Childhood Awe and the Creation Museum August 4, 2011

Childhood Awe and the Creation Museum

This is a guest post by Matt Cowan. He is a junior at Indiana University and member of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University (SAIU).

When you come up to the gates of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, one of the first things you notice is a pair of dinosaur statues positioned on each side of the main gate. When you walk into the Creation Museum, one of the first things you see is a giant model of a flying dinosaur, perhaps a pterodactyl, hanging in the air, posing as if in mid-flight. [Pterodactyls, or “pterosaurs”, are apparently not dinosaurs, but my inner child rejects this new scientific fact. Ed.] As you begin to walk through the exhibits, something sticks out: these people like dinosaurs. They really like dinosaurs.

There are animatronic dinosaurs, capable of moving around and making noises. In video presentations on the past, the narrators boast about the existence of dinosaurs. Replicas of fossils, colorful pictures, diagrams, and illustrations are scattered throughout each exhibit in the museum. The gift shop is filled with dinosaur toys and merchandise, from t-shirts to coloring books to anything else that a dinosaur can possibly be emblazoned upon.

The real reason for having such a strong focus on dinosaurs is obvious: it’s designed especially with kids in mind. Dinosaurs, being something that many kids are fascinated with at one point or another, are a prime way for the people behind this museum to connect with children. I loved dinosaurs as a kid. I read Jurassic Park, watched The Land Before Time about a thousand times (as I’m sure most of my generation did), and rushed to the dinosaur exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum (an actual museum) every time I visited.

Were I still young and easily impressionable, I might be swayed by all the focus put on these prehistoric beasts. At first glance, they’re attractive to people of all ages. Everyone still has that dinosaur-loving kid inside of them, waiting for the day when Jurassic Park is actually possible. But at a second glance, their presence is more sinister. The dinosaurs are there specifically to influence young children.

When I was at the Creation Museum, I noticed that almost every other group there had young children with them. Perhaps they were Christian youth groups or simply religious parents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people who visit are there bringing children to help convince them to go to church or otherwise reinforce a belief in Christianity and creationism. I don’t think the Creation Museum appeals much to people without children they want to “educate.” Hence the dinosaurs.

That appears to be the real goal behind the Creation Museum: convincing children of the truthfulness of the Bible and the legitimacy of creationism and pseudoscience. Chances are, if you’re not entirely sure of creationism one way or the other, you’re not going to travel all the way to some high-priced museum to find an answer. Because unlike 6- and 7-year-olds, you can probably find all the answers you’re looking for online, and don’t need help making up your mind. Oh, and now they want to add a theme park, funded by tax-payers, as well.

Another thing you notice as you walk through the museum and glance at the various exhibits is how these people seem to have an answer for everything. Why was incest OK back during the time of Adam and Eve but not OK now? How have places that would appear to have taken tens of thousands of years to form, such as the Grand Canyon, been formed in only a few thousand years? Why is carbon dating ineffective? In each case, they have a ready answer lined up. Their arguments have been honed by all the obvious objections. The museum even accepts ‘microevolution’ and limited natural selection. Rather than flatly denying these phenomena exist, they give a scientific veneer to their theology by twisting the theories to suit their liking.

But how do they arrive at these answers? By ignoring “human reason” (as they put it) and quoting Bible passages. It’s hard to find a graphic or display that doesn’t have Biblical verses somewhere on it. What’s worse, they selectively choose what questions to answer and what to ignore. Nowhere could I find anything about Neanderthals and other species of the Homo genus, nor about DNA. Although Charles Darwin was mentioned, the names of scientists like Gregor Mendel, James Watson, and Frances Crick were completely absent. They did have genealogical trees for humans as well as other species (including the aforementioned dinosaurs), but in the absence of DNA evidence, the trees seemed tied together only by scripture and guesswork.

But ironically, the biggest thing I am going to take away from the trip was something that reinforced my atheism. The museum had a miniature planetarium, a tiny theater that showed short films about God and the cosmos. I watched one of the shows the museum put on, and rather than convincing me of the glory of God and creation, it did the opposite.

I’ve had a fascination with space since I was a child. Evidently seeing Star Wars at age 5 left its mark. I tore through all the books I could find on the solar system, its planets and its sun. I can’t quite explain why I’m still filled with the same wonder I had when I was a kid, but it has something to do with the vastness of it all, the possibilities of what could be out there, the timelessness.

The film, which lasted about half an hour, talked about how small the Earth was compared to the rest of the known universe, and it mentioned just how far away our planet is from other stars, planets, and galaxies. The relative size of our planet and the universe, a la Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech, fascinates me endlessly — that famous picture happens to be my desktop background. The program made mention of star clusters, the sizes of different stars and the number of stars and galaxies that we know to exist. Thinking about the universe on a cosmic scale moved me, and I began to develop a new viewpoint about our universe and religion here on Earth.

The first major thought that struck me as I watched was how Earth-centric religion is, especially after being reminded of how there are an endless number of planets and stars. When I think about how minute and insignificant our planet is relative to the immensity of the cosmos, I have to question how conceivable it is that God made the entire, ever-expanding universe only for us. I find that view rather selfish — that God chose this planet over all others, that we somehow won a lottery whose odds were infinity to one.

I do understand that, when people were first trying to explain what they were seeing up in the sky, they had no idea of the boundless nature of what was up there. The Bible takes stock of space in one little verse (Genesis 1:16), but it seems to me that the vastness of the universe deserves more respect and acknowledgment than the five words, “He also made the stars.” That’s it. That’s really all it says about what’s out there. That’s all the evidence the presentation had with which to assure me, and the others in the audience, of the brilliance of God’s role in creating the cosmos.

There is practically nothing in the Bible about what is up there. Beyond the mention of stars and astrological concepts of the time, all we are supposed to make of it is what Psalm 19 says, “The heavens are recounting the honour of God, And the work of His hands The expanse is declaring.” Not very enlightening. Now, in an age where we are capable of space flight, there’s nothing in the Bible about how to approach the new information we have concerning our universe and the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to space travel and exploration. What’s a Christian to do now that one can travel to the stars? That’s a pretty big thing for God to leave out of the Bible.

And so, after viewing the presentation, I felt more secure in my atheism, and gained a new perspective about religion and the universe that I didn’t have before. When I look at my place in existence in relation to the universe, I get the sense that I am just a speck on a grain of sand that makes up an endless beach. And I am OK with that. To assume we have some greater or higher purpose in the universe at large is a rather selfish view. I think some people cannot come to terms with that concept, that we are insignificant. I still feel that I am a part of something, as small as that part is, that I have left a footprint on that beach. I feel that my existence alone has contributed and fulfilled something, and that is enough for me.

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  • I always want to stop at every sign for the Creation Museum along the interstate and put ” ” around the word “Museum”…  

  • Regarding Pterodactyl-gate, as it will surely be called, it has come to my attention that there was a factual error in this article and pterosaurs are not, in fact, dinosaurs. I personally apologize for this error. We, the editors of The Friendly Atheist, would like to assure you that we have the highest standards for our publication and we shan’t let an error of this magnitude slip through the cracks again.

    Also: Pterodactyls are too dinosaurs. ‘Cause 12 year old me said so.

  • Annie

    Great post Matt!  I doubt it was by chance that the creators of the museum focused on dinosaurs and outer space, for those are the two biggest gateway obsessions young children have to get them hooked to science.  The idea that they are using those two topics, and then encouraging kids to look away from the silly scientists, makes me so sad.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    The focus on dinosaurs may be a reaction to what some of the stupider creationists say. Some of them claim that dinosaurs never existed and were put there by Satan. I’ve interacted with at least one Orthodox Jewish young earth creationist who claimed that the dinosaurs were a deliberate conspiracy by scientists. These attitudes don’t work with kids for exactly the reason described in this article- dinosaurs are really freakin’ cool. So if you tie your beliefs to their non-existence, and kids see both that there’s a lot of evidence and that they are really really cool, that makes them more likely to just reject the religious belief. 

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article… I’m always up for someone else’s opinion after a visit to fairytale land.  Tell me, though… how are taxpayers paying for anything regarding this museum or the planned amusement park?  Is it just that they are tax exempt?

  • To be precise, the pterodactyl is a particular species, Pterodactylus antiquus, in the much larger order Pterosauria. But pterodactyls had only a five-foot wingspan (the largest bat’s wingspan is 6’7″), so most of the winged reptiles you see will be larger pterosaurs. Pterosaurs are closely related to dinosaurs (and thus to birds); if you want to refer to them and the dinosaurs while excluding crocodiles, you’ll need the incredibly cumbersome term ‘Avemetatarsalian.’ But even then you’ll be leaving out giant aquatic reptiles like the icthyosaur, plesiosaur and mososaur. (The latter two were much closer to lizards and snakes than to dinos and crocs.)

  • alex

    I went to the Royal Ontario Museum recently, and I was super impressed by the fact they put a modern skull next to all their prehistoric skeletons (ancient mammals especially) so you get an exact point of reference. It becomes so incredibly clear that these two animals MUST be related, the modern skulls seem almost identical, in minature.
    I just wonder how many of the children who will end up at the creation museum will ever get a chance to walk into a REAL museum. It breaks my heart that they’re going to be stuck with this tiny, manufactured view of the world, I really do think it takes the wonder and impressiveness out of the world.

  • Dave

    I think this is part of the reason we’re losing in science graduates.

  • rhodent

    The state of Kentucky is giving them tax breaks.  See for more details.

  • I had a wonderful physical anthropology class at my local college where a large portion was spent learning to identify and distinguish early hominid bones, skulls included! Could I do it now? No, but it was still interesting and fun to do. A little too much information for me to memorize at once, though.

  • Anonymous

    Awwwwww sweet, IU is where I’m going to school next year.

  • Rich Wilson

    It’s more than just tax breaks, it’s the chance to retain the sales tax on things they sell, to the tune of 37.5 million.

  • It is an interesting premis that the creation museum might be an attemp to teach “authordox creationism” to a larger community of creationists who are bat-shit crazy even on creationist standards… Bad boy Ken Ham telling those that think the devil placed those dinosaur bones that dinosaurs really did exist… The great flood just deposited the bones to make it seem like they lived before humans… But really they lived at the same time…

    I wonder if there are creationists out there that think Ken Ham is the devil (like many other Christians think Dawkins is the devil)…

    There really isn’t any limit on stupid when you don’t need facts to base your beliefs.

  • Anonymous

    That is more than wrong.  Understandable from a tourism standpoint, but still.

  • Anonymous

    first off: i love the ichthyosaurs. they are so cool.

    secondly: excellent post, Matt. Hemant is really scoring with these guest posts, yall rock.

    i always knew that in a cage match for the attention and belief of children, dinos beat jeebus every time. when i lived in DC this really struck me, as i went to some of the real museums that are in that town that had big dino displays. same deal with anthro/paleo museums. take a six year old to a place where there are mummies and vikings and incas and it’s all over. i remarked as much to a friend of mine one day in one of the smithsonian complex, he agreed. this is why these “museums” include dinosaurs and space stuff. they know what they’re up against. the story of a guy on a boat who forgot to take the unicorns and gryphons doesn’t really compare to the majesty of the universe, properly contemplated. a child will always want to know more about such awesome things as dinosaurs and black holes and Wii gaming, once you introduce her to them. 

  • Sinfanti

    “Chicago’s Field Museum (an actual museum) ”

    LOL – Love it!

  • Anonymous

    I would not pay to visit a creation “museum”.  I’m paying to visit the Natural History Museum in London on Saturday with all my family though but only because they have a dinosaur exhibition.  Normally it would be free.  If we feel like it we can pop next door to the Science Museum again too.

    These are proper museums showing genuinely interesting history and evidence that strongly supports science.  Not your creationist bollocks.  It is bollocks too.  Creationism doesn’t even begin to address the questions that evolution answers and it flat out ignores the evidence that contradicts it.  How anyone can get sucked in by it just shows how good the advertising is.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    I do  not feel insignificant in the face of the vastness of the
    Universe. Like each atom is a necessary part that makes up the whole, I am a
    necessary part of the Universe as a whole.  My favorite quote is from Desiderata:  “You are a child of the universe no less than the
    trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
    Ham and  Hovind have the same take on dinosaurs. Both claim that dinosaurs are just lizards that got really big due to the  extra oxygen in the pre-flood atmosphere (“There were giants in those days.”). They were  on the ark and lived on as dragons and modern reptiles. Hovind claims that some remnants still are hidden in Loch Ness and the deepest jungles (yes, he believes in cryptozoology). Both these guys  don’t seem to know there is a difference between reptiles and dinosaurs.
    So it both tickles my funny bone and makes me sad to hear real science geeks argue about the different classifications for dinosaurs, pterosaurs, reptiles, etc. It goes right over the head of these fools. And they are passing their ignorance onto children.

  • Alexis

    Ken Ham is also indoctrinating kids to question science with the question “Were you there?” Here is PZ Myers beautiful response.

  • Alexis

    Ken Ham is indoctrinating kids to challenge science teachers with the question “Were you there?” P Z Myers has a beautiful response:

  • While I agree completely with the comments here – be wary about pulling up Ham and co on the word “museum” as it does not mean a collection of ancient scientific paraphernalia or even facts.

    A museum is simply a repository of things.

    The real problem goes further than Ken Ham and the mentally challenged like him – the problem is goes with the US electorate who stand idly by while an essentially great country is taken over from the top down by a bunch of god-fearing, baloney-trusting idiots.

    God bless America? Oh, give me fucking strength!

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