Natural History, Bible-style
For natural history museums, the awesome dinosaur is a star attraction for drawing wide-eyed children and their families. It's surprising, though, to be welcomed at the gate of the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky by two stegosauruses. After all, this brand-new museum is designed to disprove evolution, including the millions of years that science says dinosaurs walked the earth.
For Bible-defending "creationists," God created Earth and all its creatures between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. But they know a drawing card when they see one, and this museum has more than its share of animatronic (moving, teeth-baring, roaring) specimens. In fact, dinosaurs play a big role in this "biblical history": They live not 65 million years ago, but with humans -- in the Garden of Eden and on Noah's Ark.
"Dinosaurs are one of the icons of evolution, but we believe they lived at the same time as people," says Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis (AiG), the fundamentalist Christian ministry that built the facility. "The Bible talks about dragons. We believe dragon legends had a basis in truth."
The $27 million museum set on 50 acres opens on Memorial Day, and AiG hopes for 250,000 visitors a year. Mr. Ham, a former science teacher in Australia, is direct about the museum's purpose: to restore the Bible to its "rightful authority" in society.
For many scientists, however, it's distressing. Some 700 scientists at educational institutions in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana have signed a statement deploring the "scientifically inaccurate" exhibits and warning that students who accept them are "unlikely to succeed in science courses."
Erroneous, with 'great flash and dash'
Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, says, "This is freedom of speech, but it's unfortunate the public is going to be exposed to erroneous science presented with great flash and dash ... in an authoritative way. This is going to be detrimental to science literacy."
No doubt, AiG knew how to create an appealing experience, choosing a designer of amusement parks who created the Jaws and King Kong exhibits at Florida's Universal Studios. In a special-effects theater, the seats shake and visitors are sprinkled with water. There's a lush Garden of Eden, a partial re-creation of Noah's Ark, a slice of the Grand Canyon, lots of videos on plasma TVs, and a planetarium for exploring the universe. At Noah's Cafe, kids can saddle up on a triceratops.
Yet the main mission isn't entertainment; it's presenting a particular "biblical worldview" in which Genesis stands as literal history and true science.
"Genesis gives an account of the history of all basic entities ... from the One who knows everything," Ham says. "If you don't know everything, there could always be evidence that will lead to wrong conclusions."
And wrong conclusions is what AiG claims is behind evolution. Dividing science into "observational science" and "historical science," its theme is that the latter is simply interpretation based on one's presuppositions. In one exhibit, for instance, two paleontologists (a creationist and an evolutionist) are digging up a dinosaur skeleton, but they have two different interpretations -- one from a perspective of thousands of years and the other, millions of years.
"Fossils don't have labels," Ham says. "You have different interpretations because you have different starting points -- one starts with God's Word, one with human reason."
Dismissing the observational/historical dichotomy, Dr. Scott says "it's nonsense ... Nobody really thinks astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology ... go about testing their explanations in a way substantially different from other sciences."
Young-earth creationists believe the fossil record was entirely laid down during the "universal flood" of Noah's day. This view has taken hold just since 1961, when two fundamentalists, Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, wrote "The Genesis Flood" (though the idea of "flood geology" had originated earlier among Seventh-Day Adventists).
"The evidence for geological ages became so overwhelming in the early 19th century that even evangelical Christians embraced it and changed their understandings of Genesis to accommodate it," says Ron Numbers, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin. But after the 1961 book, fundamentalists began gravitating to that position, which in 1970 was renamed creation science.
"If you take away the hundreds of millions of years the paleontological record gives to evolutionists, you've knocked out the biggest bulk of evidence for evolution," Dr. Numbers says. "They're trying to fit the scientific evidence into that model and for a period tried to market it as scientific to get it into the public schools." The US Supreme Court said it has a religious basis and couldn't be taught in science classrooms.
Evolution problematic for many
"We're not an activist group regarding school battles or getting materials into public schools," says Mark Looy, AiG's communications director. AiG does produce a glossy magazine, books, a radio show, and at least two DVDs a month for distribution to churches, Christian schools, and home-schooling families. Ham and staff are on the go giving talks at some 350 gatherings a year. In response to requests, Mr. Looy says, they ship 48,000 items annually.
One paperback, "Evolution Exposed: Your Answer Book for the Classroom," instructs students how to respectfully but insistently counter evolutionary concepts.
The museum poses such difficulty for scientists, perhaps, because evolution is problematic for many. Polls consistently find that close to half of all Americans reject it.
"People find it unbiblical and implausible. You are talking about human ancestry, which people are very sensitive about," Numbers posits. Plus some scientists "have gone overboard" in claiming evolution proves there is no God, even though "millions have harmonized it with their religious beliefs."
In a bid to clarify this, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has published "The Evolution Dialogues," which explores evolution and Christianity's response. It discusses those who see science and religion as compatible but dealing with different spheres, and others working out a theology that takes evolution into account.
The museum scorns such an approach. One exhibit shows a pastor preaching it's OK not to believe in a literal Genesis. Then it depicts "the consequences" in one family: A young boy looks at porn on the Internet while his sister calls Planned Parenthood.
No one has a handle on the scope of creationism's influence, says Numbers, author of "The Creationists." "Intelligent design" (which disputes aspects of evolution but accepts that the universe is billions of years old) has been more in the news recently. But AiG, simply one group in the creationism fold, is clearly doing well. The museum has 8,500 charter members, Looy says, and is all paid for -- by donations averaging $100.