We Believe In Dinosaurs

I didn’t think I’d be getting into creationist material again so soon after my review of the ICR Discovery Center, but I’ve been looking forward to the release of the documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs (by 137 Films) for some time now. After touring the independent film circuit for a few months, PBS aired the documentary in its entirety as part of its “Independent Lens” program a few days ago. I recommend streaming “We Believe in Dinosaurs” via the PBS website to see it for yourself.

We Believe In Dinosaurs covers a period of several years, documenting the construction and subsequent opening of the Ark Encounter, a theme park run by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) organization, a few miles down the road from their preexisting Creation Museum. While the filmmakers clearly approached this film from the perspective of mainstream science, the film primarily focuses on the hopes and interests of various people who found themselves invested in the project in one form or another, whether for or against. The title itself comes from AiG sculptor Doug Henderson, who wanted to convince viewers he and his coworkers don’t outright deny science. As he put it, “I’m a normal person, I’m not crazy, but I do believe in all of this.”

Doug Henderson Ark Encounter
Doug Henderson, Ark Encounter Lead Artisan, with an Istiodactylus and juvenile T. rex model

Kentucky paleontologist Dan Phelps and former creationist David Macmillan feature prominently as the most prominent voices of opposition to the Ark Encounter. Phelps shows off some local geology while providing rebuttal to AiG’s material, and recounts his attempts to argue against taxpayer funding of the Ark Encounter. David MacMillan reminisces on his past as a creation science advocate, even to the point of paying for a lifetime membership at the Creation Museum, only to steadily realize the emptiness of creation science the more he examined the evidence.

Dan Phelps David MacMillion dinosaurs
Paleontologist Dan Phelps and former creationist David MacMillan examining local fossil bearing outcrops in Kentucky

A major subplot of the film concerns the tax incentives from the state of Kentucky and further financial support from the Ark’s hometown of Williamstown. Ham and AiG sold the local governments on the economic opportunities that they thought the Ark might bring, and campaigned for financial assistance despite concerns raised over the separation of church and state. Friendly politicians approved these assistance programs, citing Ham’s promises as justification.

Public funds paid to Ken Hams Ark Park
Screencap from We Believe In Dinosaurs

Most poignantly, the film interviews local townsfolk, who feel great optimism at the promise of a new major tourist attraction in the area. The audience see a fair amount of Elmer’s General Store in particular, a local fixture that had fallen on hard times, despite the friendly atmosphere and live music. I really felt for these people, hoping for their sake they’d attract enough customers from Ken Ham’s crowds to keep things running.

Elmer's General Store owner - We Believe In Dinosaurs

Returning a year after the Ark Encounter’s opening, the film crew returns to find both the Ark Encounter and its sister attraction, the Creation Museum, doing pretty well for themselves. Unfortunately for local hopefuls, most visitors end up stopping in larger towns 20 minutes or more up the road, bypassing Williamstown entirely. Elmer’s General Store has closed its doors for good, and the town finds itself in much the same position as it did when it approved the Ark’s financial assistance.

I have chatted online a little with David MacMillan, and he informs me a signficant amount of scientific information was cut from the final documentary. Earlier in production, the filmmakers had planned to go more in depth in debunking some of the faulty science of AiG, and had shot additional interviews with himself, Phelps, and even Bill Nye, among some others. Ultimately, they decided to focus more on the human interest side of things, and attempt to maintain some appearance of “both sides”-ism, rather than coming down with an explicit affirmation of actual science.

Ark Encounter David MacMillian

As a former creationist myself, I would have enjoyed seeing more scientific discussion included in the documentary. I often wish I had spent less of my youth divided between my pursuit of real science and looking for ways to contort the evidence into a more politically correct format. It’s why I still enjoy reading books like God’s Word or Human Reason? after all (the writing of which was coincidentally also partially inspired by the construction of the Ark Encounter); I want to help other seekers of the truth find it if I can. But for what it’s worth, I think We Believe In Dinosaurs has value for what it tries to be. I myself sometimes lose sight that those who still follow creation science are often still every bit as earnest as I was. Reason and evidence may be the weapons of the war between creation and evolution, but the supply lines run on emotion. I hope this perspective isn’t a one way thing, either. We Believe In Dinosaurs seems to want to bridge this emotional gap between the two parties, and for the most part I think it succeeds. I would encourage creationists to watch this special as well. I hope it inspires the same sympathy in them as I felt in me. While I could have used more scientific discussion in the film, it doesn’t compromise the science overall, and really helps crack open windows into several intersecting cultural realities.

I really appreciated this film, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. You can watch “We Believe In Dinosaurs” for free on PBS, and you can look up the official We Believe In Dinosaurs website for more information about the film. If you find all this as interesting as I do, I highly recommend checking out David MacMillan’s blog. His story about coming to terms with evolutionary theory sounds vaguely similar to my own (which I briefly glossed over in my review of God’s Word or Human Reason?), and makes for good food for thought. With all that said, I give We Believe In Dinosaurs the Dino Dad Stomp of Approval, and implore you to go watch it at your earliest convenience!

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