[DISCLAIMER: This story is very different from my normal travel stories. It is 100% about religion. If you are convinced that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah brought dinosaurs on his ark, I can tell you right now, you won’t like it.]
So, why oh why? Well, because I saw the sign on the highway. I knew it existed, and I even knew it was in Kentucky, but I didn’t know it was right across the Ohio border. So I chose to sacrifice my short visit to Cincinnati, and I made the detour.
Creationism is not very big in my native province of Quebec, with support for the theory at only 9%. For me, it has always been in the same bag as believing Elvis is alive or that the Government keeps aliens at Area 51: i.e. something you can’t believe people actually believe. But they do, and they are not marginal by any means. Support for creationism stands at 22% in Canada and 42% in the United States, with a further 31% believing evolution occurred, but was “guided by God”. Numbers are also high in Europe and other parts of the world, although they vary greatly by country, and also by religion. Buddhists are chill enough not to be offended by evolution. Hindus are not at all offended by the notion of grandpa monkey. Hardly surprising considering they’re OK with the idea that they might have been a frog in their last reincarnation. In many, but not all Muslim countries, a majority of people believe in young Earth theories. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses almost universally reject the theory of evolution, and in Saudi Arabia, that great beacon of enlightenment, teaching it is banned.
Creationism differs from other religious beliefs in that it stands in stark contradiction to a lot of modern day scientific beliefs. Religions very often lie outside the realm of science, either because of the things they are concerned with – like the meaning of life – or because they invoke the supernatural. To say that Jesus could walk on water may not be a very scientific claim, but since he apparently did it through a divine miracle, in a way it doesn’t contradict science. It doesn’t say that what we understand about buoyancy is wrong. Creationism is obviously different in that it flies in the face of everything we know about our planet’s history, and it pushes religious beliefs that don’t pretend to be miracles, but natural history facts. Unfortunately, the world can only be 6,000 years old OR billions of years old, but not both! So this has created a major and very bitter debate in American education about how and whether these mutually exclusive ideas should be taught.
Although I don’t really want to get into it, creationists come in different flavours. Many accept the fact that the world is old, and even evolution, but believe it was guided by God. You may have heard of these people under names like “old Earth creationists” or “intelligent design”. Generally speaking, they hate each other. Many “mainstream Christians” organizations also hate them, believing they ridicule the entire religion with their views that go completely against the worldwide consensus on the history of the planet.
In all honesty, I went to the museum to have fun. I thought I would laugh at the pictures of cavemen running away from dinosaurs and weird people who think this all makes sense. [Side note: a huge percentage of North Americans believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, but their ranks include large numbers of non-religious types who assume this to be the case because it was portrayed as such in The Flintstones. And science education in most Canadian and American schools is not that great].
For sure, I did see quite a few visitors dressed in the latest 19th century fashion, arriving in large vans with 17 year old girls carrying their 3rd child and men who very obviously got their hair cut at home. But by far, the vast majority of people were perfectly normal looking middle America folks; families, grandpas and yoga pant wearing soccer moms. And what I discovered was an extremely slick and internally coherent ideology, delivered in style in a beautifully designed museum. Did it change my mind? I won’t bother answering that. But it did – unexpectedly – open my eyes to some of the reasons why the ridiculous idea is so popular. Here’s my take at explaining it.
Why do they want to believe?
The questions that raise people’s interest in religion tend to be the same worldwide.
Although sometimes their concerns seem a little naive. For some people, vague references to divinity and a general sense of right and wrong fulfills their spiritual needs. Some take the whole experience as a more private one. Many theistic people even reject organized religion altogether. But a lot of people want the comfort of absolute answers, provided by “experts” quoting the actual word of God. And if you want absolute answers, there is no room for interpretation. Everything must be taken literally, or you loose the whole certainty thing. If the story of the Genesis is just a metaphor, then why should any other part of the Bible be taken literally. Maybe Jesus is just a metaphor? Maybe the 10 commandements are just suggestions? Maybe that’s what God wanted then, but now he’s changed his mind? Who knows? Does the Pope know? Does ISIS? A sacred cow? You? Absolute beliefs become possible when you say the Bible, the whole thing, is the word of God and that is that. Forever.
This is obviously a generalization, but in this day and age, Islam tends to be more literal than Christianity, and I think this may be why it attracts so many converts from the West. If you seek absolute certainty, then religions that “evolve” with their time cannot maintain their credibility. After all, how can a religion spend 2,000 years saying that homosexuality is a terrible sin banned by God, and then turn around and say: “Never mind, it’s fine. But everything else we say is still the absolute, unquestionable, truthful word of God forever”? Absolutism just doesn’t go with change or doubt, and I believe this is why the literal interpretation of the Genesis is so important to a large minority of religious people. It is the cornerstone and attacking it really pisses them off. If you don’t believe me, listen to famous biologist and writer Richard Dawkins, reading his “fan mail”. It’s actually sad, but also hilarious. (Warning: it contains some very violent and not very polite language).
Why does it seem reasonable to so many people?
Evolution, like general relativity or many aspects of cosmology, belongs to that area of science that despite wide acceptance and ample evidence, remains totally mind-boggling for the layperson. My 7th generation grandfather, who immigrated to Quebec from Paris in 1665, probably looked roughly like me. Thousands of years ago, when the Egyptians were building pyramids and the Chinese a massive imperial bureaucracy, my 150th generation grandfather was probably digging up edible roots behind his hut somewhere in northern France. No reason to think he didn’t look similar to myself. But what about my 5,000th generation grandfather, who lived 100,000 years ago? Is it hard to imagine that he looked a little rough around the edges? Big jaw, retarded looking forehead, not the greatest public speaker? I find that easy to believe. And my 100,000th generation grandfather? Well, he looked a bit like a monkey. This is one thing that shocks so many people and causes them to reject the theory of evolution. I don’t find it particularly hard to believe, but it doesn’t stop there. What about my 100,000,000th generation grandfather.Luckily, I happen to have an old family portrait. That’s him. He’s a fish. My grandfather was a fish! No amount of scientific evidence will ever change the fact that this is an incredible, fantastic sounding theory. Of course, it is the most reasonable explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, and the only one universally accepted in science. But I also think that we cannot understand opposition to it without coming to the realization of how counter intuitive and fantastic is seems, when you actually stop to think about it. And after all, like many theories about things past, it cannot undergo the ultimate scientific test, reproducibility of results. Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his paper on the law of the photoelectric effect. If you don’t believe it, all a physicist needs is a few instruments to prove it to you in front of your eyes. But if you don’t believe in the Big Bang, no astrophysicist can alleviate your scepticism by making another one happen.
Common sense, no?
Why does it seem “scientific”?
To begin with, the museum is actually filled with science, real science. “God loves science” is the message. The museum explains that spiders are not insects, how big our galaxy is and what pulsars are. If you censored the creationism material, you would end up with a very decent natural history museum. For example, everything in the following panel is accurate, except that the Lower Jurassic was about 150 million years ago, not in 2348 BC!
And the beetle collections, illustrating the great diversity of life, are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
For anyone potentially open to the tenets of creationism, this sets up an atmosphere of seriousness and credibility. Magnificent pictures and movies celebrate the incredible diversity and beauty of life on Earth, creating a feeling of awe for many, myself included. False “patterns” are alluded to, for example by showing how similar the spiral shape of certain crustacean shells are to the shape of galaxies. It is easy see how, for the theistically inclined, this would lead to strong feelings that divine involvement must be a part of it.
One thing I had never realized is that creationists actually believe in natural selection. They even believe in a form of evolution, just not in “trans-species” evolution. This “explains” one of the more unbelievable aspects of the story of Noah’s Ark. How could some dude thousands of years ago collect a couple of each of the 400,000 known species of beetles? The answer is that he didn’t. In fact, perhaps they did not exist back then. Creationists believe that God has given species the ability to adapt to their harsh environment in the post-flood world. So from a small reptile, a bigger reptile can evolve to catch bigger prey, but it will never become a mammal or a bird. And if you were wondering how Noah got a couple of gigantic brontosaurus on his boat, again the answer is that he didn’t. He took babies, or even eggs.
They even have an explanation for the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Since I have a degree in molecular biology, I feel 100% confident in dismissing this as complete rubbish. In no way can this ever be called science, but is it “stupid”? No, it is actually a somewhat clever way to reconcile their beliefs with the daily reality of people who have heard of antibiotic resistance but don’t understand the actual mechanisms involved. In the same way, fossils and erosion are all explained by the great flood that God sent upon the Earth a few thousand years ago. Since I know next to nothing about geology or palaeontology, I looked at the explanations as a layperson and, at face value, everything seemed reasonable. Just like in the case of grandpa fish, creationism often makes much more “common sense” than science. I understand carbon dating quite well and I certainly don’t doubt its validity, but it certainly is not intuitive, nor is it easy to explain to a scientifically ignorant person. A whole lot of water moving a whole lot of dirt around and burring dinosaurs; now that’s simple!
Creationists are also very consistent with themselves. They do not create “knowledge” by biblical extrapolation the way medieval theologians did. How did scavengers come to be? Well, the Bible makes no mention of this, so we simply don’t know, they say. How big was Noah’s Ark? 137 or 158 meters, depending if the short cubit or the Royal Egyptian cubit was used. The Bible doesn’t specify, so we don’t know. The museum is also very “science-oriented” in a way, with displays on the development of science, technology and medicine. Obviously, nothing in the Genesis contradicts quantum mechanics, nor does the Bible render jugement on fibre optics or black holes, so for them, there is no reason to deny or oppose any of that. I think avoiding the rejection of modernity and most of the scientific world probably also contributes to the relative mainstream nature of creationism, by removing some – but certainly not all – of the obscurantist veneer. Plus, not that many people want to live like the Amish.
Dr Arthur Pod sounds very scientifically credible, because he is an android. I’m not kidding, and he is not the only one in the complex. They really like androids and robotic dinosaurs!
So in conclusion, it was worth a visit, although it pains me that I gave $30 to an organization that wants public schools to teach this sort of non-sense. But the museum cost $27 million to build nearly a decade ago (all private donations), so my money made little difference. And although it obviously didn’t influence my own opinion, I gained a better understanding of how this group of creationists (the Answers in Genesis ministry), sells what should be unsellable.
Finally, a few other random things I learned about creationism.
1 – The Bible does not actually state the age of the world. But it mentions at what age Adam and his descendants died. By adding them up until the beginning of recorded history, and then adding recorded history, they come up with a figure of about 6,000 years.
2 – Before the whole apple incident, there was no death, ever (somehow, plants and fungi don’t count). Tigers happily hung around penguins and ate zucchini. Then the apple related chaos occurred: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin (Romans 5:12)”.
3 – Creationists are really good at landscaping. The site is beautiful.
4 – God had a surprising way of organizing his work. On day 4, “God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” So in a single day, God created at least 100,000,000,000 galaxies containing tens or hundreds of billions of stars each, as well as an inconceivable number of planets, pulsars, black holes, comets, Klingons and Jedi Masters, in a universe 93 billion light years in diameter (BTW, that’s about 85,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 km). Then on day 5, God said: “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So in the same time frame of 24 hours, all he did was crank out some fish and birds on one single tiny planet, around a typical small star in an average galaxy of the Virgo Supercluster, one of countless galactic superclusters.
5 – Incest was OK in the old days, but not anymore. The displays I saw explained in perfectly scientifically accurate terms the risks associated with incest. Basically, an increased chance of children inheriting 2 similar, disease-causing versions of the same gene and thus falling victim to a genetic disorder of some sorts. In a far less scientific manner, they went on to explain that because Adam and Eve were perfect and “free of mutations”, incest was OK, but it became gradually less and less advisable with passing generations.