Thursday, August 13, 2009

Visiting the Creation "Museum"

Last friday, 300 atheists descended on the notorious creation museum. The trip was in conjunction with a Secular Students Alliance conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was one of those 300 atheists.

above: the lobby of the creation museum
Why did I see the museum? Mainly because I was curious, not just of the creation museum itself, though that too, but also the trend it represented. The creation museum has become the symbol of the know-nothingism in American society. It seems likely that the creationist will not succeed in imposing their bizarre version of reality on the school-children of America, but the balkanization of reality and a disregard for objective facts exemplified by the creationists has already so permeated out discourse it has become almost impossible to have a reasonable political dialogue in this country. Elect a new president? We're told he's not born in this country, and secretly a Muslim anyhow. Want to reform healthcare? People scream that the new plan will euthanize old people. The creationists are symbolic of this irrationality.
It used to be people were welcome to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Today our discourse allows two sides their own facts as well. As Paul Krugman put it, if a small group of people began claiming the Earth is flat, the newspaper headline would be "Shape of the Earth: Views Differ". Stephen Colbert famously labels this phenomenon "truthiness".
One of the earliest exhibits in the creation museum perfectly illustrates this point. It shows two scientists on an paleontological dig. One scientist says the bones are roughly 100 million years old. The sees the same thing, but says the bones are about 4400 years old (just the idea of a creationist on a dig like this should raise some eyebrows). What is happening here is not two "interpretations" as the museum claims. Instead, the latter scientist has hocked back the facts provided by the find, and made up his own. Basically the museum is saying "age of the Earth: views differ."

The museum is at least consistent . It "teaches the controversy", the thing that the evolution deniers been encouraging rural school-boards to do since time immemorial. A whole section compares the alternate interpretations of "Human Reason" and "God's Word". I note some inconsistency here, a lot of this museum seems to be arguing that the precepts of creation are more reasonable than those of evolution, a feat requiring considerable twisting of the facts.

In a series of displays, we are shown both the fundamentalist interpretation on one hand and on the other hand, the scientific world-view is displayed. The creationists, despite what you may think, do in fact believe in evolution, indeed, they believe in evolution several factors of magnitude faster than anything any true scholar of the subject would ever propose. To the creationists, every animal evolved from several base types over a period of several thousand years since the great flood. This fact allowed Noah to only take on board the basic "types" and thus fit all the animals on the Ark (I was unable to maintain a straight face typing that last sentence). Via PZ Myers, (for soem reason, I did not photograph this) a picture of the genetic divergence of both the "monkey" and the human types. See if you can spot the difference.

Of course, the creationists can't just leave us with the appearance that both ideas might simply be equal so, we are then led in to what might be called atheistland, a representation of our dystopian present. Believers, you see, think of evolution as a sort of Pandora's Box, and when you open it, you never know what will jump out at you. Abortion, euthanasia, acceptance of gays; all these are horrible results of evolutionary theory. We walk through a what could be a recreation of a seedy New York City back ally, replete with newspaper clippings emphasizing these various hot-button issues. The next part of atheistland portrays the spirtual vacuum of a modern suburban home and a wrecking ball destroying a church.
This may be the real reason creationists insist on their cockamamie theories. They are convinced that in a world determined by evolution, people will grow wicked, so it is better that we don't question God's word, even in the slightest. This is highly idiosyncratic. There certainly are ills in our world, but it's very difficult to attribute any of these to evolutionary theory. What's more, our world is superior in a whole host of ways to the pre-enlightenment world, including in being less violent (see previous post). The creationists also ignore the fact that one could just as easily point to horrible things as resulting from christianity. For example, the museum draws a clear link between evolution and "scientific" racism, yet they are clear in embracing the Hammite descent of Africans, the most common justification used for slavery.

There's more material in the creation museum, but this post is getting long, so I will try to cover more in another post.

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