Sunday, February 2, 2014

The problem with Noah's Ark

Having read two articles relating to Noah's Ark, I felt I had to write some kind of response (which, unfortunately has taken me longer to do than I'd anticipated).

The first article (from is about animal welfare at a proposed Noah's Ark theme park in the US. The second from the Guardian relates to a zoo close to where I live that is run by Christians and is founded on Christian beliefs.

My main reaction has been one of frustration and anger, not toward the writers of the articles but those people running these attractions. As a Christian, I am often perplexed and frustrated by fellow believers who have allowed the reasoning and logic part of their brains to be lobotomised, thinking that this is OK because they believe in a higher power.

Let's look at the Noah's Ark theme park. The intention is to presumably give Christians something fun to attend that's fully wholesome and biblical (unlike, say, Disneyworld which is clearly evil and steeped in sin*), but is also a vaguely evangelistic endeavour to show non-believers that the Ark was not a mythical vessel and could quite easily have existed. Unfortunately, this approach I believe distracts from the central truths and core message of the Christian faith – humanity's redemption through Jesus and God's desire to be in relationship with us.

There is an argument that elements of the book of Genesis from which the Ark story originates can be regarded as allegorical stories rather than factual ones. As with most matters of faith, there are strong proponents with different views, but my personal view is that certain accounts in the Bible are not to be taken literally but to be regarded at moralistic stories or messages that indicate a greater truth. I don't have a strong view about the Ark particularly, but when it comes to creation and the first few chapters of Genesis, I'm inclined to believe creation was not a 6-day event as many interpret from the Old Testament. Given that there is a huge amount of scientific evidence pointing to an 'old universe' of billions of years, a 6,000-year-old Earth simply doesn't make sense. Then there's the notion that God is not constrained by the limitations of time and space like us mere mortals, so several billion years of universe-building could well seem like a week to the Almighty (y'know, time flies when you're having fun). Finally, given that the books in the Old Testament were written thousands of years ago it's unfair to assume the writers understood as much about such things as geology, radioactive decay and astro-physics as we do now.

A rainbow. Yesterday.
There are many questions raised by the possible existence of the Ark, mainly centred around the sheer practicality of looking after a vast number of animals in a contained space for five weeks during a raging storm, which the article in Wired highlights. Fundies would perhaps argue that God's spirit rested upon the vessel giving supernatural support to Noah and his family as they cared for the rescued wildlife. This could have happened, but we don't know. The Bible doesn't say, so we are left to make up our own minds.

All this leads me to conclude that there's a possibility Noah and his Ark didn't actually exist (at least not in the way portrayed in scripture), but this doesn't automatically result in the Christian faith crashing to the ground or God disappearing in a puff of logic. The Ark story can be seen as a moral tale if anything – God punishes the whole of humanity (bar Noah's family) for being thoroughly horrible and downright evil by sending a flood to cleanse the surface of the world and start over. There is a simple message here: don't be plonkers to each other or you'll pay for it. Countless stories (not just religious ones) have carried this moral throughout history so it isn't out of place in the holy scriptures.

There's more I could say on this, but I don't want to waffle on. I guess my point is that there are more important issues of faith to debate over than the Ark, and to create an entire 'experience' around this minor (but not insignificant, admittedly) story seems misguided. Exploring and learning from the life of Jesus (a real, historical figure) seems to me a much more productive exercise.

Then there's Noah's Ark in Bristol, which I've visited several times. I quite like the zoo, and I've always found the staff incredibly helpful and friendly. It's clean and well organised with lots of stuff for kids to do. The animals all seemed pretty happy and content when I saw them (well, as happy as they will ever be trapped behind cages – of course, they would all be better of in their own natural habitat but that's another topic of debate).

NOT Noah's Ark. It's just a regular ship.
I had noticed the creationist posters on the walls but didn't really pay attention to them, but I can understand the alarm they caused to people of a scientific or atheistic point of view. If it's true that these posters push the 'young earth' point of view then I'm disappointed (even though it sounds likes they're actually giving all theories about creation an equal footing). I'm also disappointed if, as the writer of the Guardian piece claims, they also occasionally slip into bad science. This is indicative of the seemingly ignorant attitude to scientific reasoning and balance that can sometimes prevail among Christians, and particularly those with a public face and/or regular public interactions.

I'm not a 6,000-year-old-earth creationist but people have the right to believe whatever they want of course – I personally think intelligent design is a far more sensible way of reconciling the concept of an all powerful creator with the scientific evidence that's available.

For me, science is about observing the universe in which we exist and trying to understand how it happens the way it does in order to better ourselves as a species. Science doesn't 'belong' to anybody, be they an Atheist, Buddist, Christian or Klingon.  

Faith is far too slippery, messy and intangible to put down onto a spreadsheet or distil in a test tube.

Which, I think, is a good thing...

*relax, I'm being sarcastic...

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