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Fear and Loathing at the Origin Summit 

How we spent eight hours hearing about the divine creation of the universe

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11:50 a.m. — Dr. Jackson’s presentation is rather tame. Nothing too outrageous here. I wonder how Jackman is doing.

11:55 a.m. — It’s a little uncomfortable when Bergman raises the subject of eugenics, about how he’s German and Scandinavian, and as a blue-eyed man would probably be OK in Hitler’s kingdom. But he goes on to add a little eugenics musing of his own, that white people should marry people of other races, if only to avoid the likelihood of their children getting cystic fibrosis, and to help black people avoid sickle-cell anemia. Now he’s off on a tangent about how some people in past audiences have stood up and accused him of being a racist. Once, he tells us, he even had to ask his 85-year-old black aunt to stand up and say hello, to defuse the tension.

11:59 a.m. — Dr. Bergman shows us a slide of a typical Northern European couple. They look like young hippies. Then he shows us a 1940s photo a man and a woman identified as European Jews. “She doesn’t look very Jewish,” he says of the woman. “And this guy looks more Italian than anything.”

12:15 p.m. — Jackman and I agreed to split for halftime a little early. As I get up and leave the auditorium, I can hear Dr. Malone’s voice behind me: “Remember, folks, you have to stay to the end of each seminar for a chance to win the iPad.”

12:23 p.m. — We’re taking a break at Stober’s Bar in downtown Lansing, where the mystical theme seems to find a refrain in the bizarre stained-glass artwork behind the bar, with a wizard-looking guy staring out from a sea of arcane symbolism, such as stars and yin-yang circles. Then there are the wood-carved gargoyles on either end of the bar, which look right at home amid some of the Halloween decorations. At least one of the patrons is familiar with the summit. He tells us he doesn’t want to “bash” anybody’s beliefs, but he was surprised the college allowed something that anti-intellectual to go on.

1:01 p.m. — We’re digging into burgers and fries from Moriarty’s down the street. The fries are excellent hand-cut babies, and the burgers are also very good. We show the bartender, Patricia Goncz, the book we’ve been given, authored by Bruce Malone. She looks at it and flips through it, confused by page after page of scientific writing. She gives it back to us and says, “So these people are against God? It looks pretty anti-religious.” I’m surprised by this, but then I realize that, like a lot of the divine creation stuff, it has the ring of science, not of religion. Instead of stories of forgiveness and pictures of Jesus, it may very well look anti-religious. An average churchgoer might see it that way. I’m finding it hard to see these creationists as Christians. I mean, I’ve heard these guys talk for two hours already and they haven’t mentioned love once.

2:16 p.m. — We decide to hotbox in the car before heading back in. The joint has a sort of sweet, pine flavor. Hilarity ensues. Much merriment was had by all.

2:30 p.m. — I’m back in another session with Dr. Bergman, this one titled “Evolution Is True, but Going the Wrong Way.” The premise is unusual, and it takes me a few minutes to understand that, if God created Adam and Eve, then they were perfect divine creations. So that would mean that we are actually increasingly inferior copies of our divinely created ancestors, which accounts for all the diseases and syndromes brought on by harmful genetic mutations. At a certain point back, he argues, you won’t find any mutations. He tells us that the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. But even as he spreads this knowledge, he urges any young scholars who agree with him to “stay in the closet.” The system suppresses academic freedom. It’s all in his book Slaughter of the Dissidents.

2:33 p.m. — I chose Dr. Jackson’s “Natural Selection Is NOT Evolution” for my second lecture. I walk in a little late. At the moment, I have no idea what Dr. Jackson’s talking about. I decide to eat the rest of the Timbits from earlier. I feel great.

2:35 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is really getting into his refutation of evolution. He says that if anybody in the audience can partner with him to prove that evolution is true, he’ll split the Nobel Prize with them. He’ll order his new Mercedes next week.

2:45 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is getting distracted. He’s shuttling through beautiful slides of protein relationships and the enzymes that switch cell functions on and off, as if certain that anybody would see the hand of God guiding this beautiful machinery. But he’s also going on odd tangents that involve, at one point, his neighbor’s carpeting. He’s also back on his pet topic of why white people must marry other races. If you’re looking for a mate, he tells us, get on a flight to Hong Kong and you’ll have beautiful, healthy children. “If you want a good dog,” he says, “get a mutt.”

2:50 p.m. — There must be some point to the slides Dr. Bergman is showing, but he’s getting wrapped up in his pet topics and not addressing the information contained in them. One slide is full of polysyllabic words I can’t understand. Perhaps running behind schedule, the good doctor mercifully shuffles it out of the way, saying, “This we’ll skip.”

2:55 p.m. — It’s weird, but I’m really starting to like Dr. Bergman. There’s something about him that reminds me of my high school shop teacher, and I’m starting to feel like one of the bad kids in the class who just wandered in late, stoned as hell after firing one up in the boys’ room. As if in response to this thought, he’s talking about gene redundancy, about how your DNA has two copies of the genes to compare against each other. “It’s like God gives you two screwdrivers. If one of them gets stripped, you’ve got another to do the job.” It’s terrific, and all of a sudden it’s 1985 again and I’m back in Mr. Kincaid’s shop class.

2:58 p.m. — Dr. Jackson’s thesis this time seems to be simply that what we call natural selection is not evolution because it does not create new genetic code. It seems to be an argument of semantics more than anything. I wish I had more Timbits.

3 p.m. — Dr. Bergman is talking about Lynn Margulis’ theory of endosymbiosis, that creatures pass DNA to other creatures, but dismisses it, saying, “That doesn’t solve the problem of where those genes came from. That just moves the problem somewhere else.” You get the sense that Bergman loves science, but hates the mysteries, and needs the guiding hand of God to explain it all. He blurts out, “I was an atheist at one time,” and there’s not even a murmur in the room. “It was my doubts about evolution that brought me back to religion. I finally accepted the divine truth that evolution isn’t true and fell over the dam, and now I see things in a new way.” It’s a touching, moving speech, and he’s obviously sincere. He even makes a self-effacing reference to Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.

3:09 p.m. — Dr. Bergman keeps getting more personal, and more personable, even as his lecture is running off the rails and straying way, way off topic. He says, “You know, you guys are a really nice audience. You must all be friends or something. I’ve been hauled offstage halfway through some of my lectures, you know.” His irregular lecture begins to make sense; this may be one of the first occasions he’s been able to really pursue it without being removed from the dais.

3:15 p.m. — Quoting somebody else, Dr. Bergman says, “If evolution is true, then I’ve got a problem. It’s going to allow me to be promiscuous. Evolution allows me to do things that, if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t do.” But, moral considerations aside, he extols his lifelong love of science. He tells us, “When I was a kid. I loved taking things apart. And then in school, in Gross anatomy, you start with a cadaver and you end up with five buckets of stuff.”

3:21 p.m. — Dr. Berger is asked, “What’s the strongest argument for creationism?” and he replies that it’s the amazing way the system works. Now he’s quickly off on a tangent about why evolution disappoints him. It’s an emotional and disjointed speech, but there’s something poetic about this kindly old shop teacher. At the bottom, he hungers for a world in which people don’t talk about facts but about questions and mysteries, perhaps something approaching philosophy. In that regard, maybe this kindly old dude is right. He’s still hoping to get more questions from the 30-odd listeners in the room. Timidly, he asks, “Anybody disagree?”

3:25 p.m. — My tender reverie is interrupted when I realize the kindly shop teacher up front lecturing was the guy who was showing a billion swastikas on the big screen a few hours earlier. I take out my phone and text DeVito that this is getting too weird for me.

3:33 p.m. — I get a mysterious text from Jackman: “WEIIRD MMAN THIS IS WEIRD MAN.” Oh, shit, is he OK? What’s going on?

3:38 p.m. — Now everybody is gathered in the main lecture room, where the assembled speakers are ready to field questions, while host speaker Bruce Malone rushes around the audience with a wireless mic. First up is a man whose well-behaved children have accompanied him all day. His question is about the sabbath, and it seems fairly obvious he’s a Seventh Day Adventist trying to sniff out if these people fit in with his theological worldview. The creationists seem a little disappointed that it’s not a scientific question.

3:42 p.m. — Somebody has asked why human beings lived so much longer before the flood. (After all, the Bible says Methuselah and Noah lived to be more than 900 years old, but their descendants lived shorter and shorter lives, until, in the days of the pharaohs, Moses lived only to be 120.) Malone is on the ball, saying, “Here’s a model that I think the Bible supports.” He then describes a flood in which the earth splits open, shooting 8,000-degree magma into the oceans, evaporating them rapidly enough to cause hurricanes and floods about 6,400 years ago. This would be a high-mutation event that results in an ice age that lasts a few centuries. The harmful mutations, therefore, would be behind man’s reduced lifespan. As reasons go, Malone says, “That’s one of the best I’ve heard.”

3:50 p.m. — Maybe we came with ideas of making a bit of fun of these guys, but now I don’t want to. They seem defensive, sad that the scientific establishment laughs at them, discounts them, refuses to engage in discussion with them. At a certain point, the mood feels like that of a self-help group. But they do have a job to do, and I understand what it is. Their job is to offer help to people who want to believe in the beauty of science and the truth of the scripture. Their role is to help these people waltz between those two worlds without a misstep. To teach the right moves so a person can play Twister with God and science without contorting themselves too ridiculously. They do it by trying to find science that supports the Bible, and emphasizing that their science is “different, not wrong.” They declare that they’re tired of talking to themselves, but the lack of pointed questions would suggest that they’re still doing just that. Dr. Jackson says he longs for the octane of a debate, and even name-checks Richard Dawkins in an attempt to get it started. The audience remains mute and respectful. How many of the young people in attendance today are here for the scoop on creation, and how many simply want to win the drawing for the iPad?

3:55 p.m. — I’m tripping out. These guys are talking about the flood, the Tower of Babel, DNA, and God, while the big screens behind them project pulsing images of sunsets, stone stairways, lakes, pomegranates, giraffes, country fences, flower blossoms, ocean vistas. The lecture dims to a murmur while I’m looking at this bizarre succession of almost psychedelic imagery.

4:01 p.m. — One thoughtful young person raises a timid objection. If the world is only thousands of years old, what about ice cores? They bear out a terrestrial history going back 100,000 years. One of the panelists says that 10 feet of snow can pack down into a foot of ice, so he doesn’t see how even very thick ice can’t have been formed over a few score centuries. Dr. DeYoung says, “I think these ice cores may be younger than you’d like.” The scholar raises his hand for a follow-up, declaring that scientists know that each core has visible annual layers, much like rings on the cross-section of a tree. Dr. Malone dismisses these objections, saying, “Maybe you’re measuring storms, not years.” I feel sorry for the young scholar. On the bright side, now he knows how Galileo felt!

4:12 p.m. — A question about life on other planets should stir things up. Malone, skipping down the stairs warns the asker, “Now we’re entering the territory of speculation.” Surprisingly, none of the panelists seems to acknowledge the possibility. Dr. DeYoung says, “The scripture is silent on extraterrestrials.” At least the feisty Dr. Bergman raises the possibility of other forms of life: angels. That earns a laugh from us.

4:19 p.m. — One audience member asks, “Who made God?” The panel wrestles with this for a while, until Dr. Jackson begins to speak. This high school science teacher is the most professorial-looking of the bunch with his wavy hair, Van Dyke beard, and spectacles. He’s also the best-dressed, wearing a checked shirt and a tie. He’s definitely the guy from this panel you’d want on CNN to talk about creation science, shooting off sound bites on the fly. He says, ultimately, that it’s “an irrational question about an infinite being.” Take that, interrogator!

4:35 p.m. — Bruce Malone is giving the closing presentation of the evening, and he’s comparing evolution to a little red wagon he has onstage. The wagon has a book strapped to the bottom, and he asks us to imagine the book containing the instructions for making the wagon. Now, if he’s going to take the book and change a few letters each time, how is the wagon going to turn into … he punches a button and leaps atop the wagon, unsteady for a moment, while the screen flashes and shows a huge image of the starship Enterprise. Perched on the wagon, he’s asking how would this little red wagon ever evolve into a spaceship! This is the weirdest entertainment ever. Do hipsters realize they’re missing this? Heck, if you’re going to be really 19th century, why content yourself with mustache wax and velocipedes? Why not go full monty and believe in divine creation as well?

4:41 p.m. — Malone is now riffing on one of the main concerns about evolution. If we’re just chemicals, with no creator, then we have no free will, and we might as well just do what our urges tell us. It’s a strange argument. If there’s no God imposing a moral reason to not give in to our darkest urges, why isn’t there an ethical reason? Many of the speakers have a knack for seizing upon phrases that have the earthiest connotations, such as evolution means “from the goo to you, via the zoo.” (Dr. Bergman swears he lifted it from an evolutionary text, but it suits his misgivings perfectly.)

4:50 p.m. — The excitement builds in the main room as the iPad drawing gets down to business. A large box of the tickets is brought down to the front of the room, and a ticket is drawn. The name is announced and the young winner comes forward. The room lights up with applause — for the first time all day! As the winner approaches to receive his prize, Malone can’t resist a bit of theological theatrics, intoning into the mic: “God has blessed you today.”

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