This replica Noah's Ark is known to some as Ken's Ark; the man behind it is Ken Ham, the Christian fundamentalist who operates the Creation Museum just outside of Cincinnati. Ham believes the earth is just a few thousand years old. His museum and ark are meant to convince others to believe the same. That mission was not achieved when Nye, clad in his usual bow tie and accompanied by a crew working on a documentary about him, made his trip to the ark.
"I wanted to see how successful this thing is, or could be, and I wanted to see how children are reacting to it," Nye said Sunday.
His takeaway? The kids are being "brainwashed."
"This could be just a charming piece of Americana, just something — I recently used an app called Roadtrippers that takes you to odd or unusual places…but this is much more serious than that," Nye said. "This guy promotes so very strongly that climate change is not a serious problem, that humans are not causing it, that some deity will see to it that everything is ok."
Ham wrote on Facebook about the visit: "Bill challenged me about the content of many of our exhibits, and I challenged him about what he claimed and what he believed. It was a clash of world views."
Nye has been a respected authority on science since the early '90s, when his children's television show "Bill Nye The Science Guy" became a cultural fixture. It ended in 1998, but Nye remained in the public eye to promote science education, and more recently, the existence of climate change. He has described his religious views as agnostic.
"At one point I asked Bill: what would happen to you when you die?" Ham wrote. "He said when you die 'you're done.'"
Nye and Ham have clashed before – and it might have been that very clash that made it possible for the Ark Encounter to be built. In 2014, Nye agreed to participate in a public debate with Ham at the Creation Museum. He later said he thought the event wouldn't receive much more attention than his typical visits to college campuses. But in the age of live-streaming, there was something about a beloved figure like Nye going head-to-head with a perspective so loathed by scientists. Ticket sold out in minutes and millions of people tuned in to watch.
"I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind," Nye wrote about the experience.
At the time, Ham had already hatched his plan to build a Noah's Ark replica. But it seemed doomed. He was trying to raise the money through bonds, and reports indicated he was far from his goal. Like a crowdfunding website, if the remaining bonds weren't bought up by the deadline, the funds would be lost.
Bloomberg and the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that deadline was Feb. 6, 2014. The Nye-Ham debate took place Feb. 4.
Even if Ham didn't "win" the debate, his face and viewpoint were in the news. A few weeks later, Answers in Genesis announced they had pulled together the funds to build the Ark Encounter.
The ministry has repeatedly denied that the debate was a staged money-grab. Co-founder Mark Looy assured Nye that the bonds were spoken for before the debate. In a press release, Ham stated the debate "prompted some people who had registered for the bonds to make sure they followed through with submitting the necessary and sometimes complicated paperwork."
"God in His providence supplied our needs," Ham wrote.
Nye said he would feel responsible for the Ark's funding, were it not for a lawsuit filed by Answers in Genesis against Kentucky's former governor and tourism secretary, who denied Answers in Genesis a tourism tax break from the state worth up to $18 million because of its religious affiliation. In January, a federal judge ruled in the ministry's favor. He also upheld its right to only hire people who adhere to certain religious beliefs.
"The [new] governor, the tourism cabinet he appointed and this federal judge are all like minded," Nye said. "They believe in this project. They would come up with something to make it go through."
"In contrast," he continued, "Ask any Kentucky voter or taxpayer if he or she thinks this would have happened if it had been a mosque or an Islamic facility."
As he toured the ark, Nye spoke to groups of children to tell them that the age of the earth "has nothing to do with religion." He took selfies with many of them, and couldn't help noticing how unfinished the museum looked to him. ("I guess they're using the same cranes Noah used. The same brand," he cracked.) He said he hopes that the project goes bankrupt and closes before it is completed.
Meanwhile, Ham took to Facebook to assure his followers that he had the chance to share the Gospel with the celebrity scientist.
He took Nye near the life-size models of Noah and his family praying, then asked Nye's permission to pray. Nye responded that Ham could do whatever he would like and Nye would not stop him.
"So while a large group of people were gathered around, I publicly prayed for Bill," Ham wrote in his post. "I did ask him if we could be friends, but he said we could be acquaintances with mutual respect, but not friends."
This story has been updated.