Ideas

IDEAS | Brandon Ambrosino

Noah’s Ark, dinosaurs, and a theme park

David Sossella for the Boston Globe

Williamstown, Ky.

We climb 26 steps to the first floor of the ark. Our tour will be quick, we’re told, because this is an active construction site, and workers are on a strict deadline. The Ark Encounter, the world’s first theme park to boast a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, would open no matter what on July 7, 2016, a date chosen because 7/7 corresponds to a biblical verse from Genesis: “Then Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him entered the ark because of the water of the flood.”

I’m one of a handful of journalists being led through the empty structure by Ken Ham, president and founder of Answers in Genesis, or AiG, a Christian organization committed to “upholding the authority of the Bible from the first verse.” Ham is probably most well-known beyond Christian circles for his 2014 debate with Bill Nye “The Science Guy” over evolution. A former science teacher himself, in Australia’s public school system, Ham believes passionately that the world was created exactly how the opening verses of the Bible explain: in six 24-hour periods of time, about 6,000 years ago, by God.

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Throughout the tour, an armed guard sticks close to Ham, which, we’re told, is standard for media visits. Ham shows us where Noah’s bedroom will be as well as photos on his phone of what some of the other exhibits are expected to look like. AiG boasts that the ark is the world’s largest timber-frame building. Based on the dimensions given in the Bible, the structure is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high. If you laid all this timber end to end, it would stretch from its home in Williamstown to Philadelphia. After the ark opens its doors in July, AiG plans to eventually work on a replica of the Tower of Babel, described in Genesis 11. The entire project will cost more than $150 million, with the first phase costing $91 million. According to estimates from America’s Research Group, the Ark Encounter will host between 1.4 million and 2.2 million visitors in its first year.

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One important note is that most of the animals that will eventually fill the ark will be animatronic — presumably because it would be difficult to fill the boat with temperamental animals, like lions and tigers and dinosaurs.

Yes, Ham answers one curious journalist, there will be a couple of dinosaurs on the ark, just as there were on Noah’s. Dinosaurs and humans lived together, he explains, in fact they were created on the same day. Day six, the last day of creation. Ham must see a few foreheads crinkle, because he decides to address the elephantorous in the room: “The word ‘dinosaur’ is an arbitrary term invented in the 19th century for a family of land animals.” And that was that.

For those wanting to see real animals, he adds, there would be a petting zoo on the property.

“Will the petting zoo be two-by-two?” one man asks, the corners of his mouth curling up into a smile.

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Ham seems taken aback by the question, but he doesn’t miss a beat. “The petting zoo will consist of lots of different animals. We’ll probably have multiple animals of certain species. Modern-day species.”

The word “species” is an important one for AiG’s teachings and for creationism in general. Scientists estimate there could be up to 100 million species on Earth, but only about 1.5 million of them have been cataloged. Obviously it would be impossible for an ark like the one the Bible describes to house this many species, and therefore, most people — even many evangelical Christians — would conclude the Bible story was not true in a historical, concrete sense.

Diversity within the evangelical world should not be overlooked. Sixty-five percent of white evangelicals believe humans and other living creatures have existed in their present form since creation, according to a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute study. Press them, however, and only about half that number believe humans were created in the past 10,000 years.

The same goes for mainstream America, as Will Saletan has noted. In Gallup polling from 1982 to 2014, the support for the notion that Earth was created within 10,000 years never fell below 40 percent. Yet when pushed on specific questions of evolution, it becomes clear that only about 15 percent of Americans are actually creationists.

Science educators likely see that low and steadily decreasing number as good news. Ham isn’t so happy with this trend, which he blames on “evolutionary indoctrination through the public education system, secular museums, and much of the media.”

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Ham sees AiG’s role as stopping the downward spiral. He wants to show people that all of the seeming impossibilities of Scripture can be scientifically reconciled with a little creativity. The organization has dedicated millions of dollars to studying the wisdom contained in the opening chapters of Genesis — and in the meantime has openly challenged not only the scientific community but biblical scholars as well.

AiG has, in fact, a logical answer for every question that could ever occur to a doubter. Just as in solving the riddle of Noah’s animals, it promises, “Any solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems are rather straightforward.”

The day before I tour the ark with Ham, I go on a tour of the Creation Museum, a few miles away in the town of Petersburg. As a facility, the museum itself is impressive: Spanning 75,000 square feet, it boasts 160 exhibits, two theaters, a small planetarium, a petting zoo, a stunning garden on a lake, restaurants, a cafe, and a gift shop full of creationism literature. On any given day, visitors can attend lectures by leading creationists.

The day I am there, Ham’s brother, Steve, gives a talk on whether Genesis Chapter 1 is relevant today. In fact, it is, he says, every last scientific word of it. The museum cost $27 million to build, and since its opening in May 2007, has hosted over 2.6 million guests.

“I got a joke for you,” says Les, a lanky, cheerful, old man taking tickets at the main hall’s entrance, to the right of the massive lobby display depicting humans and dinosaurs existing together. “What kind of lights did Noah have on the ark?” He doesn’t give me time to guess. “Flood lights!”

Les has all kinds of jokes that he has picked up from visitors over the years. Both he and his wife work at the museum, and they’re obviously happy to be there.

Les tells me another joke about a man whose mother-in-law died during a family vacation to Israel. The man is told he can ship the body home for $5,000 or bury her for $50 in the Holy Land. When he responds he’ll pay the money to ship her home, the doctor asks him why. “A man was buried here 2,000 years ago and came back to life” he explains, “I just can’t take that chance.”

The jokes are corny, but Les’s laughter is contagious. When he sees my smile, he changes the topic. “You’re a believer, right?” I tell him I was. “Good, because I woulda needed to have a talk with ya.” Les takes my ticket, tells me to enjoy the tour, and away I go.

The first exhibit shows two paleontologists digging for dinosaur bones. AiG doesn’t waste any time answering what it knows is its biggest challenge. The overwhelming majority of scientists and paleontologists claim that dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period.

“What do we know about dinosaurs?” asks one placard. Because these fossils “don’t come with tags on them telling us how old they are,” we have to rely on a few clues to help us accurately date them. One big clue, says AiG, is the word of God: “God was there from the beginning, and He wrote down in the Bible where and how He made everything.”

According to Genesis, God made humans and dinosaurs on day six, but to determine exactly when that took place, says AiG, we have to use another clue: the genealogies and ages of Bible characters. Add those up, and creation took place about 6,000 years ago.

So could dinosaur fossils be millions of years old? asks the exhibit. “NO! The earth is just thousands of years old so the fossils couldn’t be millions of years old.”

Most of AiG’s arguments sound like this one. The Bible tells us X is true, and we can be certain that X is true even if we find evidence to the contrary because the Bible tells us in advance X is true.

While some might accuse these types of arguments of being tautological, AiG doesn’t try to hide its biblical presuppositions. In fact, Ham and his colleagues actually invoke presuppositions to make their case. All evidence has to be interpreted, they say, and interpretation always happens from a particular point of view, which is informed by certain presuppositions. Evolutionists assume the earth is very old, and so they date fossils to be very old. Young Earth Creationists assume the earth is very young, and so they date fossils to be very young.

All scientists are biased, in other words, whether they believe in evolution or creation.

This point is one Dr. Nathan Jeanson, a Harvard-educated biologist on staff at AiG, repeatedly stresses in my interview with him. Creationists and evolutionists look at the same data, he tells me, but reach wildly different conclusions because of their premises. At least he’s upfront with his own, he adds — it’s the evolutionists who sometimes sneak in their own philosophies under the guise of science.

“Science is an inductive method,” Jeanson explains. “You start with a hypothesis. Scientific ideas are those that lead to testable predictions. So we’d say, pragmatically, in a strict scientific sense, you can’t actually scientifically test the age of the earth.”

Most scientists would disagree, since those who believe the earth is billions of years old don’t come to that conclusion by guesswork, but rather by, among other methods, radioactive dating, which measures the amount of decay of certain radioactive elements in a given rock. Based on these dating methods, scientists put the earth at about 4.6 billion years old.

But AiG argues the most popular dating methods are flawed, and that actually Carbon-14 dating, when done honestly, is evidence of a young earth. And if for some reason, they argue, C-14 dating actually demonstrates an old earth, then we should remember that a global flood, like the one described in the Bible, could have actually changed the 14C/12C ratio, making the dating method unreliable.

In the world of creationism, any counterfactual is taken to be evidence in the creationists’ favor. When the science complements AiG’s interpretation of the Bible, the science is right. When it challenges it, the science is wrong. What is never wrong, though, is the Bible. According to one article on AiG’s website, “When a scientist’s interpretation of data does not match the clear meaning of the text in the Bible, we should never reinterpret the Bible. God knows just what He meant to say, and His understanding of science is infallible, whereas ours is fallible.”

I asked Jeanson why he thought virtually all scientists accept evolution and an old age of the earth. He gave me two reasons. The first, he said, is answered by Scripture, which says that wicked people suppress the truth in their ungodliness. The context of that passage from Romans, he says, speaks directly to the origins issue, since it comes from a larger Pauline discussion of nature. “Why do they believe in evolution?” asks Jeanson. “Because Romans 1 tells us they’re going to.”

The other reason he gives for the small number of creationists is that, simply, the majority of scientists haven’t read AiG’s research. Answers in Genesis has created an entire organization dedicated to studying the science and history contained in the opening chapters of Genesis. The group has spent money opening a museum, and now an Ark, and has launched peer-reviewed publications, and has hired dozens of thinkers — none of whom, it should be noted, are idiots; Jeanson is a very sharp, poised man — to demonstrate how modern-day science proves the truth of the Bible.

Jeanson says he’s pleaded with evolutionists to read AiG’s literature, but none of them want to. They’re so biased, he says, that they don’t even want to consider the arguments of creation science.

The way that Jeanson and Ham talk, creation and evolution are two competing theories on equal footing. Kids who grow up learning creationism believe that both origins models can be supported by observable data — but evolution less so — and the only reason a person chooses between the two is because of philosophical biases.

To be sure, evolution is a theory — in that it’s a scientific attempt to explain a part of the observable world. Even the most well-tested theory is a theory by virtue of the fact that scientists aren’t able to predict that it will never be disproved. None of AiG’s critics would claim otherwise.

Yet to suggest that because evolution is a theory it is therefore of equal scientific value as creationism is to misunderstand scientific study altogether, according to Christiana Peppard. Peppard, a professor of theology and science at Fordham University, says a theory is the “best current explanation for how nature functions based on available evidence and modes of analysis, including geology, cell biology, DNA, the fossil record, everything.” Theories have to take into account all of the available data — and that’s not something creationists do.

So what researchers at the Creation Museum are doing is not science, Peppard tells me, at least not in any way the scientific establishment recognizes. Contemporary, mainstream scientists object to framing scientific inquiry in such a way that confirms a foregone conclusion — which is what AiG does, of its own admission.

I asked both Ham and Jeanson, at different times, if they were open to being wrong. While Jeanson gave me a more scientific-sounding answer, both men told me that no, the foundational belief of AiG, that God created the world 6,000 years ago, is not open to being wrong.

“The willingness to change one’s mind is among the most necessary of scientific virtues,” said Peppard. Real scientists must have intellectual humility and an openness to surprising conclusions.

While Peppard acknowledges that some scientists are unwilling to change their minds on many open questions, she insists the age of earth is not an open question. “Ever since the 1830s, it was clear that postulates about the earth being 6,000 years old are not tenable. And this has only been amplified as research methods and technologies and measurements and modes of analysis have gained precision and scope.”

I asked Jeanson if he thought he would’ve arrived at Young Earth Creationism without the Bible, simply by studying biology. Again, he reminded me that all scientists start with presuppositions.

“And your presupposition is that Genesis 1 is historically true?”

His voice gets softer. “Yeah,” he said.

That answer is why mainstream scientists won’t interact with creationists’ research. It’s not that they think creationists like Jeanson are doing bad science — they don’t think he’s actually doing science since he’s not open to being wrong. Sure, he’ll tell you, some of his hypotheses are falsifiable, but at the end of the day, the big one isn’t.

There were hundreds of visitors at the Creation Museum when I was there. Most of them were children — there were several student groups in attendance. Many of those children look up to Ham as some kind of Christian celebrity, perhaps in a similar way to how they might view Kirk Cameron or a Christian rock star: as someone validating Christianity in the midst of a culture who’s come to see it as a punch line.

Indeed, a large part of AiG’s success is owed to the fact that conservative Christians are very eager to hold their ground in a rapidly shifting culture war. Evangelicals, who might feel as if they’ve been on the defensive for the better part of three decades, are able to point to a Creation Museum and say to critics, “Look, we’re still as smart and relevant as you are.” This is probably why Ham is quick to point out — several times during the media tour — that AiG employs PhDs. People at my evangelical church used to talk the same way about celebrities who became born again — as if people of such caliber somehow legitimized everything we believed.

But is creationism is harmful to children? Compared to the risk of anti-vaccination pseudoscience in causing physical harm, the answer is no. More worrisome is the harm to children’s intellectual growth. Everyone at AiG was incredibly kind and seemed well-meaning, and the same goes for many creationists — but even people with the best intentions can end up, well, harming children who are paying attention.

Pete Enns, biblical scholar and author of “The Evolution of Adam,” sees creationism as harmful because it sets children up either to experience a crisis of faith or to become unflinchingly rigid about their own faith and closed off to their own human development. Both are tragic, he says.

Brad Kramer, managing editor of BioLogos, a Christian organization that tries to reconcile faith and evolution, agrees there’s a harm in what AiG teaches, but notes that the scientific misinformation isn’t the biggest problem. “The most harmful part is how they teach young people to march into the world and say, ‘I’ve got answers, and you don’t.’ ” The education of AiG, he adds, is as much about a posture as it is a position.

Eventually, however, these “fact warriors” are going to come to a point in life when the questions they encounter become too difficult for the answers they memorized in their youth, Kramer says. That’s exactly what happened to him. Because he didn’t have the cognitive framework to honestly engage the new questions he faced, he had a “total collapse,” which can be terrifying to young Christian adults who aren’t prepared for it.

“In my opinion,” he said, “Answers in Genesis puts too much emphasis on answers, and not enough on Genesis.”

According to AiG, the way Satan tempted Eve was by causing her to question God’s word.

“Did God really say. . . ?” asked the serpent.

This, notes AiG in its materials, is “the essence of every attack on God’s word.” To question Scripture, including a literal reading of Genesis 1, is to follow the lead of the devil.

But that seems to miss an important point: To read the Bible is to be confronted with questions. Not easy questions. Not gentle questions. But complicated questions, challenging questions, ornery, blasphemous ones.

“Will not the god of the whole earth do what’s right?” comes Abraham’s sarcastic question to God, after hearing the Almighty’s plan to annihilate an entire city full of people. “Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked?”

The Israelites, too, after their escape from Egypt, questioned God’s intentions: Did you save us from Egypt just to let us die in the desert?

Then there’s King David, who went back and forth between offering God beautiful praise and hurling questions at him. “Will you forget me forever? Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

Perhaps the Bible’s most famous — and darkest — question comes from Jesus himself. “Why have you forsaken me?” he cries out to God while he hangs dying upon his cross. As the writer G.K. Chesterton points out, Christianity is the only religion where God becomes an atheist for a moment. We might extend the observation and note it’s also the only religion where God questions God — and doesn’t get an answer.

In a world full of suffering, of course, some of the Bible’s answers can encourage us — but the questions that scream out at us from its millennia-old pages can bring us another kind of comfort: that we’re not the only ones who are searching for something.

Near the end of the media tour of Noah’s Ark, we are all taken up to a top deck. The security guard with the gun still stands beside Ham, who is answering every question he’s asked, about religious freedom and secular culture and fossil-dating methods and Noah’s technology.

I looked down to the ground. Everything is dirt and mud and clay and brown, and there are machines and tools for digging up each barrier that stands in the way of Answers in Genesis. The closer the construction site is inspected, the uglier things become, until eventually I lifted my eyes to look out at the expanse lying open before me.

The sky is the brightest blue, and there are trees as far as one can see, each of them barren but dancing with the hope of rebirth in spring. A few lines from Whitman are summoned:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

hands;

How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it

is any more than he.

Another poem popped into my head: In the beginning — God.

Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer.