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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