Kentucky’s Creationist Museum, notwithstanding its stated goal of reaching out to those beyond the Young Earth Biblical creationist community, can make many nonbelievers uncomfortable, according to a study by Bernadette Barton of Morehead State University, as presented Sunday at the American Sociological Association meeting and reported by LiveScience. As she described, ex-fundamentalists, skeptics, gays and others in the groups that she brought on field trips to the museum reported feeling uncomfortable there, fearing that if their beliefs or orientations were revealed, they would be ejected or otherwise persecuted.
This pressure is a form of “compulsory Christianity” that is common in a region known for its fundamentalism, Barton said. People who don’t ascribe to fundamentalism often report the need to hide their thoughts for fear of being judged or snubbed. At one point, Barton reported in her paper, a guard with a dog circled a student pointedly twice without saying anything. When he left, a museum patron approached the student and said, “The reason he did that is because of the way you’re dressed. We know you’re not religious; you just don’t fit in.” (The student was wearing leggings and a long shirt, Barton writes.)
The pressures were particularly tough for gay members of the group, thanks to exhibits discussing the sinfulness of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. A lesbian couple became paranoid about being near or touching one another, afraid they would be “found out,” Barton writes.
I can sympathize with the discomfort of Barton’s student group, because it is never pleasant to be surrounded by people (not to mention guards with dogs) who regard everything you represent to be deluded and sinful. Within the bounds of lawful civil liberties, of course, the Creationist Museum, as a private institution, has the right to convey whatever messages and attract whatever clientele it wishes. Most of us in the normal course of our lives would simply avoid places so hostile to us—if we have that choice. (Of course, many people in regions dominated by Christian fundamentalist culture don’t have that choice.) The Creationist Museum may fail at outreach, but that’s hardly a surprise, because no one who has been there could think it is sincerely meant to convert unbelievers: it exists solely to whip up the faith of the already Christian base.
I know this, and something of how uncomfortable the Creationist Museum can be, because I went there late in 2008. That Christmas, my wife and I were visiting her family in southeastern Indiana, and because the Creationist Museum was only an hour’s drive away, some of us decided to made an expedition there.
The potential for trouble seemed real. I had argued against creationism on television and radio and had written a widely distributed article for Scientific American with the gentle title “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.” Larry, my father-in-law, is not only an avowed and combative atheist but seems to have taken it as a personal goal to try to bring down the Catholic Church during his lifetime as one step toward the total elimination of all religion. On our drive there, I imagined various scenarios in which either or both of us could be drawn into some messy confrontation.
No fireworks occurred, however. The museum was professionally and slickly assembled—not what I’d consider state of the art for science museums because of its heavy reliance on diorama-style displays but perfectly respectable. I tried to be discreet about snapping photos, both because I wasn’t sure of the museum’s policy on photography and because I didn’t want to seem rude about gawking at the hokum. Horrible distortions of science were everywhere, but trying to argue about them with no one in particular would have felt obnoxious. (I’d have been better justified than a creationist loon railing at the Museum of Natural History, but probably no more persuasive to anyone.) Larry shook his head a lot and laughed under his breath as we toured the exhibits, but at no time did he try to pull a plank out of Noah’s ark or knock over one of the human mannequins shown cavorting with dinosaurs. Meanwhile, the guards and other staff we encountered seemed friendly and welcoming to everyone there that day.
None of the amiability we experienced, however, mitigates the fact that the museum’s message is scientifically insane and morally repulsive to most of us with sensibilities shaped by the Enlightenment. Even in the absence of aggressive acts by guards, dogs or other visitors, you can’t be at ease in a place that says you will be consigned to eternal torment if you fail to embrace its creed. Never mind the high-minded burble about outreach: if you are skeptical, gay, non-Christian or otherwise outside the target audience, this museum does not want you there. The museum exists to let fundamentalist Christians dramatically experience their own faith through a reenactment of the Bible as a literal document, from creation through their own personal salvation, while giving them allegedly “scientific” reasons to treat the mythology as fact.