A group of scientists, students and secularists -- 304 in all -- visited Petersburg, Kentucky on Friday to tour exhibits on display at the Creation Museum.
The visitors are in town attending a conference of the Secular Student Alliance, a group formed "to organize, unite, educate and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human based ethics."
Exhibits in the Creation Museum, which cost $27 million to build and opened in May, 2007, present a history of the world based on literal interpretations of the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve share the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs; the beaks of Darwin's finches are explained by God's will, not evolution; and mankind spread from continent to continent by walking across the floating trunks of trees knocked down during the Biblical Flood. The museum has made a specific effort to reach out to students and families.
"We want to learn more about what evidence is being used to justify these beliefs, how some people are claiming to use to science to justify them," said Seanna Watson, an engineer from Ottawa, Canada.
William Watkin, a chemist living in Indiana, challenged one exhibit's suggestion that the Grand Canyon could have been carved in hours by a process similar to how volcanic mudslides can rapidly create canyons in softer rocks. "Everything they said about sediment deposition, about Mount St. Helens … anyone in first year geology would say 'wrong from top to bottom,'" said Watkin.
The field trip featured PZ Myers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He writes the blog Pharyngula, one of the most popular science blogs on the Internet, with over a million readers each month.
Tensions mounted shortly before the group's planned museum visit, when, noting raucous comments on the blog, the Creation Museum sent a letter to Myers warning that "loud, disrespectful, destructive, obscene, or abusive behavior will not be tolerated, and may result in your removal from the premises."
"The Creation Museum welcomes anyone to tour our family attraction," said a statement released by Mark Looy, co-founder and chief communications officer for the museum. "[W]e trust that such skeptics will open to reassessing their dogmatically held view as they tour the Creation Museum."
Following a suggestion from Myers, the group mostly kept to themselves, taking photographs and critiquing the lack of scientific content of the exhibits.
In the singular moment of noticeable conflict, Derek Rogers, a computer science major at Dalhouise University in Nova Scotia, Canada, was detained by guards for wearing a shirt with a slogan recently plastered on buses by activist groups that read, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy yourself." He was escorted to the bathroom and ordered to flip the shirt inside-out.
"One family of religious people told me that I had ruined their trip, and they drove all the way from Virginia," said Rogers.
But at least one conversation between religious believers and members of the group found common ground. Beneath a poster that presented the creationist interpretation of fossils, two students from North Carolina and a man who became religious after being diagnosed with cancer engaged in a polite dialogue about helping others and tolerating differences that drew a crowd.
"Regardless of religion, we both live our lives for the same reasons," said one of the students. "The big thing we have a problem with here is the faulty science."
This story on the creation museum originally quoted a T-shirt slogan as saying "There's probably no God, so get over it." The reporter could not accurately read the entire slogan because the t-shirt was turned inside out and prohibited from display. The correct wording was "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy yourself." It has been corrected in the body of the story.