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Adventures in Young Earth Creationism: The Creation Museum and the Troubling Questions It Inspires

A research trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, inspires questions about the nature of "fact" in contemporary American culture.

Tamara Watkins

The Creation Museum is impressive—for positive and negative reasons. Ever the Pollyanna, let me start with the positives. It's well designed, with exhibits that undoubtedly cost a great deal to construct. I'm a museum nerd, and I've been to few museums that feature animatronics, which the Creation Museum features prominently. (My time as a Smithsonian intern would've been very interesting if I'd been responsible for, say, making sure that the gears in some Eleanor Roosevelt-shaped talking robot were functioning properly, rather than cataloging and documenting the state of photographs.) The Creation Museum, of course, is impressive for other reasons. The biggest one is that its raison d'être is to promote flawed understandings of history and science. The Creation Museum is philosophically grounded in Young Earth Creationism (YEC), the idea that the earth was created in six days about 6,000 years ago by the Judeo-Christian god. We can thank Bishop James Ussher for this number, at which he arrived at via a literal interpretation of the Tanakh (Old Testament). In fact, Ussher was so sure of his calculations that he proclaimed that the "day of creation" was October 23, 4004 BCE—although I'm sure he'd take umbrage at my use of "BCE," as it hints at my secular orientation. Ussher calculated this impressively precise date by tracing the genealogies found in the Tanakh, which are interpreted by fundamentalists as literally true and historically accurate. The calculation also requires the literal interpretation of verses about the lifespans of biblical patriarchs, even 969-year-old Methuselah. There are a whole lot of assumptions going on here being passed off as "science," and we all know that saying about assuming things.

Although the Creation Museum does not currently have an exhibit about Bishop Ussher's calculations, its content is dependent on Ussher's work. Without the tacit acceptance of this calculation and the "history" it explains, the Creation Museum's timeline would be impossible. Nevertheless, this historical reworking gives rise to some intellectual discomfort among some museum goers. The Creation Museum's dinosaur exhibit is especially jarring for those of us who grew up obsessed with dinosaurs and accustomed to discussing the terrible lizards' reign on Earth on a multi-million year time scale. If we are to understand that dinosaurs and humans coexisted (which, per the Creation Museum, they did), then dinosaurs must have existed within the past 6,000 years. Yes, yes—technically speaking, dinosaurs have existed during this time—as birds. However, this scientific, evolution-based argument would be instantly rejected by Creationists for obvious reasons, despite the fact that this technicality fills me with a combination of science geek joy (we live among the descendants of theropod dinosaurs!) and schadenfreude for people whose belief in YEC can be supported in a way that simultaneously undermines it.

The Creation Museum is notable for other reasons, few of which seem directly linked to YEC, but are grounded in the philosophical position that humanity is sinful, doomed, and in need of divine intervention. In the "Culture in Crisis" exhibit, museum goers are treated to a voyeuristic experience of peeking in on various "scenes of family dysfunction so common in many [secular] homes today," via recorded short films, that museum goers are seemingly expected to receive as equally troubling and as evidence of the depravity of "secular" culture. In one, a pregnant teenager who is considering having an abortion. This, of course, is unacceptable to Ken Ham, et al., and evidence that she needs a good dose of vitamin Jesus to cure her supposed immorality.

Perhaps I'm too small-minded and lacking in imagination to understand the connection between Creationism and a woman's right to bodily autonomy. Sure, Eve convinced Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And that apparently means that I have to have menstrual cramps and women are doomed to feel pain during the act of bringing new life into the world. However, the transition from idyllic Garden of Eden, complete with skinny dipping Adam and Eve, to post-Fall of Man twenty-first century hellscape is abrupt. The implicit connection is that sin led to the Fall of Man, leading to the need for the Flood, and, later, the actions that would lead countless adolescents to explore their sexuality. The message is clear: Eve duped her husband into eating some fruit (she was just worried about his fiber intake, I'm sure), which really pissed God off and led to him drowning most humans some generations later. The Flood wiped out a bunch of people, but not sin, so now we live in the twenty-first century and there are teenagers who look at porn and get abortions without apprehension or guilt.

This is all based in a lot of religiously informed guilt and shaming, which is not surprising to those of us who grew up in conservative evangelical Christian communities. I attended conservative evangelical Lutheran schools from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. During much of that time, I was taught that the Fall of Man makes me a horrible person and I need forgiveness for even oversleeping my alarm clock (this is one of the few things I remember from my sixth grade religion class) and that YEC is the correct interpretation of the universe and history. According to this worldview, YEC is, indeed, "science" that provides a convincing counterargument to secular, "evolutionist" theories. According to some fundamentalist Christians, secular explanations of the universe are dangerous because their proponents seek to destroy religion. Despite being a thoroughly secular person, I rarely get "angry" about YEC— and I'm generally annoyed when someone gets facts wrong, like when there's a typo on a Trivial Pursuit card or when someone giving a lecture about The Passion of the Christ states that the film's dialog is in Arabic, not Aramaic. In short, I'm the sort of person who buys all the hot dogs, which makes me fun at parties. I've tried to explain this reaction to others, as well as myself, but I always end up unable to fully articulate why my emotional and intellectual thresholds are so high with respect to consuming such fallacious content. I concede that this is a strange reaction to this blatant disrespect of science, especially as I fundamentally disagree with every premise on which YEC is based.

I've been to the Creation Museum twice, each time for a different purpose. My aforementioned museum nerdery is responsible for my first trip there. What drew me to the Creation Museum the second time was a research interest in how these exhibits reach adolescent museum goers, a subject related my dissertation which discusses evangelical Christian media created for a young adult audience. Some parts of the museum—the zip line, the inclusion of adolescent-looking mannequins proclaiming that they've never "heard this in school"—seem clearly intended to reach this audience. Undoubtedly some fundamentalist evangelical Christian adolescents exist, although Pew polling data indicates that fewer young Americans are religious. It's also a museum for fundamentalist families to drag their kids to, as the Duggars. Will this render the Creation Museum obsolete in a few years? Hardly. This is a museum visited by true, like the Duggars, the celebrity Quiverfull family , who traveled to the Creation Museum in an episode of their reality TV show. It seems unlikely that the Creation Museum will shed this dual existence. In an admittedly small pool of surveyed individuals who might not be typical of the general American population, I know as many people who have gone to the Creation Museum ironically as have gone to the museum as an extension of their deeply held, completely unironic beliefs in evangelical Christianity and YEC. This division is representative of current American culture, and the issues we face as a society with respect to how we discuss and view conservative religion and the persistent acceptance, in some circles, of denying scientific evidence in favor of promoting an ideology.

As we drove through the beautiful mountains of West Virginia and reflected on our Creation Museum experience, my boyfriend and traveling companion raised an interesting point. He mused, "It seems that people only make exceptions for bad behavior if religion is involved." Although he did not intend this statement to be an observation of my academic study of Christian media and entertainment (or infotainment, in the case of the Creation Museum), it nevertheless prompted me to engage in some self-reflection about my personal reactions to these media. As we discussed the ways in which YEC can affect children and our society as a whole, I found myself considering the ways in which YEC functions as a social movement and, as some argue, intellectual abuse of children. It made me wonder: Why do I make exceptions for religiously inclined individuals' behavior, if it involves religion, when I wouldn't do the same for people without that religious or philosophical weight propping up their incorrect and poisonous beliefs that are based on incorrect reasoning and intentional misunderstanding of science?

I am very protective of evangelicals, although I have not considered myself one for over twenty years. I have inhabited a liminal state between secular and religious for these two decades. I jettisoned belief in YEC and literal interpretations of the Bible long before I graduated from my conservative Lutheran high school. I embraced evolution and the Big Bang, but kept quiet about it so I didn't jeopardize my grade in religion classes, and thus threaten my honor roll GPA. However, this impulse to protect and excuse evangelicals because of my continued close relationship with that general community is not simply a product of my upbringing. I argue that this tension between secular and religious isn't only a research interest for me; it also underlies a significant portion of political dialog and social movements in twenty-first century American culture, making it incredibly important to understand, explain, navigate.

But there's more to this. After pondering my partner's question for several months, I realized that much of my attitude about this topic is due to the fact that I, like many people, have a fear of seeming intolerant, especially with respect to religion. It's becoming increasingly difficult to remain neutral. The tensions between the religious and secular facets of American culture in civic life are difficult to ignore, and it would be ridiculous to do so. Although the U.S. ostensibly keeps Church and State separate, religious organizations often receive benefits from the government. Churches are tax exempt. Additionally, Ken Ham received tax breaks from the government for building a $92 million "full-size Noah's Ark" that promotes an overtly religious message that contradicts science and threatens to undermine patrons' understanding of natural history. There must be a middle ground between tolerance and allowing dangerous, incorrect ideas to take root in our culture. And we're at a moment in our history when misguided, ignorant ideas are taking root, even taking over, our culture. At times, the connection between the genesis of these ideas and policies and conservative evangelical culture is clear only after taking several steps back so one can see the complex web that is American civic life. A stark example is the 2016 election and its aftermath. The then-candidate, now-POTUS Trump mispronounced the name of a book of the Bible, which one would think would be enough to turn off conservative evangelical voters as it undermined his claims of devout Christianity. Rather than alienate him from an important voting bloc, Trump won the presidency (thanks to the Electoral College). Now he has the ability waged war on climate change research and take a decidedly un-Christian and unsympathetic approach to refugees.

Perhaps it's time that we insist on the worship of facts, not faith in the unprovable or demonstrably false. It's not intolerant to state that unchecked messages—religious or secular—can be detrimental to our society; it's a demonstrable fact, and one which we need to monitor carefully.

Tamara Watkins spends her time studying popular culture and religious media. She took the pictures featured in this article.

Copyright © Tamara Watkins. All rights reserved.