Wednesday, January 27, 2016

He's Building That Damn Ark

Creation Museum founder Ken Ham has spent years trying to get his "Ark Encounter" attraction off the ground. His plan involves expanding his museum to include a full-sized replica of Noah's Ark that will be built to Biblical specifications. The project was announced in 2010, and since then Ham has been trying to secure funding for it. Ham's ministry does bring in a lot of donations and Ham has personally become wealthy running it, but the project estimate runs around $175 million - which is a lot, even for him.

In 2011, the state of Kentucky voted to grant Ham sales tax rebates on the project for the next ten years. However, the state provided no money up front, so Ham had to resort to other means to come up with the construction costs. He tried selling what were essentially junk bonds to finance the project, securities that contained a clause in the purchase agreement stating that Ham never actually had to make any payments to bond holders.

Ham never actually announced how much money he raised pushing the Ark Encounter junk bonds, but given that he unceremoniously dropped the program without comment, it most likely failed. The idea of selling securities that never have to be paid off struck me as ludicrous, but I have to admit I was little surprised that more of Ham's followers weren't taken in.

In 2014, Ham lobbied for and received preliminary approval for an additional $18 million dollars in tax rebates from the state of Kentucky. In his application, Ham stated that he would abide by all state non-discrimination laws. The state was therefore surprised to find that Ham's job postings for work on the project essentially stated that only young-earth creationist Christians need apply.

Because of this obvious religious discrimination, the state withdrew the preliminary approval. Ham responded by trying to sue the state, which went nowhere. So the attraction seemed to be in trouble and it looked like the whole thing might never get off the ground.

But last summer Ham started bringing in building supplies and had crews begin construction. Back in October he held a media event hyping the project, in which his comments about the funding were quite vague. It is not at all clear where the money for the project is coming from, but I suspect a substantial portion is being siphoned from Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum, and Ham's personal wealth.

During the hour-long spiel that could best be described as an Ark Park pep rally, Ham rattled off hyped attendance projections and encouraged anyone with investment money to snatch up nearby commercial land. I learned that the construction was well under way in Williamstown, a rural area 45 minutes south of the Creation Museum, where the ministry had purchased 800 acres of land.

He talked about the ark’s dimensions, the source of the timber being used, and other trivial notes — but barely touched on the topic of funding sources. Sandwiched somewhere in his tourism excitement, he breezed by the words “TIF district,” but said his lawyers really knew more than him, and quickly moved on. That’s when my ears perked up.

It wasn’t until the Q&A that an attendee asked if Ham could say more about the funding. Ham said the first phase of the project required $91.5 million before opening for business. To date, around $24 million has been raised in donations, an undisclosed amount has been made off of selling lifetime admission packages called “Boarding Passes,” and there’s $62 million in bond offerings. (Whether he had sold all those bonds wasn’t clear from his remarks.)

One of the biggest problems with the Creation Museum is that very few people are actually young-earthers. The religious survey that gets thrown around supposedly proving that some high percentage of Christians are suffers from a serious design problem. Here are the possible answers to the question of how life on Earth was created:
  1. God created life on Earth pretty much as it is now within the last 10,000 years.
  2. Life on Earth evolved over many millions of years, but God had a hand in the process.
  3. Life on Earth evolved over many millions of years, with God having no part in the process.
So if you are a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution, which one do you pick? It should be noted that the ministries of many prominent evangelists including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell teach creationism, but not the young-earth variety. Those ministries are huge and include millions of Christians, and all of them would have to pick (1) even though they accept that life on Earth was created over an indeterminate period of time that is much longer than 10,000 years.

The survey would be more useful if it included a fourth option - God created life on earth over the course of a period longer than 10,000 years. But it didn't, so there's no way to separate the young-earthers from the old-earthers with just that data. Based on what I know about the teachings of the various evangelical churches, my guess is that the old-earthers outnumber the young-earthers by a lot. Now that may not seem significant to you as a reader of this blog who is not an evangelical Christian, but it's pretty important in terms of how many people are really open to Ham's message.

For example, old-earthers don't believe in many of Ham's assertions, such as the idea that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. Also, like Pat Robertson, they are pretty turned off by Ham's dogmatic insistance that the only real Christians are those who accept the Ussher chronology, an interpretation-heavy (bordering on silly) analysis of Biblical timelines from the seventeenth century - which, by the way, predicted that the world would end in the year 2000, an error Ham's ministry conveniently ignores.

The original Creation Museum surpassed expectations when Ham opened it, only to have its attendance fal drastically during the following years. Based on some of the articles I saw, I suspect that the first year attendance included a whole lot of people who went just to see how awful the place was, and then never went back once they had satisfied their curiosity. Even if Ham manages to get the Ark built, it's very possible that it may see something similar. Or worse, none of the gawkers will even bother to show up.

But, of course, I might not be right about all that. Ham's organization does keep bringing in donations, so somebody out there must be keeping it going. Maybe those folks will attend over and over again just to get Ham's numbers up and prove people like me wrong - you know, because I shouldn't be making fun of stuff like Jesus riding dinosaurs.

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