As part of my daily web surfing ritual, I frequently read a science blog called Pharyngula. The author, PZ Myers, is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota in Morris, and has gained some notoriety for his criticism of intelligent design and creationism (and of religion in general). The blog has become a personal favourite of mine, as it is updated several times a day with posts that touch on many areas of interest including leading-edge scientific research, politics, and the cultural impact of religion.
One of PZ’s favourite targets is the recently opened Creation Museum in Kentucky. The founder of the museum, Ken Ham, is also the president of Answers in Genesis, a non-profit Christian apologetics ministry that emphasises Young Earth creationism based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Last week, PZ made a scheduled visit to the museum, along with a group of about 300 attendees of a nearby conference put on by the Secular Student Alliance. The purpose of the visit was to gather information about the worldview of Young Earth creationism with which they largely disagree.
Naturally, the staff of the Creation Museum was uneasy about the visit. So much so that they sent a cautionary email to PZ, warning him that the group would be expected to conduct themselves in a polite, respectful manner, and that any offensive behaviour would be grounds for them to be removed from the premises. There was also mention of the disparaging remarks about the museum in the comments of PZ’s blog, implying that they expected PZ and his group to be rowdy and rude, spouting profanity and being disruptive.
In response to this warning, PZ implored those of his fans that would be visiting the museum to be well-behaved, so as to not give them any reasonable excuse to throw them out of the building. If they found themselves getting into a heated debate with a creationist, they were to back off as to avoid a scene. He also suggested, however, to wear something to identify them as a non-believer, and also to not shy away from asking hard questions or discussing the displays.
This set the stage for what was to prove to be a somewhat tense, although relatively uneventful, visit. Ken Ham was away from the museum that day – he was speaking at a conference in Washington State – so unfortunately there was no epic confrontation between him and PZ. Instead, the group of secularists toured the museum, with staff watching them like hawks the whole time. The only incident occurred when one member of the group, a student from Canada, was escorted to a washroom and asked to turn his “offensive” shirt inside out. What did the shirt say? It bore the message of a recent atheist bus ad campaign across the UK and the US, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Apparently the staff found the shirt so offensive that they felt the need to accost the young man and censor his clothing! Not only that, they insisted that he apologize to a family from Virginia that had their vacation ruined by the offensive shirt.
Now I understand that the museum is private property, and the staff has every right to ask anyone to leave the premises for whatever reason they like. In fact, I have to commend them (as well as PZ’s group) for being as civil as they were despite all the build-up and expectations of confrontation. But on the other hand, on the face of it I can’t accept that the museum’s acts were justified. How can anyone’s sensibilities be so fragile that a statement like this “ruins” their vacation? If the Creation Museum truly considers themselves a serious institution, passive criticism like this shouldn’t initiate such a defensive response. The atheist bus campaign was a response to religious ads on buses in the UK stating that non-Christians would spend an eternity in hell, burning in a lake of fire. Now if that’s not offensive, I don’t know what is. However I find it unlikely that someone wearing a shirt with this sentiment would be asked to leave the American Museum of Natural History, let alone even be given a second glance by the staff.
Now some people will disagree with my assessment of the offensiveness of the “No God” statement. They might say that it is critical of theists’ beliefs, by implying that they are stupid for believing. I don’t agree with this assessment – I think that it is a message for non-theists, saying that it is ok to not believe. I admit that it’s not how I would have worded the slogan myself, as it seems to imply that life is good and we can do whatever we want. I have a more humanist attitude towards life – it’s not enough in my opinion to do no harm; there are a lot of unfortunate things in the world that we should strive to fix. A better statement would have been something to the effect of “you don’t have to believe in God to be good”. A recent billboard campaign carries the message “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone”. This is a message that I can get behind. It is a positive statement, aimed at non-believers, and it doesn’t speak to believers at all. How anyone could find this offensive I’ll never know… and yet it has ruffled some feathers. Apparently by acknowledging their existence, atheists are stepping on the rights of believers.
I guess the point that I am trying to make is that there seems to be a double standard when it comes to what is deemed appropriate criticism when it comes to religion. In the scientific world, criticism is part of the status quo. When new ideas are put forward, they are put under intense scrutiny by the community at large. If the scientists who put forth the hypothesis cannot address all of the questions adequately, the idea is dropped. All scientific theories that are taught today have withstood decades of such scrutiny, ultimately coming out stronger than before. When ideas such as Young Earth creationism are touted as scientific, and yet do not welcome legitimate criticism, this should throw up red flags immediately.
This would be a non-issue but for one fact – the Creation Museum, and its associated organization, Answers in Genesis – encourage people to teach their version of reality to school children instead of real science. The museum bookstore has a “Curricula” section full of creationist “science” books. I am very certain that many of the children brought to this museum by their parents are home-schooled, and their study materials will come from this bookstore. This is part of a sobering trend occurring in America today – the undermining of science education by religiously-motivated organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute. When religion encroaches on science education, and hides from critical inquiry by invoking the protection of freedom of religion, we all lose. Get involved in your child’s education. Join the school board. Attend meetings. Make sure your student’s science curriculum teaches SCIENCE. Our future depends on it.
* I had to resist the urge to put the word “museum” in quotation marks, as many critics of the facility do. One definition of the word is “a building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value.” By this definition, the Creation Museum fits the bill… it makes no mention of the veracity of the particular interpretation of the specimens, and the intent of the Museum is to educate (albeit in their own twisted evangelist way).
Edit: After reading PZ’s take on the visit, I feel I have to revise my initial assessment of the Creation Museum. I had assumed that the “museum” was comprised of displays of dinosaur fossils, with plaques describing what the animals were like and how they lived. It turns out it was much more vacuous then I had even imagined… in fact it was no more than a series of dioramas of scenes pulled straight out of the bible. The few actual dinosaur fossils were limited to a single room of the facility, with plaques describing when they lived (all of them going extinct in precisely 2348 BC!), and what their diets were before the Fall. In light of this information, I would say that it is in fact a “museum”, not a museum. The only thing that seems to be “interpreted” here is the word of god, not the scientific artifacts.