Uncle Karl Giberson earned his avuncular title by being civil and reasonable, especially for an evangelical Christian. But then sometimes he turned mean and lost his “Uncle” monicker. I’m restoring it today, at least temporarily, on the basis of a nice piece he wrote for Beacon Broadside, a website run by Beacon Press. The title tells it all: “Noah’s Ark Park Keeping Christians in the Eighteenth Century.”
What’s good about his approach—Giberson is a trained physicist, and, along with Francis Collins, one of the two founders of the failed organization BioLogos—is that he uses evidence to dismiss the Ark story. Although Uncle Karl’s objections aren’t new, remember that his readership consists largely of fellow Evangelicals, many of whom buy the Ark story whole hog (or rather, two whole hogs).
The story of Noah’s Flood, more so than any other major story in the Bible, has been known for centuries to be impossible. Many lines of evidence make this clear. As far back as the seventeenth century’s great age of exploration, questions arose about how all the newly discovered animals could possibly have gotten to their existing locations if they were once on a boat that that docked in the Middle East. In Ham’s retelling, four thousand years ago there were just two kangaroos and both were located in Turkey, on Mt. Ararat where the ark came to rest. How did they hop across the ocean to Australia? And as explorers expanded the catalog of animals, it became clear they could not have fit in the ark, even if they could have gotten there.
Explorers soon discovered that the north and south poles could not have been under water just four thousand years ago. Once the height of the Earth’s great mountains was determined, calculations showed that there wasn’t enough water to cover them. Plants were discovered that could not have survived being submerged in salt water. The list goes on. The story of Noah’s Flood is simply not possible, and educated thinkers in the West began abandoning it more than three centuries ago.
Almost every new science that emerged in the wake of the Scientific Revolution created additional problems for the story. Evolution ruled out the possibility that all the races could have evolved from Noah’s family in just a few thousand years. Geneticists determined that the human race could never have consisted of just eight people. The discovery of continental drift showed that, by the time of Noah’s flood, the continents were in their present locations, making it impossible for the animals to have accomplished the necessary migration both onto the ark, and then back to their present locations.
These challenges to a literal reading of the story of Noah were the collateral damage of scientific progress, so much so that to insist today on the historicity of Noah’s flood requires the rejection of many mainstream scientific ideas.
. . . Ham seeks to convince his audience that Noah, with a crew consisting entirely of seven family members, cared for two of every species—he uses the uncertain biblical term “kind” in place of species—for over a year. Noah’s tiny crew fed the animals, watered them, cleaned up their waste, healed their illnesses. This strains credulity. Just the two elephants alone would have needed at least 15,000 gallons of fresh water—water that would have to be stored, since the water outside the ark would have been salty. And, not being refrigerated, the water would have to be prevented somehow from becoming contaminated.
And don’t forget those penguins, which would have to hop or swim all the way from Turkey to the South Pole (or the Galápagos, swimming around South America). For a much more complete description of the Ark’s scientific problems, I again urge you to read the informative and humorous piece by Robert A. Moore, “The impossible voyage of Noah’s Ark.”
Finally, Karl raises one of the most serious problems with the Ark story: a theological one. Why, if God could have reformed humanity (as he did Pharaoh, by “softening his heart”), did he have to drown the entire population of H. sapiens, save eight people, and kill every other living thing on Earth? After all, you can’t make the case that all those animals sinned! The only viable conclusion is that god was a genocidal and animal-hating maniac:
Noah’s story, as a tale for children, has a certain adventurous charm, and I was fascinated by it as a kid in Sunday School. Much of that adventure came back to me when I visited Ham’s other project, the Creation Museum, a story I recount in Saving the Original Sinner. But I have to confess that I am horrified by the story as an adult and wonder why it took me so long to see just how horrifying the story is. Taken literally—the entire point of Ham’s new park—the story suggests that God drowned all the children on the planet for their parents’ sins. Even if we assume that all adults outside of Noah’s family were terrible sinners deserving to be drowned, the collateral damage in the deaths of innocent children and animals dwarfs every major genocide in history combined. If Noah’s story is literally true, God is a monster.
Giberson makes only two trivial errors in his piece. One is the claim that Noah carried “two of every species” on the Ark. As Karl surely knows, Genesis 7:2 says that for “clean” animals, seven pair were to be brought aboard. (Generally, “clean animals” are those that could be eaten; you can see a list here.) Giberson also says that admission to the Ark Park is $60. That figure is actually for joint admission to The Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum; admission to the Ark alone is only (!) $40. Still, you can imagine how much dosh the park, which is, I think, going to be very popular, will bring in.
At the end, Giberson says that Ham and his Ark Encounter are doing “a great disservice to Christianity and thinking people in general.” He’s right. But that brings up two issues.
The first is Giberson’s reliance on science and empirical evidence to dismiss the Ark Story. That’s all well and good, but if you rely on that kind of evidence, then you must also dismiss the story of Jesus’s divinity, his crucifixion, and his Resurrection. But Giberson buys that part of scripture. He more or less has to, for if you reject the Jesus myth, you’re rejecting Christianity as a whole.
Further, in his 2009 book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, Giberson touts confirmation bias rather than examining religious beliefs with evidence:
As a believer in God, I am convinced in advance that the world is not an accident and that, in some mysterious way, our existence is an “expected” result. No data would dispel it. Thus, I do not look at natural history as a source of data to determine whether or not the world has purpose. Rather, my approach is to anticipate that the facts of natural history will be compatible with the purpose and meaning I have encountered elsewhere. And my understanding of science does nothing to dissuade me from this conviction.
What he doesn’t seem to realize is that Ham is doing exactly this, for Ham finds “purpose and meaning” in the Creation and Flood stories; and if the nasty facts tell against that story, well, you just have to reject them.
As I’ve followed Giberson’s career over the years (he’s now teaching at Stonehill College in Massachusetts and writing more books), I’ve seen him come precariously close to the borderline of nonbelief. He left BioLogos, probably over their policy of coddling Evangelicals who couldn’t deal with the scientific facts, and I’ve seen him go after science denialism more and more strongly. He’s even said that one of the main reasons he retains his faith is a purely pragmatic one (quote below from Saving Darwin):
As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly. Most of my friends are believers. I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith that underpins the mission of the college. Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.
What I’d say to Uncle Karl is that life off the rails isn’t that bad. After all, you can now go in whatever direction you want rather than schlep your baggage on an unswerving path to a mythical Heaven. And I’d say this to him as well, “Karl, you’ve rejected the Ark story because there’s no good evidence for it. Why don’t you just go one myth further?”
Finally, I’d like once again to chew Bill Nye’s tuchas about debating Ken Ham in 2014. Ham claims, and he might be right, that that debate, held at the Creation Museum, was instrumental in helping call attention to and raise money for the Ark Park, once so financially troubled that it looked as if it would die. But it was built, requiring millions of dollars of donations and tax breaks. And I predicted, way back in January of 2014, that by debating Ham, Nye was going to help finance the park. In fact, that was probably the only value of that debate, which has sunk like a stone. It certainly didn’t change any minds.
Nye just visited the Ark Park, ostensibly to see what effect it would have on children—but we already know the answer!. I hope he enjoyed seeing this Park of Lies that, in all probability, he helped finance.
Say what you will about Bill Nye, and about how he helped educate you or your kids on his television show. My own view is that now that he’s not on the telly, he still desperately craves the attention he once had, and is trying to run back to the spotlight in a Ham-handed fashion (pun intended). Not that long ago, Nye questioned the safety of genetically modified foods, though he backtracked on that. I’d like to see him do more backtracking and admit that he screwed up by debating Ken Ham. By participating in that debate, Nye was helping subsidize the peddling of lies to children.