A few miles west of Cincinnati, near the northern Kentucky town of Petersburg, there’s a gleaming new monument to Christianist ideology called the Creation Museum. It was built by an Australian Biblical literalist named Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, at a cost of twenty-seven million dollars, raised mostly in small donations. It opened over Memorial Day weekend with a blast of media attention (Edward Rothstein wrote two pieces about it for the New York Times), and since then ten thousand people a week have been flocking to its exhibits. Last Sunday, on a visit to my in-laws in Lexington, I joined them.
The sixty-thousand-square-foot museum mimics the language, layout, and technical effects of state-of-the-art science museums: mastodon fossils and mineral crystals, soaring dioramas of life-size animatronic dinosaurs, several movie theatres, conference rooms, cafés, even a planetarium, and an echoing soundtrack of bird calls. But, as you pay your $19.95 and walk through the entry hall, there are clues that this is all a sophisticated sham.
The simulation serves a primitive ideology known as “young-earth creationism,” which promotes the idea that the earth is just over six thousand years old and that the fossil record appeared after the Flood, around 4300 B.C. The first rooms ease you into this mental scenery with a soft sell: the Grand Canyon is discussed in pseudo-scientific terms as possible evidence of the Flood. But as you get into the farther chambers of the museum—which, like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, forces you along a single channel, so that one overwhelming narrative is imposed on every visitor—the message is didactic and clear: Voltaire was “an infidel philosopher.” The Scopes trial was the beginning of the end. “Scripture abandoned in the culture” has led to porn addiction, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, divorce, religious relativism, child neglect, and genocide. “Human reason” has replaced “God’s Word,” with horrific consequences. Just when the displays are depicting total despair in the modern world, you come out into the Garden of Eden and a soothing diorama of an attractive and prelapsarian Adam and Eve lounging in a waterfall pool surrounded by lilies.
The Creation Museum takes the usual trajectory of science education and turns it upside down: the Enlightenment initiated the dark ages, and only the discovery of Biblical truth can lead us out of it. There’s very little attempt to persuade visitors with even spurious scientific argument. The truth is asserted within a hermetically closed system of belief. For example, the explanation of the fossil record:
Views about fossils have come and gone. But fossils themselves do not tell us where these creatures come from or how they died. Fortunately we have another source of factual data—the first book of the Bible, Genesis. This book makes it obvious that carnivory, disease, and death, as seen in the fossil record, came after sin. So the fossil record had to be formed after sin entered the world.
It hardly matters that the Creation Museum is bound to appall secular visitors. They are not its audience. It exists to tell Christianist families that they are right and the future is theirs. I spoke with a family from Columbus, Ohio, who had driven two and a half hours to the museum “out of sheer curiosity.” The mother, a chemist, told me that she was disappointed in the museum’s closed-mindedness, as when an introductory film spoke of “atheistic evolution.” She believed in evolution, she said, but she also had “a religious background,” and wanted to hear “other points of view.” Her teen-age son found the film’s portrayal of an autocratic high-school science teacher ridiculous.
As far as I could tell, the family from Columbus was in the minority. Most of the families—overwhelmingly white, mainly blond, and about the most pleasant, cheerful collection of tourists imaginable—seemed to accept what they heard and read as they were coaxed along the explanatory trail, with the children delighted by the cleverly designed animal displays. This expensive frolic through a sinister fairy tale was made for the young.