Finding God at the Natural History Museum

tyrannosaurus_front_viewI am of the opinion that what drives some media narratives is less overt bias than a love for drama that pits one protagonist against another in competition for the lowest common denominator. But most people don’t live their daily lives on protest lines, or suing one another, or testifying before Congress.

Creationists certainly take their lumps in this regard. First of all, it’s hard to define exactly what a creationist is: they are often mixed up with advocates of “intelligent design.” Creationists are also often quoted when they are embroiled in a court fight or a school board dispute, giving the impression that they are often, if not always, litigious and contentious.

That’s in part why I was so happy to see a story by Steve Hendrix of the Washington Post showing a creationist teacher in an unlikely and rather charming setting: Washington’s eminent museum of natural history, a secular temple to the marvels of the scientific worldview.

As Hendrix reports in the lede, the Smithsonian trip by Liberty University students and faculty members is part of a larger trend in this year of Charles Darwin:

Every winter, David DeWitt takes his biology class to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, but for a purpose far different from that of other professors.

DeWitt brings his Advanced Creation Studies class (CRST 390, Origins) up from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., hoping to strengthen his students’ belief in a biblical view of natural history, even in the lion’s den of evolution.

His yearly visit to the Smithsonian is part of a wider movement by creationists to confront Darwinism in some of its most redoubtable secular strongholds. As scientists celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, his doubters are taking themselves on Genesis-based tours of natural history museums, aquariums, geologic sites and even dinosaur parks.

After doing his readers the favor of explaining what a creationist believes, Hendrix refers to a 2006 Pew poll that found that 42 percent of Americans believe “humans have always existed in their present form.” In a week in which the growth of the population of faithless Americans has been a hot topic, that’s a particularly intriguing morsel of information.

Obviously, not all of them are creationist activists–but you can expect to see more creationists asking questions at various shrines to science this year. They aren’t there to get rowdy, but they don’t mind other folks overhearing them and joining the discussion, says Christian leadership instructor and tour guide Bill Jack.

The writer’s focus is on the Liberty University day trip, and he illuminates both their point of view and reaction to the museum exhibits with his quotes. But Hendrix also quotes a museum spokesman in a way that nicely frames the contending points of view.

At the Smithsonian, officials said they were unaware of any organized visits by avowed creationists but said they are welcome. Still, all visitors should come knowing that the museum — like all mainstream natural history institutions — is fundamentally Darwinian, said spokesman Randall Kremer.

“Evolution is the unifying principle for all the biology, past and present, in our halls,” Kremer said. “That is the foundation of the research we conduct at the museum.”

So yes, there is drama here. But not the battle of straw men shouting at one another. Instead, as Hendrix follows professor and students around the famed halls of the Smithsonian, we hear voices describing, inquiring, and even admiring. Even readers who don’t share these particular beliefs may come away with a sense of kinship for these students and their teacher. Reporting the story, Hendrix seems content to leave his characters lifesize, neither heroic or too small. Why can’t we have more stories like this?

And, on that plaintive note, let me say that I first found this story in the Salt Lake Tribune and only afterwards realized that it had originally appeared in the Washington Post. The amount of content-sharing, as opposed to original reporting, is another sad effect of the crisis in the newspaper industry. For a look at what this bloodbath may produce, check out this New York Times article.

Picture of a Smithsonian tyrannosaurous is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Dave

    I think the usual coverage of creationists lies in the definition of what’s news. That creationists love their spouses and are kind to their pets is not news. When they try to impose intelligent design on state school boards, that’s news.

  • Jerry

    I am of the opinion that what drives some media narratives is less overt bias than a love for drama that pits one protagonist against another in competition for the lowest common denominator…

    So yes, there is drama here. But not the battle of straw men shouting at one another.

    I appreciate and applaud that sentiment. This story’s a welcome relief from not only the shouting straw men but the commentary which often includes hyperbole and sarcasm at a minimum.

  • MarkAA

    Creationists don’t try to “impose” intelligent design on state school boards. What recent cases (the past decade, anyway) have involved is creationists trying to get school boards to allow the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution as an alternative theory, or at least to allow questions about evolution’s weaknesses to be presented to students. That’s hardly imposing anything; it’s seeking some degree of fair treatment vis a vis all-powerful, unquestioned evolution teaching. Evolution-adherents are only satisfied with a total, 100% domination of the educational establishment; it’s perverse to frame creationists’ and ID adherents’ pursuit of some small voice in schools’ curricula as “inflicting” their views.

  • Dave

    They sure tried to impose it in Kansas and Ohio.

    “Evolutionists” want total, 100% science in public school science classes.

  • Joe K

    That journalists want to create drama is a good point. On the opposing side journalists also tend to portray the Darwinists as atheists. Latest polls still show 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God, it seems there no place for Intelligent Design proponents. Sorry, do’t have time to dig for data, but I personally know many God-fearing ID proponents who unanimously support micro-evolution, and many support macro-evolution.

    a 2006 Pew poll that found that 42 percent of Americans believe “humans have always existed in their present form.” I’d guess that many ID folks in the middle of the two extremes would define ‘human’ as an en-souled homo sapien, otherwise known as an embodied soul. Charles Darwin’s research was limited to anthropology and did not veer into the spiritual realm. And the strict creationists point to the illogical gaps of evolution theory without providing a comprehensive scientific counter theory. It’s like the two sides are talking past each other, and journalists, for the most part, seem to play along.

  • Stoo

    It’s kind of frustrating that people can walk around a science establishment and yet not let much science get through their biblical-literalism filters.

    Good article though, reasonable tone, lets us draw our own conclusions instead of sneering at them.

  • Keanus

    Journalist do try to create drama where there is none, and that’s okay. They are practicing the art of the story teller to make a larger point. However, too often they succumb too easily to the “he said…she said” format, assuming the two sides in a dispute are equally valid, as in a political argument of some kind, or of two styles, which is more appealing. Such an approach fails the reader miserably when reporting on the evolution/creationism controversy. (So called intelligent design is nothing more than creationism decked out in a white lab coat, like those “scientists” one sees in TV commercials.)

    Since before the Scopes trial in the 1920′s, creationists of all stripes have long been trying to have their religious views taught in the science classrooms of the nation’s public schools. Until the 1980′s the effort focused on displacing evolution totally. But the courts shot them down repeatedly. So the original blatantly biblical creationism morphed into non-biblical creationism. When that was shot down, it morphed in “scientific creationism,” a mutual contradiction. When the US Supreme Court said that was religion, ever inventive with their theology, the creationists renamed their beliefs “intelligent design” and claimed it has nothing to do with religion. That in turn has been shot down by the courts, so now they’re trying to force the schools to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution and offer alternative theories. What they can’t grasp is that the strengths and weaknesses of science are already taught and that “intelligent design” offers no testable hypotheses, is not science, and is therefore inappropriate for a science classroom.

    The truth is that creationist are in denial. The refuse to accept facts that contradict their their religious beliefs. But by asserting claims to facts that are at odds with reality, they are subjecting their religious beliefs to scientific tests those beliefs cannot withstand, putting their religion as risk of collapsing. Their religion would be much healthier if they didn’t pretend it explained events and phenomena it’s ill suited to explain.

  • Brian L

    Their religion would be much healthier if they didn’t pretend it explained events and phenomena it’s ill suited to explain.

    Right back at’cha, Keanus old boy.

  • Stoo

    The theory of evolution does an excellent job of explaining events and phenomena. What kind of zinger are you making here?


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