Image depicting Adam & Eve’s "Walk with God" at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.
Brian Finke for msnbc

The Creation Museum wants your children

— Updated

PETERSBURG, Ky. --Two hours into his debate with scientist and television personality Bill Nye, Creation Museum Founder Ken Ham was asked whether anything could make him abandon his belief in an Earth less than ten thousand years old.

"As far as the word of god is concerned, no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of god is not true," Ham said. Ham then turned and asked Nye, "What would change your mind?"

"We would just need one piece of evidence," Nye said. "We would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another, we would need evidence that the universe is not expanding, we would need evidence that the stars appear to be far away but they're not. We would need evidence that rock layers can somehow form in 4000 years...We would need evidence you can reset atomic clocks and keep neutrons from becoming protons."

"Bring on any of those things, and you would change me immediately," Nye said.

That exchange summed up more than two and a half hours of debate over science and the nature of human life, and the fundamental cleavage between creationism and science. Science requires the idea that a hypothesis can fail, that what is held to be true can be disproven. The central hypothesis of creationism, in the eyes of the creationist, can never be disproven, no matter the quality, quantity, or immutability of the available information. And where science is unable to answer a question--such as the nature of consciousness, creationism provides an answer that encourages you to stop looking.

"There is a book out there that does document where consciousness came from," Ham said to Nye, referring to the Christian bible in a refrain that drew applause and laughter from the audience every time he used it.

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Can anything change a creationist's mind?
 Nye and Ham weren't going to convince each other. But the debate symbolized something deeper for both men--an opportunity to sway parents about what their children should know.

"What you teach children about who they are and where they come from is very important, because if they're just the result of natural processes, and if like Richard Dawkins says and even Bill Nye says, that's the end of you, that's it, you won't even know you're ever alive," Ham told msnbc in an interview Monday afternoon, "then what is the purpose and meaning of life?"

It was Nye's brief remark about children and creationism from a 2012 YouTube video that set off the chain of events leading to Tuesday night's debate, billed as the Mohammed Ali vs. George Foreman of creationism vs. evolution debates.

"I say that to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe that's fine," Nye said in the video, "but don't have your kids do it because we need them, we need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future."

Creationism needs the kids too. Every inch of the $27 million dollar Creation Museum, from the towering mastadon skeleton in the lobby to its zip lines and petting zoo, is designed to appeal to children. Animatronic puppets explain the exile of Adam and Eve from their paradise of frolicking vegetarian dinosaurs and the construction of Noah's Ark, while videos showing teenagers consuming Internet pornography or wives dissing their husbands behind their back are used to illustrate the fallen nature of the world. With its alternative narrative of a world where the biblical flood carved the Grand Canyon, racial differences were created by a mass migration following the destruction of the Tower of Babel, and all human suffering can be reduced to a rejection of Christianity, the Creation Museum offers hope for parents who want to arm their children against the atheist indoctrination of evolution.

Other than its appeal to children, it's the fear of death that permeates every corner of the Creation Museum. As expensive and professionally produced as it may be, the museum amounts to a fragile shelter against the storm of realization that we all die alone.

"For someone who is an atheist, if there's no god, when you die, from your perspective you won't know you ever existed," Ham says in a Creation Museum produced 2012 YouTube video responding to Nye. "When people near you die, they won't know you existed, eventually everyone dies, no one will know anything ever was, no purpose or meaning in life, what does it really matter anyway?"

Speaking to msnbc in his office the day before the debate, Ham struck the same theme. "Bill Nye talks about the joy of discovery, that's what science is all about, but so what?" Ham asked. "When you die that's it? you won't know you ever discovered anything, so what's the point anyway?"

Inside the Creation Museum
The Creation Museum argues humans coexisted with dinosaurs, the biblical flood carved the Grand Canyon, and the Earth itself is only 6,000 years old.

There are several different forms of creationism. But Ham's organization, Answers in Genesis, is perhaps the biggest proponent of young earth creationism -- the belief that the Earth is at maximum ten thousand years old --and Ham is one of the ideology's most popular spokesmen. Ham, who dresses like a schoolteacher and speaks softly in the accent of his native Australia, has also become a popular figure through his books and videos promoting creationism and lampooning the "secularists" he sees as rejecting the obvious truth of the Christian Bible. For Ham, evolution is merely another religious doctrine, part of "the religion of atheism," as he refers to it in his talks.

The number of modern scientific concepts one has to reject to believe in young earth creationism is vast. The physics involved in radioactive dating, the geological record, or how germs resist antibiotics all have to be left by the wayside or shoehorned into established religious beliefs. An oil company that hired a young earth creationist scientist would go bankrupt, because, having rejected the modern understanding of the geological record, would struggle figuring out where to find oil.

"At the end of the day young earth creationism requires you to throw out pretty much everything we know about science," says  Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education.

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One of the first exhibits at the Creation Museum features a video of Christian Paleontologist at a dig site who explains that he and his "secular" colleague simply draw different conclusions from the same data, an explanation that warps how the science actually works. A young earth creationist scientist is working backwards from the conclusion that a deity created the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour days, not testing a hypothesis through observation and experimentation and adjusting conclusions based on the results. With young earth creationism, the data must always be fit to comply with the hypothesis that the creation described in the book of Genesis is literally true.

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Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the Creation Museum's rejection of modern scientific consensus, it has remained a popular destination since its opening in 2007. The Creation Museum estimates it has received almost two million visitors since opening. Depending on how the question is asked, Americans remain split on the question of whether or not humans evolved or were created in their present form. According to Pew, Republicans are now more likely to reject evolution than they used to be, which is why when asked the age of the Earth two years ago, Republican Florida Senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said, "I'm not a scientist, man."

"I think a lot of that is that people like science, they want science to be right, but they also want humans to be unique and special, they want religion to be true," says Rosenau. "So if there's a perceived conflict, and creationists have been remarkably successful in creating a conflict between the science of evolution and religion, if there's a perceived conflict people want it resolved in favor of religion." On a purely emotional level, "god loves you" is a more comforting message than "we're all alone in the universe," if you have to choose. Yet many religious people, like say the last three popes, simply don't see a conflict between religion and evolution.

Creationism has been on a losing streak in the courts since the 1925 Scopes Trial, where three-time Democratic presidential loser William Jennings Bryan successfully defended a Tennessee law outlawing the teaching of evolution. Since then, the courts have consistently ruled that attempts to teach creationism in public school are a violation of the First Amendment separation church and state, an obvious conclusion given that creationists' openly religious motivations. Even so, it's difficult to know how many teachers are teaching their students theology rather than biology.

"In those communities where it's happening, it's happening because that's what the public wants, the only way that there would be conflict is if someone weren't teaching creationism," Rosenau says. "So it's really hard to hear about it even, until someone moves in from out of town and says wait a minute, you're doing what?"

Kentucky has welcomed the Creation Museum with open arms. In 2010, Democratic Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear held a press conference to announce that a new project from Answers in Genesis, a Noah's Ark inspired theme park called "Ark Encounter," would be built, attracting "1.6 million visitors in its first year and creat[ing] more than 900 jobs." The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the state has offered the project tens of millions in tourism tax credits, and the city of Williamstown, where the project is meant to be built, has backed a $62 million dollar bond offering.

"Why shouldn't they be supportive of the Creation Museum? We're a private organization, we're privately funded, we help the economy of the area, we're just like a business in the area, no different to a business that comes in," Ham says. "We employ about 300 people here, so it's good for the area, why shouldn't Christians have freedom to do things?"

MSNBC Live, 02/04/14 10:25PM
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Even so, the Ark Encounter project appears to be troubled. Bloomberg reported in January that Answers in Genesis was nearly $30 million dollars behind its fundraising goal for the Ark Encounter, after Ham sent an email to supporters asking them to pray for the project. The deadline to sell the bonds is February 6, two days after the debate with Nye.

Ham told msnbc on Monday he couldn't talk about the bonds because "our underwriters issued a gag order on us," but he claimed that the Creation Museum is holding the debate at a loss.

"People are saying we're using this as a money-making effort for the museum, the ticket sales won't cover half the cost of this debate," Ham said prior to the event. The Creation Museum will be able to sell dvds of the event, which are already available for pre-purchase on their website. Ham wouldn't answer questions about what Nye was getting paid for the appearance, but pointed to reports showing that Nye's regular speaking fee is between fifty to seventy thousand dollars.

With so little to gain, at least financially, one might ask why Ham is going so far as to hold the debate in the first place. The answer may be that any forum that presents evolution at parity with young earth creationism is a moral victory for creationists.

"Debate is a sport," Rosenau said. "A good high school debater goes to a debate competition knowing the topic but not which side they're doing to argue for, and the skill is to be able to argue for either side and win regardless it's not about evidence, it's not about who's right, it's about who gives the best performance on stage." Still Rosenau observed, if anyone was prepared for this, it's an experienced performer like Nye.

Ham dismisses this kind of argument as mere intolerance from atheists. "I believe there's a censorship going on in our culture, if you notice in response to Bill Nye agreeing to do this, which I admire him for doing, that there's a number of the aggressive atheists saying he shouldn't be debating, it gives creationists a platform it, it legitimizes their view," Ham said. "He's out there making public statements about evolution about creation, well why can't we have public discussion about it?"

Both Nye and Ham are adept public speakers--and between Nye's fee and Ham's opportunity to present young earth creationism on equal ground with evolution, it's a win-win situation, at least for the two of them. Ham says he doesn't care who "wins," just that people's minds are opened.

"I think one of the greatest things that comes out of it, is that people start talking about this topic, and are challenged by it, and go do some research on their own. If we can accomplish that it's worth every cent of money and all the time we've spent," Ham said. "I don't want people looking at it as who won and who lost."

A tie, for creationism, is the same as a win.

Poll: Who won the creationism vs. evolution debate?