The pyramids of Saqqara stand in front of the Nile River Valley like weary sentinels. They act as guardians, looking over a 6 mile wide strip of fecund earth hemmed in by seas of sand. This stretch of implausibly verdant land, which now holds but a few small towns, was once home to the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, a city that was the largest on Earth for nearly 900 years during the 3rd millennium BC. Memphis was one of the crown jewels of the fertile crescent—one of the first true cities in which the modern world began to take shape. It was also a place where Pharaohs ruled, commissioning pyramids and elaborate tombs as testaments to their greatness and in preparation for their journey into the afterlife. For millennia, those pyramids were built upon the sands of the Saqqara Plateau, and among the pyramids that still stand today is the Pyramid of King Unas.
Nestled in the shadows of the great Step Pyramid of Djoser, the exterior of the Pyramid of King Unas is about as underwhelming as an ancient pyramid can be. After more than 4,300 years of massive sand storms and rainless 100 degree days, the structure looks like more like an ant hill than it does a pyramid. Over time, all of the symmetry and architectural flourishes that were so painstakingly designed and constructed in the 24th century BC have eroded away, leaving the pyramid in a state of limbo where neither man nor nature can claim ownership of it. However, if you were to walk down a long causeway leading to the pyramid’s entrance, away from swirling sands and the baking sun and past the faded fragments of ancient murals that once depicted Unas’s reign, you would eventually find yourself in the pharaoh’s subterranean burial chamber. Here, protected from the elements and in pristine condition, are the first transcriptions of the Pyramid Texts—the oldest large religious composition we have from Ancient Egypt.
As is to be expected for such an early attempt a religious writing, the Pyramid Texts are not filled with elaborate prose or verse. In fact, they consist entirely of a series of utterances or chants that are loosely related as part of a broader funereal ritual. Their purpose, as was the purpose of the entire pyramid complex, was to facilitate King Unas’s journey into the afterlife and grant him safe passage to the sun god Atum-Ra, beside whom he would spend eternity. The utterances in the tomb of Unas may be brief and fragmented, but if you look at a some of them, on the east wall of the sarcophagal chamber, you can see the seeds of contemporary monotheism beginning to bloom. “You have come into being,” utterance 222 reads. “You have become high, you have become a spirit! Cool it is for you in the embrace of your father, in the embrace of Atum.” In the next line it continues, “Atum! Elevate to you this Unas, enfold him in your embrace! This is your son of your body, eternally.” Holy spirits; the embrace of the father; son of the father’s body for eternity; stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Now, for those of you who began reading this article thinking they were going to get a rolicking romp through The Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky and are wondering why in the hell they’re getting an impromptu lesson in Ancient Egyptian history, allow me to explain.King Unas’s reign at the end of the 5th Dynasty is believed to have lasted from 2378 to 2438 BC, which seems like a trivial historical detail until you go to the Creation Museum, where you should notice the date 2438 BC popping up with regularity. To Young Earth Creationists, the year 2348 BC is the crux upon which all of their history turns, much like 1776 is for Americans or 1066 is for the Brits. The date is so important because, if the Young Earth Creationists are to believed, 2348 BC was when The Great Flood enveloped the globe and the then 600 year old Noah took his family and at least two of each kind of animal in God’s creation (including dinosaurs) on a massive ark and got about the business of rebooting humanity.
As Biblical Literalists, the Young Earth Creationists who run The Creation Museum don’t just think that God created a massive localized flood that may have caused destruction throughout portions of the Middle East. Rather, they truly believe that it rained all across the Earth for 40 days and 40 nights so that even the highest mountains were submerged and, “everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.” Clearly, the Pyramid of King Unas, along with all of the other pyramids built before 2348 BC and all of the people of Egypt, would not have survived such a flood and Young Earth Creationists recognize this, which means they have been presented with a choice between deductive and inductive reasoning. On the one hand, they could take a nuanced view of The Bible after acknowledging the scientific and historical validity of using deduction to determine the ages of the pyramids using radiocarbon dating, exhumations, analyses of found organic materials, extant source material and comparative study of art, architecture, language and religious practices. Or, they can decide, through the use of inductive reasoning, that every word in the Bible is the absolute and unalterable truth and go about using external sources to prove this truth.
Unsurprisingly, the Young Earth Creationists chose the latter option and they’re quite proud of it. At The Creation Museum, which is tucked away in the town of Petersburg a few miles away from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, many of the displays proudly juxtapose prevailing scientific theory with the Creationist view of how things came to be. When I went to the Creation Museum a few days ago, the first exhibit that I saw was diorama of two men at a paleontological dig, swiping the sand off of a dinosaur skeleton of some kind. One of the men, a balding gentleman with a reassuring white beard and a soothing voice, explains via a prerecorded audio loop that he is at this dig working with an old friend of his from college. That old friend, a slightly younger Asian-American man wearing a jean jacket, is a paleontologist who believes that the Earth is 13.8 billion years old and that the dinosaur fossils we find today are the remains of ancient creatures that were entombed by mud or sand and which fossilized over the course of tens of millions of years ago, burying them underneath layer upon layer of sediment. On the other hand, the bald man believes that the universe about 6,000 years old and that the dinosaurs died in The Great Flood 4,362 years ago and were quickly and unceremoniously buried and fossilized.
What could possibly be the explanation for two such wildly divergent conclusions to the same question? Well, according to the bald man and Answers In Genesis—the non-profit and apologetics ministry that runs The Creation Museum—it is because the two men came to their conclusions from two different “starting points,” and in this case I think they’re right. The Asian-American man, using the scientific method and hundreds of years of scientific inquiry, starts at the beginning with a question, “when did this dinosaur die?”, and tests out various hypotheses from there in an attempt to find an answer. The bald man, using a literal interpretation of The Bible, comes to the table with answer (basically, the entire Book of Genesis) and tries to determine why that answer is the truth. All in all, the separate starting points theory would make sense as a validation of Youth Earth Creationism’s scientific credibility if it weren’t for the fact that none of their conclusions have anything to do with or were reached through the use of science.
Take the situation with King Unas. After the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero first gained entrance to the Pyramid of Unas in 1881, much of the work that was done leaned heavily on the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in the 3rd Century BC and chronicled much of Ancient Egyptian history, providing us with, among other things, a complete list of the Pharaohs. Like the The Bible, all traces of the original written copies of Manetho’s work have been lost, but researchers were able to piece together most of his chronology of kings through secondary sources who quoted large sections of his works. However, unlike the Biblical Literalists who run The Creation Museum, these Egyptologists did not take Manetho’s works as immutable and absolute law, but as a sort of compass, pointing them towards what they thought was the truth.
Over the course of more than 100 years, varying branches the of sciences have analyzed everything about the Pyramid of Unas: from the translation and interpretation of the hieroglyphic utterances within the Unas’s burial chamber to the examination of other, sometimes older, primary source materials like the Palermo Stone—a 4,500 year old recording of many of the older Egyptian Pharaohs—and the analysis of the architecture and religious beliefs of those who built the pyramid. With the advancements that have been made around radiocarbon dating in the 21st Century, many of these pioneering Egyptologists are being confirmed, augmented or refuted. None of this data is set in stone and I am sure there will be new scientific techniques in the future that will revise these dates again. That’s one of things that makes science, science: the answer is only the answer until a better one is found.
As for the Young Earth Creationists, I’ll yield the floor to Answers in Genesis researcher and former OBGYN Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell so she can explain the “science” behind her conclusions regarding Ancient Egyptian history:
“Isaiah warned against going down to Egypt for help (Isaiah 31:1). This phrase has come to symbolize a warning not to go to the world for truth. God determines truth. Accepting traditional Egyptian chronology necessitates rejection of biblical truth. Accepting biblical chronology allows a reconstruction of ancient chronology on a foundation of truth…The Christian should only accept revised chronology that is consistent with the Bible. New evidence may someday shed new light on the identity of a pharaoh, but nothing should ever rock the Christian’s faith in the trustworthiness of God’s Word.”
Now, anyone of sound mind who is not saddled with the blinders of fundamentalist Christianity can see that Dr. Mitchell is saying, in no uncertain terms, that any and all scientific findings need to be “reconstructed” to align with the teachings of The Bible. For her and for all Young Earth Creationists, “science” is little more than exercise in creating rationales that explain why their God’s truth is the right truth. In fact, the Answers in Genesis website actually describes the discipline of apologetics as, “a reasoned defense of Christian beliefs based on recognizing our presuppositions,” with the primary presupposition being, “that God exists and He has given us His Word (the Bible).” Most of us would call such an unwavering belief in the absolute truth of a set of presupposed conclusions faith, and we would be right. We would have also proved why it’s damn near useless for one side to try and convince the other of the validity of their viewpoint.
The majority of the national news stories that have been done on The Creation Museum tend to focus on the tragicomic discrepancies between how Young Earth Creationists and the scientific community view our planet’s history or the perceived shortcomings of its patrons. Some articles poke fun at the admittedly absurd notion that dinosaurs and human beings once lived in the Earth together in harmony, while others concern themselves withlampooning the museum and those who visit it as mindless yokels who marry their cousins and wind up at the shallow end of the genetic swimming pool. All too often, a summation of a visit to The Creation Museum goes something along the lines of: look at these poor, ignorant bastards—they actually believe Adam and Eve hung out with Velociraptors—how stupid do you have to be to believe this crap?(1)
But, the thing is, these people are not stupid. If you listen to Ken Ham speak and try to follow his serpentine logic as a rhetorical exercise and not an assertion of unassailable truth, it becomes quite clear that this man, and his colleagues at places like the Institute for Creation Research are quite intelligent. After all, it is not easy to explain the entire history of the universe in 6,000 years using pseudoscientific theories. If you think it’s not, then go ahead andtry to rationalize how a 600 year old man could fit 2 of every kind of animal on the planet into a boat that was half the size of the Titanic, ride out a flood that submerged every inch of land on earth and then restart all of human civilization in less than 100 years. It’s damn hard to do. No, the questions I want answered aren’t concerned with what they believe so much as why they believe it.
At the end of The Creation Museum’s exhibit aimed at debunking the evolutionary theory that man descended from apes, there is a large wall display that shows black and white pictures of people who are suffering and asks a series of existential questions. One picture shows a distraught teenage girl sitting on the ground with her knees pulled close to her chest and an overturned bottle of pills by her side. Underneath this picture is the question: Why am I here?Beside that picture is another one that has been taken from behind the wheelchair of an elderly man who looks to be in a nursing home or hospital of some kind. Underneath this picture is another question: Am I Alone? Several other similar photos follow, asking more questions. Why do I suffer? Is there any hope? And, Why do we have to die? This display is followed by the start of the blatantly Biblical exhibits in the museum, where they teach visitors about how the Holy Word has suffered the slings and arrows of secularism, and emphasize the relevance of The Bible in a morally bankrupt world.
Naturally, as they explain in a video shown in another part of the museum, the answer to all of these questions can be found through Jesus Christ and a literal adherence to God’s word. It is here, I believe that we come to the very heart of why the Creation Museum exists and why Young Earth Creationists are so vehement in their insistence that evolution and the search for the true origins of the cosmos is such a thumb in the eye of God. They maintain that The Bible is unerring. That it is unchanging. It is the alpha and the omega of all existence and it provides mankind with a very specific set of guidelines explaining how the universe works and how men are to conduct their affairs. Within the limited boundaries of Biblical Literalism, all of the uncertainty and existential angst of human existence is simply washed away. Unlike modern science, where all interpretations of the universe around us are subject to change and where each answer we find brings with it not certitude, but further questions, Young Earth Creationism allows for a single, incontrovertible truth as to the history of the universe and the purpose of mankind.
There is no nuance in Young Earth Creationism. There is no doubt. There can’t be because, should doubt be allowed to creep into their consciousnesses, they will be forced to face the questions that were printed on that wall display without the foreknowledge that their God is the right God and that He has provided them with the answer. Why am I here? Am I alone? Why do we have to die? Modern science can answer these questions, but only in ways that do little to calm the heart and speak to the soul. Science can give us a very specific, detailed timeline of how we got from The Big Bang to the year 2014 AD and it can describe all of the intricacies of the human life cycle, but it can’t explain what our deeper purpose on this planet is and it can’t tell us how we will feel when we take our last breath and the light leaves our eyes. I don’t know about you, but I personally spend a lot more time wondering what will happen to my mind and my soul after I shuffle off my mortal coil than how my physical body will go about decomposing in a pine box underground. Much of the appeal of Young Earth Creationism is that it provides definitive answers to these questions; answers which, while quite often accompanied by their fair share of fire, brimstone, sin and suffering, normally lead the believer to the conclusion that their life has meaning and some omnipotent power has some sort of divine plan for them which culminates in entry to heaven and life everlasting.
With that being said, the folks at the Creation Museum are certainly not the only people in America who find solace in the idea of the literal interpretation of God’s word. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, 33% of all Americans who express a faith in some religion or another believe that their particular holy text is, word for word, the literal truth of human existence. And, considering the fact that at least 92% of Americans believe in some God or Universal Spirit, that means that roughly 73.6 million Americans have a stated belief in the absolute truth of texts that are in direct conflict with modern science. The Creation Museum doesn’t speak to the beliefs of all 73.6 million of those people, but it is certainly representative of the conviction and passion with which they value the word of their God over the word of their fellow man. Despite the efforts of celebrities like Bill Nye, any attempts at argument and debate from the scientific community will do little more than help places like The Creation Museum raise ark-loads of cash and further bolster the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalist Americans.
It is worth repeating that these people are not stupid. A belief in Young Earth Creationism or any other fundamentalist religion is not predicated on low IQ tests or SAT scores. Their insistence that the female form was created from the plucked rib of man and that the creation of every single living organism we see around us took 144 hours does not come from a place of malice or stubborn opposition to scientific truth. They come from a place of fear. Because it is a dangerous and terrifying thing to step out from behind the dogmatic Walls of Jericho and expose yourself to the unremitting torrent of human existence without the absolute certainty of God’s word to protect you. To look at scripture as an imperfect document, focusing on its moral teachings and overarching views on spiritual life—as Thomas Jefferson did with the Gospels—or to seek out a spiritual connection apart from organized religion is to remove the infallibility of your beliefs. To reject the idea of a god or higher power completely forces you to consider your own existence as a finite one, devoid of divine care and defined only by the actions you make while on this earth—actions that will have no impact on the singular finality of death.
I cannot blame Young Earth Creationists for clutching onto the serene certitude of Biblical Literalism. There have been many a time in my life that I have spoken with someone in possession of unflappable conviction in the rightness of their religion and, while I disagreed with most everything they had to say, left the conversation touched by a blossoming envy for a life where I went to bed every night knowing that my God was the right God and that He had a place reserved for me inside the gates of heaven. But I cannot join them, because the truth I know and the spiritual life I try to cultivate lie not in The Bible, but in the wonders of human achievement and the incomprehensible vastness of the universe. I find my truth inside the pages of Camus and Faulkner or in the works of Elgar and Elliott Smith. I see evidence of the divine not within pages of scripture, but in photographs of the Crab Nebula or the sequencing of the human genome.
None of my beliefs are set in stone and I still spend an inordinate amount of time at night before going to bed contemplating the existence of God and trying to imagine what it would like in that second after death, but I’m making my peace with it. There’s no amount of relief and comfort in the world to get me to rigidly adhere to the every word of an ancient religious text at the expense of capacity to question and wonder. Young Earth Creationists have willingly accepted such a trade off and for that I don’t begrudge them. It’s their right to place their faith in whatever doctrine, dogma or document they so choose, just as it’s the right of the rest of us to uphold the Establishment Clause in the Constitution and make sure Biblical Literalists don’t get their pseudoscientific claptrap within 100 feet of a public school science classroom. If someone wants to teach their child that Tyrannosaurus Rex were vegetarian who hung out with Noah and all of creation on a big wooden boat, then their going to have to do it themselves. After all, why else do you think God created homeschooling?
(1) If you think I’m exaggerating the level of condescension involved in much of the coverage of The Creation Museum, here is a brief passage from an article in Vanity Fair a few years ago: “The most compelling evidence for the ineffably mysterious ways of God are the people who’ve come here to load up with ammunition for the constant and relentless argument with the free world. Here, it’s safe to say, no one is going to get flung into the fiery pit for overdosing on vanity, though they may get done in early for overdosing on carbs. There was an astonishing number of women dressed as if they’d come from the little house on the prairie, in long, floral frontier frocks with bonnets and shawls. Their men are in bibs and braces, with straw hats, authentic pudding-bowl haircuts, and Abe Lincoln beards. They stare at this Hispanic Adam with a touching reverence and a vengeful fury. This goddamned—and I use the word advisedly—dark-eyed wetback is the reason for all the sin and evil and Communism in the world.”