I’m looking at this hilarious article on WaPo about Ken Ham’s ludicrous Creationism theme park/museum thing and one thing sprang out at me more than anything else: This park is what Ken Ham and his gang of Creationists think is going to reverse Christianity’s losses for sure. Yes, Ken Ham says that he totally thinks that families that do not already buy into Creationism will choose to spend their vacations at his park rather than at Disney World or the Smithsonian Institution–and from there become persuaded of his fringe religious beliefs. Shall we see together how likely that pipe dream is to become reality?
A 6000-Year-Old Hammer.
The WaPo article is called “A giant ark is just the start. The creationists have a bigger plan for recruiting new believers.” It’s about the very ambitious nature of Ark Encounter, which is Ken Ham’s Creationism
white elephant theme park in Kentucky.
Ken Ham is a very strict Young-Earth Creationist. That’s a fringe Christian fundagelical belief that preaches that the Earth and universe are no older than 6000 years or so (there’s also an Old Earth version of this doctrine that allows for the universe to be anywhere between 10,000 years old and its real age, which is about 13.8 billion years old), and that they were created exactly as we see them today by the Christian god, along with Earth and everything on it. This huckster came to America some years ago, where he started up a group called Answers in Genesis (AiG), which creates a wealth of pseudoscience and fallacy-riddled media and “teaching” materials to prop up this worldview.
Creationists go to these incredible lengths because their main goal is to sneak their purely religious, science-illiterate ideas into public school science classes to indoctrinate vulnerable children before they get too old to realize that Creationism is completely ludicrous. Schools are about the only real way that Creationists can get the undivided attention of children outside of their own insular group. More sinisterly, these Christians want those kids to be well away from the watchful eyes of their parents, who largely don’t realize that their kids’ taxpayer-funded schools are allowing religious fanatics to proselytize without those parents’ consent.
The kind of Christianity that these fanatics are trying to sneak into schools is one that most Christians wouldn’t endorse. Creationism is an offshoot of Biblical literalism, which means that every single word in the Bible is totally true and accurate, which in turn means that every story and myth in it is actually totally historically true, except for the inconvenient or really weird bits they don’t like–every Christian has a personal checklist for how to tell which bits are obligatory and really true and which bits aren’t, even Ken Ham (who liberally adds whatever details he needs to add to the Old Testament’s flood narrative to make it sound plausible).
Ken Ham and his pals certainly could have latched onto any number of weird pseudoscientific beliefs that the Bible supports, like geocentrism or whatever Germ Theory denialism is called these days, but Creationism is a very cheap in-group marker belief to hold for most of its adherents–so it’s really taken off in recent decades from its humble beginnings. Constant defeats in court and even more constant smackdowns by people who do actually understand the science involved in evolution can’t sway these true believers–in fact, that pushback just makes their beliefs stronger.
At this point, Creationism is one of the big marker beliefs of fundagelicalism (the others being ultraconservative voting habits and very regressive positions regarding civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and women’s rights). Any evangelical or fundamentalist who rejects this nonsensical doctrine is going to get serious side-eye from the rest of the tribe. It’s important to note that other Christians who are not in such extremist groups reject it without any problems. When Ken Ham defines Creationism as something that only the truest of all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ believe, he’s really defining his group very, very narrowly. And he knows it, too: he told The Christian Post a few years ago that the main source of criticism his group receives comes from other Christians.
Same Story, Different Day. (SSDD)
Unfortunately, like every branch of Christianity, Ken Ham’s group is suffering catastrophic losses. Young people in particular are fleeing the religion like rats trying to escape a sinking ship (if you can excuse a playful comparison). Fundagelicalism might be losing proportionally slightly fewer people than the rest of the flavors of the religion, but it’s still losing a lot of people.
After years of simply denying the problem facing their tribe, fundagelical leaders have begun to try to address it. But they don’t want to fundamentally change their ideology or customs, since doing so would enrage and (as they’ve repeatedly demonstrated) drive away their existing adherents. So they’ve instead been concentrating on making very minor changes–even simply cosmetic ones. They’re relabeling failures to make them sound like successes, exhorting their adherents to do more of what they’ve been told to do all along, except more of it and harder, and trying harder than ever to sneak their evangelism into the lives of people who are not part of their tribe and didn’t consent to being evangelized.
Enter Ark Encounter, the absolutely huge theme park that has been giving Kentucky such a public-relations nightmare for so long. The centerpiece of the park is what Ken Ham claims is a faithful reproduction of the honest-to-goodness ark that the Bible says Noah made to escape his god’s genocidal destruction of the entire world.
Ken Ham pitched his park as something that would be a huge economic help to the impoverished state of Kentucky, which has been struggling hard (thanks to fundagelical-pandering Republican efforts to destroy its economy with their favorite worker-hostile policies). The idea was that tourists would come into town, stay in their hotels and eat at their restaurants, shop in their shops, buy gas at their gas stations, and all that stuff tourists do as they visit theme parks.
At least, that’s how it works for most other theme parks.
In fact, economists have a word for this phenomenon: “the Disney Effect.” Walt Disney World, located in Florida, employs about 2% of the state’s residents and is responsible for 2.5% of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP). Further, Disney is the biggest taxpayer in the state and brings in some USD$6.6 billion a year for Florida in related tourism expenditures.
So the state gave Ken Ham all kinds of perks, hoping to soon enjoy the benefits they imagined would come with their investment.
The Creationism Effect.
But it didn’t take long for people in Kentucky to see that Ark Encounter was not living up to that optimistic promise–and that the park largely exists to enrich and recruit for Ken Ham’s group at Kentucky’s complete expense.
They probably realized it pretty quickly after the park opened, too. Though Ken Ham totally thinks the park would draw millions of visitors a year, only about 600 people showed up for its ribbon-cutting ceremony in February.
The mayor of Williamstown, where the theme park is built, said that the park’s opening had improved traffic through the town’s shops a little, but nowhere near as much as they’d hoped. A reporter also noted that tour buses bring fundagelicals in to see the park, and then take the tourists home again immediately without taking them anywhere else in town. It’s very likely that its county is now regretting that USD$74 million land grant they gave the Ark Encounter, considering how little they’re getting in return from the development. Its chief executive also laments the huge tax discount the park got and the USD$62M in junk bonds the town offered to back the park.
And errybody is mad at them for discriminating against non-fundagelicals in hiring (they also discriminate against LGBTQ people, obviously). AiG even forces its workers and staff, even the seasonal workers, to sign a statement of faith that’s basically an agreement with fundagelical doctrines and its position on the standard-issue culture wars. Ever seen a secular group make that demand? I haven’t. So much for Creationists being allllll about free speech and letting folks make up their own mind! (How much do you want to bet that this super-godly park’s administrators pay their staff as little as they legally dare?)
But you’d never know that such roiling controversy exists behind those staffers’ tight Christian Jesus smiles and the oodles of weird Creationist attractions. Besides the Ark, visitors can pay $40 a pop (or $28 for students, with discounts offered sometimes to church groups) to enjoy fake dinosaurs, a petting zoo, camel rides and food stands, and even zip lines. Ken Ham plans to add a real live Old Testament-era walled city “from the time of Noah” and another village from the first century, a Tower of Babel, an amphitheater, and a thrill ride based on the theme of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Hey, nothing’s more fun and cool to cruise around in than the wrath of Yahweh, amirite? I bet the end, where he murders innocent babies and livestock, is really neat.
Because that’s what this park is: an evangelism attempt.
Reaching the Public.
Ken Ham seriously thinks that he can create a religious theme park that will be so over-the-top entertaining that the average family in America will choose to spend its hard-earned money and limited vacation time to go to his park instead of one of the big-name theme parks or destination holiday spots.
And while they are there enjoying the purely secular activities on offer, they will be constantly evangelized.
He thinks that the evangelism these families will experience will totally convert them, too.
So his goal, in making Ark Encounter, is to make it as fun-filled and entertaining as possible so that as many families as it can hold will decide not to go to Orlando that year and instead haul their cookies all the way to Williamstown, Kentuckistan, to a tiny little redneck town with very few tourist attractions at all so they can pay good money to get preached at while they zipline and gawk at fake dinosaurs and pet goats (and of course take in a tacky, dimly-lit hallway full of Chick-tract-style illustrations about how awful and meaningless a non-Christian life is, at least according to Creationists).
One of Ken Ham’s pals in this venture, Mike Zovath, told WaPo that he thinks their theme park would allow fundagelicals “an opportunity for people who might never go to church to see something that is mind-blowing and get some information that could change their lives for the better. . .”
So Who’s Actually Going to This Nutbar’s Stupid Park?
Ken Ham, like a lot of apologists in the fundagelical world, constantly positions his work as an evangelism attempt, blatantly and continually stressing its potential to “reach” people who wouldn’t ordinarily ever hear his brand of buffoonery and science-denial.
But who’s actually going to the place?
It sounds like it’s pretty much all Christians who are already Creationists.
Like all apologetics materials, even those ostensibly aimed at non-believers, this theme park is actually being patronized by Christians who fully agree with its message. (The WaPo piece mentions that AiG’s other big venture, the Creation Museum (also in Kentucky), was similarly being patronized entirely with Christians who already buy into Creationism.)
Ken Ham tries to say that atheists go to AiG’s various ventures all the time and that they just lurrrrrve what the Creationists did with the place and all, but there’s no indication that many atheists are actually visiting the park–and the ones who do visit are going for the sole purpose of exposing its numerous scientific errors or just there to cover the place as a journalistic task (and that journalist at least is rather surprised to discover that a Noah’s Ark theme park doesn’t have a lot of animals in it–except for a few sequestered off in “tobacco country’s saddest zoo”). Even the Christians visiting it have sounded, to say the least, underwhelmed and put off by its displays and preaching.
In fact, Ark Encounter’s own propaganda page on this very topic concedes that no atheists so far have converted as a result of visiting their park–and that none have thus far actually seemed so much as friendlier to the very idea of converting. Ken Ham’s conclusion, of course, is that he’s planted a seed (that’s Christianese for a proselytization attempt that has completely, totally, utterly failed) in these poor ole atheists, who he thinks have never once ever been “exposed to the biblical truths” he preaches.
Further, there’s no indication that any Christians who aren’t already Creationists are visiting the park, much less sliding laterally on over to fundagelicalism as a result.
Ken Ham gloats to WaPo that sometimes a public school group visits the park “under the radar,” since obviously it’s illegal for any taxpayer-funded group to spend taxpayer dollars to take anybody to a place that is 100% about shameless evangelism, but he wisely doesn’t name names. As it stands, thanks to tireless efforts on the part of people who actually do care about the Constitution, such groups who would want to spend taxpayer dollars so illegally have been stopped from doing so. (Ken Ham got pissy about that particular cancellation, saying that taxpayer-funded trips to his evangelism park totally wouldn’t violate the Separation Clause, but that just shows us that he’s as willfully ignorant about American law as he is about science.)
More importantly, just as there were very few people at its big ribbon-cutting ceremony, even the Christians who do buy into this worldview aren’t visiting it anywhere near enough.
Ken Ham himself has always maintained that 5500 people a day (or more) visit the park despite even his inflated numbers showing a 30% lower attendance rate in the park’s early days when it was still new and interesting, but when an atheist attorney recently visited there on a weekday to film something about the place, he said that the park was expecting no more than 450 people that day–and it turns out that this estimate might have been as wildly optimistic as anything else Ken Ham has ever dreamed up. The attorney’s film shows him walking through totally empty halls and exhibits and taking in the eerily vacant queue barricades. In fact, in this short, almost the only people he found there was a group of contractors working on the park who were taking lunch in the cafeteria right then.
One of the biggest problems with somewhere like Ark Encounter is that once a fundagelical family has been there and gotten their faith appropriately bolstered, there really isn’t much else for them to do. Creationism, unlike real science, is totally stagnant. It can’t change any of its major ideas, and it never discovers anything on its own. So it makes sense that after a glut of visitors early on, there’d be fewer and fewer over time. So I had a feeling attendance would drop very sharply. But even this far of a drop surprised me.
I agree with Hemant Mehta entirely: Ken Ham’s as bad at numbers as he is at science and American law.
Reckoning Without His Host.
So Ken Ham pushed through a totally illegal Christian evangelism project in a state that was hurting so bad for money that it believed his blathering and gave him everything he needed to make it happen. He claims that this project’s primary purpose is evangelism and that what he wants most of all is for tons of non-Christians to visit the park, see Creationism’s ideas spelled out in 3D, and convert to his wackadoodle brand of Christianity.
But if someone wants to do adventure-type or museum-type stuff, even Kentucky has way better places to do that–such as the Red River Gorge, which has a company there devoted to zipline tours, or Mammoth Cave Adventures, where the whole family can go horseback riding, ziplining, and more, or even the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, which has American history, neat miniatures, and real science-y stuff to look at–and which is opening a castle soon apparently.
By trying to cross the streams of “tent revival” to “theme park,” Ken Ham’s managed to make a project that does both of those things poorly.
The Ongoing Crisis.
Really, the most entertaining part of this whole story to me is how it stands up against a new poll from Gallup that states that belief in Creationism is at its lowest point since they began asking Americans about what they thought of it. Indeed, only 38% of Americans really think that a god poofed everything into existence out of nothing. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans are coming around to the actual answer to how human beings came to be; 19% of us now understand that people evolved over millions of years without any help from any gods.
Part of me wonders if Ken Ham, by shoving his beliefs into people’s faces, has inadvertently forced a lot of people to reexamine their beliefs in light of scientific evidence and explanations. It’s like he’s evangelizing, sure, but for his ideological enemies. Not that he cares. He’s got his money, and it’s his workers who are paying back his loans for him (with a government-levied 2% tax on their probably-already-shamefully-low paychecks!). By the time Kentucky figures out how to get him off their public teat, he’ll be long gone with his golden
If Ken Ham could actually recognize reality when it bites him on the butt, he’d be pretty worried right now, especially as post-Religious Landscape Survey numbers are starting to filter in. We’ve got some fascinating new numbers about Christianity’s continued decline next–see you then!