The Ohio river loses its poise as it curves around Louisville, Kentucky, its smooth surface beginning to splutter and churn. Jutting into its path is a rugged limestone shelf, which brings it crashing upon an ancient graveyard. It is a fossil bed – the resting place of fish, snails and clams that lived around 390 million years ago, when the future state of Kentucky was covered by a warm sea. The waters were shallow: possibly “chest-deep”, according to one naturalist. But that did not mean much at the time, millions of years before modern humans appeared. It was the “age of fish”, when a profusion of new marine species emerged. Their shells and skeletons were compressed into deep cemeteries, only to be uncovered by meltwater that bored through the rock at the end of the last Ice Age.
This is the largest exposed fossil bed from that era on earth, and the main attraction at the Falls of the Ohio state park, across the river from Louisville. Visitors can “dry snorkel” the upper bed on foot, prowling for pockmarks and odd protrusions – a croissant shape here, a denture set there – that betray signs of life.
On a hazy, frosty morning, I drove there to meet Paul Simmons, a former Baptist pastor who is now an ethics professor at the University of Louisville, studying the bridges between theology and science. He hummed approvingly in the visitor centre as we watched a video that explained the bed’s history. Some species from the fossil era thrived briefly before becoming extinct. Others evolved into different forms of life. In their stony outlines, they left links in a chain of descendants that extends to the present day.
“They’re so old, it’s just incomprehensible,” said Simmons with a slight southern twang. “It puts us in our place… We are a tiny speck of space dust. And our dignity is that we know it.”
Simmons believes in God and in evolution. He agrees with scientists who say modern humans emerged about 100,000 years ago. But doing so makes him a dangerous liberal in the eyes of many American Christians, who insist on a literal reading of Genesis. The first book of the Bible says that God created the earth, the first humans and all living things in six days. Based on the rest of biblical history, “young earth creationists” calculate that this happened within the past 10,000 years.
To many of them, Darwinian evolution and multi-million-year fossil histories are lies. More than that, they are attacks on the Bible that threaten to drive faith out of human life.
Some of the most militant hardliners are based in Kentucky, a solidly conservative state. A hundred miles northeast of Louisville is the headquarters of a “para-church” evangelical group called Answers in Genesis. For its leaders, preaching the infallible word of God is not enough. They want to prove it.
Inside a faceless warehouse which houses the Answers in Genesis office, on an industrial estate at Kentucky’s northern tip, the walls are covered with drawings and plans for Noah’s Ark. According to the Bible, Noah built the ark as a lifeboat-cum-zoo after a tip-off from God that he would unleash a catastrophic flood to “destroy all flesh”: a no-nonsense punishment for badly behaved humans. Strict creationists, who reckon this happened about 4,000 years ago, say the fossil record is made up entirely of creatures that died in the flood, which spared only Noah’s family of eight and the animals he shepherded to safety on the ark.
One believer is Patrick Marsh, a wiry figure of steely certitude who is responsible for the images on the Answers in Genesis walls. Marsh insists that “old earth” evolutionists are talking nonsense – and is building a 510ft-long replica of Noah’s Ark to underline the point. The wooden vessel will be the centrepiece of a biblical theme park called the Ark Encounter and he is its chief designer. The $126m project is Answers in Genesis’s attempt to show that the first book of the Bible is not a parable but a historical account whose practical elements are entirely plausible. Filling in the details, it says, will help reassert the authority of scripture’s bigger messages on life and morality.
I met Marsh in the chilly lobby of the warehouse, set in a landscape of scratchy hillocks and respectfully spaced homes. He has a raspy voice and a long track record. He was art director for the Statue of Liberty centenary celebrations in New York in 1986, designed the King Kong and Jaws attractions at the Universal Studios theme park in Florida, then moved to Japan to work on the Sanrio Puroland and Fuji-Q parks. He came to Kentucky to design the first Answers in Genesis tourist attraction – a Creation Museum opened in 2007 in the nearby village of Petersburg. Now he has become an engineer of biblical literalism.
“We’re saying, hey, the flood was real. If the flood was real, the ark was real. This is what happened,” he told me. The only arks most people see are plastic bath toys for children, he lamented. He plans to show how Noah’s wooden zoo – three floors and 51ft high – could have been built, maintained and managed. “If I can do the same thing for every aspect of this, to show you the Bible is not just a bunch of fable but is actually true… maybe you’ll go back to read the Bible and God will speak to you and it’ll do something.”
The ark will be built on an 800-acre site close to Williamstown, 40 miles south of the office, and a study for Answers in Genesis predicted that it would get 1.6 million visitors in its first year. Marsh has already lined up Amish carpenters from Indiana, who are among the few Americans able to erect large timber structures with old-fashioned notching and pegging techniques that don’t require nails or electric tools.
The ark will sit next to a man-made lake whose waters will erupt sporadically in fiery explosions to simulate the breaking open of the fountains of the deep. But the ark will not set sail. Marsh could build a seaworthy vessel with the same techniques, he said, but non-biblical fire regulations require concrete stairwells and exits that mean his version would sink.
Consultant scientists are drawing up a list of species to be represented in the ark, in real or mechanical form. They will include dinosaurs, which Answers in Genesis says lived alongside humans (it calls them “missionary lizards”). For the live creatures, Marsh has been mulling husbandry issues. If Noah had between 1,000 and 2,000 species pairs, feeding and cleaning would have been daunting tasks. To show how he could have coped, Marsh is designing a pellet-making machine that will compress hay into mini-cubes to make optimum use of space. To get rid of manure, he is creating a wood-and-fabric conveyor belt to dump it over the side.
Inside and around the ark, actors dressed up as biblical characters or animals will perform skits and Lion King-style shows, Marsh said. I asked whether the Ark Encounter did not risk undermining the Bible, particularly in the minds of children, by associating it with the fairy tales behind other theme parks. No, he said. It will be fun, but it will be clear that it is a “historical” park. “They are real accounts of real history – and if so, you may begin to think that, gee, evolution is a bunch of hogwash.”
Last year, as it has done every year for three decades, Gallup asked Americans if they agreed with the following statement: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” The proportion that did was 46 per cent. Since 1982 that figure has varied only slightly from an average of 45 per cent. Creationism is not a sideshow. It is the most widely held belief about human origins in the US – and part of an incessant war over evolution.
The founding text of modern creationism was The Genesis Flood, an account of “flood geology” published in 1961 by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. But one of the movement’s forebears was William Paley, an English philosopher born in 1743. He argued for the existence of God using the watchmaker analogy: if you stumbled upon a watch, he said, you would appreciate from its intricate complexity that it had a creator even without seeing it being made. The same goes for the world.
There were echoes of this in Marsh’s convictions. “If you start thinking about the complexity of any single thing, it is impossible – it is im-pos-sible – for anything to evolve,” he said, citing the human reproductive system, the eye, the heart, taste and motor functions. “It never could have happened by random chance. It couldn’t.”
The Creation Museum that he designed seeks to establish a scientific foundation for creationism, and although its visitor numbers have fallen from more than 404,000 in its first year to 254,000 last year, Answers in Genesis blames that on the weak US economy. The museum’s twisting passageways take visitors past exhibits on the Grand Canyon’s formation and antibiotic-resistant bacteria through to Adam and Eve mannequins in the Garden of Eden and roaring, clawing dinosaurs. It picks holes in the scientific evidence that humans descended from primates and that life first emerged from primordial proteins (the “goo to you” thesis) while presenting its own material to support the Bible.
I asked Mike Zovath, head of the ark project at Answers in Genesis, how it could be that Noah lived to be 950, as the Bible says. He paused and took a breath. “We’re going to deal with that,” he said. “Something happened that caused the human body to not be able to live as long as in the past. A number of different theories are being worked on to determine what that might have been.”
According to Gallup, the proportion of Americans who believe that humans evolved from less advanced forms of life over millions of years, with no divine intervention, is 15 per cent. One of them is P.Z. Myers, an evolutionary biologist and self-described “godless liberal” for whom the Creation Museum would be laughable were it not so troubling. “It’s worse than lacking a scientific foundation. It contradicts basic scientific facts,” he told me when I called him at the University of Minnesota in Morris. He has made it a duty to bait Answers in Genesis.
“It is offensive both professionally and personally to see the science so grossly abused,” he told me. Arguing over whether the earth is no more than 10,000 years old is “as useful to biology as arguing about whether the earth is flat is to geology”. But Myers says creationists have got more radical over the years. “I have confronted them many times with the counterfactuals of their claims, told them: ‘This is what biologists believe. You’ve got this wrong.’ They don’t care.”
Moderates have tried to find a middle way that reconciles faith and science. One is “theistic evolution”, which holds that God created the universe and chose evolution as his preferred mechanism to populate the earth. It’s what 32 per cent of Americans believe, according to Gallup, and is in essence the official view of the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. But when I mentioned it to Zovath of Answers in Genesis he scoffed: “If you take that to its logical conclusion, they’re saying the Virgin Mary was the descendant of an ape. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Answers in Genesis, which was founded in 1994, says state (or public) schools are guilty of evolutionary brainwashing, which belittles faith and makes it hard for people to assess the science objectively. The organisation is tapping into a history of agitation that started early in the 20th century as Charles Darwin’s ideas began to appear in science classes. In the 1960s the Supreme Court thwarted moves by religious conservatives to stop the teaching of evolution, ruling that a ban would violate a constitutional prohibition on the “establishment” of religion. In the 1980s anti-evolutionists changed tactics and tried to mandate the teaching of creationism alongside evolution, but were stymied again.
From defeat, the theory of “intelligent design” emerged. It does away with the biblical literalism, but says that nature’s “irreducible complexity” could only be the product of an intelligent hand. In 2004 a Pennsylvania school district voted to have intelligent design taught as an alternative to evolution, but a judge blocked the move, ruling that it was creationism dressed up as science. Creationists moved on. Now they are pushing so-called academic freedom bills that would encourage or require teachers to address “scientific” criticism of evolution and “teach the controversy”.
When I was at the Creation Museum I got talking to Greg Duck, an industrial courier who was visiting from Texas. He said his favourite part was a video where a creationist paleontologist who is digging alongside one of his peers says: “I start with the Bible. My colleague does not. We come to different conclusions because of our different starting points.” Duck said: “That is tremendous perspective.” I asked him if he believed in creationism. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “You’ve got to follow the facts.”
The essence of evangelicalism is accepting Jesus Christ as your saviour – being born again – and the Florence Baptist Church is one of its agents. It’s a 15-minute drive from Answers in Genesis and its steeple-topped building is as clean-cut as its smiling lead pastor, Corey Abney. “Creationism for us would be a non-negotiable, because it is difficult to reconcile a view of the world where there is no creator with a personal view of salvation and a saviour,” he explained. But he is worried that biblical Christianity is in decline. “It used to be said that America is a Christian nation. Well, that’s not true. Anyone who says America is a Christian nation is not paying close attention to what is happening.” The issues society faces – murder, infidelity, abortion, gay marriage – are symptomatic of a greater problem: “Our sin and rebellion against a loving, merciful God.”
Marsh, the ark designer, has similar concerns. He said he had watched humans “become more sensual, more dangerous, more self-centred” – just as they did in the licentious society punished by the biblical flood. As a reminder, before park visitors reach the ark they will walk through a stucco-walled sin city filled with the evils of pre-flood society, which he has decided will include prostitution, torture and cage fighting. On the other side will be a Tower of Babel and a ride themed on the plagues unleashed on Egypt, among them a river of blood and swarms of locusts. “We basically have retribution through this whole thing,” Marsh said.
Answers in Genesis was founded by Ken Ham, an Australian with dual US citizenship. He didn’t choose northern Kentucky because it had an unusually high proportion of people lost to evangelicalism, or saved by it. The region was selected for its transport links. Roughly two-thirds of Americans live within a 12-hour drive of the Creation Museum, which also explains why one of the office’s neighbours is a giant Amazon depot.
Forty miles south of the office, the Ark Encounter site is a toffee-and-chocolate landscape of dried grass and forest, which Answers in Genesis bought from a golf course developer whose plans did not work out. In 2011 it won a controversial tax break from the state government, despite opposition from groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which said that Kentucky should not be promoting the spread of “fundamentalist Christianity”.
Marsh hopes to start building by the end of 2014, but so far he has not got beyond felling some trees and marking out the ark’s position with white flags. Construction has been delayed by the fitful progress of Answers in Genesis’s fundraising. It expects the first phase of the park, including the ark, to cost $73m, but it has secured only $12.5m of the $24.5m it aims to raise from donations and subscriptions. The rest will come from “other financing”.
I asked Greg Shumate, a lawyer and stalwart of the local Republican party, what Kentucky residents thought of Answers in Genesis. He said religious conservatives were glad to see their beliefs embodied in its projects. Pragmatists – himself included – welcomed the economic benefits. Others were embarrassed, complaining: “We don’t want to be viewed as country bumpkins.”
Creationists are used to being mocked as backward. Answers in Genesis seems to thrive on a persecution complex, which is ennobled by an assumption that Noah too was ridiculed by ungodly peers for speaking uncomfortable truths. I asked Marsh what he thought of the liberal, feel-good churches that had decided hellish warnings about sin were driving people away and instead talked up God’s benevolence. He said doing so was a cop-out. “I’m not gonna talk to you about the affair you are having with your secretary? I’m not gonna talk to you about your kid that’s on dope? … There’s no change in that,” he said. “You have to realise that God is judgmental and God does judge.”
Cawing gulls circled above the Ohio river as Paul Simmons, the former pastor, and I trod gingerly along the icy fossil bed. He gave Answers in Genesis credit for making rationalist arguments, but said they only made sense within the bounds of an intolerant, fact-free worldview. “For that reason they are insulting in the way they are so belligerent. I mean, they come on strong.”
Simmons said he saw Genesis as a stirring, dramatic parable. The creationist reading implied that “God somehow magically waved his hand and pffff – everything was created like that”, he said. “I cannot accept that view of God as a magician. I don’t need that magic to have faith.”
Every now and then he paused to look at patterns imprinted on the rocks. “This is not a pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat sort of thing. This is long aeons of time and slow processes at work. That, they don’t have time for,” he said. “But if you’re open to science you need a better way to put it together. You’ve got to get out of Sunday school. Grow up.”
Simmons described the Ark Encounter as a “propaganda machine”. Answers in Genesis, he said, put on slick productions that were “as good as anything that comes out of Hollywood” and very effective at influencing children. “It gets right inside your mind,” he said. “The advantage is that it’s pictorial. The human mind is not a debating hall, it’s a picture gallery. Most of us think in terms of images, stories – not facts. They have that enormous advantage.”
We made our way back to the visitor centre. Inside, I asked an employee if creationists ever took issue with its portrayal of life’s origins. She said yes, it happened sometimes, then lowered her voice to a whisper. Her words were so faint that I had to ask her to repeat, twice, what she said next.
“I believe the creation way, but don’t tell anybody,” she said. “I don’t think we evolved from an ape or anything of that nature. I think we evolved as humans, then from there I don’t know. I wasn’t there back then so I can’t really argue with anybody. I’ll find out one day, I guess.”
Barney Jopson is an FT correspondent in New York.