The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are two attractions in Kentucky run by the Christian apologetics group Answers in Genesis. The Creation Museum, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2017, teaches a pseudoscientific narrative of young Earth creationism with the purpose of lending credence to Biblical literalism in opposition to the theory of evolution. The Ark Encounter, which opened in 2016, is an evangelical-themed amusement park with a focus on what it calls the historical narrative of Noah’s Ark and the flood–it contains a 510-foot-long and 51-foot-high replica of Noah’s Ark, along with Disneyland-esque rides. After its founder Ken Ham famously debated pop-scientist Bill Nye in 2014, Answers in Genesis has attracted quite a lot of public attention (this attention, according to Ham, spurred the fundraising for the Ark Encounter). Ham’s ambitions, nevertheless, have yet to be satiated. In 2017, he told the Washington Post about his plans to upgrade the park in the next decade, which include the construction of a Tower of Babel and of a “walled city from the time of Noah.” The work of Answers in Genesis–what it has done in the past decade and what it plans to do in the coming decade–is simultaneously comical and insidious. It raises the question of whether Ham ought to be considered a goofy but harmless conspiracy theorist or an actual threat to public trust in science and in mainstream academia, since his enterprise taps into larger trends of the denial of science and the rejection of expertise. As Answers in Genesis expands its influence by new additions to the Ark Encounter, it works to impose on its visitors a dogmatic worldview–one that repudiates fact-based reality and disbelieves academic and scientific institutions.
Answers in Genesis is known first and foremost for trying to give widespread appeal to its pseudo-scientific doctrine. The purpose of the Creation Museum, according to its website, is to show “why God’s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” It contains many elements of a typical natural history museum, such as fossils of dinosaurs, an insectarium, and a planetarium, along with exhibits on the Garden of Eden and on Noah’s Ark–its attempt to conflate its religious beliefs with scientific fact. The Museum presents the biblical story of Genesis in a scientific guise, whereby it depicts the Earth as approximately 6,000 years old and rejects the theory of evolution. The museum depicts, for example, a world where dinosaurs coexisted with humans. This narrative has reached a large audience: as of mid-2015, the museum had seen 2.4 million visitors. In 2016, an article in Slate reported that public schools, even from out of state, were sending field trips to the museum, invoking the Freedom from Religion Foundation to challenge the constitutionality of such trips.
The Ark Encounter has the same purpose of presenting young Earth creationism in a family-friendly way. The giant ark is supposed to be built in the actual dimensions that are described in the Bible, and it includes caricatures of the historical animals that were present in the time of the Ark, including dinosaurs. Ken Ham told the New York Times that this park differs from the ordinary amusement park, “I mean it’s not like a Disney or Universal, just for anyone to go and have fun. It’s a religious purpose. It’s because we’re Christians and we want to get the Christian message out.” Yet its Vice President of Attractions Design Patrick Marsh, who has contributed to projects such as the King Kong attraction and the Jaws attraction at Universal studios, described the park’s aspirations to the scale of Disney: “If you want to attract people here, you need to do it at a Disney level. Kids are so used to high-quality things.”
The anti-intellectualism of Answers in Genesis, moreover, is interdisciplinary. Just as it puts out its doctrine in a myriad of ways–through the Museum and the Amusement Park, but also through media such as a magazine, a research journal, online videos, and educational material for children–so its attacks extend to disciplines beyond science, all contributing to a broader countercultural world view. Common targets of its media, for example, are ancient history and archaeology. It censures “secular textbooks and videos” of Egyptology because they “challenge the faith of students and discredit the biblical account of Exodus.” Upset that the chronology of Egyptian history is inconsistent with the one in Bible, Answers in Genesis writes its own timeline and even publishes its own textbook. Its most recent article is a negative review of the BBC’s Civilizations; among many reasons for its criticism of the series, one is that it gives the appellation “cradle of civilization” to early societies in the Near East rather than to the Tower of Babel. Another article denounces UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day, which honors philosophy as a discipline, because some philosophers are not Christian. The title of another article is telling: “Beware of Philosophy!”
To work for Answers in Genesis, the staff of 900 all had to sign a statement of faith. This statement is to affirm that all life was created by God; that “The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect”; and that “Those who do not believe in Christ are subject to everlasting conscious punishment, but believers enjoy eternal life with God.” The statement of faith almost lost the Ark Encounter its $18 million in tax incentives for discriminatory hiring practices. Kentucky has a program to provide up to 25 percent in rebates for the cost of development to local tourist attractions with the potential of spurring economic activity, and the state expected of the Ark Encounter the creation of up to 21,000 jobs. In 2014, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, on the basis of statement of faith, petitioned against the incentives, which were successfully rescinded. In 2015, however, Ark Encounter LLC filed a lawsuit against the state on the grounds of religious discrimination, which it won in 2016. U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that the Tourism Cabinet could not withhold incentives simply because of the attraction’s religious nature: the state’s program granted incentives equally to religious and to secular projects. Ham declared the outcome a “victory for the free exercise of religion in this country.”
To assess the danger of organizations such as Answers in Genesis, they must be put in the larger context of American society. As of May 2017, according to a Gallup Poll, 38% of U.S. adults “believe that God created humans in their present form at some point within the last 10,000 years or so,” whereas the rest subscribe to the theory of evolution, either as entirely natural or as with God’s guidance. But 38% is a new low of the last 35 years, which may be a reason for optimism. he Pew Research Center finds “mixed messages about public trust in science”: overall, “more people express positive than negative confidence in scientists;” 39% express “strong” trust in the information from climate scientists; about the same number expresses “some” trust; and 22% express “not too much” or “no trust.”
The anti-scientific forces are also top-down: current Administer of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, for example, rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. The Texas Education Agency maintains standards for education in biology that deny the scientific understanding of evolution–not surprisingly, it has also stirred controversy in the past for the inaccuracy of its history curriculum. This goes without mentioning the anti-vaccination movement, which plagues pockets of the left as well as of the right. A view to all of these forces sheds light on an anti-establishment counterculture, hostile to expertise and to the institutions that serve to cultivate it, and presenting a real danger to the fact-based foundations on which American society relies. Most directly, the denial of science–in particular the denial of climate change–presents us with an existential threat. More generally, the rejection of fact-based reality, of academic institutions, and of a rational worldview has broad political and social ramifications.