by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger
If we were filmmakers, We Believe in Dinosaurs (directed by Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown) is the film we would have wanted to make about the making of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter. Smart and generous, filled with fair and acute observations, this film brilliantly highlights much of what is wrong with the Ark and the Answers in Genesis (AiG) project in general.
One of the reasons this film works is that it eschews a hostile, “culture wars” tone. Viewers get to see and hear from the earnest and talented designers and artists who created exhibits at Ark Encounter and at the Ark’s sister attraction, the Creation Museum. Regarding the latter, there is, for example, much attention on the construction of the Ebenezer the Allosaurus exhibit (the film does not mention that the skeleton was gifted to the museum by a rabid neo-Confederate). In the film, the lead designer proudly notes that the signage accompanying this exhibit will explain how the dinosaur died in Noah’s Flood. It turns out, however, and as we argue in Righting America (92-93), the explanation provided by the placards at this exhibit is simply a rehash of Genesis 7:21-23; there is no evidence from the skeleton itself that this Allosaurus died in a global Flood (a point that speaks volumes about the state of “creation science”).
The stars of We Believe in Dinosaurs are David MacMillan, a former young Earth creationist, and Dan Phelps, Kentucky Paleontology Society president. Given his creationist pedigree, MacMillan is a particularly compelling figure in the documentary: he nicely (and painfully) describes how he had been indoctrinated to believe that, if you give up young Earth creationism, you are on your way to undermining the Gospel. Next thing you know, you will be a feminist, communist, atheist.
It turns out that MacMillan, who has accepted evolution, remains a Christian . . . but he has – quite predictably – been repeatedly labeled as an atheist. (So have we.)
Then there’s Phelps, who we see in the film collecting rock specimens on a steep slope next to a highway in Kentucky. While Phelps is quite clear that he sees the entire Ham young-Earth-creationist enterprise as a “flim-flam” operation, he is also quite winsome and humble, determined that viewers understand that in science it is okay not to have all the answers, and to change your mind (both of which are absolutely verboten in young Earth creationism).
Side note: last spring we were planning to take two of our classes to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter (a plan that was foiled when the pandemic forced the shutdown of the university and the AiG sites). Many of our students had watched We Believe in Dinosaurs, and they were desperate for us to see if we could set up a lunch meeting with Phelps, whom they just loved in the film.
Entering Ark Encounter at its opening, beginning to take it all in, Phelps observed that “this might be some people’s definition of Hell,” and “I’ve never smoked marijuana, but if somebody offered me a hit of acid, I’d probably take it.” MacMillan’s response is more nuanced and more painful: this Creation Museum charter member repeatedly observes that the Ark is gigantic and so impressive (and the camera shots do a good job of revealing how massive this structure is), and he notes that he is both excited to be there and that he wishes he weren’t.
For us, the most chilling moment of the film comes when we see Ken Ham condescendingly quizzing an auditorium packed full of children, who shout out their answers to each of his questions:
- “The next time someone says ‘millions of years ago,’ what do you say to them?”
- “Were you there?”
- “Were dinosaurs on the Ark?”
- “What day of creation were dinosaurs made?”
- “If there really was a global Flood, what would you expect to find?”
- “Billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the Earth.”
- “Next time someone says millions of years, what do you ask?”
- “Were you there?”
- “How old must your fossils be?”
- “Four and a half thousand years.”
- “What do I call dinosaurs?”
- “Missionary lizards!”
- “And what happens when somebody says millions of years?”
- “Were you there?”
- “Well, I think we’ve thoroughly taught you.”
“Taught” is not the word. Indoctrinated is the word. And this moment in the film is not simply chilling. It is also sad, in that one realizes that thousands of fundamentalist children across the nation are being trained to believe that they can refute mainstream biology and geology with a nonsensical and anti-intellectual “were you there?” response.
A similar level of thought can be found in the “one star reviews” on the Amazon page featuring We Believe in Dinosaurs, where it is clear that actually watching the film was not necessarily a prerequisite for commenting, and where it is also clear that “hit piece” is currently a favorite phrase among fundamentalists:
- “As you watch the film it becomes clear that this was a bias [sic] hit piece on Answers in Genesis and Creationism as a whole.”
- “This is just another smear ‘documentary’ against Christians. I do not recommend unless you truly believe you evolved from a monkey lolololol.”
- “If you’re looking for a video about the Ark Encounter, this ain’t it. It’s just a hit-piece on those of us who believe that God created man, animals, plants, etc., out of nothing.”
- “Nothing new. Just the same old knee-jerk reactionaryism.”
- “Clearly intended as a hit piece on creationists, Ken Ham, and Answers in Genesis. Liberal trash.”
- “Atheist[s] with 2much time on their hands.”
- “Shockingly biased script and directing in this Fairy Tale movie. A sad case of blind atheism leading other blind atheists with a shallow pretense of being an unbiased documentary.”
- “This is a hit piece against the Bible, the Creation narrative, and anyone who adheres to the belief system of God, the spirit realm, and is completely one-sided. You could say just like the ‘fake news’ of the media, this is a ‘fake documentary.’ It follows two disgruntled Kentucky native’s [sic] around . . . One [a] no name archeologist/atheist who opposed the building of the Ark project from the onset . . . The second main character is a former supporter of the Creation belief who is now presumably an atheist, and evolutionist.”
Then there’s AiG CEO Ken Ham, who last February 19 wrote an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer, entitled “Ark documentary another hatchet job,” in which he blasted “these deceitful producers” for “creat[ing] a biased film designed to sway viewers to a specific conclusion, [and] which does not rise to the level of a real documentary, presenting many misrepresentations and errors.”
In keeping with the ad hominem attacks so much in vogue with fundamentalists and folks in the Christian Right, Ham neglects to say much at all about specific “misrepresentations and errors.”
The exception is his claim that the film “portray[s] the false idea that the Ark has had no significant economic impact” on nearby Williamstown, a weird claim given that – in the very next sentence – he scores the film’s producers for “fail[ing] to report that [the] town’s central business area is on the opposite side of the interstate from the Ark Encounter . . . and currently has no major hotels or restaurants.” So We Believe in Dinosaurs is actually correct that the Ark has had no economic impact on Williamstown, and the problem is that the town has not picked up and moved across the interstate?
Ham has also attacked us at rightingamerica for pointing out that Williamstown has not benefitted economically, and for making the point that Ham and AiG used the prospect of great economic gains to convince this little town to issue $62m in junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to help get the Ark project underway – a deal made particularly sweet by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to pay off the loan. Ham has repeatedly failed to own up to this sweet deal, instead claiming again and again that the Ark has received no significant governmental assistance.
David MacMillan has it right: Ham fleeced a town that gave him his Ark Encounter.
Whatever Ken Ham and his fundamentalist acolytes have to say, We Believe in Dinosaurs is a terrific documentary that is very much worth watching. This evening we have the privilege of joining Clayton Brown, Dan Phelps, and others on a virtual panel at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology – heady company for a historian and a rhetorical scholar! – where we will watch and discuss the film. Can’t wait!