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Will science, religion kiss and make up?
'Evolutionary evangelists' laud aspects of Creation Museum
By Peter Smith
PETERSBURG, Ky. -- They call themselves "evolutionary evangelists" -- an ordained minister and a science writer who travel full time to proclaim the "kick-butt good news" of evolution.
They travel in a van decorated with a symbol of their gospel: The popular image of the Jesus fish kissing a bumper-sticker parody of that image -- a Darwin fish sprouting feet.
The Rev. Michael Dowd -- author of the new book "Thank God for Evolution!" -- and his wife Connie Barlow, an author of four books on evolution, believe that after years of quarrel, science and religion can kiss and make up.
So here they were on a recent morning at the new Creation Museum, which presents the book of Genesis literally and has quickly become a touchstone in the debate over human origins, science and religion.
The couple came not to protest the museum, but to praise it for doing "a fabulous job of presenting a young-earth creationist story," as Dowd puts it.
"It's our responsibility to tell the evolutionary story with as much fun and passion," added Dowd, 49, who traveled to the museum with Barlow and a Courier-Journal reporter last month when they were visiting the state.
To be clear: Dowd and Barlow don't believe what the museum teaches about science.
They don't believe that God created everything in a six-day period about 6,000 years ago, that dinosaurs walked alongside humans or that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood.
But they agree with the museum that science should be taught as something relevant.
"It really ups the ante for the rest of us to present evolution in a way that's memorable, has a narrative story line in it and directly connects to our personal lives and personal challenges," said Barlow, 55.
"You walk into any of these other great museums in the world … you're looking at some cool fossils and great interpretations," she said. But "there isn't a story."
For Dowd and Barlow, that explains why 43 percent of Americans tell the Gallup Poll they believe God created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years or so, despite an overwhelming consensus among scientists that's to the contrary.
The Creation Museum, operated at 2800 Bullitsburg Church Road by the ministry group Answers in Genesis, has drawn 275,000 visitors since its Memorial Day opening.
The museum offers a story that fires the imagination of children, with lifelike models of dinosaurs that move and roar.
But it also conveys fundamental messages: that humans have dignity because they are made in the image of God; that Adam and Eve's sin brought suffering and death into the world; and that salvation comes only through Jesus.
The exhibits tell children "how it all makes sense," Dowd said. "We think evolution can do that in a better way, but nonetheless that's what they do effectively here."
Museum officials, who allowed Dowd, Barlow and a camera-toting reporter to tour without escort, disagreed about what is so effective.
"It's not about telling it better, it's about telling the truth," said Georgia Purdom, an Answers in Genesis researcher. "…What we're trying to do is really offer an alternative to the typical natural history museum by starting with the Bible" as the "only really true source."
Studying nature alone has limits because it is "marred by sin," she said.
Advocates for teaching evolution applaud Dowd's and Barlow's writings but question their idea of having museum exhibits on the spiritual implications of evolution.
"Michael is doing a big favor to conservative Christianity because he is showing how you don't have to be afraid of evolution to still retain some fairly traditional conservative Christian views," said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, which opposes teaching creationism in public schools.
But, she added, "I want to leave science out of the culture wars. … It can be used to support any number of theistic and non-theistic views" but cannot "compel any conclusions."
Robert Martin, a biology professor at Murray State University and author of a book on evolution, said popular books on evolution and spirituality would work better than a museum exhibit.
"There hasn't been enough writing by scientists who believe in evolution on these subjects, and that's our fault," he said.
Dowd himself once embraced creationism.
When he was attending Evangel College, a conservative Pentecostal school in Missouri, he said, he was convinced the devil had infiltrated the school because professors taught about evolution.
That changed as he was convinced by conservative Christians who accepted evolution under the rubric that "all truth is God's truth."
He later graduated from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and went on to pastor congregations in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination.
Eventually, he became a community organizer. But he had a growing passion for "popularizing a sacred, meaningful understanding of evolution."
He found a soul mate in Barlow, and soon after their 2001 marriage in Louisville, they took to the road full time.
In talks to school groups, churches and anyone else who will listen, Dowd uses glorious pictures of distant star clusters and quotes the 1960s catch phrase, "We are stardust," to proclaim that all life evolved from the same stuff of which the sun is made.
Barlow uses an imaginative picture of the human brain -- decorated with everything from a reptile to a ballet dancer -- to represent humanity's lowest and highest aspirations.
And just as dying stars give birth to new solar systems, Dowd argues, science depicts death as a creative force, something echoed in religious stories such as that of Jesus. "At the other side of death, there's always … resurrection," he said.
For Answers in Genesis, however, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be accepted by faith -- and it's the ultimate point of its museum.
"If we can't believe what the Bible tells us in Genesis," Purdom said, "why should we believe what it tells us in any other part?"