Issue June 12, 2007

What a sham(e): With a new $27 million Creation Museum and a good media machine, AIG can spread bad information far and wide

“Dei sacrificium intellectus”  (the sacrifice of reason to God)
—St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)

Dinosaurs: Photo by Treavor Martin  Dinosaurs are a prominent feature at the new Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky.
Dinosaurs: Photo by Treavor Martin Dinosaurs are a prominent feature at the new Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky.

The brand new Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky got a veritable Noah’s Ark worth of publicity before it opened on Memorial Day, with stories produced by numerous major newspapers and broadcast outlets.
The broad outlines of this story are pretty clear. You either believe in creationism or you do not, and there is probably not much middle ground. I fall into the latter category, but I also thought I should visit the place before I really said anything. So I did. And now I know: It is ridiculous. Indefensible.

Let me tell you, dear readers, from where I cometh. I am a science teacher. I believe in science, and I chafe when people deny physical evidence in favor of myth. Still, I have absolutely no problem if people want to use their faith as a warm sweater to help them get through a cold spell or to help them celebrate holidays. Many of my best friends are people of faith. I have no problem if someone believes in God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed or L. Ron Hubbard.

I realize the $27 million facility was built with private funds, and I understand it is the owners’ prerogative to spend that money however they choose. But as someone who believes good science is the key to the survival of our increasingly stressed planet, I do have a huge philosophical problem when a closed-circle religious group builds a fake science center in my state and tries to pass it off as based on real science.
Where I come from, that is called fraud.

Ham-handed

Ken Ham: image courtesy of The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum  Ken Ham is the man behind the museum.
Ken Ham: image courtesy of The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum Ken Ham is the man behind the museum.

The museum is the brainchild of Ken Ham, an Australian who co-founded and serves as CEO of Answers in Genesis, a Cincinnati-based Christian ministry that started in 1994. AIG and its new museum are playing the propaganda game: They aim to discredit any scientific evidence, laws or theories that contradict their religious beliefs, and any scientist who invokes such theories. They maintain that the entire Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis, should (must) be taken literally, word for word.

It is an amazing story of how highly suggestible people, under the tutelage of a charismatic leader, have deleted huge chunks of modern science from their body of knowledge, in favor of make-believe science that “proves” the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

To wit, our state’s newest tourist attraction would like folks to believe the universe, the Earth, the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, the whole shebang, was created by God over one very eventful week 6,000 years ago.

How do they know this? Because it is written in The Book of Genesis, authored  by Moses 3,500 years ago. AIG will not acknowledge modern science that contradicts their belief in a seven-day creation, a young Earth, Adam being made from dust, Eve being made from Adam’s rib, and the Great Flood, where an angry God drowned all creatures on Earth except those gathered up by a 600-year-old man named Noah.

The mission of AIG and its museum is to “equip Christians to better evangelize the lost through a combination of exhibits, research and educational presentations that uphold the inerrancy of the Bible,” and to “challenge visitors to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to accept the authority of the Bible.”

Ham himself serves as a perfect example of how an intelligent, hard-working, charismatic and opportunistic minister can convince hundreds of thousands of fellow believers around the world (AIG has offices in the United Kingdom as well) to help him build a monument to their unquestioning faith.

Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost  Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.
Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.

As a science teacher and a strong advocate of increasing science awareness and literacy, I had major concerns when I learned about the planned museum several years ago. Now, after three days of talking to hundreds of people on both sides of the debate, touring the $27 million facility and learning more about AIG and its beliefs, I am even more concerned.

Man and machine
Ken Ham is in his 28th year in the creationist industry. After founding the Creation Science Foundation in his native Australia in 1979, he moved to the United States in 1987, taking a position with the San Diego-based Institute for Creation Research. Since he founded AIG in Cincinnati in 1994, Ham has amassed 120,000 active contributors, a creationist radio show that airs daily on 860 domestic radio stations and 450 international outlets, a huge Web presence, a monthly magazine and numerous DVDs, books and other publications.
Now comes the crowning achievement, a 65,000-square-foot museum on a sprawling, beautifully landscaped campus near I-275 in Northern Kentucky (all paid for in advance, by the way).

Ham earns $135,000 annually plus expenses. Good work if you can get it. He has wisely hired credentialed (yet equally delusional) scientists to help him make the case that 1) evolution is a myth; 2) God made the world in six 24-hour days; 3) all creatures were created by God “as is” during days five and six; and 4) dinosaurs and humans lived together on Earth peacefully (T-Rex was once a vegetarian, you see).

Ham sees his mission in life as “fighting the Philistines

Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost  Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.
Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.

of our day.” He is also fiercely critical of more moderate Christians for reconciling their faith with modern science and evolution.

“By and large, much of the church has compromised God’s Word in Genesis by allowing millions of years and evolutionary ideas to be embraced by God’s people,” Ham has written. “We need to take back the maligned Grand Canyon, the majestic mountain ranges, the massive coal beds … and the dinosaur fossils.”

Media day
“All the ills from which America suffers can be traced to the teaching of evolution.”
—William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), prosecutor at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

When I arrived for media day, two days before the museum’s public opening on Memorial Day, I saw four security guards, looking an awful lot like state troopers and screening guests. I tried light conversation, but the guy checking me in was clearly stressed. A brand new Creation Museum Canine Unit SUV sat idling just inside the main gate.

Under a large white tent, a news conference began, with speeches from Ham and co-founder Mark Looy. They thanked the thousands of people who made the museum possible, particularly the three anonymous donors who gave $1 million each. The group of journalists seemed heavily weighted toward the religious press, and they asked softball questions such as, “How does it feel to accomplish such a huge, important task when faced with the obstacles placed in front of you by our largely secular society?”

I wanted to ask how Noah fed all of those animals during five months at sea (including the baby dinosaurs — AIG maintains that only young dinosaurs were taken on the Ark so all the animals could fit). I wanted to ask how AIG can totally dispute the science of radioactive dating, which shows an Earth that is 4.5 billion to 4.6 billion years old. I wanted to ask how we can see galaxies that are millions of light years away if, as they insist, the universe is only 6,000 years old.

I settled for asking a less controversial question: “Do you find it ironic, Mr. Ham, that your organization is using all the bells and whistles of 21st century science and technology to deliver your science-bashing message?”
He handed the question over to Jason Lisle, a speaker and researcher for AIG, who holds a doctorate from the University of Colorado in astrophysics. Lisle’s rambling explanation had something to do with how scientists “do not practice critical thinking,” and how scientists “bring preconceived notions and biases to their work which can lead to erroneous interpretation of data.” He also believes that only by viewing scientific evidence through the “lens of Scripture” can correct conclusions be made about our origins.

I really wanted to point out that any middle school science student can tell you that using the Bible to prove the Bible is not exactly sound science. Gosh, I wanted to suggest that Dr. Lisle conduct a simple experiment — walk to a cliff’s edge, shed preconceived notions about gravity, then jump off. But the microphone was taken from me before I could make that suggestion, and the press conference soon ended. Time to go inside the museum.

The tour
“Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy.”  
—Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

The museum is quite well-designed, with an exterior resembling a modern natural history museum, similar to the Falls of the Ohio interpretive center in Clarksville. Inside the main hall, though, reality ceases. You immediately see two young, cave-dwelling humans

Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost  Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.
Edwin Kagin: Photo by Ted Yost Edwin Kagin took part in the Rally For Reason on the night before the museum opening.

playing in a 20-foot waterfall with what appear to be velociraptors. A 25-foot tall robotic Brontosaurus also stands in the main hall, one of 130 such animatronic figures. Just inside the main entrance is a planetarium, with two newly designed star shows, created by Lisle. Elsewhere you’ll find a model of a cave that explains how stalactites and stalagmites only need a few thousand years to form. There are interesting fossils and minerals scattered throughout showcases, although the displays fail to make meaningful connections with creationism and seem intended to make the place look more museum-like.

Besides housing the 300-employee AIG ministry, the museum has a bookstore, Noah’s Café (“food and fellowship with a Noah’s Ark theme”), on-site classrooms for school and church groups, and two miles of walking trails around a three-acre lake.

Cutting the ribbon

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
—James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth
U.S. President and a Christian

The ribbon-cutting ceremony lasted an hour, and it was painful. Nearly every politician in Northern Kentucky was there (evangelicals do vote). Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore gave a brief speech that included this line: “Thank you for the impact it will make in our community from the standpoint of belief, from the conservative values point of view. We know that the message that you will promote and teach here is a message that our world needs to hear today.”  

George Ward, Kentucky’s Secretary of Commerce, was there, representing the governor’s office. He said: “I envisioned when I was here (nearly a year ago) that every Christian school in the country is going to have a field trip to the Creation Museum, and we’re really happy to have those visitors.”

Going in, I wondered whether Ham and AIG are honest (but delusional) brokers or mere fundamentalist con men using the Bible to further their own agenda. After listening to Ham speak and touring the museum, I thought I had an answer. I cannot give Ham total amnesty, but he does come across as a sincere believer in a vintage Dark Ages message.

But it is troubling how his brand of blind absolutism invokes that of another charismatic religious leader with absolute faith in the absolute truth of an absolutely infallible book. In that case, the book is the Koran, and the leader is Osama bin Laden.

Now, I won’t compare Ham to that murderer, except to point out that both men suffer from the same syndrome: fanatical belief that the words of their ancient, pre-science, religious texts are infallible and should be followed to the letter of the law. At best, this sort of irrational belief can lead to harmless, submissive ignorance. At its worst, though, it can lead to increased fanaticism, intolerance, aggressiveness, terrorism and war.

Another question I had in mind was: “Which is more dangerous — a creationism con man like Kent Hovind (aka “Dr. Dino”), who built a biblical dinosaur theme park 10 years ago but was recently convicted of 58 federal counts, including failure to pay $845,000 in employee-related taxes, or an above-board creationist with Ham’s considerable skills and talents?

I decided to get input from a group of people who have been debating creationists and their message for years: the Kentucky Atheists.

The rally for reason
“Populus vult decipi, decipiatur.” (The people want to be deceived. Let them be deceived.)
—Cardinal Carlo Caraffa (1519–1561)

At the Northern Kentucky Hilton on the night before the museum’s public opening, atheists, agnostics, other non-believers, clergy and Christians met at a “Rally for Reason.”

Organizer Edwin Kagin, of Union, Ky., is the state director of the American Atheists, Inc. as well as the group’s national legal director. He stressed that the Rally for Reason did not challenge the right of AIG to present its worldview. “They can teach that things fall up, if they wish,” he said. “We are simply trying to show that the nonsense they are vending is not accepted by those who do not share their fundamentalist religious views … this is not a protest but, as the name says, a rally for thinking and reason.”

Kagin was accompanied by his wife, retired anesthesiologist Dr. Helen Kagin, who, in her brief speech, called the creation museum a “world-class hoax.”  The host for the evening was Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella group of eight atheist-humanist organizations. Silverman is a math professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Asked how he got involved in atheist-humanist activism, he described how he learned, in 1990, that atheists could not hold public office in South Carolina. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Silverman waged an eight-year court battle to strike down South Carolina’s religious test requirement for holding public office. He eventually won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court. As a university educator, Silverman said, he is “increasingly concerned about creationism creeping into school curriculum and hurting science education for years to come.”

Other speakers included the Rev. Mendle Adams, pastor of the St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Cincinnati, a self-described supporter of sound science and an outspoken critic of creationism.  

“My grandmother was an American Indian,” he said, “and I still cherish the Indian creation stories she told me when I was a young boy. But what the creationists fail to realize is that much of the Bible, like my grandmother’s teachings, are in fact stories and should not to be taken literally.”

My favorite speaker was perhaps Hemant Mehta, an articulate young man and chairman of the board of directors of the Secular Student Alliance. “The creation museum’s tag line is ‘Prepare to Believe,’” he noted, adding that the tag line should read, “‘Prepare to Make Believe.’”He suggested that the museum can still be used as an educational facility by developing downloadable MP3 files that visitors (especially students) can listen to while touring, countering the young Earth interpretation of the exhibits with real science interpretations.
Additional speakers included a Cincinnati housewife and mother, a Louisville physician who came out of the atheist closet publicly for the first time, saying that “to be silent any longer would be complicity,” a retired Cincinnati public school teacher who thinks No Child Left Behind discourages good science teaching, and several other representatives of free inquiry, free-thinking organizations. Perhaps Arlene Marie, Michigan state director of the American Atheists, best expressed why many of the 200-plus attendees, many of them new activists, were there:
“A lie can travel 1,000 miles before truth can put its boots on.”
Indeed.

The grand opening
“The acceptance of a creed, any creed, entitles the acceptor to membership in the sort of artificial extended family we call a congregation.  It is a way to fight loneliness.”
—Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007)

As I drove to the museum the next morning, the Rally for Reason people were assembled outside the gates. It also appeared that every member of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, including two mounted policemen, showed up.

The line to get in was at least 500 looping yards long (4,000 people attended opening day). After interviewing several people who were patiently standing in line, and getting virtually the same answer each time (“We want to see the things that science won’t show us”; ”We just came from church and wanted to celebrate the Lord at this blessed facility”; and so on), I decided to try to get into the museum again.
But my media pass was not valid for opening day. I didn’t see the point in paying 20 bucks to get in for another look, so I headed back to Louisville.

Final thoughts from a science teacher
“In dark ages, people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide … When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.”
—Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Despite the protestations of Ken Ham and other members of AIG, Charles Darwin got it right 150 years ago when he brilliantly figured out that due to mutation, geographical and environmental isolation, and natural selection, over enormous lengths of geologic time, we humans did, in fact,  evolve from other animals. We are wonderful animals with large brains, nimble hands and feet and tremendous endurance. We also inherited a very important instinct from our ape-like ancestors: curiosity. When this instinct is combined with and disciplined by rational thinking and real knowledge, incredible realities can be created.

We have also inherited instinctive moral behaviors from our animal ancestors, things like cooperation, altruism and love. One need only see cats grooming each other, a dog rescuing his young master from drowning or a gorilla playing with her kitten to understand that all creatures, great and small, have some level of innate understanding that to survive, we must cooperate with one another.

Where I come from, morality has little to do with blind devotion to ancient writings, and everything to do with being kind and honest and making sure you leave the world a little better and cleaner than you found it.
How exciting to be living in a time when science is unraveling the genetic codes of not only humans and our mammalian relatives, but of many other important life forms that may have played a role in our existence. (Check out endosymbiosis on the Internet.)

Ham and AIG, on the contrary, are using a well-financed media machine, coupled with the drawing power of moving, life-like dinosaurs, to encourage willful ignorance. If adults want to suspend rational belief, clearly they can go right ahead. What most bothers me is when children become intellectually disabled by the junk science teachings of AIG and other creationist organizations. I especially worry about the Christian home school kids, a growing movement in which AIG is intimately involved.

I do apologize to my religious friends if this comes off as ridiculing. But it is hard not to sound that way when you are trying to counter $27 million worth of ridiculousness.

Come to think of it, shouldn’t the Christian community lead the effort to counter AIG and its fantasy museum? Maybe now would be a great time to get together and re-examine the other supernatural claims of the world’s various religions, and to adjust them to reflect 21st century knowledge. Here’s hoping that the Rev. Albert Mohler and his followers at the Southern Baptist seminary; the folks at the Presbyterian Church USA headquarters and their seminary; Southeast Christian Church and its Christian Academy schools; the Catholic diocese and its hundreds of schools; and the Jews and Muslims all get the memo.

In concluding, I suppose congratulations are in order to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis upon the completion of their monument to superstitious dogma. I just hope they have a really hard time keeping the lights on.

Contact the writer at
benjamincarl@bellsouth.net