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Driving into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the first thing we saw wasn’t biblical at all: two model dinosaurs guarding the front gates. In fact, there are dinosaurs everywhere. There’s a “dinosaur dig site”; you can get your photo taken with dinosaurs; a bumper sticker tells the world that the Museum is “Taking Dinosaurs Back.” My favorite, an orange, diamond-shaped “T-Rex crossing” sign, reminds us that according to the Museum, humans and dinosaurs used to interact.

“We wanted to show people there’s no mystery with dinosaurs—we can explain them,” said Australian preacher and Cincinnati resident Ken Ham, who designed the Museum with his organization, Answers in Genesis. As the name indicates, Answers in Genesis teaches Genesis as a history—a history which is literally true, word for word. When Ham isn’t running the Museum, he’s a prolific writer of books for children and adults—books like How Can We Build a Biblical Worldview Starting with Genesis? and Dinosaurs of Eden. The Museum’s 65,000 square feet of exhibit space cost $27 million to construct and the grand opening took place in May 2007. A review on the Museum’s website told me that I ought to visit and “bring a skeptical friend.” I had brought two and now here we were, face-to-face with a dilophosaurus.

There’s something funny about seeing dinosaurs in a Creation Museum. Dinosaur remains and other fossils have traditionally been a little embarrassing for Christians who read the Bible as an historical chronicle. First, the findings challenge the Bible’s historical claims—specifically that the Earth is six thousand years old and that all creatures were created at the beginning of time. Second, the fossil record challenges the Bible’s optimistic worldview: the beasts are given all they need to survive and Noah’s Ark ensures that none dies out, with man at the heart of God’s plan. In the face of the fossil record, nature no longer looks like the careful work of a loving creator: we witness the destruction not only of the individual, but of the entire species and genus.

Ham’s Museum, a rival to secular natural history museums, takes on both the historical and moral challenge of the fossil record. Visitors are told that, historically, the Bible’s claims stand up to scientific scrutiny. Throughout the Museum, the theme is the choice between “Human Reason” and “God’s Word,” where the latter is the “literal” truth of Genesis. Vast posters urge us to take a stance on a variety of topics: the origins of the universe, life on earth, fossils. “God’s Word” tells us the Earth is six thousand years old; “Human Reason” that it’s millions of years old.

The use of the word “literal” here should already be setting off alarm bells. Besides trying to convince secular visitors that Christianity is true, the Creation Museum is also trying to convince already-Christian visitors that itsversion of Christianity is the only option.

What words like “authentic” and “traditional” have done for the popular conception of culture and anthropology, the word “literal” has done for theology: there’s the traditional, culturally authentic way of making pasta and then there are all the others; there’s the literal reading of the Bible and then there are the others. This binary lunacy has aided the extremes at both ends of the theological spectrum. It suits Ken Ham to be presented as a “literalist,” because it closes off the possibility that his is just another interpretation; and it suits Richard Dawkins to have people like Ken Ham interviewed in the name of the “religious,” neatly side-stepping the fussy middle ground. Normally, the Museum treats this problem in just the same way that it treats the problem of evolution: by completely ignoring it. There’s no mention, for example, of Catholicism: the Museum’s potted history of Christian belief actually begins with Luther, whose purported claim, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” is mentioned as though he were speaking directly to the pressing Christian debate about believing in dragons. (Dragons are dinosaurs, and dragons are mentioned in the Bible; therefore, dinosaurs are in the Bible.)

Of course, the Bible in no place says that it is to be interpreted literally. What is the “literalism” manifesto, then, if not interpretive? Here’s an example of how the literalism plays out, from the Museum literature. Ham’s children’s book, Dinosaurs of Eden, raises the specter of the “day-age theory”—the theory that each biblical “day” in Genesis actually represents an “age.” The advantage of this view for some believers is that it might fit rather well with evolutionary theory—better, at least, than the seven-day alternative. This is not the Museum’s view, although it has a long history within U.S. Christian fundamentalism (including a defense by fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan at the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial). Here’s what Ham’s book says about the theory: “God worked for six days and then rested for one. This is where our seven-day week comes from! If God created everything in six long periods (or millions of years), our week would be millions of years long! That wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Secure in its literalism, the Museum carefully divides the horrors of the world into two. First, there are evils that come about because people don’t read Genesis properly. A narrow walk-through exhibit, “Modern World Abandons the Bible,” depicts evils of this first kind. The visitor passes by a dirty brick wall with boarded windows. Newspaper clippings are pasted to the wall, their headlines describing the consequences of abandoning God: the Columbine massacre, abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage. The Museum doesn’t always explain why reading Genesis would avoid these “evils.” But sometimes it does: racism, we are told, can be avoided by reading the Bible properly. Adam and Eve are our communal ancestors, so we’re all one family and we shouldn’t hurt each other.

Next, there are evils—cancer and death among them—that are inevitable because of Adam’s fall: the Museum tells us again and again that suffering simply wouldn’t be bearable without this explanation—much better just to believe. A giant poster shows pictures of people crying, overdosing, dying: “Why do I suffer?” they ask us. The implication, of course, is that if you choose to believe in Human Reason, then you won’t be able to answer that question.

Nietzsche claimed that suffering isn’t the problem for humans. What we can’t bear is random suffering—suffering which has no meaning, no connection with our own actions. Christianity offers to turn random suffering into meaningful suffering: you suffer because you sinned. Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there. The kind of “cures” given to people encourage them to deny themselves and to make themselves suffer in increasingly complicated ways. You feel guilty; but then, to make it better, you perform a variety of self-harming tasks, like blocking the satisfaction of natural human desires or engaging in self-abnegating rituals. Think, if you like, of the abstinent Catholic priest, the observant Jew who can’t light a fire on a Saturday, or the Muslim who doesn’t drink alcohol. Hence Nietzsche’s image of the priest as the malevolent doctor who applies poison to the patient’s wound, while posing as his healer. Although he probably wouldn’t agree with the second part of Nietzsche’s analysis, sometimes it felt like Ken Ham had read the Genealogy of Morals as the religious equivalent of The Prince—an instruction book for how to dupe the weak with promises to make sense of their suffering. A children’s book in the gift store, Why Is Keiko Sick?, tells the sad but ultimately uplifting story of a child, Keiko, who gets leukemia. Her little friend can’t comprehend why children get sick and die. By the end, she understands and feels better: “Yes daddy, Keiko is sick because of sin in the world.”

Driving the five hours or so from Chicago to the outskirts of Cincinnati, it was not hard to see the entire region surrounding the Museum as a sick or suffering place. Even before the economic collapse, this was an area struggling to find itself, as industry moved across the world and talented, ambitious youth headed for the coasts. In the current climate, I wonder if the Museum will falter in its mission, or whether, as President Obama once suggested, people will cling to religion in troubled times.

Just as the Museum follows Nietzsche in presenting Christianity as giving meaning to suffering, so Nietzsche follows the Museum in seeking to undermine the stark opposition between science and religion. It’s perfectly true, he thought, that scientific findings undermine the religious—God has less and less room for maneuver, the more we understand. But Nietzsche’s most important point was that the scientific is an outgrowth of the religious. Historically, because Jewish and later Christian scholarship develops the techniques of logic and rigor which would come to be so important for science. Psychologically, because the pursuit of science, of knowledge at all costs, serves the same needs as the religious: meaning, security and so on.

The Museum’s two themed alternatives—God’s Word versus Human Reason—might make it sound like it is presenting a choice between those famous opposites: blind faith and science. In fact, the Museum won’t concede that science points away from Genesis (although “secular scientists” and the “mass media” can make this mistake); it argues that when both are understood properly, Genesis and scientific findings support one another. It’s not so much that God is better than science; it’s that God is a better scientist. This is a pattern you will notice throughout: the Museum co-opts the hallmarks of the scientific method for its own ends. In his Dictionary of Received Ideas, Flaubert notes the common view: “A little science takes your religion away from you; a great deal brings you back to it.” This could be the Museum’s motto.

Indeed, the Museum claims to be doing something we might typically think scientific: presenting two rival interpretations of the same data and open-mindedly offering a case for one over the other. However, secular science is carefully misrepresented. For example, Darwin collected different finch species from different Galapagos islands. He argued that they had a common ancestor and that each species had adapted, isolated on its own island, according to changes in available food types. The Museum just displays a glass case full of finches and a sign reading: “Scientists are puzzled how so many finch species could arise, displaying such a vast array of traits. The Bible provides the explanation.”

In fact, scientists aren’t puzzled about the number of finch species: evolution explains this perfectly. But the Museum makes no attempt to explain what evolution is. It does not merely underrepresent science—presumably all museums have to simplify matters for the general public—but instead deliberately sows confusion. Hence the Museum speaks of the “evolution” of animals, planets, the universe and coal, as if they’re all the same thing. When scientists speak about “evolution” in the creation versus evolution “debate,” they’re talking about random genetic mutation and then natural selection among living things; obviously this doesn’t apply to planets or coal. To my knowledge, neither random mutation nor natural selection was mentioned at all. A visitor at the Creation Museum will become accustomed to that kind of experience: the Museum takes something “scientific” (rival interpretations of data), pretends to do it better than conventional science, and ends up presenting a thinly veiled perversion.

As well as perverting the scientific method—rival theories, prediction—the Museum also wants to appropriate the signs of science. That’s why it has its own “Planetarium.” That’s why it has its own models, diagrams and graphs and its contributors laden with university qualifications (founder Ken Ham has a “bachelor’s degree in applied science with an emphasis on environmental biology”). That’s why the Museum is a museum, not a church. This last point shouldn’t be taken for granted. Why could Ken Ham get $27 million to build a museum, rather than a place of worship? Because science must be fought with science, like fire with fire. Whatever the cause of the scientific facade, the effect is quite startling. Paraded before you are the techniques and formats you have come to trust: carefully labeled display cabinets; videos with deep, booming voice-overs; “qualified” experts; plaques on walls with facts and dates and quotes. It takes a conscious effort to remind oneself that it’s all nonsense, right down to the very sentences on the display boards: “The Bible said the flood lasted over a year, so the flood was not local.”

Our final stop was a short film called “Men in White.” In front of the screen sat a single animatronic female character named Wendy. Wendy was the Museum’s representation of how the viewer is supposed to respond to the film; the film is really shown to her, and we watch her becoming convinced by the Museum’s arguments. On screen, two hip, Californian angels—Mike and Gabe—explained to Wendy that scientists’ minds are closed to the possibility of Creationism and Jesus. Gabe and Mike mock human evolution (their slogan, “From goo to you,” was probably the closest we got to an explanation of what evolution is) and in particular the way it is taught in schools and presented in the mass media. Beneath two newscasters, representing the mindless mass media, a fake stock market report flashes by: love is down; personal ambition and witchcraft are up. Mike and Gabe fly to the back of a dull science room and undermine the ugly, geeky science teacher with rapid-fire, pseudoscientific questions. Impressed, but still hesitant, Wendy exclaims: “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid.”

Wendy doesn’t have to feel stupid any more. She has her own museum, which looks and sounds just like the other museums. She doesn’t have to worry too much about the fossil record or radiocarbon dating, because the former can be explained by Noah’s flood and the latter “makes loads of assumptions.” And her museum can tell her why she suffers and how there’s a God she can know in a personal way.

Theodor Adorno spoke frequently of the tendency for notions with the highest potential for good to turn into their polar opposites. He was probably thinking, for example, of the way that socialism gets co-opted into National Socialism: the red flag of revolutionary change becomes the background for the swastika. Something like that thought also seems to have stood behind his visceral hatred of California. As one who values science considerably more than Adorno, I suppose I might have experienced the Creation Museum as that kind of dreadful inversion. After all, the Museum takes all the outward signs of science and knowledge, perverts them, and spews out nonsense. This, I suspect, may have been the effect that the visit had on one of my friends, who has a greater knowledge and understanding of natural science; he felt like he was seeing an old friend stretched on the rack.

Yet, ultimately, that wasn’t the message I took home from the visit. Instead, I was left thinking about the role of the symbols of science. We all have to make certain assumptions as we go through our days. We place our lives in the hands of mechanics who repair the cars and planes we travel in and doctors who prescribe us chemicals; we trust the science and history books which describe our past. Put simply, we lack the time and skills to question everything. And, if we’re honest, we acknowledge that for most people at most times, the things they’ve believed—from the minute to the cosmic—have proved false. I was taught the earth is four billion years old and, going around the Museum, I realized I don’t actually know how “they” know that.

This isn’t the tired retort, often aimed at Dawkins et al., that science is just another faith. Of course science isn’t a faith: it builds bridges, it puts Americans on the moon and finds extraordinary new ways for us to kill each other. But it has more in common with faith than either the religious or scientific community would like us to admit. For Nietzsche, this was particularly evident in the consideration of scientific methods: there’s something comforting about the repetitive rituals of the scientific and technical life, which mimics the priestly cure of the Hail Mary or morning prayer. And there’s something silencing, too, about the way facts are presented to the public—as fossilized nuggets of information not to be questioned. Where once we used to turn to the priest for advice and guidance, now we turn to the scientific expert; we bend to the stamp of his authority, his status, his style—compare the expert witness in the courtroom to the priest at the hanging.

I had come to the Museum to delight in its ignorance—and on that score I certainly wasn’t disappointed. But as we drove out toward the Midwestern bluegrass, past dinosaurs whose true history I did not myself know, through towns that seemed to be decaying according to some unseen natural law, I wondered whether the joke was on me.

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