Kentucky's Creation Museum, a facility devoted to the belief that Earth and the universe are only 6,000 years old, is usually viewed in one of two ways: As a fun place where fundamentalist Christians can go to reaffirm their beliefs, or as the epicenter of a worldview ripe for mockery by scientists.
Now, a new analysis argues that for people already alienated by religious fundamentalism, the museum can be a painful reminder of discrimination and isolation.
The study, presented Sunday at the American Sociological Association meeting in Atlanta, took place over three in-depth visits to the museum over a year and a half. Bernadette Barton, a professor of sociology at Morehead State University in Kentucky, toured exhibits, attended museum lectures, observed museum guests and led a student field trip to the museum.
In her analysis, she argues that despite the museum's mission to reach out to believers and skeptics alike, the Creation Museum can be uncomfortable for non-fundamentalist visitors. [Discussion: Does science condemn God?]
A young Earth
Young Earth Creationism is the belief that everything in the Biblical book of Genesis is literally true: God created the universe in six 24-hour days 6,000 years ago; all mankind came from Adam and Eve; and the Garden of Eden is a lost paradise where humans and dinosaurs co-existed peacefully. Young Earth Creationists reject evolution, but may embrace a sort of short-term natural selection to explain biodiversity after Noah's Flood.
The Creation Museum, opened in 2007, puts its own brand of scientific explanations of creationism alongside exhibits of Adam and Eve, dinosaurs with humans, and Noah building his Ark. One exhibit, "Graffiti Alley," purports to show what happens when mankind abandons Young Earth Creationism. These consequences include the birth control pill, abortion, divorce, murder and gay marriage.
Though debates about creationism usually revolve around education, Barton visited the museum as part of a larger project on fundamentalist culture. She's particularly interested in why homophobia persists in the Bible Belt. This area spans the southern United States and parts of the Midwest and is marked by a high proportion of evangelical Protestants. In Kentucky, where the Creation Museum is located, 62 percent of residents describe themselves as fundamentalist.
"I was seeking to understand the fundamentalist framework," Barton told LiveScience. "I went there seeking to understand how people adhere to [a] set of beliefs that can, in my opinion, have sometimes destructive consequences."
Barton combined hours of observation and analysis of museum materials into an ethnography, a detailed narrative about a place and its culture that is often used in sociology. Unlike other research methods, the ethnography does not strive for impartiality; rather, the researchers recognize and reflect on their own reactions to what they see.
On her third trip to the museum, Barton took her undergraduate students, who found the visit unsettling. Several in the group were former fundamentalists who had since rejected that worldview. Several others were gay. In part because of these backgrounds, Barton said, the students were on edge at the museum. Particularly nerve-wracking were signs warning that guests could be asked to leave the premises at any time. The group's reservation confirmation also noted that museum staff reserved the right to kick the group off the property if they were not honest about the "purpose of [the] visit."
Because of these messages, Barton said, the students felt they might accidentally reveal themselves as nonbelievers and be asked to leave. This pressure is a form of "compulsory Christianity" that is common in a region known for its fundamentalism, Barton said. People who don't ascribe to fundamentalism often report the need to hide their thoughts for fear of being judged or snubbed.
At one point, Barton reported in her paper, a guard with a dog circled a student pointedly twice without saying anything. When he left, a museum patron approached the student and said, "The reason he did that is because of the way you're dressed. We know you're not religious; you just don't fit in." (The student was wearing leggings and a long shirt, Barton writes.)
The pressures were particularly tough for gay members of the group, thanks to exhibits discussing the sinfulness of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. A lesbian couple became paranoid about being near or touching one another, afraid they would be "found out," Barton writes. This "self-policing" is a common occurrence in same-sex relationships in the Bible Belt, Barton said.
The museum does use guard dogs and employs strict warnings, said Jason Lisle, a speaker and astrophysics researcher at the Creation Museum. But, he said, the security is in response to death threats against museum organizers. The signs and warnings, he said, are because people will occasionally come to the museum to hand out anti-Creationist materials, disturbing other visitors.
"We know that the nature of the subject is controversial," Lisle said in a telephone interview. "It's just one of the things that we have to deal with in a fallen world."
Lisle defended the anti-gay messages in the museum as part of the museum's goal to stay true to Biblical teachings.
"I don't think we would kick them out for [holding hands in the museum]," he said. But, he added, he could understand why gay guests "might be uncomfortable."
"I would say, don't shoot the messenger," Lisle said.
Respect or repression?
Not every visitor to the museum comes away with the same feelings as Barton and her group. In 2007, University of South Dakota earth scientist Timothy Heaton visited the museum and described its portrayal of evolution as "respectful," if not accurate (though Heaton was offended by a video of angels mocking a science teacher).
Part of the reason behind the students' strong reactions may have been their close relationships with fundamentalist Christians. Seeing the museum's messages was a reminder of the disapproval the students felt from their own communities, Barton said.
"For my students that's like their moms and their dads and their aunts and their grandmothers and their neighbors and their church parishioners." she said.
Barton is combining the ethnography with interviews with gay and lesbian Bible Belt residents for a book to be published next year.
- The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.