In the beginning, wrote God in His epic, loosely autobiographical best seller, The Bible, the Lord made the heavens and the Earth. Pondering from the vile comfort of the Marriott in Hebron, Kentucky, I assumed that this single statement represented the bulk, if not the entirety, of creationist ideology. Hence the name, I reckoned in a flash of insight. God created everything; if something exists, then God created it. Yes, that's what they believe, those creationists.
A creationist group called Answers in Genesis, which believes in the literal, scientific truth of the Bible, has decided to spend $27 million building a creation museum only minutes away by cab from this unlovely spot. When it opens in May, the museum is going to try to dazzle people with the wonder, beauty, and sheer scientific cunning exhibited by God during that action-packed week when He willed everything that exists into being. Yet the museum's founders have chosen to set it in one of the few spots on Earth that could plausibly have been designed by chimpanzees.
There is another great irony to the project, it occurs to me as I finish my coffee and rise to meet my driver: that of God almost certainly not existing.
Exiting the Marriott into a hail of filthy light, I make a mental note to bring this up with someone.
Frankly, if I were given $27 million to build a creationist museum, I probably would fill the place with stuff from my apartment. There'd be some cans of beef broth, a nice pair of cuff links, and that Kiss Destroyer LP I borrowed from my sister in 1979 and never returned. Then I'd blow the money on a launch party for the ages and settle into a routine of wandering about the place in a peaked cap and a jacket with epaulets, saying, "Ah, yes, a sachet of Newman's Own Microwave Popcorn, yet another of God's creations and further testament to His majesty."
Patrick Marsh, the museum's actual designer, has gone a different route, and with results that I have to say are impressive. The place is huge, for one thing: 50,000 square feet of vaulted ceilings and animatronic dioramas in a rather groovy modernist structure that looks from the outside like a topflight NBA arena as imagined by the makers of The Flintstones. The exterior is rendered in an oddly tasteful, faux-prehistoric faux stone, as is most of the interior—though the cave effect is somewhat compromised by a dizzying profusion of top-of-the line plasma TV screens.
What's really impressive, however, is what Marsh has managed to do with the place intellectually. Two hours into my tour of the Creation Museum, I am visited by the startling realization that I, so hard-core an atheist as to make Richard Dawkins look like the Virgin Mary, have yet to actually, um, disagree with anything I'm seeing.
Now, don't get me wrong. Patrick Marsh and his creationists have some decidedly wacky—I would go so far as to say demonstrably false—ideas. They believe the universe is only 6,000 years old. They believe that dinosaurs and humans lived not only contemporaneously but in blissful harmony. They believe that when the Bible says that God created the whole cosmic shebang in six days, it means six days of 24 hours each—even though, to start with, there was no sun for the Earth to revolve around at that point in Genesis. Strangest of all, to me, they believe that God rested on the seventh day of creation not because he had to (fatigue is apparently not a word in His vocabulary), but with the express purpose of inspiring mankind by example not to go into work on Sundays. A commandment, presumably, would have been too heavy-handed.
The disarming and unexpected thing about the Answers in Genesis folks, however, is this: They don't pretend to be right. Yes, we get to wander through a full-scale section of the Garden of Eden and gawp at the Tree of Knowledge (it's huger than you thought). We even get to visit a construction site where an animatronic Noah and his sons are hard at work building the Ark.
But every time I feel my scientific hackles start to rise, I turn a corner and there's a reminder, either written or manifest in diorama form, that everything I've seen is merely a theory, a possible scenario, a best guess. The exhibit of which the museum is most proud is a simple, life-size diorama in which two khaki-clad paleontologists are squatting and peering down at the bones of a fossilized dinosaur. Beside one is an open Bible; beside the other is a standard paleontology textbook—the message being, as it will be explained to me many times before I leave, that everyone's view of reality is inescapably colored and distorted by that person's "starting assumptions." In other words, truth is an illusion, and no one can ever really know anything. I had heard tell that creationists had a problem with Darwin, but I had no idea they idolized Jacques Derrida.
Or that they were fond of science, as they are. I eventually get to meet with Ken Ham, a fearsome, chin-bearded Australian whose brainchild this whole project is. Ham was a high school science teacher who found his way to creationism when his students, knowing he was a Christian, challenged him to reconcile the science in their textbooks with the account of creation given in Genesis. For Ham, that challenge is ongoing, and as a day-to-day matter it seems to involve a lot more scientific thinking than religious thinking. That terrifying red-state bumper sticker—"God said it; I believe it; that settles it"—strikes me as almost the opposite of Ken Ham's worldview. For him and his ministry, nothing is ever settled. Every day brings fresh claims from the world of mainstream science, claims that must be weighed, then tortured to fit the framework of creationist belief or discounted with some sort of scientific-sounding explanation.
Being a creationist, in other words, is really hard work. This I had not appreciated. It pains me to say it now, but before my trip to Kentucky, I'd assumed that the quality of mind most highly prized in the creationist community would be credulity, thus making it easier to believe things that aren't true.
But it's the opposite. After losing several arguments to Ham, I head to the next-door office and start losing them to one Dr. Jason Lisle, a fresh-faced 32-year-old astrophysicist. Presently I bring up space aliens, wondering whether their discovery would pose a problem to the creationist creed. Lisle grows visibly uneasy. "Well, it would depend," he tells me, and off he goes, talking very fast indeed. He doesn't want to be dogmatic, because the Bible doesn't explicitly say there aren't extraterrestrials . . . but it does say we supposedly have dominion over all the plants and animals . . . Genesis 1:26 would have to be dealt with, of course, if there were aliens . . . though perhaps not if the life-form were merely a form of moss or lichen . . . and there's no scriptural barrier to God's having designed a planet populated entirely by spatulas. . . .
As he continues, I find myself reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald's proposition in The Crack-Up, that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Fitzgerald's first-rate mind, of course, eventually stopped retaining the ability to function, and watching Lisle try to reconcile the cutting edge of modern planetary physics with the offhand assertions of a religious tract written thousands of years ago by an unknown assortment of bearded semi–cave dwellers, I found myself wondering how long the poor chap has.
Lisle himself may wonder the same thing, for all I know, during long, dark nights of the soul. In fact, I bet he does, and I feel for him. I arrived in Kentucky hoping to find a sympathetic slant on the creationist agenda. What I came away with, to my deep surprise, was less of a sympathetic slant than something akin to actual human sympathy.
For the record, I have even less patience now for the creationist agenda than I did going in, because I now suspect that they don't really believe the falsehoods with which they are trying to flood the world. But at the same time I got the clear impression that they don't have any choice. I thought I was going to meet people who love God and therefore hate science. What I found instead were people who love God but who have at least a pretty serious crush on science as well, and thus find themselves in the Fitzgeraldian nightmare of waking up every day and trying to believe in both. They will—they must—spend their lives, and brains, trying to think of ways that patently false ideas can be made to seem, if not actually true, at least not quite so patently false. It is, I fear, a doomed exercise, but it's a heroic one as well, it pains me to admit.
Not to overdo the Fitzgerald, but I shall think of them often, Ken Ham, Jason Lisle, Patrick Marsh, and the rest, as day after day they beat on, boats against the current of truth, borne back ceaselessly into being just completely, utterly wrong.