The press in Michigan registered a certain amount of surprise in the wake of announcements that a creationist conference, called the Origin Summit, was going to challenge the “dogma” of evolution on its home turf: on the campus of East Lansing’s Michigan State University. Alarming headlines appeared, such as “Creationism conference at Michigan State ties Hitler policies to evolution, sparks faculty ire.” After looking at these lurid headlines, and hearing that a group of Christians was coming to the university to present their competing views, we smelled drama. That’s why, on the morning of Nov. 1, we set out to see a battle of ideas go down. Armed with whiskey, cigarettes, and a little contraband to help pass the time, we came, we saw, but — needless to say — didn’t concur.
8:03 a.m. — One Tim Horton’s large coffee with a shot of espresso and a box of Timbits (assorted): Check. Camera: Check. Digital recorder: Check. Notebook: Check. Flask: Check. One neatly-rolled joint: Check. Origin Summit, here we come.
9 a.m. — We’re heading out on I-96 under sunny blue skies, but a pall of clouds lies over the land ahead of us. As we finally scoot under them, unmelted frost appears in the ditches by the freeway. It gives us the feeling of going someplace colder, darker, under uncertain heavens.
10 a.m. — We’ve arrived on time. I’m smoking a cigarette outside and looking at the students prowling the campus on this Saturday morning. At first, I think MSU must have more than its fair share of foreign students, until I remember that this is the day after Halloween. Your average, red-blooded, keg-standing native American student is likely still sleeping off an epic holiday hangover. I take a long drink of whiskey out of my flask, ditch the cigarette, and head in.
10:03 a.m. — We’re heading the right way, but I stop for a moment. There’s a young lady bending over and chalking up a board. She’s wearing a rather short skirt and I have a view that’s quite interesting. I linger just long enough to feel sleazy, then move on, thinking about creation myths of another kind.
10:07 a.m. — We arrive. A couple women greet us and provide us with some swag: a schedule for the summit; a DVD called Unlocking the Mystery of Life: The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design; a brochure showing an empty church with the headline “Where have all the Christians gone?”; and a copy of Censored Science: The Suppressed Evidence, a 110-page glossy, full-color textbook by one Bruce Malone. The schedule for the summit has the same format and graphic design treatment as a church pamphlet, complete with a calligraphic font and ornate borders. We also get raffle tickets for a chance to win a free iPad, with additional chances to get more tickets at each panel discussion — as if the only reason anyone would ever go to a creationist summit is for the chance to win a shiny new Apple product.
10:09 a.m. — Censored Science author Bruce Malone is in the midst of his opening address. “I want to acknowledge MSU, because they could have found some way to shut down this conference,” he says. “I don’t know if you know, but there was quite a controversy in the weeks leading up to this. But they didn’t. They made a public acknowledgement stating that this university is a place for sharing ideas. That is incredibly admirable, and I salute MSU University for making a stand and opening up this university.” Malone noted that MSU was not sponsoring the event.
10:10 a.m. — Malone is stalking the hall with his wireless mic, laying down the rules of the conference. Those asking questions are advised not to disrupt the event. While questions, even tough ones, are welcomed, anybody seeking to cause a disturbance will be removed. The participants, he points out, are not Bible-beating fundamentalists. It’s true. They’re science nuts, actually. But they’re sticking to the Bible’s account of cosmology as closely as they can. They acknowledge that the universe is full of billions of galaxies — just as God created them about 100 centuries ago, give or take an eon. Malone points out that, in decades of observation, nobody has observed a star being formed. Given that we’ve only been watching the skies closely for a few centuries, it seems an unfair demand. It’s like putting somebody in a garden for five minutes and asking them whether they saw a flower open. But before I get too critical of them, I realize that they are being persuaded, at least, that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Each step they take back from the classic creation myth must be a very difficult concession for them. It’s surprising they’ve already made so many.
10:15 a.m. — We look around the mostly-empty auditorium and take stock of the crowd. The majority of people seem to be either college-age or over 40, with quite a few elderly people in attendance — perhaps two groups that are either trying to figure out what they believe, or justify what they already believe. Four punk-looking kids walk in late. It’s hard to tell if they could be “alternative Christians” or atheist protesters — the look could go either way. If anyone’s going to disrupt the event, it would have to be these guys. So far there’s a little over 50 people in the audience.
10:22 a.m. — Malone notes that he and Dr. Bergman are members of Mensa, the high IQ society. He says this not to brag, but to counteract the stereotype that all creationists have low IQs. He also invokes Marilyn vos Savant, author of Parade magazine’s Ask Marilyn column and the holder of Guinness World Records’ highest recorded IQ, pointing out that while Savant doesn’t believe in creation, she also doesn’t believe in the Big Bang. “‘That sounds just plain nuts, right?’” Malone reads, quoting her thoughts on the origin of the universe. “‘But do you believe it? If so, how do you support your belief that the entire cosmos was once smaller than a polka dot? With a strong line of reasoning? Solid evidence? Anything at all? If you cannot, welcome to the world of faith: You’re accepting what you’ve been told by those you respect.’” Malone continues to quote Savant. “‘Lots of science — far too much — is accepted on faith,’” he reads. “And she says, ‘I also think we must be careful not to teach theories as fact. It slows scientific progress immeasurably.’” A man in the audience fist-pumped while Malone read that last line. It was interesting, though, that Malone chose not to read aloud the part right before that, where Savant states plainly that she believes creationism should not be taught in schools.
10:25 a.m. — Malone is showing a magnified image of a leafhopper’s hind legs that shows a gearlike structure. To Malone and his ilk, this is proof of a maker, a designer, not a billion random accidents producing the part that works best. Malone asks, “How can people not see what I think is so obvious?” It will become a refrain today.
10:27 a.m. — Somebody hands me a flier with a picture of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and overseer of the Humane Genome Project. It reads that he accepts the overwhelming evidence for evolution, but he “prays in an evangelical church,” summarized with the phrase “Many Christians see no conflict between faith and evolution.” Another picture shows Dr. Jennifer Wiseman of NASA, a believer in the Big Bang, which emphasizes: “Is openly Christian,” noting, “Many scientists are religious.” It’s a weird handout, as if scientists have to stay in the closet about something as humdrum as believing in God.
11:01 a.m. — More people have filed in, with a total number most likely nearer 100. An older woman is knitting in the back. I ask Jackman if it’s too early for shots.
11:05 a.m. — While discreetly hitting the flask outside, we discuss how we get the impression that this isn’t some sort fundamentalist indoctrination — just a panel of five reasonable guys whose views happen to not dovetail with the scientific establishment’s. At that moment a kid in a green hoodie steps out and stares at us. We ask him if he’s here for the conference. “Well, in a sense,” he replies. He’s got sort of a militant seriousness about him. We ask if he’s an organizer for the event. “No, I’m not,” he says. We ask if he’s helping out. There’s a long, awkward pause. “Well, I’m just trying to figure out where it is,” he says. We point in the direction of the auditorium. “OK. Thank you,” he says, and leaves. We do another round of flask shots. Did we just get surveilled? Can they smell the skepticism on us?
11:10 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is delivering a lecture titled “Hitler’s Worldview.” I can’t pass up the opportunity to hear about a topic as controversial as Nazism, so I head in. I can see where this is headed right away: The nihilism of science is to blame for the Holocaust, and Darwinism lays the foundation for the evils of the concentration camp. It’s all in Dr. Bergman’s book, Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview: How the Nazi Eugenic Crusade for a Superior Race Caused the Greatest Holocaust in World History. You see, Darwin opened the door to atheism and evolution, and, worse still, converted the scientific establishment, and there lies the source of the Holocaust. The only thing is, haven’t a whole shitload of people been killed in crusades over Christianity? Is it anything new that a politician takes the consensus of the day and twists it to his own personal purposes?
11:11: a.m. — With Jackman on the Nazi beat, I chose “The Big Bang is FAKE” by panelist Charles Jackson. There are a little more than 20 people in attendance, mostly young. The young, punk-looking kids from earlier all have laptops opens, and toggle between multiple browsing tabs displaying photos of galaxies. They seem to be really into it, and the possibility of these kids being the disrupters everyone seems to be expecting diminishes.
11:20 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is still talking about Darwin, about how he regarded women as inferior, even though his wife spoke better English and more languages. He declares Darwin’s English to have been poor. Perhaps it’s an inopportune moment, as the slide in his presentation reads, “Evolution is true, only going the wring way.” Wring?
11:30 a.m. — After learning that Darwin was, like many Westerners in the 19th century, convinced that the crusade of civilization would replace the savagery of undeveloped nations over the centuries, we arrive at a quote from Hitler that sounds very much like this. The only thing is, it’s perforated with enough ellipses and a wide enough page range to give you the disquieting feeling that Bergman might be misquoting the Führer.
11:33 a.m. — Dr. Jackson explains that the imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe is one of biggest problems with our current understanding of the Big Bang — there should be equal amounts of each, yet there is hardly any antimatter to be found. Jackson’s impersonation of matter and antimatter mutually annihilating each other in the early days of the cosmos is very entertaining, with lots of laser noises.
11:35 a.m. — Now we’re getting somewhere. Dr. Bergman is showing how the Nazis took over and taught their twisted worldview. First, you use the mass media to affect the people, then you take over the churches, the schools, the textbooks, and indoctrinate the youth. He argues that the main opposition to Hitler came from the churches and the Christians, but, like other speakers at the event, they’re more inclusive than Christian fundamentalists. Bergman discusses Hitler’s effort to expunge the Judeo-Christian-Muslim doctrine of human divine origins from mainline German religion and schools. It suggests to me that the creationists are so hard up for company they’ll even take adherents of Islam.
11:41 a.m. — While Dr. Jackson discusses the Big Bang, I flip through Malone’s book. Most pages feature stock photos of animals, galaxies, dinosaur skeletons, and the like — a pretty typical-looking textbook. One particularly weird page shows a photo illustration of a young girl with a blank smile looking at a laptop, with her brain superimposed on top. Three ropes are wrapped around her brain, with the words “Cosmological Naturalism,” “Biological Naturalism,” and “Geological Naturalism” hovering above each. It’s kind of terrifying.
11:45 a.m. — Dr. Bergman’s slide show is really getting serious. We’re looking at images of Herr Hitler, meat wagons full of bodies, and more swastikas than at a Nuremberg rally. Maybe it’s paranoia, but I’m starting to get a bit freaked out. I look at the audience of about 25 people, overwhelmingly white, mostly male, and start to wonder what somebody would think if they just walked in with no idea what was going on!
11:46 a.m. — Dr. Jackson’s thesis seems to be that the Big Bang theory should not be taught as dogma, saying there’s too much patchiness to the theory, and too many instances of ignoring laws of science and actual observations. “I don’t think it’s a problem to teach it,” he says, “but I think it’s a problem to teach and not bring up the problems, the patchiness, and perhaps even acknowledge that there are other explanations out there.” He then quotes Nikola Tesla: “‘Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality,’” he reads. “I believe that happens far too often. Don’t forget, there’s a great payoff to being the person who’s famous for a particular theory, and getting people on that bandwagon and teaching it in classrooms.”
11:50 a.m. — Dr. Bergman is talking about how he asks people who the most evil person in history was, and how a lot of people say Hitler. He says his publishers like the way he finds controversial topics, and as the author of 36 books, Bergman is totally like a self-publishing company’s wet dream. His next book is on the religious views of Dwight D. Eisenhower.