What happens when religious ideology clashes with mainstream science in America? A documentary airing this Monday on PBS heads to the Ark Encounter in Northern Kentucky to find out.
“We Believe in Dinosaurs,” released in 2019 but making its PBS premiere Monday night as part of ITVS’s “Independent Lens” series, was filmed over the course of four years and zeroes in on the Ark Encounter, a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark that’s just off Interstate 75 in Williamstown in Grant County.
Filmmakers Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown documented the Ark Encounter’s construction from its blueprints through its opening day, capturing the efforts of creationists, atheists and activists as they battle over topics like evolution and the separation of church and state.
“We Believe in Dinosaurs” is the third documentary that Ross and Brown have produced together for 137 Films, a Chicago-based documentary production company they founded that focuses on America’s relationship with science.
“I think it’s an important world that a lot of people I don’t think realize is there. This deep resistance to the idea of evolution on religious, moral, philosophical grounds, however you want to frame it, is driving this alternate reality.” Brown, a senior lecturer in Northwestern University’s Department of Radio, Television and Film, told The Courier Journal.
The Ark Encounter theme park is a lifesize replica of Noah’s Ark, the vessel in the Bible’s Book of Genesis flood narrative through which God spares Noah, his family and two of each of the world’s animals from a massive flood.
The $120 million project opened to the public on July 7, 2016, with the date chosen to correspond with the seventh verse in the seventh chapter of Genesis that describes Noah and his family entering the ark.
The theme park was founded by Ken Ham, an Australian creationist who is the CEO of Answers in Genesis, a Christian ministry that operates the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, about 45 miles north of the theme park.
Creationists reject the teaching of evolution and believe the Earth was created in a few days about 6,000 years ago, based on the Bible’s teachings in Genesis.
The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter show dinosaurs and humans living alongside each other. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, dinosaurs went extinct nearly 65 million years before people appeared on Earth.
Before it even opened to the public, the Ark Encounter was subject to controversy after it won more than $18 million in state tax incentives while being built in 2014.
State officials tried to take the tax break away after learning the park would only hire Christians, but park officials sued in federal court and won.
Proponents of the separation of church and state and other critics over the years have also warned public schools of visiting the ark on field trips, pointing to Ham’s past comments on how “the whole purpose of building these attractions was evangelistic.”
Ross, also a playwright, and Brown said they first became interested in the Ark Encounter over a decade ago when talking with experts about issues involving the teaching of creationism in schools.
Through conversations with scientists and experts from other countries, Ross said they kept hearing that the separation of church of state “is a uniquely American problem.”
The ensuing construction of the Ark Encounter gave the filmmakers the perfect place to focus on “America’s strange relationship with science” and the “conservative and liberal split in science,” Brown said.
Their documentary includes a subject stating how when they were younger, “science was just science, something that everybody believed and trusted,” Brown noted.
With the Ark Encounter, Brown said they noticed an intriguing story presented itself with a “religious organization creating their own alternative science in a legitimate looking museum.”
But Brown and Ross emphasized that their film is not intended to ridicule anyone but rather allow viewers to hear from all sides of the evolution debate.
Among the characters featured in the documentary is an artisan who leads a team of designers and artists that create lifelike animals for the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, a geologist who blows the whistle on the theme park’s discriminatory hiring practices and an atheist activist who leads a protest outside of the Ark Encounter on its opening day.
“It’s a rich story. We never wanted to make fun of anyone,” Ross said. “It has the politics...the people for and against it and working hard in both areas. We certainly kept (the documentary) in Kentucky. It echoes the political divides we have as well.”
Brown added that the documentary focuses on issues of science and religion that extend outside of Kentucky across the whole country.
“It is kind of a micro and a macro story that happens at the same time,” Brown said of “We Believe in Dinosaurs.”
Though they focused on highlighting both proponents and critics surrounding the Ark Encounter, Ross and Brown said they still hope their documentary drives home the importance of science.
The documentary closes on a clip of former U.S. energy secretary and presidential candidate Rick Perry telling a child that public schools in Texas teach both creationism and evolution, “because I think you’re smart enough to figure out what’s right.”
Brown said he thinks Perry’s comment is “sounding more and more reasonable to people,” which has broader implications for American society and culture.
“When you reduce science to a choice that seems to feel right to you, then that’s not science,” Brown said. “Essentially, you erased science from existence. ...Science doesn’t care about belief systems. It just leads you.”
How to watch ‘We Believe in Dinosaurs’
“We Believe in Dinosaurs” premieres Monday on PBS from 10 to 11 p.m. ET (check local listings).
The filmmakers will also appear together next week for a Feb. 19 screening and Q&A at 6 p.m. at the University of Pikeville in Pikeville.
Ross will also attend a 7 p.m. screening on Monday at Union College in Barbourville and then a 6 p.m. screening Tuesday at the Gateway Regional Arts Center