Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Holy Crap: A review of the Creation Museum

I finally got a chance to see the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky. I've been struggling to decide how to respond to the experience. I didn't change my mind about the veracity of the claims the "museum" makes -- of course, they're complete bunk. The reason I've been struggling is because I was trying to decide how to view the museum: as an innocuous testament to the odd and illogical beliefs of a few, or a vicious attack on truth and reason. As I was going through some pictures I took at the museum, I came up with my answer.

The museum is laid out somewhat logically: one enters and is immediately greeted by workers wearing safari vests with "Prepare to Believe" embroidered on the back. This, presumably, is by way of mise en scene: we're about to take a journey through "history." The place has kind of a Jurassic Park feel. Look out the window to the "botanical garden" and you can see a scale model of the Loch Ness Monster in the pond out back. I'm sure the metaphor was unintentional. Rounding the corner from the ticket window ($20 per person!), the dinosaurs themselves come out.

Not just dinosaurs, though. The New York Times describes the scene this way:

Two prehistoric children play near a burbling waterfall, thoroughly at home in the natural world. Dinosaurs cavort nearby, their animatronic mechanisms turning them into alluring companions, their gaping mouths seeming not threatening, but almost welcoming, as an Apatosaurus munches on leaves a few yards away.

You read that correctly. There are human children in the same diorama as dinosaurs. Never mind that carbon dating of fossils illustrates the absurdity and impossibility of the scene. The museum's response? Fossils came from Noah's flood, and carbon dating doesn't work. But I'll get to that.

The rest of the museum was more of the same. I'm not going to go through each exhibit pointing out the logical flaws. For one reason, that post would take too long. For another, it's already been done. Instead, I'm going to address the basic premise of the museum, because as far as I'm concerned, it's the most dangerous.

Wikipedia reports an ABC poll indicating that 60% of Americans believe that "God created the world in six days." 48% believe, according to Newsweek, that "God created humans pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

One of the greatest strengths of America is the ability of its citizens to believe, speak openly about, and debate any view of their choosing. If adults want to believe in Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or unicorns, or the Easter Bunny, nothing prevents them from so doing. I say "adults" as opposed to "people," because adults should, in theory, have the cognitive capacity to weigh an idea, considering the arguments for and against it, and make a reasoned choice of whether or not to support that idea. If people subject Flat Earth Creationism to that scrutiny, so be it. Let's just hope they don't organize politically and begin to influence our elections.

But of course, the Creation Museum doesn't intend to be a harmless gathering grounds for, shall we say, eccentric adults. Its stated purpose is to indoctrinate children. Again according to Wikipedia (with citation to the museum's web page),

The facility's stated mission is to "exalt Jesus Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer," to "equip Christians to better evangelize the lost," and to "challenge visitors to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord."

All well and good. OK, not good, but at least tolerable. But the museum goes much further. The emphasis on dinosaurs, and the attention to detail on the dinosaur displays, clearly identifies one of the museum's core audiences: young children. Kids love dinosaurs (I know this first hand). Kids are voracious consumers of any dino-knowledge. By focusing on dinosaurs as the vehicle for the museum's anti-Enlightenment message, it is brainwashing innocent children.

Anti-Enlightenment is not my interpretation of the museum's message. It's stated in so many words. After the "cave of sorrows," featuring a parade of horribles like stem cell research, gay marriage, pornography, and ACLU, all of which resulted from eating some fruit, the museum gets into the history of the battle against flat-earth creationism. A video describes the "atrocity" of the ACLU during the Scopes Monkey Trial, during which "ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow" viciously attacked and mercilessly mocked William Jennings Bryan for his literal interpretation of the Bible.

I grant them that point, though of course I don't subscribe to their interpretation. Darrow did savage Bryan quite deliciously:

[Counsel] objected [to Darrow's questioning of Bryan], demanding to know the legal purpose of Darrow's questioning. Bryan, gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."

Further, several posters detail "tragic" historic events, like when "In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the infidel philosopher Voltaire forecast that within a century no Bibles would be left on earth." Luckily, "... fifty years after he died, the Geneva Bible Society took over his house and printing press to produce thousands of Bibles." I guess they're still a bit miffed about Candide.

This is where the language ceases to be innocuous. One doesn't call someone "with a different starting point ... [who reaches] different conclusions" an infidel. There's a reason why Richard Dawkins refers to "the Taliban and its American equivalent."

The museum goes further. In an explanation of why Cain's marrying his sister was not wrong, a poster explained that since there weren't too many genetic mutations in the human genome, such a marriage wouldn't result in deformed children as it would today. Furthermore, the only reason marrying one's sister was wrong was because God said so. OK. No problems there. But then it says:

Since God is the One who defined marriage in the first place, God's Word is the only standard for defining proper marriage. People who do not accept the Bible as their absolute authority have no basis for condemning someone like Cain marrying his sister.

Divine command theory has plenty of adherents. It's an intellectually lazy and vacuous theory, but that's (somewhat) beside the point. To claim, however, that it is the only basis from which to derive a standard of morality is a blatant version of the same type of arrogance the Flat Earth types accuse "Evolutionists" of having. They assume the hegemony of their worldview. Thankfully for humanity, that particular worldview was well on its way out the door when Galileo muttered "Eppur si muove."

So the problem isn't the beliefs per se. The problem is what the museum attaches to those beliefs. Teaching children that what they learned in school is wrong is obviously problematic. But foisting Flat Earth creationism onto an apparently (and appallingly) vulnerable populace is downright dangerous.

The New York Times just ran a piece about the resurgence of political theology. The author, Mark Lilla, describes the fear Hobbes had of a theocracy:

And the debilitating dynamics of belief don’t end there. For once we imagine an all-powerful God to protect us, chances are we’ll begin to fear him too. What if he gets angry? How can we appease him? Hobbes reasoned that these new religious fears were what created a market for priests and prophets claiming to understand God’s obscure demands. It was a raucous market in Hobbes’s time, with stalls for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men and countless others, each with his own path to salvation and blueprint for Christian society. They disagreed with one another, and because their very souls were at stake, they fought. Which led to wars; which led to more fear; which made people more religious; which. . . .

Luckily, the Creation Museum itself is the best argument against Flat Earth creationism and its logical (no pun intended) necessities. As long as people don't check their rational minds at the door, seeing straight-faced assurances that the Grand Canyon was carved in a couple of days should pretty much absolve the view of any danger it may have had among the public at large.

The larger point, however, is this: If it becomes even more politically dangerous to label this nonsense what it is, then we may have a real problem on our hands. We laugh when George W. Bush says "the jury is still out on evolution." But when statements like that become more commonplace, and it becomes dangerous to oppose them, that's when the real nightmare scenarios come to bear.

Thomas Jefferson famously said "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Let's hope reason remains free. As for me, I'll err on the side of reason. I'll take "I think, therefore I am" over "I am who am" any day.

I could keep going. The "museum" is vulnerable to attack on pretty much every front. But, like the punch Ali didn't throw at Foreman, I'll abstain.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

Nice point about Divine Command Theory to define morality being intellectually lazy. Dawkins also posited that it's intellectually lazy to explain mysteries or unknowns by referencing a divine creator, instead of working to answer those tough questions (i.e. how did the universe form, who were the first humans, etc.) through science and discovery. Without science and discovery working to answer hard questions, we might still believe that the sun revolves around the earth because God made it that way.