A full-sized replica of the biblical Noah’s ark dominates the landscape near Williamstown, Kentucky. It is the centerpiece of the Ark Encounter theme park, built and operated by the young Earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG). Its charismatic president, Ken Ham, claims that this ark is the largest timber-framed structure in the world, which one can easily believe when viewing just the outside.
Inside, the ark’s cavernous depth is particularly striking, lined with thousands of wooden cages of varying sizes, many with models of animals peering out. Further on, one finds dioramas depicting scenes from the biblical story upon which the structure is based. Ark Encounter is essentially a huge, three-dimensional, interactive storybook that retells the Old Testament folktale of the great flood. And it is the most serious and sophisticated rendering of that story one is likely to see.
Most other depictions of Noah’s ark are cartoonish and simply ignore its plenitude of problems, such as how Noah could have fit two of the millions of species of animals that exist on Earth into any vessel, even one this big, or how he could have fed them, disposed of their waste, and kept the carnivores from consuming the other animals. The practical problems with this story go on and on. Ark Encounter attempts to explain away the most obvious of these. For example, all existing animals are seen as descendant of only a few thousand base “kinds” that Noah initially gathered on board. The modern scientific principle of natural selection is then offered as the mechanism that produced the postdiluvian diversity that followed. But these creationists arbitrarily limit the amount of “evolution” that natural selection can generate. As for large animals on the ark, nothing kept Noah from preferring babies to full-grown adults.
The whole experience is impressive as well as aesthetically appealing. It would be hard to find another place where pseudoscience is packaged with such glittering polish on such a colossal scale.
So it’s no surprise that this remarkable park was built to the accompaniment of equally wild faith-based promises of massive attendance that would boost the local economy. Now that the park has been open eight months, however, the prophesied flood of local commerce hasn’t materialized. As reported by local news station WKYT, Grant County, which sold ninety-eight acres to Ark Encounter for one dollar and provided other financial incentives, is on the verge of bankruptcy.
To begin to understand what went wrong, it’s important to compare evidence-based prophesies against faith-based ones.
Atheist blogger Cristina Rad, in her video blog post of October 28, 2014, declared with excited sarcasm that Ken Ham was building “a real-sized rendition of Noah’s ark for the third time ever!” Her reference was to Ham’s two rarely-mentioned predecessors.
“The world’s first full-scale ark replica” opened in May 2009 at Noah’s Ark Park and Resort on the island of Ma Wan in Hong Kong harbor. But by the time its evangelical Christian developer, Thomas Kwok, had been convicted on a bribery charge associated with the project and sentenced to five years in prison in 2014, the park had attracted an average of well under half a million visitors per year. The second replica, nicknamed Johan’s Ark after its builder, Johan Huibers, actually floats, albeit atop a modern steel barge apparatus. It was opened to the public in July 2012 in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, and in its first three years of operation attracted an average of only 80,000 visitors per year to its home port.
Therefore, outside business analysts weren’t optimistic in their attendance prediction for Ark Encounter in Kentucky. In December 2014, Hunden Strategic Partners, LLC, of Chicago projected to the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet a peak attendance of only 425,000 people a year. This was partially based on attendance figures for AiG’s other major attraction, the Creation Museum, located forty-five miles away in Petersburg, Kentucky—figures which had been in steady decline in recent years. In this context, the Hunden report projected only a small net fiscal impact of $4.9 million compared to the $18.25 million in sales tax incentives granted by the state.
The figures provided by AiG were different. The firm they hired, America’s Research Group, which may have had conflicts of interest due to some close associations with AiG, had earlier prophesied 1.2 to 2 million visitors per year. But this was for a $172 million theme park that was to be a multi-day attraction. By 2014 immediate ambitions had been reduced to a $73 million park focused primarily on Noah’s ark, but the old attendance projections still got repeated.
Grant County put its faith in AiG’s numbers and in the bright promise of an accompanying prosperity that would give the county, and the city of Williamstown, an economic boost. Although it’s true that Ham is able to state that Ark Encounter had a half million visitors in the first six months since its opening July 7, 2016, thereby exceeding the expectations of the Hunden report, county officials remain disappointed. “It’s been a great thing but it’s not brought us any money,” Grant County Judge-Executive Steve Wood told WKRC in nearby Cincinnati last month. Wood said that county jobs may have to be cut and that he plans to propose a 2 percent payroll tax. “I was one of those believers that once the ark was here everything was going to come in. But it’s not done it.” Visitors to the park haven’t brought their dollars to the community and many local businesses are shuttered.
What should we think of all this? Are we looking at just another example of American cultural buffoonery—something to be laughed off with an embarrassed shrug? Certainly not. Because projects like this, especially when receiving government benefits, not only skirt the wall of separation between church and state but result in real people and real communities getting hurt in the process, both financially and educationally. These are outcomes no humanist can ignore.
Research by Ed Hensley, co-organizer of FFRF Kentucky and Treasurer of the Kentucky Secular Society, contributed to this article. Photos by Mike Reid.