A couple of years ago, after the debate between Bill Nye, the science guy, and Ken Ham, the Answers In Genesis CEO, I started blogging, under the perhaps foolish notion that I had something to contribute to the chatter. When I heard about the opening of the Ark Encounter, I looked for a protest to join, and found one organized by the Tri-State Freethinkers. On Thursday morning, I headed off to the event, armed with my home made sign, a copy of the New Testament, and a few local Ordovician fossils.
I knew I was getting close when the traffic sign warned me to expect delays at next exit. However, there were no delays. In fact, for a grand opening, traffic seemed pretty light all day.
As I exited the highway about 15 minutes before the protest was scheduled to begin, I saw the protest gathering on the left of the exit ramp, just before the T intersection with the state route. I found my way to the small graveled parking area up the hill and walked down to the protest area with a group of about a dozen. We were greeted by a volunteer who gave a safety talk: don’t get too near the road, don’t talk with people in the cars, because that would hold up traffic, don’t engage with the counter protesters over there, because we don’t want any trouble. They talked about a possible “civil discussion” tent, but I don’t think this was ever set up.
I registered my presence at the main tent. Appreciative of their efforts organizing the event, I donated some money but did not ask to join. Evidently, the money was considered membership dues anyway, and I am now an accidental member of the Tri-State Freethinkers.
We held up signs for the people on the exit ramp to see. Some drivers honked approval, some looked the other way, or gave us a thumbs down. No middle fingers that I saw.
A lot of the signs objected to taxpayer funding of the “Genocide and Incest Park”. One guy had a life size cardboard cutout of the guy in the #ohnoahhedidnt sign. My own sign, “Don’t Bury the Bible in Ignorance,” was too subtle for some, who were not sure which side I was on until they say my t-shirt from the “The Origins Centre”, a souvenir from South Africa.
Several people wore pink t-shirts saying “Thou shalt not mess with women’s reproductive rights. Fallopians 4:28.” For fun, I tried looking the verse up in Philippians; it ends with 4:23.
A guy stood up in a loud voice and said that he had an expert on the Constitution with him, and asked if anyone wanted to talk with him. Nobody was taking the bait. After a while, I said that I would start. He asked me why I was there, starting off on taxpayer support. I mentioned that I was not happy with the taxpayers of Kentucky supporting the ministry, but that was not why I was there. He tried to correct me on the taxpayer support, which is murky, indirect, and has passed a test in court. It was a little while before I got to why I was there: I showed my sign. He said “well I could say the same thing about you, that you were burying the Bible in ignorance.” Meanwhile people at my side were telling me not to engage him, that he would just edit it to make me look dumb. I had noted the video cameras, and said “I know that.” However, it was clear that I didn’t represent what most people wanted, and I allowed myself to be guided by their supposed wisdom. After I left to rejoin the sign wavers, the guy with the Satanic beard did exactly what he had told me not to do, and engaged in a heated debate. I don’t know what he said, but he cheers from the on-lookers. The interviewer, turned out to be Eric Hovind founder of Creation Today. Here and here are his posts on the counter protest.
After a while, someone passed out a song: “Ark Encounter is a sham, E I E I O” etc. Group protests like this are not the place for nuance.
As who thinks Young Earth Creationism is ignorant, I had plenty of company. As a someone who calls himself Christian, I was at odds with pretty much everyone there.
One protester asked me further about what I believed. Not enamored with dogma, I always preface my answer to such questions with prevarication: I do not base my life on my notions about that which is beyond my understanding. After a while, he tried to pin me down, asking whether I was an Old World Creationist. I said that I was not really a creationist of any kind, but that I did not have a problem with Old World Creationists because they did not have to war with modern science.
I met one person who had a nasty sign about the Bible. She had read it all the way through (I confessed that I haven’t) and has a visceral hatred of it.
I spoke with another very dogmatic protester: all religion was bad, all the scriptures were bad, I was part of the way there because I didn’t believe every word of the Bible, but the truth was whatever it was that he had figured out (I am sure he would object to me using the word “believed”). I found in him the same arrogance I see in some evangelical Christians, eager to tell you what they know, not eager to learn anything from your experience or point of view.
I spoke with one young man who asked me what I thought was important in the Bible. I pointed to the teachings of Jesus, particularly “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. He asked “What does that mean”, and someone else responded with something like “jerk off your neighbor.” The young man questioned further, “ ‘Honor thy father and mother’ what does that mean, really?” I was surprised by the question, and without a quick answer. I was taking his question seriously, contemplating in good Quaker fashion how to respond, but, unaccustomed to such pauses, he wandered away.
Any time I look around and see only one African American, I see it as an obligation to make sure that he of she feels welcome. In this case, the man happened to be an officer of the state patrol, there to ensure order. I introduced myself, with the observation that I was a little surprised that he was only black person there. He said, “There’s plenty of us around.” I thanked him and his colleagues for being there. I think we both found it a bit embarrassing. For me, it is the same embarrassment that I feel in some religious settings, where there are very few blacks.
Toward lunchtime, I encountered Harold, a volunteer about my age from Answers In Genesis. He was there without cameras, or any group of followers. He seemed genuinely interested in learning what our point of view was. We talked for quite a while, finding points of agreement and of contention. I mentioned one of my favorite Bible verses, which I quoted (not quite word for word, too many translations in my head) “… what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” “Yes, Micah 6:8” he replied. We spoke about the age of the universe. I talked about the expansion that is going on, that light from the most distant stars will never reach us. He sees that as a key to the thinking of Answers in Genesis. I didn’t try to contradict him. In the protest, I was making my voice heard against the ignorance of the ark, but in this conversation, I was there to find out who he was, and how he thought, and help him similarly understand my point of view.
Harold believes in a infinite God, whom he places first, above anything that man has devised. He wants to have a firm foundation, and God’s word revealed in scripture gives him that. I think that when Martin Luther used the Bible to free us from a corrupt and apostate church, he did a wonderful thing, but he did it without contradicting the scientific understanding of his day. However, science has progressed, and his scientific assertions are no longer viable. Harold thinks that since God’s word is eternal and unchanging, he should be able to rely on the same basic conclusions as his forefathers. I also suspect that, to Harold, if the theology his forefathers relied on was flawed, their eternal salvation was in question as well.
Harold questioned me about my foundation. I replied that my goals were a little more humble than that: I want to know what God would have me do. We agreed that Micah 6:8 was a good place to start.
I told him that I know that he might not consider me a real Christian, but that wouldn’t bother me a bit. However, that I fall short of following Jesus’s commandments, therein lies a judgement that I care about. “But we all fall short of that” he replied.
Harold headed off to get some lunch. The counter protesters had brought some food from Chick fil A which they offered for free, but since that chain has made a stance the LGBT finds abhorrent, the free thinkers would not accept the offer of free food. Harold, however, was hungry. I told him to enjoy his lunch. I saw him still at the protest hours later when it was breaking up. He was still smiling, and he had apparently enjoyed himself.
Toward the end of the protest, I had a similar encounter with Sarah, a young AIG volunteer who I think might be Harold’s daughter. She had stopped by the Ark Encounter on her way home to Iowa from the National Education Association convention in Washington where she had manned the Answers in Genesis booth. I joined a conversation already in progress that included an archeologist. Again, it was a respectful exchange among people trying to understand each other. Sarah did not pretend to have pat answers for everything. When the archeologist asked about carbon dating, Sarah deferred to experts and the web site.
Later I asked her about her experience of Jesus. She retreated a bit and relied on the teachings of the Bible. After talking for a while, including my reservations about dogma, I found myself called to make some dogmatic assertions: the view of the Bible expressed by Answer In Genesis is idolatrous, the Bible was never intended to be the kind of book they made it out to be, and their assertions about the age of the earth are absolutely false. I then apologized for my inconsistency in making such a pronouncement within the context of our conversation.
Both Harold and Sarah require a firm foundation for their life. They are grateful for the sacrifice that Jesus made for their sins. My sense of the Bible as an inspirational text, but one that you have to pick and choose from, is fully unsatisfactory to them. They see it as a whole, the inerrant word of God. Their experience of the divine seems to be second hand, though they might object to me describing it that way. They have accepted a teaching, and want to share that teaching with the world. Both of them showed a humility and an openness that was completely lacking in many others who were there, both among the protesters and the counter protesters.
As the protest was breaking up, I asked about the rally being held at UC. It was really for members, and I (mistakenly) thought that I was not one. I talked with one person, who asked someone, and came back with a statement that I wouldn’t really be welcome. As I got the car, I happened to speak with someone in the parking area, who asked me whether I was coming to the rally. I told him that I thought I was not welcome. He called someone, and said something about “someone in the middle”. The upshot was that they did not want the event to be disrupted. Knowing that I was a theist, he thought I would hear a bunch that I wouldn’t like; I responded that I was not trying to live in an echo chamber. I said that if there was an opportunity to ask questions, I might make my position known, but I had no desire to make a nuisance of myself.
Later in the evening, I went to the rally which was broadcast live by Dogma Debate. I learned about the background of the Tri-State Freethinkers, and later about the Young Skeptics. This information I found helpful and interesting.
Jim Helton, President of the Tri-State Freethinkers, told us I the full story of the port-a-potties. During the protest, there was someone who periodically would gather together a carful of people for a bathroom run. It turns out that the Freethinkers had contracted with someone to provide a port-a-potty at the site of the protest, but on that morning, when the company realized that it was going to be at this protest, they declined to fulfill the contract, not wanting to have their brand associated with these atheist weirdos. So, the freethinkers improvised, and found a location not too far away that had a port-a-potty available. The port-a-potty turned out to be from the same company, so people took selfies of themselves with at the port-a-potty with the company logo to post on the web.
Typical of the other speakers was Aron Ra, of American Atheists. He began his talk with an interesting exposition of the Mesopotamian sources for the flood myth. However, it soon devolved into long catalog of what was ridiculous about the Answers in Genesis position on the Noah myth. Another speaker went through the sources of the races, according to AIG, from the children of Noah. People seemed to like it, but I found it boring.
One person suggested a web site devoted to refutations of everything that Answers In Genesis asserts. Although that seems to be an interesting project in the abstract, it runs into two problems: the overwhelming size of the mountain of manure that these people produce, and the colossal boredom of actually shoveling out from in under it.
I was surprised in a gathering of freethinkers that there was no time for questions. It was packed full of one presentation after another. As it entered the third hour, I left.
There are a few conclusions that I draw from the experience. First, both the Freethinkers and the fundamentalist Christians are most concerned about being able to pass their values on to their children. For example, David Smalley, the host of the radio show, went on a free tour of the Ark, with Eric Hovind serving as docent. He enjoyed much of it, until he encountered the children’s section, which he found almost frightening. Another instance is the Young Skeptics, founded explicitly to provide an alternative to the after school programs offered by Good News Clubs. Because we have a public education system, this struggle of ideas has a political dimension. Both sides want to control the curriculum. The creationists want to teach the controversy; the overwhelming majority of scientists think the controversy was resolved over a century ago and don’t want any part of the Bible presented in science class.
Secondly, I found people on both sides that I could have conversations with, and engage with on a personal level. However, with the leaders, those with a public face, conversation was difficult. They had their agenda, their conclusions, and their debate points all lined up, and nuanced engagement was pretty much impossible.
Finally, both sides see the argument as binary: either you are for God and this inerrant Bible, or you are for science and reason. In this, I was on an island, attached to neither continent.
Jim Helton pointed to a number of things that he thought the protest accomplished. Of these, the most cogent was that they changed the story: the media no longer talked just about the Ark, but also of the the protest against this simplistic rejection of modern science.
I was also there to change the story. I wanted people to see that the choice was not limited to godless rationalism on the one hand or mindless dogma on the other, and that the Bible, though not a good science text, is a wonderful book. In this, I largely failed, but I was energized by the attempt.