Creationism isn’t about science, it’s about theology (and it’s really bad theology)
The Creation Museum is a $27 million example of how Christians can lose their way fighting the culture wars. After spending time there this Christmas, I left convinced that as wrong as the museum’s science is, the most frightening driver of its “logic” is an impoverished theology, which is coupled with a desire to win moral arguments. This toxic combination propels devout people into strange and unnecessary battles with modern science.
I did not visit the Creation Museum, and the offices of its parent organization Answers in Genesis, to have scientific arguments. The pseudo-science behind the beautiful exhibits (Eden is lovely, full of lush greenery and gentle vegetarian dinosaurs) has been sufficiently refuted by more qualified experts. But those refutations hold little sway over the almost half a million yearly visitors. So I spent most of my visit struggling to understand the purpose behind the museum, and also the reasons why so many people find its teachings compelling.
Creationist engagement with science is a consequence of attempting to read Genesis literally. Scientific knowledge is not the source of their literalism. For this reason, scientific debates like those between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, are a waste of time. The museum isn’t here for scientific reasons, even though it presents itself that way.
The question we need to ask is: What beliefs are creationists trying to uphold with science?
When I visited the museum, Mark Looy, the chief operating officer and vice president of outreach, altered his busy schedule to meet with me on short notice. The place is welcoming, and the staff was extremely kind and hospitable. Mr. Looy explained that, for the purpose of getting the word out, they encourage even their most skeptical critics to visit and see the place for themselves.
What beliefs are creationists trying to uphold with science?
Mr. Looy noted that from his perspective natural selection is wasteful and thus cannot be true. He described his realization that “[evolution] went totally against God’s nature…. Evolution is a story of the struggle of the survival of animals…‘nature, red with blood and tooth and claw.’ It didn’t make any sense from that philosophical and logical point of view.”
This concern about evolution and what it implies about God reveals that creationism’s core motivation is not science, but questions about evil, pain and suffering. Can a loving God use a process of death and competition to create life in all its awe-inspiring diversity? Can the biblical tradition give us insight? How and why can we trust that tradition if the narratives in the Book of Genesis do not match up with scientific facts? These are great theological questions, but they are not scientific ones. The Creation Museum has a serious theological problem that needs theological scrutiny.
In addition to the theological problems, the Creation Museum also has a moral viewpoint that warrants an honest moral debate. Answers in Genesis has a particular vision of society and what it means to be a virtuous and upright Christian person that it wants to protect.
In my journey through the museum, I passed through a series of dark rooms with eerie red lighting. One room was covered with news clippings describing mass shootings and terrorist attacks; in an adjacent space, videos showed painful conversations among young people about abortion, teen pregnancy and pornography. The mood was dark and the implication was clear: when our society abandons Scripture, we get hopelessness and pain. These dark rooms lead into another space filled with bright light, where a soothing voice slowly read the opening verses of Genesis.
Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson, a research biologist who works on the Answers in Genesis staff, told me that during arguments about culture war issues like divorce, same-sex marriage or abortion, “at some point people are going to say, ‘Why? Why is this right or wrong?’: He explained, referring to Ken Ham, “His point has been primarily to Protestant churches, saying ‘Hey, biblically all of these issues are grounded in Genesis.’”
Mr. Ham’s motivations for founding the museum and its parent organization clearly grew out of the culture wars. Answers in Genesis argues for the inerrancy of the Bible and specifically for a literal interpretation of Genesis because they think this provides them a strong footing in public discussions. And that, I think, is exactly how this group of Christians got lost. They are trying to win moral and theological debates with what look like scientific arguments.
Strangely, in their attempt to provide definitive empirical answers to moral and theological questions, creationists like Mr. Ham have more in common with some of their most strident scientific opponents than with the broader Christian tradition. They are proponents of the strictest form of biblical inerrancy and literalism. And in this mode they are actually advancing a mirror-image of scientism, in which God’s revelation, both in Scripture and in creation, is meant to convey a list of facts.
Places like the Creation Museum make any appeal to the biblical tradition seem foolish.
But for the broader Christian tradition, God’s revelation is compatible with scientific inquiry even as it explores realities and questions that are beyond the realm of science. Pretending that scientific answers will solve theological questions gives in to the proponents of scientism, who treat science as the sole arbiter of meaning and truth, instead of one avenue of human understanding alongside others, like theology or ethics. Ultimately, creationism starts with a failure of faith, not of scientific rationality.
Literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis buttressed by pseudoscience weakens the standing of Christian conceptions of the human person in our public discourse. Places like the Creation Museum make any appeal to the biblical tradition seem foolish, which presents a greater danger to the public understanding of faith and morality than it does to our understanding of science.
The Creation Museum’s scientific questions are not serious enough to require careful debunking, but the theological and moral goals that inspire their mission are—and they deserve a thorough and charitable refutation on those grounds.