Kentucky creation museum’s impact on a polarized religious debate

By William (Beau) Weston, Centre College

How do you reconcile creation and evolution?

Last year, I took my Sociology of American Religion class to the Creation Museum as the final field trip of the term. What struck me the most about their reactions: most of my students had never really considered the aforementioned question. They simply accept both schools of thought as true.

The students ranged from incredulous evolutionists to of-course creationists. Most of them were religious, and most believe that God created the world. They accept old-earth evolutionist views because that is what they have been taught. Even the creation-confident were mostly very skeptical of the museum’s view that all of creation is only 6,000 years old. The stronger Christians were inclined to accept the museum’s version of how creation worked, because it is the only elaborated theory they have ever heard. The more secular-minded students were inclined to reject the museum’s argument, because they accepted the museum’s contention that the only alternative to their view was the materialistic atheism of “human reason.”

It’s a debate that has long been polarized, and one that has created enormous controversy – not withstanding the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which opened in May 2007.

The museum is a state-of-the-art visual presentation of the Answers in Genesis ministry (AiG), which believes that a literal reading of the Bible means that the whole universe was created about 6,000 years ago. AiG criticizes the purely natural view of evolution, which it connects to the teachings of Charles Darwin. The museum has welcomed more than 645,000 visitors as of Feb. 17, 2009, according to its Web site. It has also drawn picketers from a small group who see the museum as anti-science.

Less visible, though perhaps more important in the long run, have been the criticisms of more centrist Christians who see no conflict between Biblical creation and evolution.

Answers in Genesis: A growing organization

Answers in Genesis is led by Ken Ham, a former school teacher from Australia, who has been promoting “youth earth” creationist readings of the Bible since the 1970s. In 1986, he and his wife Mally came to the United States to work with the Creation Research Center in California, a leading proponent of creation science. Creation science attempts to use scientific methods of study starting from a premise of divine creation of the universe.

After nearly a decade of collaboration with the Creation Research Center, the Hams and several associates set out on their own. They had a vision of a place that would use Disney-like visual tools to teach the Genesis story as they understood it. Looking at the map of the United States, they calculated that northern Kentucky was within a day’s drive of most of the American population. This would be the perfect location for the Creation Museum.

Originally, AiG wanted to locate the museum near Big Bone Lick State Park, where large numbers of prehistoric mastodon bones have been found. The small museum maintained by the park service explains the history of the big bones using the usual scientific account. On this account, the earth was formed more than 5 billion years ago. Life evolved over hundreds of millions of years from simple organisms to complex ones. Dinosaurs evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, and all became extinct tens of millions of years ago. Mammals then evolved from small beginnings to large creatures like mastodons, who in their turn went extinct hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Human beings, on this account, evolved from other species starting hundreds of thousands of years ago, and only reaching the form of modern humans about a quarter of a million years ago.

When it became known that the proposed Creation Museum would contradict this “old earth” evolutionary view, local landowners near Big Bone Lick, and pro-evolutionists from all over, were alarmed. Answers in Genesis made a deposit on land there, but eventually decided the opposition made that location unwise. Instead, they settled on an undeveloped site near the Petersburg exit on Interstate 264, just west of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. Looking back, the museum regards the Big Bone Lick controversy as a blessing in disguise. The museum’s eventual location, right off the interstate and so close the airport, is easy to reach. And the silver lining of the original controversy was that it brought priceless publicity to the Creation Museum project years before it opened.

Answers in Genesis raised millions of dollars from private sources, in Kentucky and across the world. Eventually they poured $27 million into making the museum. The 60,000-square-foot facility opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2007. Museum officials are still developing the museum grounds, which include picnic areas, a botanical garden and a petting zoo. They brought in experienced professionals to plan and construct the exhibits, many of whom came because they shared the ministry’s view of scripture and creation. They made many paintings, murals, dioramas, portions of a full-scale Noah’s Ark, and many models of people, plants and animals – especially dinosaurs. Lots and lots of dinosaurs. The museum is especially proud of its animatronic dinosaurs, designed by experts who worked at Universal Studios.

By the one-year anniversary of the museum’s opening (May 28, 2008), more than 400,000 people had visited the museum – well ahead of the ministry’s projections. The Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis – U.S. now have more than 275 paid and volunteer staff. The Answers radio program is now heard on about 900 U.S. stations, and the AiG Web site is one of the most-visited religious Web sites in the world.

By its calculation, AiG has now become the world’s largest apologetics organization.

Inside the museum

The museum is full of instructive films on a continuous loop, explaining how all the stars, planets and creatures of every kind could have been created in six 24-hour days. The museum includes a planetarium show that very effectively demonstrates the awesome scope of the universe and its billions of galaxies. The show, designed by a former NASA astrophysicist, makes clear that creation is not confined to the earth or our solar system, but includes everything that exists.

Much of the argument about the physical world that the Creation Museum offers turns on the Noah flood. Evolutionists argue that the creation of mountains and river canyons, coal and oil, the movement of the continents, the layers of fossil life from times gone by, and all the other great physical features of the world took hundreds of millions of years. In the young earth creation account, by contrast, all of this took place a few thousand years ago, in a massive cataclysm that remade the world. Instead of millions of years of slow erosion to create, say, the Grand Canyon, the museum cites the erosion canyons created in the weeks following the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption. Something like this happened in Noah’s flood, the museum contends, but faster and on a more massive scale.

There are charming and unexpected details in the Creation Museum’s “walk through history,” some of which are unusual even within creationist circles. They read the Garden of Eden account to mean that all animals were originally vegetarian. There were no diseases. No creatures would die. In the main lobby is a life-size diorama of two cave children, some squirrels and a couple of velociraptors, all playing nicely. In a miniature diorama of the animals entering the Ark two by two, the giraffes are followed by a pair of brontosaurus. At the end of the museum tour is a small triceratops – with a saddle on it for riding.

The Biblical argument is just as important a part of the Creation Museum as the story of the universe’s short history. The first part of the walk does not begin with “let there be light,” but with a detailed exhibit on the history of Biblical interpretation. The great figures of the Bible are followed by great Protestant proponents of “scripture alone” views of ecclesiastical authority. The 19th Century Biblical literalists do battle with secularists. Worse, on this account, are liberal Christian modernizers who reinterpret the Bible metaphorically. If there is a human villain in this story it is not Charles Darwin, but the church leaders who read the “days” of Genesis as equaling an “age” of indeterminate length.

The controversy

When the Creation Museum opened there were about 60 protesters. They carried such signs as “Abandon Reason All Who Enter Here,” “Dumbing Down Science is Child Abuse” and “You Evolved (But Not Enough).” In the months afterward, some 800 scientists in the three states surrounding the museum signed a statement sponsored by National Center for Science Education reading:

“We, the undersigned scientists at universities and colleges in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, are concerned about scientifically inaccurate materials at the Answers in Genesis museum. Students who accept this material as scientifically valid are unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level. These students will need remedial instruction in the nature of science, as well as in the specific areas of science misrepresented by Answers in Genesis.”

The criticism from scientists has been especially harsh. According to Newsweek in 1987, “By one count there are some 700 scientists with respectable academic credentials (out of a total of 480,000 U.S. earth and life scientists) who give credence to creation-science…”

Many Christians and other religious believers also part company with the Creation Museum’s distinctive view of Biblical history. Answers in Genesis accepts 17th Century Irish bishop James Ussher’s calculation that creation began on Oct. 23, 4004, B.C. Mainline religious institutions all made their peace with old earth views decades ago, and most accept some form of evolution. Even many Biblical literalists do not insist on a 6,000-year-old universe.

Matthew Nisbet, at csicop.org, collects public opinion polls about creation and evolution views. The Gallup Organization periodically asks the American public about its beliefs on evolution and creation. Gallup has conducted a poll of U.S. adults in 1982, 1991, 1993 and 1997. By keeping the wording identical, each year’s results are comparable to the others. The results for the Nov. 21-24, 1991, poll were (chart below): chart

The survey from 1997 found similar results for the general public, then compared them to the views of scientists. Among scientists the middle position, theistic evolution, drew the same 40 percent as in the public. The two ends of the spectrum, though, were switched. Fifty-five percent of the scientists accepted naturalistic evolution, whereas only 5 percent accepted the creationist view.

The middle position, theistic evolution, is an important centrist option. When people are asked to choose only between evolution and creationism, as Gallup did in 2001, nearly half of the public (48 percent) chose the theory of creationism versus just 28 percent for the theory of evolution, with 14 percent unsure. Most people favor teaching both creationism and evolutionary theory. Even a third of teachers favor teaching both. As further evidence that the Creation Museum’s views on evolution are widely shared, during a debate of 10 Republicans seeking the presidential nomination in 2007, three denied a personal belief in evolution.

The controversy and the ministry

The Creation Museum is not a scientific organization, but a Christian ministry. Nor is creationism the prime intellectual commitment of the museum. Rather, they are devoted to a very high view of Biblical authority. The Answers in Genesis “Statement of Faith” concludes, “No apparent, perceived or claimed interpretation of evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.” Young earth creationism is an important part of the message of the Creation Museum, but it is a corollary to the main point.

For all the criticism the museum has received from various kinds of evolutionists, Ken Ham notes that they have also been criticized by racists for teaching that all people descended from the same couple created in God’s image.

The Creation Museum has quickly become Kentucky’s best-known destination for instructive religious spectacle. More than half a million conservative Christians – and a few other believers and skeptics – have already visited. The numbers are likely to grow in the coming years.

The Creation Museum asks visitors to “Prepare to believe.” They certainly haven’t convinced all visitors, but they have given a spectacular face to creationist faith.

About the author: William (Beau) Weston is Van Winkle Professor of Sociology at Centre College. Weston holds a bachelor of arts degree from Swarthmore College, a master of arts in religion from Yale Divinity School and a master of arts and Ph.D. from Yale University. He takes his Sociology of American Religion class to the Creation Museum, and thanks the staff there for their gracious help. Visit his blog, The Gruntled Center, at http://gruntledcenter.blogspot.com/.

This article was published in the April 2009 issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine. To receive the magazine, e-mail Editor Julie Nelson Satterly at julie.satterly@uky.edu. To download a PDF, visit www.kyhumanities.org.


1 Response to “Kentucky creation museum’s impact on a polarized religious debate”

  1. April 1, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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