was enjoyable. The museum, on the other hand was not nearly as educational or entertaining as one would hope.

Many of us were expecting the museum to house exhibits detailing various arguments for intelligent design and young earth creationism. The museum is actually set up as if it were an essay made physical. Rather than a set of self-contained exhibits which one can walk freely between, the museum is one long series of rooms through which visitors shuffle along in sequence. This had the annoying affect at creating congestion around movie-screening bottlenecks, but also underlaid the literalist themes of the museum. Here’s a quick sketch of the points made by the major rooms:

1. You can begin with either God’s word or human reason.
2. The Bible contains many fulfilled prophecies and accurate portrayals of history.
3. In the last century, reliance on human reason has led to moral bankruptcy.
4. The Biblical stories of six-day creation, Noah’s flood, and Babel match the available historical, biological, and geological evidence.
5. The Biblical story of the Fall predicts that human reason will be unreliable.
6. A literal interpretation of creation and the Fall is assumed in the story of salvation through Christ.
7. Thus, one cannot be a Christian and accept either human reason or a non-literal reading of Bible.

For all the talk of equal time in the classroom, the museum acknowledges very few rebuttals, and none of these are presented felicitously. It’s easy to be too strong because the museum was clearly targeting children, but I’ve seen much more detail presented in a far more engaging way elsewhere to audiences of all ages.

The first rooms set out to establish intellectual equality between mainstream scientific and creationist views. Text explained how the questions one asks and the results one reaches are determined by whether one begins with “God’s word” or “human reason.” This was tied into the “I bet you didn’t learn that in school!” theme that creationists have used over the years. Human reason was shown to change over time, but these changes were presented out of context in a manner that suggested that these thinkers started with the assumption that Christianity was false and proceeded to change the story only as they gained power. Acknowledgment that some of the thinkers were theists attempting to salvage some shred of religious belief from then-controversial contrary evidence was completely absent. (If you don’t even want Descartes on your side…) The only non-Biblical individuals presented with any degree of sympathy were creationists and Martin Luther (despite the fact that Luther questioned some Biblical books much beloved to American evangelicals).

I recognized no honest portrayal of scientific thinking or the philosophy thereof in the museum. Science proceeds from the assumption that active principles of the natural world can be discovered through careful observation and experimentation. Human reason certainly plays a part, but is not held to be infallible. If it were, there would be little need for continued experimentation and thus no need for science at all. What scientists have historically begun with is an assumption that the natural world is consistent, and as 20th century physics has shown, scientists are free to question even this widely accepted assumption without being censured by their peers. Like the cries of punishment for creationist beliefs detailed in Expelled, the museum portrayal of intellectual life revealed a lack of understanding of not only science but academia as a whole.

Human reason was shown to lead to such horrible things as the ACLU, graf writing, and a sensationalist journalism. This seems to make a very clear prediction that the more fundamentalist a community is the less crime, abortion, narcotic use, and homosexuality it should have. I can’t wait to see the results of the Answers in Genesis’ well designed and adequately controlled studies on these topics. But if like many of their peers they don’t believe Christians are necessarily less sinful, this entire section was useless and, worse, intentionally misleading. Most of the museum’s case rested on shared values in verifiability, consistency, and Gricean maxims of communication. This section was a let down in that department either by providing inadequate evidence or misrepresenting the views of its own creators for emotional impact.

I assume people are mostly familiar with young earth creationism. If not a few well formed Google searches will help you. The only things the museum mentioned that I had never heard before were explanations for post-flood marsupial distribution (they can walk while nursing) and cross-continental distributions (the animals crossed the ocean on rafts). There was no mention of other serious flaws in young earth creationism (population control and carbon and nitrogen cycles in a universally herbivorous world, atomic decay, light from stars further than 6,000 light years away, biological effects of population bottlenecks). As I said, many of us came expecting this to be the highlight, but it was mostly a let-down in that regard. The Fall-and-redemption narrative took center stage.

The museum creators seemed to have two goals: 1) normalizing the creation story for children growing up in literalist households and 2) persuading non-literalist Christians that their views are inconsistent and that a literal reading can be reconciled with empirical evidence. I’m in no real position to comment on the effectiveness of the museum at reaching Christians who are not Biblical literalists. I doubt many would be persuaded, but for those who draw a firm New vs Old Testament line, it might make them rethink their cherry-picking of Biblical stories by pointing out Paul’s argumentative reliance on a literal reading of Genesis.

In terms of the Biblical account presented outside of creation and the Flood, the accounts of fulfilled prophecies didn’t include any controversial modern day events, to my memory. In conversation I’ve learned that many non-literalists accept the Bible as evidence of its own prophetic status and either accept the Biblical account of the founding of Israel as real history or think it can be read metaphorically without decreasing the importance of the original covenant. The museum didn’t commit to specific arguments or evidence. Some might question its interpretation of a few prophecies, but I expect most Christians would accept the majority of those detailed.

Because it does not prepare literalists with effective counter-arguments, I think the net effect of the museum will be counter-productive toward its own goals in the long term. By borrowing the “science is awesome!” and “omg dinosaurs” themes of elementary science education, the museum can only encourage more children to have an interest in science. If that interest grows into a serious course of study, those children will eventually be convinced that Biblical literalism has serious faults. One cannot do top-notch science and begin with God’s word; science (and modern scholarship as a whole) works by questioning everything from the smallest point of data to the most cherished assumptions.

Scientific theories don’t spread because they minimize or distort opposing views; they spread because they survive intense scrutiny and observation and because they allow scientists to make novel predictions that solve problems large and small. Science has achieved its high place in contemporary intellectual life because it works. “God’s word” offers no functional solutions to world hunger, disease, or any of the other social issues that literalists believe the Fall introduced to the world. Science and human reason do. When we couple science with the compassion that underlies secular humanism, there’s no telling what we’ll be able to do. Heck, maybe we can even eliminate graf writing and sensationalist journalism.

Do I recommend the museum to other secularists? No, not really. I feel like I’ve learned little about creationism. Besides, studying real science is a much better use of our collective time. The SAIU has begun discussing future field trips to actual science museums in the area. If you have suggestions, please visit our forum.