We Believe in Dinosaurs

It’s unfortunate that I don’t think we’ll ever get a showing of this documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, in Morris — it’s too narrow a niche for our little community. The reviews make it sound pretty good, though.

Adding to that discussion is Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown’s documentary “We Believe in Dinosaurs.” Attempting to portray both sides even-handedly (though a principal figure presumably refused to be interviewed), it offers not so much a critique as a slightly bemused observation of the Ark Encounter, a Biblical theme park-style attraction in Kentucky designed to promote a creationist rather than scientific view of Earth’s history — which spans about 6,000 years, in this reckoning.

The peculiar brand of pseudoscience utilized to provide supporting “evidence” is controversial, needless to say. So is the “separation of church and state” breach many view in such projects getting de facto governmental approval. Often amusing, but never condescending towards either Ark proponents or their equally vocal opponents, this feature should attract interest from various exhibition channels — perhaps particularly abroad, where admittedly it will not do Americans’ current popular image any favors.

An even-handed approach to both sides is a good idea, as long as you don’t lose sight of the truth. Show that the creationists are sincere, but also be unambiguous in pointing out that they’re peddling pseudoscience. It sounds like they take that approach.

…we get a good look not only at the world of “Young Earth creationists” and their logic (which extends to quasi-scientific academic conferences), but at individual players on both sides of the fight. Lead designer Patrick Marsh and artisan Doug Henderson are among the affable personnel who found their “dream job” creating a facsimile of Noah’s Ark, which requires some interesting imaginative leaps not found in the Bible.

Not least among those leaps is the depiction of dinosaurs and other extinct (as well as some murkily confabulated) creatures as passengers, since it’s the belief of creationists that fossil-record species simply died during, or shortly after, the Flood. It is also interesting to see the attraction’s PG-13 diorama of the decadence that triggered God’s watery wrath. There are even animatronic figures used to address such philosophical quandaries as, “Why does a loving God allow so much death and suffering?”

On the other side of the divide are people like paleontologist Dan Phelps (who points out that roadside Kentucky shale offers ample proof of Earth’s great age) and David MacMillan, a teenage evangelical and Creation Museum charter member who now runs an anti-Creationist website. He sees no conflict between his continued Christian beliefs and acquired trust in science, resenting that faulty creationist “evidence” gets shoved down many a gullible schoolchild’s throat. Farther out among the opposition are members of the Tri-State Free Thinkers, atheists who (not without humor) claim the Biblical story of Noah promotes “genocide and incest.”

I do have reservations, though. Does “fair and balanced” work? The documentary’s conclusion is deeply depressing, and while it’s good to show both sides, does it do a proper job of refuting the creationists? I don’t know.

Without laying on any overt message, “We Believe in Dinosaurs” does definitely suggest that this eccentric collision between faith and secularism, commerce and politics — one that might have seemed wholly outlandish not long ago—is kinda-sorta the direction in which our republic is now headed. Politicians increasingly bend to accommodate religious causes, with judiciary right behind them. Science denial is a trend, whether the motivation is Biblical literalism or simple capitalist greed.

We see Ken Ham (who presumably refused to be interviewed by the filmmakers) selling his wares every which way, using whatever terminology will gain acceptance with a particular audience, but always advancing the creationist cause. That the wind is blowing in his direction is underlined by a closing-credits compilation of recent American politicos publicly distancing themselves from (or outright decrying) evolutionary theory.

I guess I’ll have to wait for a streaming service to pick it up so I can see it for myself, but that last bit is something that might be encouraging to creationists, rather than as discouraging as I see it.


  1. mnb0 says

    “Show that the creationists are sincere.”
    Good luck – I yet have to meet the first creationist who qualifies. Having a predetermined conclusion and being sincere hardly ever go together. Until shown otherwise I maintain that a sincere creationist immediately would drop his/her nonsense (and that doesn’t necessarily include dropping christianity).
    But that doesn’t mean that I oppose this soft approach. AfaIk there is no established cure for creationists. My bet is that a palette, ranging from this approach to mean sarcasm, has the best chances. So my “good luck” was genuine.

  2. weylguy says

    Let us not forget that there’s a sizable percentage of Americans who believe in astrology, homeopathy, magnet therapy, water witching and a flat Earth. I see no reason to respect such stupid beliefs, and whether or not they are “sincere” in their beliefs is no reason to give them any quarter whatsoever. To do so only justifies the David Brooks philosophy of “Let’s be fair and give both sides equal opportunity.”

  3. David MacMillan says

    Glad to see this is on your radar, PZ!

    I was disappointed (in a sense) to not see more of the actual refutations I’d given in my own interviews, but I think they made the right choices in the end. They play YECs against each other (like Eric Hovind and Ken Ham), to some degree, so the absurdities are obvious and yet depicted through the mouths of creationists so it is difficult for religious people to argue that they are being attacked. One can engender a sad sort of sympathy for individual creationists, particularly those working under Ham, without offering their illogicities any modicum of authority.

  4. wcaryk says

    I love the fact that Ark Encounter is less than 20 miles from Big Bone Lick State Park, which advertises itself as the birthplace of American paleontology.

  5. petesh says

    I believe in dinosaurs
    Where you from, you sexy thing?

    [It’s been on my brain since I saw this post earlier; maybe this will exorcise it]

  6. chrislawson says

    I know it’s a minor point but the problem isn’t getting “government approval”. Genuine separation of church and state means that if someone wants to build a creationist museum, they should be allowed to so long as they comply with the building codes that everyone else does. The problem with the Ark Museum is that it was given exceptional government support in the form of waived taxes and publicly-funded infrastructure.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    petesh @ 5

    I can imagine a Disco-dancing Deinonychus grooving to that tune.