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Reflections on a Visit to the Creation Museum
I recently made my way through the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum on a Sunday morning. Driving to the museum, I was inclined to give AiG the benefit of the doubt — I supposed they were well-meaning and devout, but just did not have a good grasp of the basic science involved. Now, I am less sure about the innocence of their motives, and much more inclined to believe that this is a pretty cynical effort to separate the gullible from some coin of the realm, and to build membership for a social movement (which, not coincidentally, is probably good for their acquisition of even more coins).
At the entrance, I was surprised to find several uniformed police directing traffic (complete with imposingly decked-out and very military-looking Hummers). The effect was not unlike dealing with post 9-11 airport security and served to create a vague feeling of imminent danger. In contrast, there was some comfort to be found in the form of a display of a ski boat just outside the main doors, complete with an ad for a local boat dealership. Apparently weekends at the lake with family or beer buddies are an important element of godliness to AiG adherents.
My very first impression was, "Wow, this museum cost cubic money!" (estimates vary, but $27 million is the most common). I was to decide at the end of my visit that Hollywood and Disney would be proud of the level of presentation. My immediate first impressions were quickly followed by the inevitable theme-park–style photographer who took everyone's picture so visitors would have the privilege of buying some copies on the way out. Then there was a "4-D" (multimedia, plus fake rainfall) movie that all were encouraged to take in at the very beginning of their visits.
Prominently featured were two "everyman" type of actors. Maybe I should say "everybody" because even though apparently about thirty years of age, they cast an ambience of white-hot sarcasm towards the teachers and professors who were depicted in the presentation as hopelessly dogmatic ignoramuses intent on foisting off the great lie of evolution. But these guys were clearly too smart for them, and intended to demonstrate it in the extreme. Strange, but I rather suspect that even for the believers in the audience these two must have come off as overgrown juvenile delinquents with mannerisms they would prefer to assign to unsocialized nabobs of negativism (as Vice-President Spiro Agnew liked to say) of the followers of the 60s New Left. They seemed to me to come off as some sort of part-time longhaul truck drivers, on way too much speed, but who just happened to have an in-depth knowledge of evolution, biochemistry, and the like that would be the envy of 99% of the PhDs at work in the relevant academic fields of study. Ultimately, what it all reminded me of is the recent emphasis by the creationist "intelligent design" supporters on having believers in the classroom confront their professors as militantly as possible — with disrespect as the tool with which to prosecute their case. I found myself wondering what kind of a world this would all lead to if we were all to become so intensely proud of our materially unsupportable viewpoints?
I really began to feel as if I had fallen down the Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole where facts are no longer a problem for the construction of reality. I felt seriously unnerved as I saw how the fairly large number of patrons in the museum were buying into the "see, creationism is really scientific" aspect. Funny, but the same people did not seem to notice that about half of the "scientific displays" were merely scenes from the Bible — most of which told an obvious morality tale. But this aspect of the place was actually the touching part. It was so clear that so many of those present felt adrift, if not outright lost, in the current world. Many seemed to me to suffer from a sense of being trapped in a world of moral normlessness — at least as seen from their own viewpoint. They seemed desperately to want to believe that a recommitment to biblical literalism would bring a "return" to a world with less anomie and less suffering.
My own work on creationism and "intelligent design" stresses how much of the controversy is really not driven by science at all, but instead represents "a struggle for the means of cultural reproduction" (see Eve and Harrold 1992, especially chapter 6). With this latter in mind, I could not help but notice that there were no minority persons (at least not any readily identifiable ones) in attendance among a fairly large number of viewers. Indeed, there were not many people in their 30s through their 50s.
What I did see was a lot of white folks with gray hair,and grayhaired folks taking their grandchildren through (most without their parents). This latter might be related to the fact that I found more than one book in the bookshop that stressed the belief that the current generation of parents is already "lost to the Lord." And without intervention by the grandparents, presumably, the grandchildren would naturally follow the errant road of their parents.
So I left with three powerful impressions clanking around in my skull. One was outrage that such lurid disinformation could be so sincerely presented. That led to the second clanging thought: most attendees were indeed going to buy the pseudoscience as totally legit because of their own lack of understanding of even basic science. Certainly the museum had used a plethora of elaborate iconography of science, albeit where the symbols were disconnected from their actual referents — enough so to make any postmodernist proud.
This striking array of scientific evidence "in favor of" creationism perhaps reflects the ambivalent attitude of creationists toward the new "great legitimator" (religious doctrine is the old one, science the newer one). Many anti-evolution organizations are quick to embrace "scientific" creationism and "intelligent design" as "proof" that their religious positions are correct: "look at all this scientific evidence that supports us." (Of course, there are some real fringe groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses who would typically just flatly say "God said it, I believe it. Who cares what scientists think?").
It is important to note, however, that the current conflict is not always one between science and religion, but often between an older form of science and the more recent form. In some ways the controversy may be more a matter of the differences between 19th-century science (Baconian inductivism) and contemporary deductivist science. We need to remember that most scientists of the 19th century were themselves creationists — and as such felt their only job would be to collect enough data to show how the divine plan had worked. For most such scientists it came as a rude shock when they found that some of the data did not "fit" Scripture. Most contemporary creationists still fit into this category. That is to say that they are not really so antiscience that they will not happily appeal to scientific authority when they find what they believe to be science that supports Scripture.
By contrast, the AiG museum seems fully prepared to be outright disingenuous in its presentation of scientific evidence. At least my own feeling was that the museum was prepared at any cost to say whatever needed to be said to convince the groundlings of scientific support for creationism. If the truth was to be a frequent casualty in such an effort then surely the ends must justify the ends. Machiavelli's Prince would be proud indeed of the displays presented throughout. Besides, such an approach would (excuse me for returning to an earlier theme) surely lead to more coins in the coffer. I was really saddened by the third strong impression I formed during my visit. It seemed to me that so many were visiting the museum because they feel so unfulfilled and saddened by the wider world as they perceive it. It is well-known in the sociology of religion that people tend to join cults after they decide that a search for answers within mainstream contemporary institutions (the family, the local church, the local psychiatrists, and so on) have failed to give them what they need. This certainly seemed to be a paradigm that fit well on many of those I saw. The difference, however, is that this is not a movement of the "new religions"; instead, it is a "revitalization movement". The latter term refers to movements intended to restore a formerly dominant set of persons and cultural practices after they have been displaced by something new. In the revitalization movement the constituents, the now displaced, seek to return things to the "normal" way they used to be.
This is part of the struggle for the means of cultural reproduction mentioned above. What I like to call cultural traditionalism has in recent decades been replaced by cultural modernism and postmodernism. The cultural traditionalists (a high percentage of whom are creationist "intelligent design" supporters) seek to return to a time when they were the dominant cultural aggregate. The fist-fight over evolution is really all about conflicting heuristic rules for knowing the truth. Cultural traditionalists use tradition, faith, authority, and revelation as the acid tests for assessing any given truth claim. ("God said it. I believe it. That settles it"). Modernists tend to use rational, empirical data for hypothesis testing to arrive at their truths. Postmodernists have no use for any of this, preferring to believe that truth is short-term, situational, and internal to the person ("it feels right to me, dude").
This is why the conflict over origins has no easy end. The different cultural traditions have not agreed on the rules for assessing the truth. By their own standards, each type feels that its own truth claims are well supported and refuses to accept any other method of assessing the relevant evidence. All this also helps to explain why the battle is most frequently in the school room, the courtroom, or the legislatures. These are precisely the places that the factions mentioned above struggle to try to control just which one of the ways of knowing, and associated "facts," will be passed on the next generation as legitimate. Hence the term "struggle for the means of cultural reproduction."
The Challenge for Science
Creationists are deeply alienated from the "Official Reality" propagated by mainstream institutions. This is a trend with a long history in the US. In some of my published studies and papers (such as Eve and others 1995), I examined a fairly recent sample of creationists who had attended a "Creationism Fair" in Glen Rose, Texas. (The event was put together by Carl Baugh, progenitor and curator of the first creationism museum — the one in Glen Rose just outside Dinosaur State Park, which is the alleged home of the famous Paluxy River "mantracks". Baugh's terminal degree is from a small wooden building in Dallas, but that's another story for another day.) I compared these creationism supporters to a sample of Wiccans from a "Magical Arts Convention" just outside of Austin, Texas.
The two populations were diametrical opposites on nearly every question of fact and attitude — with two exceptions. One was that both samples scored very high on alienation from big government, big industry, and even mainstream religion. The other thing they agreed on was that for their own (very different) worldviews and moral judgments there was "plenty of scientific evidence in support" of their respective views. So, one thing we all need to be doing is figuring out just what they think science actually is ... and whether there is a better way to teach a larger number of people valid science.
I do not think many creationists will ever change their views simply because someone tells them they are wrong. Instead, they must somehow come to know enough current scientific method to understand for themselves why they are wrong. The task seems hopeless in the short run. But I would point out that in the long run more Americans are scientifically capable today than ever, and most who are so schooled are increasingly disinclined to accept creationism. So the real field of action needs to be the high school and college classrooms.
In closing, let me just say that it is easy to get wrapped up in the science debate as one goes through the museum, but it is also important to keep one's eye out for how much of that debate is really driven by the social dynamics described above. For my own part, I found myself wishing I knew how to stand out in the parking lot as the folks left and then divide up the loaves and fishes and lay my hand on their heads and relieve all that anomie and mental anguish of contemporary life and the future. But, I could not. Indeed, I wondered who or what could?
Eve RA, Harrold FB. 1990. The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Twayne Press
Eve RA, Taylor J, Harrold FB. 1995. Why creationists don't go to psychic fairs. Skeptical Inquirer 19 (6): 23–8.