Credulity: a tendency to be too ready to believe that something is real or true.
The Chicago Tribune Travel section published a front page feature titled “Noah’s Ark Is a Big Deal.” The writer Josh Noel struggled mightily to remain objective in reviewing this tourist attraction in Kentucky fashioned after the biblical story of an ark that ostensibly carried breeding pairs of all the creatures on the earth.
But let’s start by offering up some facts. There are currently more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, a staggering figure all on its own. These species range from a thumb-sized hummingbird that lives in the tropical rainforest and feeds on tiny flowers to the eight-foot-tall ostrich that lives in hot, dry desert environments and eats whatever food it can find. There are flightless penguins that depend on cold Antarctic waters for protein and flightless cormorants that fish from the rocks of the Galapagos Islands in the South American Pacific. This diversity demands answers on how these species could arrive at and survive on an ark for which Noah supposedly gathered food for the needs of tens of thousands of species in advance of a 40-day flood.
The story of the Ark insists that one man was somehow able to provide food for more than 10,000 species of birds, all with specific dietary needs. There are also 5,416 species known species of mammals in the world.
But the really staggering appeal is that there are an estimated 30 million species of insects in existence on our planet. Consider that figure for a moment: 30 Million types of insects requiring specific host plants on which to breed and survive once they were released from the supposed confines of an Ark measuring only 500 meters long.
That’s a structure only five football fields long (either European or American football, take your pick) in which one man provided room and board for 30 million species of insects.
Of course, we also have to account for all the species that human beings have wiped out over the years. Just over 100 years ago market hunters drove an estimated 3 billion passenger pigeons to extinction. We also know that megafauna species such as wooly mammoth and mastodon once resided in North America, and were likely also hunted to extinction during the early settlement of the North American continent by people who emigrated from Asia. We know this because the genetic history of these people traces directly back to the Asian continent.
Of course, that story defies the popular storyline that descendants of a “favored” (ne: white) race of people from the European continent sooner or later “discovered” America via a route across the Atlantic Ocean about 500 years ago. Or, as the subject of even more credulity, that a race of principally white people lived in America and gave rise to the Mormon religion. The fact that all these brands of Chosen People proceeded to commit documented genocide against the people, flora and fauna of this “new” continent is evidence of something else entirely. Mostly that they were ungodly, to say the least. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Because first, we have to deal with the contention, according to the literal interpretation of the Bible favored by the Noah’s Ark museum, that humans once co-existed even with dinosaurs. So let’s consider the general history of dinosaurs. Scientists have documented more than 700 species of dinosaurs from the fossil record and by careful extrapolation posited the that there were between 1500- and 2500 species of dinosaurs in the world at one time.
This is much lower than the number of bird species now known to occupy the planet. But paleontological studies have shown that birds are essentially “living dinosaurs” and an extension of the dinosaur lineage known from the fossil record. Creationists defending the Ark Encounter might proudly claim this proves their point, that human beings can co-exist with dinosaurs. The problem with this contention is that creationists of the order that believes in a literal Noah’s Ark are incredulous about the theory of evolution, upon which basis the connection between extinct forms of dinosaurs and current forms of living birds firmly depends. To make one assertion without the other is a falsehood on the order of claiming that Jesus was not the Son of God, to put it in religious terms. In other words, a scientific blasphemy.
But let’s consider the practical issues on a sustained basis. There are genuine problems with the notion that the ark could somehow hold the largest pairs of dinosaurs. Just one Apatosaurus had an average length of 21–22.8 m (69–75 ft), and an average mass of 16.4–22.4 t (16.1–22.0 long tons; 18.1–24.7 short tons). Imagine dozens of dinosaurs of gargantuan size, and the amount of plants and meat required to keep them alive for 40 days. The story of the Ark and Noah quickly begins to sink like a stone.
Thus credulity is a great problem for the abomination of a tourist attraction now resting on a plot of land near a manmade lake in Kentucky. The rationalizations to justify its creation are so manifold that no rational person can abide by them. Yet as writer Josh Noel acknowledges, the temptations to believe are inviting. “To these agnostic eyes, most stirring were the explanations of how the ark would have functioned. How did Noah and crew feed all these animals? Dump all that animal waste? Ventilate the ship? Gather fresh water? Let in light? Ark Encounter gives us answers in poster and video form, and they involve intricate systems that seem plausible enough. The ark is otherwise a fairly exhaustive look at what life would have been like on it…”
But given the massive lack of detail in the story of Noah’s ark, the museum Ark Encounter is a massive adventure in speculation. Then the author notices something odd in the display. “On the fourth floor, Noah and company relax in their rather plush living quarters. It’s also where I spied uniformed Answers In Genesis security guards wearing guns on their hips. Guns? On Noah’s Ark? Really?
“Yeah, well, that’s the world we live in,” an usher said.
Indeed it is. And by that measure, imagine the good that $100 million spent on creating Ark Encounter could have done to invest in the improvement of the human condition? Rather than recreating an incredibly implausible fantasy tale, that $100M could have by been used to further access to modern agriculture for people in need, or provide vital water to needy children dying in the deserts of Africa. Instead, it stands as an 8th-grade level poster child for religious fundamentalism.
What would Jesus Do?
The fact of the matter, if we study the real message of Jesus in the Bible, is that the Son of God would not have approved of all that excess and glitz. The Bible clearly shows Jesus castigating those who make displays of their righteousness and pray in public. And to set the record straight, Jesus himself employed highly organic parables featuring stories drawn from nature to illustrate spiritual principles. When questioned by his own disciples why he chose to use those methods of teaching rather than speak in literal terms, he castigated them, asking, “Are you so dull?” Jesus then explained that people needed allegories to better understand the working mind of God. And that is the foundation for the entire bed of scripture we know as the Holy Bible. For Christians it is the ark of our understanding afloat on a sea of fear, lost hopes and thirst for love and knowledge.
Jesus and metaphor
Jesus believed in metaphor because it does the work of God. Thus he almost violently resisted the efforts of those attempting to turn literal interpretations of scripture into law. As if to make that specific point, Jesus branded the Chief Priests of his day a “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” for turning scripture into law. In other words, they were openly manipulating the nature of God’s Word.
The Book of John lucidly outlines this relationship between the metaphorical Word and the foundation of all knowing. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
This crucial passage from the New Testament does not demand that the Bible be taken literally. In fact, it demands quite the opposite. If the Word is an interchangeable way to describe God, then in both definition and practical purpose it is a metaphor. Case closed.
That makes the Ark Encounter a massive lie based on a literal interpretation of a story from the bible. The Noachian Flood may have roots in real events, but it is clearly limited in its understanding of what the “world” as a whole actually meant. Remember that there would still be an argument from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the Sun revolved around it. Some believed for a very long time the earth was flat. These were all falsehoods debunked when empiric evidence proved otherwise. Yet religious leaders persecuted those who refused to accept the religious narrative. And that process continues to this day.
The Bible instead depends on the tool of metaphor for its knowledge foundation and our understanding of spirituality and the expression of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus would tell the creators of the Ark Encounter that they have squandered an opportunity to do real good in this world in trying to win favor with God.
The Ark Encounter thus symbolizes the flood of misunderstanding, anti-intellectualism and science that is vexing our nation and the world to this very day. That is the real tragedy of the Noachian Flood, for it persists like the stench of muddy water across the landscape. If we are not willing to do the work to reconcile modern knowledge with the metaphorical foundations of the bible, then human beings as a race are doomed to die in a flood of our own stupidity.
Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. It addresses the many ways that biblical literalism affects politics, culture and the environment. Originally published in 2007, the book is being re-released on Amazon.com in 2016. His book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Community, a journey through cancer survivorship, can be purchased on Amazon.com.