February 2020 Church & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

In one of the most famous stories from the Book of Genesis, God warns Noah that he is about to destroy the world by flooding it. He orders Noah to build a large boat to save his family and tells him to collect pairs of all of the animals in the world.

God’s instructions about the ark were not terribly detailed. Noah was told to build the structure from gopher wood and cover it in pitch, a tar-like substance. The ark was to be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. It was to have three decks and a door.

To many believers, the story speaks powerfully through meta­phor: God was angry at humankind, but he also believed in second chances. One righteous family was allowed to remain, providing a ray of hope.

But to a lot of fundamentalist Chris­­­­tians, the story of Noah (and indeed every account in the Bible) is literally true. There was an ark. Noah collected the animals. The world was flooded. Furthermore, dinosaurs must have coexisted with humans since the world is only about 6,000 years old, so they too were on the ark.

These are among the core beliefs of creationism, a religious doctrine held by millions of Americans. Creationists, who tend to be fundamentalist Christians, insist that their beliefs are a science, but courts aren’t buying it. The doctrine has been expelled from public schools. That hasn’t stopped creationists from taking their anti-evolution crusade into the media and popular culture, often with curious results.

A new documentary, “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” examines Answers in Genesis, a creationist ministry founded by an Australian man named Ken Ham. Ham already runs a creationist museum in Kentucky, and decided a few years ago to open a companion attraction: a replica of Noah’s ark.

To be fair, it’s not really a replica. Unlike the biblical boat, Ham’s ark goes way beyond gopher wood and pitch. It was constructed with steel beams, nails, joists, metal braces and other modern equipment. It also has electricity, air conditioning and wi-fi. If it were tossed into the ocean, it would promptly sink.

The creation of the ark as a tourist attraction wouldn’t have been of much interest to groups like Americans United had Ham not sought and received taxpayer support for his project. Portraying the park as an economic lifeline to a distressed region of the state, Ham persuaded officials in the small town of Williams­town, the surrounding Grant County and the state of Kentucky to kick in various forms of subsidies and support for his evangelistic project. Although he denies it, it’s clear Ham’s big boat came to fruition thanks to a flood of taxpayer subsidies.

“We Believe in Dinosaurs” tells the strange story of how all of this came to be – and in the process shines a spotlight on an ongoing cultural divide. Filmmakers Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown focus primarily on Dan Phelps, a paleontologist struggling to boost sound science education in Kentucky who squares off with Ham over the ark.

Portions of the film are alarming. It opens with Ham lecturing a group of young children. He tells them that when they are confronted with claims that the Earth is billions of years old, they should cry out in response, “Were you there?”

“We Believe in Dinosaurs” will air on PBS’s “Independent Lens” Feb. 17. (Check local listings.) But if you miss it there, the film can be viewed through several streaming services for a modest fee, among them Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Vudu. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I was interviewed for the film and appear in it briefly.)

“We Believe in Dinosaurs” is a stark reminder of how vociferously some people can elevate personal beliefs over facts. They have the right to do that, of course, but that’s all the more reason to ensure that they don’t stick the rest of us with the tab for their evangelism.