28 December 2008

Ham's baloney

I've promised a couple of people a review of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and two is more than enough for me (it's basically the sum total of everyone I know) so I plan to deliver one here.  However, it won't be a particularly extensive review, as I was with my entire family and didn't have my monocular viewing aid with me, which means I didn't read most of the postings in any detail.  For more complete reviews--which I'll often use myself--see these from Daniel Phelps and John Scalzi, who includes a photo tour so you can see much of the museum for yourself.  

The Creation Museum is the brainchild--if one could go so far--of Ken Ham, the Australian leader of the young-earth creationist outfit Answers in Genesis.  I had heard of Ham before, but wasn't aware of the extent of his popularity, which he apparently draws from frequent appearances on Christian radio.  "Young-earth creationism" is an important distinction; unlike supporters of "intelligent design" whose dispute is chiefly with biological evolution, YECs argue that the Earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old, putting them at odds with most of the academic canon, from geology and anthropology to astronomy and linguistics.  Back in my days as a college evangelical, we viewed them as well-meaning but misguided relics, and rarely considered their arguments worthwhile.  The feeling appears to be mutual; a brief section of the Creation Museum is dedicated to slamming advocates of other kinds of creationism as lukewarm accomodationists.  

If there's one thing people are likely to know about Ham and the museum from popular media coverage of the opening in May 2007, it's his preoccupation with dinosaurs, particularly his claim that dinosaurs and humans co-existed.  This has two purposes.  The first is promotional; people, especially kids, think dinosaurs are cool, although the popularity of dinos in the public imagination has declined from the early '90s.  The second, more critical, purpose is for Ham to distinguish himself from earlier generations of young-earthers.  That dinosarus existed and became extinct before humans walked the earth and don't seem to be mentioned in the Bible has long been a major stumbling block for those trying to believe it happened within a theoretical 6,000 year Earth history.  Many reverted to believing God created the world with "apparent age," which, as Slacktivist describes here, becomes an indisputable matter of personal faith.  Ham isn't going to be satisfied by personal belief.  He wants to establish fundamentalist Christianity as the objectively true religion, and thus force the acceptance of his social agenda.  

Curiously, once you leave the main hall and enter the walking tour of the museum, the dino motif recedes to nothingness.  Ham, you see, reads the Bible very literally, so the various mythical beasts mentioned in Job and Psalms must have been dinosaurs because, well...uh...QED?  At any rate, there are none in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  The YECs are animated by the belief that this section of the Bible must be literally true or else the entire world of Christian theology will be undercut, so the Creation Museum spends most of its time telling and retelling these chapters in various ways.

I was actually quite surprised at the lack of time spent bashing evolutionary scientists and promoting an overt right-wing social agenda.  Sure, there's the requisite warnings about the epidemic of internet porn and abortions blamed on God-denying scientists, but there's also a reminder about the Fall of Man bringing hunger, poverty and war, though perhaps this distinction is meant to claim that these problems are pre-determined, making it futile to try and stop them.  (Why this couldn't apply more broadly, who knows?)  And this occurs within the first few exhibits; most of the rest of the museum's content is Ham's effort to make a positive case for his own hypothesis, however exceedingly flimsy it is. 

And you have to admire his steadfastness if not his creativity.  Ham relies on the Great Flood of Genesis 6-9 to explain away almost every anomaly inconsistent with young-earthism, from the distribution of fossils to continental drift to the formation of major geological events like the Grand Canyon.  This almost necessarily creates a much greater prominence for the Deluge in young-earth theology as well; the literal fact of God wiping out most living things in a fit of jealousy may not be the kind of thing you want to remind people of too often.  But Ham doesn't jsut rely on Bible stories for his theories; sometimes you have to do things yourself.  So he invents the existence of "post-Flood catastrophes" which aren't recorded anywhere.  If anything else, this is the museum of idle speculation; if you're dying to see any demonstration or experiment on how a worldwide deluge could've done all the things Ham claims, there's nothing to be found.  Even Ham's own confidence wavers from time to time; one posting on the migration of life after the end of the flood is weighed down with "probably"s and "must have"s.

Little about the presentation was different from what I expected.  There are brief recitations of many erstwhile young-earth arguments, like the amount of sodium in oceans or the decaying of the earth's magnetic field.  Background about the scientific issues in dispute is seldom given, confirming my earlier contention that this literature exists to reassure people who want to believe in YECism that someone is out there doing the legwork, and they needn't worry about it.  The production values were generally respectable, although the 'museum's only artifact to speak of was a Hebrew Torah taken from Iraq (what this has to do with creationism is anyone's guess.)  However, the short film shown in the museum's "Special Effects Theater," allegedly a light-hearted satire, drew only a scattering of guffaws from the sympathetic audience.  Some things seem out of the reach of fundamentalist Christians.  

Overall, I didn't come away as angry at these folks as I thought I might.  Perhaps I was too tired to care.  Or perhaps the one redeemable thing in the museum softened my view; a posting reminding people that humanity's common ancestors means we are all part of the human family and that "God forbids abuse of any person."  I don't really trust anyone to make the obvious logical connections, but I had a little brighter time knowing they were there.  Truthfully, I don't see much value in getting too hysterical over the existence of young-earth creationists in general.  The fundamentalist Christians and the so-called "New Atheists" have a nice symbiotic game going, where the more outrageous actions of one reinforces the will of the other to raise the bar.  I'll leave that for someone else to play.