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Inherit the Windbags

Why projects like the Creation Museum induce religious stupor and cripple imaginations

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During bar mitzvah studies with my heavyset, hirsute rabbi, I often asked questions that weren’t on script for a twelve-year-old. I grew up in a mainly secular home, and had a private belief in God, not one formed by ritual or liturgy. My faith was a preadolescent fantasy, having more in common with my obsessive interest in Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien. I also loved science: 100-in-1 electronic kits, rocks and minerals, and dinosaurs. These were my two worlds, one populated by wizards and ogres, the other by batteries and wire leads, collections of stones and small fossils. My parents wanted little more than for me to memorize what the rabbi taught me, just enough to get through the bar mitzvah, and maybe to learn something about Judaism. But for the rabbi, this was an opportunity to turn me into a believing Jew, and maybe one day I would completely immerse myself in Torah.

Orthodox Jewish man astride a triceratops

My rabbi was suspicious of me: a Jewish boy who had been taught very little about Judaism. I was equally suspicious of him. His Judaism, so different from the cultural variety I grew up with, was both a source of bafflement and wonder. Even his home was a mystery: the quiet wife I rarely saw, his children with their long and thick sidelocks. I knew I was ignorant about what he was there to teach me, but I was prepared to enter into the mystery of it. I longed to be shown a reality beyond the rational. But he always presented religious truth as logical, something that could be understood like one of my LEGO kit manuals.

As I fell asleep on the Saturday nights before my lessons, I would try and come up with questions to ask him. They weren’t trick questions. They were about the things I loved that I wanted to fit into the puzzle of religion we put together on his dining room table. One morning I queried, “What about dinosaurs?” To this the rabbi quoted Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.” For a pre-adolescent raised on a steady diet of The Land That Time Forgot and Land of the Lost, this was a revelation: The Bible mentions dinosaurs! But more than that, it was a strait bridging two continents, my late night spiritual yearnings and the world of reason and logic. I took some slow unsteady steps across. I tried to imagine these “giants” were the giant reptiles that would slowly transform their way over time into birds; their scales turning into pinions, snouts into beaks, cartilage into hollow, weightless bone.

* * *

In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the now famous 2005 case tried in Dover, Pennsylvania—in which school board members voted to include a statement about intelligent design in the biology curriculum of their local high school—U.S District Court Judge John E. Jones ruled against the school district on the grounds that intelligent design was poor science. But he also remarked, “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.” Intelligent design, Jones argued, was just creationism in disguise. Despite what the judge calls their hidden motives, the school board’s intelligent design proponents still likely believed in its fundamental claim: Life is too complex to have been a result of random processes or natural selection; an intelligent designer must have been involved.

Nevertheless, more than two years later there has been little to stem the tide of creationism and intelligent design theory. Last spring, the Creation Museum, founded by Ken Ham, opened in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham, who also runs the extremely popular Christian web site Answers in Genesis, believes not only in the six-day account of creation found in Genesis, but also that there is scientific evidence for a ten-thousand-year-old earth, that the Grand Canyon is verification of a great flood, and that cave drawings and other fossil records illustrate that human beings and prehistoric behemoths lived together. This, of course, discounts the accepted idea that dinosaurs walked the earth more than a hundred million years ago. The museum is a sprawling sixty-thousand-square-foot compound housing animatronic dinosaurs (in some displays carousing with humans), a walk-through ark, displays on original sin, the killing of Abel by Cain, and the Tower of Babel. In one exhibit a triceratops is fitted with a saddle.

In early 2007, Newsweek released a poll that revealed, yet again, what has by now become very familiar data. When asked whether Americans accept the theory of evolution, nearly half say no. The poll also reveals that one third of college graduates believe that the world in all its variety came into being fully formed as described in the Bible. Three out of four evangelical Christians believe this event took place about ten thousand years ago.

Also last year, Ron Paul, the one Republican candidate that even some progressives believed would make a respectable president, had this to say when asked what he thought about evolution: “I think it’s a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it as a theory.” What is most disturbing here is not Paul’s answer, but the way he forms it. By calling evolution a theory, he uses the word in its colloquial sense; something that is less than a fact. But evolution, as Stephen Jay Gould was fond of saying, is both a theory and a fact, when these terms are used in their proper context.

More recently the film Expelled, written and narrated by Ben Stein, portrays evolution as the root of modern evils, such as Nazism. Intelligent design, on the other hand, is depicted as a benign but rigorous theory that simply wants to critique evolution, suggesting that the idea of a designer is a rational, not necessarily religious, idea.

It’s humorous to imagine a family at the museum, the father placing his child in the saddle of the great horned beast, the child giggling, the mother smiling, and in the air around them the message that their faith is reasonable, that theories—the same that make DVD players whir and spin, that engineer hybrid SUVs—are in line with Scripture. But I can’t find it funny. Not just because children visiting the museum will likely walk away with a skewed idea of the history of the physical world, but more because they will walk away with a skewed understanding of the religious imagination.

* * *

Religious experience begins with an encounter, which is then given form by the imagination. We then turn this form into texts, prayers, rituals, and of course, myths. Communities gather around these stories and continue to use the religious imagination to keep them relevant. The very notion of being in communion with God, whether through prayer or ritual, in believing that a man died and was resurrected, or in eating unleavened bread for a week, is the least rational of endeavors. But this is where its power lies. If the moments we commemorate through our rituals had simply occurred in history, there would be little possibility of giving them new meaning in the way, for example, the American slaves saw in the miraculous moments of the Jewish Exodus story a vision for their own liberation. When ritual is seen as the retelling of a mythological event, then its ability to function as a metaphor is enlivened each time. A purely historical event is static. While it might offer a moral lesson, there is nothing inherently symbolic about it. The mythologizing of events makes them part of our ritual and liturgy and allows us to reimagine them. But the religious imagination has been replaced by a need to rationalize religious faith. The motto of the Creation Museum is “Prepare to Believe,” but revelation is not the intent of the exhibits. The purpose of the museum is to prove that the Bible is truth, and to induce religious stupor it plays on an ignorance of science and what the doing of science really means.

Religion functions because we do and say the same things over and over again, not to prove them, but to keep them alive in a world that demands we respond rationally most of the time. Even the most fervent biblical literalist usually goes to the doctor when he or she gets sick, and is happy for the medicine offered, medicine that was discovered and developed with that old stick-in-the mud, science, the same discipline that helps us to understand our world in all its complexity. Prayer might make the ill feel less hopeless, but it’s reason that gets the healing chemical compounds into the bloodstream.

* * *

Despite my wish to trust my rabbi’s teaching on the origin and the age of the earth, I was still not fully convinced. The next week, after we had said the morning blessings and opened the Chumash to begin, I asked, “But what about cavemen? What about Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon men? They found their skulls.” I was almost rising up out of my chair. He waved his hand and started turning pages. “Those aren’t old at all. They’re just the skulls of black people.”

This time I didn’t believe him. I knew that he was misreading the text, maybe even purposely. And it broke my heart.

I was incapable of doing anything else, so I found my place in the book and waited for him to begin. But even if this were to happen today, what would I say? Is there any kind of evidence that I could present that would show him how not only wrong, but how fundamentally sinister this idea really this? Like the exhibits at the Creation Museum, built on their own foundation of scientific interpretation, this kind of reason can’t be combated with a set of logical or empirical facts. The contemporary religious model is one that eschews doubt for certainty, which is the ruin of the religious imagination. The only artifact left standing is a concrete reality that holds no mystery.

Squaring what we know about the natural world with biblical faith is an attempt to sift out the rational chunks from the deposits of religion. Even the smallest gold nugget can make the faithful feel prosperous: Religious faith is not irrational and some of its most important aspects conform to what we know empirically about the world. But the attempt to reconcile religious faith with rationality has revealed this gold to be nothing more than pyrite (yes, fool’s gold), for its ability to trick even the most meticulous prospector into thinking he had struck it rich.

I’m certain many of the Americans polled by Newsweek don’t want to be unreasonable. Most people enjoy the benefits that science provides, from the technological wonders of iPods and Tivos to cancer treatments and mosquito-repellent candles. But most Americans also believe in God, something that they know intuitively contradicts a scientific world view. What to do? The idea that science is fallible in some regard, that we are not under its thrall no matter how much we take advantage of what it offers, is a small comfort. Maybe evolution just happens to be the place where science gets it wrong. This has long been the general American position on this issue. Many scientists of Darwin’s time felt the same way. If evolution is true, the specialness of human beings is called into question. For Christians this is particularly profound. If man evolved from lower forms then there couldn’t be the historical people known as Adam and Eve, created by God and given dominion over the earth. If they didn’t exist then they didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. If they didn’t eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil then there would be no original sin. And if there is no original sin, then redemption by Jesus is unnecessary. For religious people in general, whether or not they believe in Jesus, the threat is just as real: If we weren’t created in God’s image, where is real meaning for our lives found?

Scientists today are loath to admit that religious belief played an important part in their forebears’ impetus to examine and understand the natural world. Any sentiment that has even a scent of religious feeling is greeted with pinched noses, with great skepticism if not outright contempt. This is true even for those religious ideas that one might consider moderate or even liberal. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, himself a student of neuroscience and a staunch atheist, suggests that the religious moderate is just as dangerous as the fundamentalist because the moderate leaves the door open to religious ideas in all their forms, including the damaging literal ones.

* * *

Even as arguments about God’s existence were waged in the cloisters, the exploration of the world, both in fact and by exaggerated accounts, was turning up wonders by the hundreds. As knowledge of the world expanded, explorers believed that our knowledge of God expanded as well. The Bible might be the central source of knowledge, they believed, but they knew it was not the only source. Second only to the Bible was the natural world. And as the Bible was a source of moral example, then the book of nature must be also. In this way the inspection of nature was a twofold enterprise. There was much to be learned about the behavior of beasts and birds, but there was also a secondary, metaphorical lesson. Nature represented something about God.

In a medieval bestiary translated by T.H. White there is a description of an animal called a Vulpus. The Vulpus, a kind of fox, covers itself in red mud and lays down until carrion-feeding birds land on it hoping for a tasty meal. A vicious and wily killer, the Vulpus easily devours them. But the description of this fabulous beast doesn’t end there. The bestiary goes on to explain that the means by which the Vulpus exploits the birds are those by which the devil exploits humanity. When people are concerned only with their earthly appetites, they are not aware of the devil and he, like the Vulpus, effortlessly consumes them. Only when our attention is turned to spiritual things can we recognize the devil for what he is. While the bestiary is a catalogue of animals, in its brief description of the Vulpus the book also comments on the failings of birds (and people). The writer finds a moral lesson hidden in the workings of nature. The moral meaning supplanted any factual account, and in fact many of the beasts found in these compendiums were fantasy.

For medieval thinkers, nature continued to hold this dual quality, as a vehicle for moral instruction and a reflection of God’s creative will. But eventually new discoveries in science suggested nature had an organization and purpose all its own. The fanciful creatures in the bestiaries couldn’t compete with the actual specimens of real things even more wondrous. As knowledge expanded, ideas about God began to take on a less supernatural quality. Maybe, some argued, nature was removed from any divine purpose. For the many who were deists, God had indeed made the world, but he took no interest in it, never intervened on behalf of his creatures, and certainly did not act in history. God set the universe in motion and left it on its way. For thinkers like Rene Descartes, nature was a kind of mechanism, and human beings automatons. But we possessed something else: a spirit. The body was imbued with reason and will by God.

In the late seventeenth century the theologian William Paley tried to reconcile the independent workings of nature and with his belief in a personal God in his book Natural Theology, where he introduced what has come to be known as the “watchmaker analogy.” Paley describes himself walking along a garden lane and coming across a watch in the grass. It’s easy to deduce that the watch didn’t grow out of the ground. Something so complicated must have had a maker. Paley then goes on to look at the world around him, ants crawling with purpose, ancient trees rising up, the sun warming the earth. How could these things, so much more complex than even a watch, not have had an intelligent maker also? God did make the universe, but he had not abandoned it.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an explosion of scientific expeditions was bringing to home ports all manner of plants and animals, not just supposed unicorn horns and tales of dog-men. The diversity of the natural world was displayed in all its glory in public museums, not hidden away in private collections.

On May 28, 1807, two hundred years to the day before the opening of the Creation Museum, the Reverend Louis Benjamin Rudolph Agassiz had a son who would be the first in a long line of Agassiz men not to become a Protestant minister. Instead, he would develop an inordinate fondness for fish and become a leading figure in the field of ichthyology. This wouldn’t be his only legacy. Louis Agassiz, founder of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (now part of the Harvard Museum of Natural History), wrote one of the most important works on taxonomy, An Essay on Classification. In 1859, the same year the museum opened (a museum that would be the envy of many other institutions), Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species was making its way to booksellers. While Agassiz built his museum to be one of the finest collections of scientific specimens—barrels of fish and other creatures were constantly being delivered—Agassiz himself was a staunch opponent of Darwin’s new theory. His religion was informed by the deists who came before him, naturalists and philosophers who didn’t believe in a God that offered personal salvation, but held that the natural sciences proved, in effect, the existence of a divine will. In his book Agassiz wrote, “The organization of living beings in their connection with the physical world . . . prove[s] in general the existence of a Supreme Being as the Author of all things.”

Agassiz’s museum set the bar for all natural history museums, but there was one thing that all this collecting and classifying and storing of specimens made clear to its founder: The handiwork of God is clearly visible in the natural world. There is more evidence here than even the Bible could hope to demonstrate. What happened next is well known. Darwin forced the hand of the naturalists, and science sloughed off whatever religious sentiment was left. But Darwin also forced the hand of those religious communities that had no interest in science in the first place.

While philosophers, theologians, and naturalists were trying to show that faith was rational, that one could be an intellectual and a scientist, could enjoy the comforts of modernity and still hold to a religious worldview, many Christians decided they didn’t need God to be something that could be quantified. Faith isn’t rational because it relied on revelation. One didn’t come to God by way of philosophical analyses. You were born again and then, if you wanted to know something about God, you read the Bible. But Darwinism and modern approaches to religion (literary criticism, archeology) were threats to the very core of Christian theology: the centrality of man in God’s creation, his ultimate fall and original sin, and his redemption by Jesus Christ. To defend against this frontal attack, biblical literalists took up a peculiar kind of weapon. It wasn’t enough to simply defend belief as an experience. They began to use the language of science to prove that the natural world provided evidence for the biblical account.

A century after Paley and twenty years after the publication of The Origin of the Species, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote what some believe is his finest poem, “The Windhover.” The poem reads like an attempt to return to the prescientific vision of nature, but even that effort seems influenced by the naturalist’s spirit. The first stanza contains the naturalist’s meticulous inspection of nature and the spiritual yearning of the Psalms:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Hopkins recognizes the value of nature as a source of religious meaning, but he also understands that nature (in this case a falcon) still exists independent of that meaning. God might be found in nature, but nature can be understood without God. Even Agassiz, who wasn’t a biblical literalist, still uses literal language when writing about God. But Hopkins disregards any literalism. In fact, the poem is a litany of metaphors. There is not a single image that does not contain multiple meanings or possible interpretations. Nevertheless, the religious imagery is palpable. Take for example the use of the word “ecstasy,” long employed as being related to a particular religious state. Is the ecstasy that of the bird or of Christ, watching as his creation bears witness to God’s glory? Hopkins channels William Paley and the deists but he forgoes the rationality of their method for something else. Look, he says, at the wondrous workings of this falcon, so much like the complications of a clock. First, he acknowledges the desire to merge the rational and the religious, but he also returns the religious to its long lost home: irrationality.

Only metaphor can create a relationship between human beings and their world that is not one of pure empiricism. Religious language may pretend to literalism, but this is disingenuous at best. In his essay on Moby Dick, the literary critic James Wood equates Melville’s unending metaphors of the whale with those that stand for God. For Melville, the fact that language was capable of even attempting to contain the ineffable was both a wonder and a terror. Language says something and nothing about God, Wood writes: “Thus language does not help us explain or describe God. Quite the contrary, it registers our inability to describe God; it holds our torment. . . . Yet language is all there is, and thus Melville follows it as Ahab follows the whale, to the very end.” It is precisely because language is all there is that religion has tried so hard to move beyond language towards some kind of empirical evidence.

* * *

The “giants” my rabbi was referring to were taken from a passage that is part of a mythological story about divine beings who take mortal women as wives. Their offspring are called nephilim, described in Genesis as “the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown”—not Tyrannosaur and Triceratops. In the story of the nephilim, my rabbi saw an opportunity to trick a naive kid into believing the Bible was a legitimate source of knowledge about zoology. There was nothing in science to contradict it.

There was, however, another reading that I might have embraced had the rabbi not worried so much about his faith appearing sane. The stories of the angels, of heavenly beings taking mortal women for wives and rearing a race of giants who would go on to do legendary deeds is precisely the kind of tale I wanted my religion to hold. As much as I held to a scientific world view, I ached for a mythic sense of time and history. I knew giants didn’t really exist, but this didn’t matter. The stories of giants, of heroes and angels, become metaphors for our relationship with the world, metaphors that point to its holiness. Whether tales are true or false is beside the point. And to try and make them true in the same way that archaeological evidence proves humans did not attach carts to lumbering brontosaurus is to maim—maybe even destroy—what their real value for us is.

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Inherit the Windbags

Why projects like the Creation Museum induce religious stupor and cripple imaginations

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