Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health.
I strongly believe in the value of scholarly engagement with the public, so the work that academics are doing can reach those who might benefit from it. Because of this belief, I was pleased to hear that Answers in Genesis (AiG), a group I had studied in my dissertation and the creators of the Ark Encounter, had read my article in the Southern Communication Journal about their newest attraction and responded to it. In the spirit of engagement, I happily continue the conversation about what I feel is an important topic: public engagement with science.
To begin, it is incredibly important for academics to find agreement with their subjects on their descriptions and interpretations in their work. I was pleased when reading Dr. Purdom’s post that my writing resonated with her (and I’m assuming others at AiG) as being an accurate and “valid” description of the space. Dr. Purdom summarizes my argument well in noting how the Ark contains many elements common to apocalyptic argument, in both discursive and material forms.
The key point of this post, however, is to address the important distinctions between Dr. Purdom and myself when it comes to interpretations of both the Ark and my article. It is my hope that this post continues my protesting, for the fact that Dr. Purdom reads my article as “complimentary” suggests that I have protested not enough against what I view are potentially damaging structures like the Ark.
The biggest contentions Dr. Purdom raises in my summaries of the Ark appear to be my focus on the material elements of the space, specifically its ramps. I readily acknowledge that the decisions to make pathways through the Ark are unintentional and simply a practical concern. Dr. Purdom describes my writing as “forc[ing] her apocalyptic views,” but she has misinterpreted these views as ones that I hold. Instead, these interpretations emerge from the space themselves that align with other apocalyptic features of the Ark. Whether they are intentional or not (and Dr. Purdom writes they “were not really designed with that intention”), their presence nonetheless contributes to the rhetorical power of the Ark’s arguments. Intentionality is not necessary to send a message, just as Dr. Purdom notes her own surprise at the readings of apocalypse from the Ark by both myself and the documentary crew. Part of the goal of rhetorical criticism is to uncover words, symbols, and physical features that may be influencing us in ways that we may only be unconsciously aware.
Dr. Purdom agrees with many of the arguments I make about the Ark’s appeals to authority, evil, and time. Our primary difference, however, is the interpretation of those descriptions. For example, Dr. Purdom quotes a summary sentence from the article regarding what I perceive to be the Ark’s argument: “If Noah’s story is true, the rest of the Bible, including passages about the return of Jesus to Earth and the next global judgment before the apocalypse, are infused with accuracy and truth” to which Dr. Purdom writes, “Agreed!”
But Dr. Purdom is not agreeing with me. Instead, she is agreeing with my characterization of what the Ark is attempting to argue. In this sense, I am again glad that I am correctly analyzing the site, but I must correct Dr. Purdom’s idea that my writing should be interpreted as lending support for or validating the Ark’s arguments. Instead, I am attempting to analyze how those arguments take shape, in what I view as an insidious way of influencing the Ark’s visitors to go against mainstream science and accept young Earth creationism out of fear.
In reading both my article and Dr. Purdom’s response, it is integral to recognize that we have very different worldviews regarding science and religion. I embrace my bestowed title of “unbeliever,” and do not hide but acknowledge that status within the original article. I am a firm advocate of “better science education,” but my version of “better” does not include a literal reading of the Bible (which leads AiG, for example, to conclude that the Earth is a mere thousands of years old instead of billions). My view relies on the evidence we can find in the fossil record, the similarities across animal life down to the genetic level, and the overwhelming scientific consensus on evolutionary theory. Dr. Purdom’s view (and AiG as a whole) relies on a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible to contain scientific and historical fact. These differences in worldviews shape our understanding of the Ark and the implications of its apocalyptic arguments. While Dr. Purdom embraces the strategy of apocalypse as a way to “effectively share the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” I intend to point out the Ark’s apocalyptic arguments so that we may be aware of strategies that disrupt the public’s understanding of science.
Dr. Purdom notes that the Ark Encounter presents both the positions of creationism and evolution, but, having toured the Ark, my opinion is that its scientific appeals do not hold water. The Ark does not persuade through scientific rigor, but through the sheer size, impression, and scope of the structure and its contents. In this sense, Dr. Purdom is right that I was “impacted” by my visit. But, the impact was not to be persuaded by the Ark’s apocalyptic argument, but to recognize its function as a contemporary, felt tactic of creationism.
My goal is not to remove religion or chastise its presence at the Ark (or at any religious site), but to question the implications of these arguments when they challenge public knowledge about science. People leaving the Ark will not have learned accurate information about science, but they may leave scared of the perceived consequences of questioning literal interpretations of the Bible. When these discourses intersect and potentially imperil scientific knowledge, I feel it is my duty and responsibility to protest.
P.S. This weekend the Ohio Academy of History meets here at the University of Dayton. As part of a session in honor of the late Jake Dorn, Sue and Bill will presenting their paper, “Patriarchal Creationism and the Feminist Challenge.” The panel will be at 10.30 AM in Kennedy Union 207.