“Those people who wait in these times for the numerically impressive organizations of American religion to coalesce into a powerful redemptive force are bound to find the present circumstances profoundly unsatisfying.”
~ R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (1994)
In the last few years, the building of life-sized replicas of the biblical ark of Noah has occupied the efforts of several people and organizations around the world:
- In 2012, the Dutch contractor and creationist Johan Huibers completed a 450-foot long, fully-functional ark, a project 20 years in the making. Johan’s Ark, located in Dordrecht, Netherlands, opened to the public in July 2012. Given the Netherlands’ position above sea level (less than 1 metre for about half its total surface area), this was not a bad place to build an ark. Indeed, while Huibers’ motivation in building his replica was ultimately to make a religious point, he also wanted to raise awareness about global warming and rising sea levels.
- In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northern China, a man named Lu Zhenghai believed the Mayan apocalypse would wipe out his home with a doomsday flood in 2012. Starting in 2010, he began building his own ark to help people survive this coming flood. After pouring his life savings (1 million yuan) into designing and constructing, Zhenghai never completed this project. This boat is sure to appeal to anyone who is looking for a budget-priced ark.
- On a five-acre spot of land on the outskirts of Hialeah, near the Florida Everglades, a team of religiously-motivated builders is currently hard at work on the Hidden Ark project, a full-scale ark built to biblical specs that is to house a public zoo. The estimated cost of this undertaking $1.5 million.
Now there is the notorious Ark Encounter project, spearheaded by Ken Ham, president of the young-earth creationism organization Answers in Genesis and founder of the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. As reported by Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate.com, the planned attraction will feature “a tower of Babel with a 5D [sic] theater, a ride through the plagues of Egypt, a First Century village, drama theaters, a pre-flood village, [and an] amphitheater.” The Ark Encounter website also promises “a walk-through aviary, an expanded large petting zoo, and so on.”
The centerpiece of the park is, of course, the life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, the main stated purpose of which is to demonstrate that the concept of the biblical vessel is physically feasible. Ken Ham wants to “capture the world’s attention,” to prove to us that Noah really could have fit all those animals on the ark and overcome any number of other conceptual difficulties.
Part of me wishes that heavy rain will start coming down and keep falling for a very long time until it becomes apocalyptic in severity. If that happened, I would make my way to Williamstown, Kentucky to watch Ken Ham get into his Ark Encounter boat. Even if I were to drown in this scenario, I would glean great satisfaction in my final moments watching his ark fail miserably.
While building arks might be all the rage now, financing them has proven to be a major difficulty, especially for Ken Ham. The groundbreaking date for the Ark Encounter has been delayed several times. Answers in Genesis initially announced in January of 2011 that the park was going to open in the spring of that year. They have been pushing back the ribbon cutting date since then, announcing a new date every few months. Simon Brown of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) has outlined AiG’s sequence of letdowns:
[I]n May of that year , AiG said groundbreaking would be over the summer. In June, AiG said construction would begin in August. By early August AiG still had not broken ground but promised that it would happen “in the next few months.”
Then in late August 2011, AiG bumped the timetable way back, saying groundbreaking would begin in the spring of 2012.
There have been many forty days and many forty nights. But if Ken Ham wants to demonstrate the feasibility of the Noah legend and is convinced he can do so, then why have we not seen him and a small group of creationist minions building an ark with their own hands and resources? After all, AiG believes that a 600 year-old man pulled of the same building project with only his small family helping him.
All of these setbacks are due in large part to AiG’s lack of sufficient funding for their overly-ambitious theme park. Perhaps AiG should have turned to Hollywood; they might have asked filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to use their envisioned park as the set for his upcoming epic movie Noah. But while that would be a wise use of resources, that kind of relationship is not likely to happen, and actually it would turn out to be quite pathetic. Unlike Ken Ham and AiG, Aronofsky understands that the story of Noah and his ark is purely mythological, and he treats it as such. This is why hidebound fundamentalist Christians are already taking offense at Aronofsky’s approach. The biblical story is one that makes great fodder for epic fantasy storytelling, but certainly not a tale to be accepted as literal history.
Starting in 2011, AiG opted to get funding for the park by seeking donations from like-minded Bible thumpers. By the end of the year, the Ark Encounter project had received a mere $4.3 million of the $24.5 million that AiG is initially seeking. But even if they manage to achieve their monetary goal, the $24.5 million is just the initial investment; it is just enough money to begin construction. According to Stern’s article on Slate.com, the total cost of the park is $73 million.
Unfortunately for rational and sane people in this country, a stunning amount of money is being dumped into the Ark Encounter project in the form of tax breaks by the Kentucky state government. AU’s Simon Brown reports,
The latest ploy comes courtesy of the city of Williamstown, which is not far from Cincinnati. The town already gave the overtly religious park a 75 percent property tax break, and Bloomberg News reported this week that the city plans to sell $62 million in municipal bonds in December for AiG affiliates. This means the city is actively taking on quite a bit of debt for the sole purpose of funding the Ark Park.
The article goes on to note that the state of Kentucky has “already committed more than $40 million in tax incentives to this project.” In addition, the Kentucky legislature has been planning to allocate another $2 million to a road project in a rural area for the sole benefit of Ken Ham’s religious park. Kentucky is clearly wasting money on nonsense, money that could be spent on much better and more fruitful things, such as better science education, for example. But science education is one of those things that gets Ken Ham’s panties in a wad.
The Ark Encounter project is bound to be a disaster on several fronts. Not only is tax money going to a religious group for specifically religious reasons, but the project itself is clearly an exercise in insanity that will probably never be completed. The following quote by Ken Ham on the purpose of the park, from an article posted on his website, should convince any reasonable person that government funding of AiG’s park is unconstitutional:
Why is the time right to build another Ark? Well, today there is great rebellion against God and His Word in the land. With increasing homosexual behavior and a growing acceptance of abortion, God’s hand of judgment is being seen as He withdraws the restraining influence of His Holy Spirit. […] There is no doubt God is judging America. And one major recent sign of God’s judgment is that homosexual behavior is permeating the culture as God gives “people up” (or turns them over), according to Romans 1:24, 26.
So, there is a growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality as a valid sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, let’s use taxpayer dollars to build a massive ark modeled after the one in the Bible? It seems that gross non-sequiturs have a way of betraying underlying prejudices. What rationale could AiG possibly offer for government funding, given this bold declaration on their website that their motivation stems from religious prejudice against other people?
Job creation could be AiG’s rationale, if they were pressed to provide one that didn’t stem from their particular holy book. A large amusement park does create hundreds of jobs, so there is a conceivable secular purpose for funding from the government. However, this does not alter the fact that the state of Kentucky is spending huge sums of money on a venture whose future is highly uncertain. There is no guarantee that the park will actually ever become a reality.
In fact, the level of desperation to which Answers in Genesis has sunk is a strong indication that the park will never open. They have resorted to selling junk bonds of varying maturity and yield rates to fund their project. A seven-year bond from AiG starts at $250,000, while an 11-year bond starts at $50,000. There is no legal obligation on the part of Answers in Genesis to pay back these bonds, so they will not owe any money to their investors if they fail to complete the project. Investors will not even get interest payment back in their pocket. Ken Ham himself has warned potential investors of the financial risks involved. In a newsletter released late last August, Ham made the following disclaimer in a footnote:
Investment in Ark bonds is not appropriate for everyone and entails a level of risk. The Ark bonds will be secured solely by the Ark Encounter project and will not be an obligation of Answers in Genesis. You should consult with your personal financial advisors regarding any investment in the Ark bonds.
Given this admission, one is led to wonder how much of Ken Ham’s own money he is willing to contribute toward his shipwreck of a venture. If this desperate move by AiG does not convince the state of Kentucky that they are unconstitutionally wasting their money on a nonsensical religious pipe dream, nothing will.
This disastrous undertaking shows that Ken Ham is more than just a science-denying evangelist who is taken seriously by people who lack critical thinking skills. He is a bigoted narcissist with an ego that dwarfs Noah’s mythological ark. He seems to view himself as a modern-day Noah, commissioned by his deity to sensationalize a gospel of fire and brimstone through grand spectacle.
The Ark Encounter debacle provides an insightful case study in how the role played by religion in American popular culture can become more than just an interesting social phenomenon, with hordes of the faithful seeking to vicariously experience their religious fantasies. Popularized and sensationalized religion can also constitute a barrier to the growth of human intelligence and progress.