March 13, 2008
The Creation Museum
— Joseph Laycock
Last summer I took a road-trip to Kentucky to see the new Creation Museum. The twenty-seven million dollar museum was established by the Biblical apologist movement Answers in Genesis (AiG). The movement teaches that the earth is only six thousand years old, and the museum sets itself to the task of explaining how a "young-earth" theory can account for diamonds, the Grand Canyon, and even starlight from millions of light-years away. AiG not only pits itself against the findings of mainstream science, but also against intelligent design, and "old-earth" creationists––those who believe that the Genesis narrative occurred millions of years ago. The museum claims to present a "scientific account" of Creationism where children can see Adam and Eve cavorting with robotic velociraptors.
Although the displays often wax polemical––directly blaming the theory of evolution for the Holocaust and eugenics––the museum's staff was quite affable during my visit. I had expected seasoned apologists ready to confront me with well-prepared rhetoric. Instead, I was cheerfully guided from room to room by beaming volunteers. This was a friendlier, subtler culture war than that of the Scopes Trial. In fact, AiG does not support efforts to teach Creationism in public schools. AiG CEO Carl Wieland refers to public education as a place that "would fiercely resist a frontal assault." Instead, his style is to "gently" reach out to hearts and minds. The Creation Museum is a reflection of this strategy.
But while the robotic dinosaurs were certainly winning the hearts of visiting children, I saw little evidence that the Museum's carefully constructed arguments were influencing minds. I watched visitors glance over plaques explaining how Pangaea formed under water and then separated in only forty days. There was seldom an expression of enlightenment or rejection—visitors simply took it all in and moved on. Most visitors seemed to have come to the Creation Museum simply as a family-friendly summer activity, just as they would visit any other museum.
But a problem lies in the fact that the Creation Museum is not any other museum. Enlightenment thinkers compared the idea of a natural history museum to an encyclopedia: The contents of a traditional museum are arranged thematically and the visitor can choose what to see first. By contrast, the Creation Museum is configured into a single, winding path. There are no choices of direction and no shortage of volunteers to usher you from one room to the next. In fact, when I purchased my ticket for the museum's planetarium show, I was told I could not enter the museum until I had seen the show. When I asked why, I was told, "Because the whole thing is designed that way." If the traditional museum is an encyclopedia, than the Creation Museum is, by its very design, an argument. Visitors are required to experience the argument in sequence for maximum effect.
The issue, then, is one of autonomy—specifically, of reducing the museum-goer's autonomy. By promoting an article of faith through the color of science, the Creation Museum attacks the very process of critical thinking. For example, a plaque explains that biologists once believed that new animals could emerge from a completely different species; however, biologists now agree that animals can only breed within their own kind. Darwin's argument was that new species emerge through animals breeding within their own kind and natural selection. In a cunning rhetorical maneuver, the AiG has taken two parts of a theory and presented them as if they were at odds.
The same tactic is repeated against philologists in the Tower of Babel exhibit. Here a display states that scientists used to believe different languages had emerged over thousands of years, but now scientists recognize that languages can be divided into families. Again, two parts of a unified theory are presented without context so as to convey that one part is replacing another, and that the findings of science are being abandoned. The museum gives visitors rhetoric when they are expecting science, and that prevents any rational assessment of the theories presented.
Creationism is a religious conviction, and as such, it is entitled to a degree of respect and Constitutional protection. However, no such concessions should be made for willful deception. An autonomous individual is free to believe or disbelieve in Creationism, basing that decision either on scientific evidence or on faith. To deceive someone who is basing the decision on evidence is to rob that person of autonomy and is unethical––especially when that someone is a child.
The official website for the Creation Museum is: http://www.creationmuseum.org/.
The official website of Answers in Genesis is: http://www.answersingenesis.org/.
Carl Wieland's article, "Linking and Feeding" can be found at: http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3156/.
Joseph Laycock has a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School and teaches secondary school in Atlanta.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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