It may have been Mark Twain who said, "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Any American enduring our current election cycle has experienced the result of that perspective as we watch inconvenient truths become twisted, omitted or otherwise altered. Sadly, this happens far too often when the worlds of religious zealots and scientific puritans cross paths. That happened to me in some small degree when I recently visited The Cabazon Dinosaurs with my family. You may remember this tourist attraction as a refuge for Pee Wee Herman in the famous Tim Burton film Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
I took my family to visit those dinosaurs last Sunday and could not have been more disappointed. Although the maintenance staff seemed to be on permanent vacation, it was the surprising "scientific" claims made by the ownership that shocked me. To my astonishment, the Cabazon Dinosaurs are now used to promote the view of "Creationist scientists": our planet is approximately 6,000 years old, man and dinosaur lived alongside each other and evolution is impossible.
In other words, The Flintstones was a documentary, not a cartoon for children.
Confusing theological belief with scientific fact
For a moment, I thought I was on a Sarah Palin reality show. Surely I wasn't being asked to deny thousands of scientific facts -- not theories -- which support the notion that dinosaurs lived millions -- not thousands -- of years ago. The farther we went through the museum, the more unbelievable it got. The gift shop had posters for sale repeating the creationist mantra, "by design, not by chance." Signs were erected in nearly every dinosaur display claiming they were killed by the flood as told in the story of Noah and his menagerie. Better yet, fossil evidence proves they lived at the same time as man. Taking the "man and dinos" theme farther, they refute all evidence that man has existed for tens of thousands of years. They deny any basis for the idea that we have evolved and come farther away from our ape-like predecessors. Cromagnon didn't exist 45,000 years ago but only 5,000 years ago and was very similar to who we are now. Forget sloping foreheads, spinal structure and cranial capacity. They're more like the family from Deliverance than a genetic ancestor.
All of these claims were made in an attempt to somehow highlight a divide between science and the Bible. It disappoints me when I encounter people on both sides of the argument who fail to realize that they are not enemies, but walking different paths to the same destinations: origin and purpose. How did we get here and why should we live?
In the case of the Cabazon Dinosaurs, there is a confusion of theological belief and scientific fact. Ironically, only days after our visit, a controversy erupted on the Internet regarding an interview with television icon Bill Nye "The Science Guy". He argued that a belief in Creationism makes life "complicated" due to a denial of facts and went so far as to say that it shouldn't be taught to children. What I saw at the museum is an example of his argument. Their claims went so far beyond the concept of intelligent design that an inclusion of green skies and unicorns could have been part of the tour.
My wife found this to be just as preposterous as I did, but eventually even she got tired of my constant, "it actually says this!" every time we passed another information sign.
The responsibility of parents
After seeing this poster claiming the Loch Ness monster is proof of dinosaurs living among us, I was brought face-to-face with the crux of my problem. He was standing beside me. At the young age of not-quite-four, the information being shown was still far beyond his grasp. He liked the sand and big lizards. But my responsibility as a parent is to educate him with truth, not a blatant denial of fact to fit my own world view.
There is an unquestionable place in education for theory. The Big Bang and the Book of Genesis are both ideas written by men. Even dreams and fantasy should be part of education so we have places to reach for and ideas to explore. That said, it is radically unfair to send a child into the world without equipping them to understand the realities which they must endure. Despite long-standing objections by the Church, the world is indeed round. Gravity is a fact. Earthquakes are not punishments from Zeus. We share genetics with monkeys. And it was scientific research that revealed a vaccine for polio and the method to give a dying child a new heart.
Theology in place of fact hurts children
The United States is slowly but surely losing its educational dominance in the world. Doctors, computer engineers and astronomers are now increasingly learning their fields outside our borders because we punish schools that teach evolution and we focus on passing tests instead of actual learning. It becomes harder and harder to produce nuclear physicists when we teach our children that radiation can't actually be possible because all of existence is only 6,000 years old. How could radiocarbon dating actually be accurate? Our knowledge of the sun should be proof alone, but such inconvenient truths are taught to us by science.
I agree with Bill Nye that we need educated, knowledgeable children to become informed and intelligent voters and tax payers. It need not come at the expense of theology, but we should keep in mind the words of Isaac Asimov who said:
"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"
The ideas of intelligent design and evolution aren't empirical opposites. Science may very well be a means of explaining the workings of God. We may have been given the necessary tools to explore and explain our existence. If that is true, or intelligent design is complete hogwash and evolution a fact, all scenarios require us to do our duty as parents and teach our children the science of their world. Dinosaurs are ancient, not old. Radiation is possible because atoms have existed for billions of years. Earthquakes help the Earth without implying divine punishment. And all of these facts may be exactly as God planned them.