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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Category: Creationism vs- Evolution

The Nicest Thing I'll Ever Write about the Creationist Museum

John Rennie

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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.

Putting the "CT" back in "Creationist"

John Rennie

Smack your heads in shame, my fellow intellectual snobs of the Northeastern elite. We're used to sneering at the creationist follies playing out in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere—benighted hellholes where they wouldn't know a decent bagel, a proper chowder or the correct pronunciation of "Worcester" if it were served up alongside their customary daily ration of cheese grits. But now the same buffoonery is occurring in (bless my nutmeg!) Connecticut. In short, the administration of the Weston Intermediate School has twice rejected a proposal for students in the third, fourth and fifth grade Talented and Gifted program to study the work of Charles Darwin. Such a plan seems to be completely in keeping with Connecticut's standards for science education. Mark Ribbens, the principal who first denied the plan, apparently left the school earlier this year, but a subsequent resubmission for the curriculum fared no better.

Brandon Keim at Wired Science has more details, but I'm struck by the proposition (which may not originate with Brandon) that this antievolution development in Weston is somehow different in kind from what we've seen before:

Evolution education is under attack in Weston, Connecticut, but not from the usual direction.

Nobody is promoting intelligent design in the curriculum, or asking schools to teach evolution’s “strengths and weaknesses.” There’s just an administration afraid that teaching third graders too much about Charles Darwin will cause trouble.

How does this genuinely differ in essence from the reasons usually given by evolution's opponents in education? No matter whether they attack evolution's merits directly or insist that intelligent design should be taught as a valid alternative, the antievolutionists nearly always say that "forcing" evolution on students would intrude on parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit. In other words, they are saying not to create controversy and upset the parents. And just as seems to be the case here in Connecticut, the antievolutionists often make these arguments preemptively, long before any actual outrage from parents appears.

Moreover, look at the reasons that Ribbens gave for his decision (emphasis added):

“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic,” wrote Ribbens. “It is not appropriate to have [Darwin's] work or the theory part of the TAG program since the topic is not age appropriate.”

Ribbens explained further, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

A "philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life"? What exactly does that mean? If the idea is scientifically robust, how does that leave it philosophically wanting? And what other ideas are more satisfying as explanations for the diversity of life? Ribbens' words sound like the rhetorical tap dancing that creationists use to say, "yes, evolution is good science, but...."

As for the argument that evolution might intrude on some families' core beliefs: either you teach evolution or you don't. Common ancestry and kinship with other organisms are central to the theory. Lots of ideas in higher education step on various core beliefs; that confrontation is part of what real education involves. Would Ribbens have quailed at teaching about the big bang and the eons-old earth because those, too, touched on core beliefs? Or on racial and religious equality? With all due respect for the staggeringly tough demands of teaching, when you aren't willing to have those fights, it's time to get out of the profession.

Moreover, is a "debate" really necessary? If any children or parents question how to reconcile evolution with their beliefs, tell them that they will need to work that out for themselves; that your job as a teacher is simply to make sure students know what the scientific answers are.

Ribbens, of course, is now gone, and I don't know whether whoever is responsible for rejecting the Darwin proposal the second time would cling to the same excuses. But if so, it's deplorable because the argument that we shouldn't do what's right because other people would think it's wrong is cowardly, dishonest or both. Maybe it sounds more familiar when phrased this way:

"Personally, I think it would be great to have a black family in the neighborhood, but a lot of people around here are still pretty racist, so maybe you should sell the house to somebody else."

Or:

"Not that I have anything against gays, but many of the parents would be very uncomfortable with having one teaching the kids, so...."

Or:

"She's perfectly qualified, but I really don't think the other men in the company would give her enough respect for her to handle the job."

Own your arguments. If you aren't for teaching the most powerful idea in science, then you're against it.