“The final section of the Encounter is set in the scary modern world where people go to college and learn that the Bible is a work of fiction. Kids: Go to college!”
I met thirteen-year-old Bailey Harris at CSICon this past October several days before she took to the podium as a featured speaker at the conference. She came across as very shy during our brief exchange, and I wondered how she would do in front of a crowd of over six hundred skeptics with high expectations. How must such a young person feel about doing this? I even frankly wondered if the Center for Inquiry had made a huge mistake in inviting a mere kid to speak.
All my doubts disappeared when Bailey took the stage. It was exhilarating to watch her speak, and I found myself wondering what amazing things someone this accomplished so early in life was going to be able to achieve in her future.
If you have not heard of Bailey, she is the coauthor of three science books aimed at children, the Stardust series, the first of which she wrote at the ripe old age of eight. Yes, eight. She is an “advocate for science education, human rights, and freethought” and already has quite a web presence.
Bailey’s Stardust series “origin story” struck a chord with me when I first heard it. Let me explain why: Bailey had been enthralled by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s assertion in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that everything on earth is made of stardust—the remnants of supernovas occurring before the birth of our solar system. What is an eight-year-old to do after learning of this mind-bending science fact but go write her own book on the subject and kick-start a science communication/activism career, right? While that is exactly what Bailey did, when encountering the same science revelation as a kid, I however, fell short.
I discovered Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection when I was sixteen, and it was the first time I encountered this stardust (well, “star-stuff” at the time) mind-blowing concept. Like Bailey, I couldn’t get this out of my head. This was just before Thanksgiving, so I wrote an invocation for my family’s holiday meal that was all about thanking “our real creators, the stars, which sacrificed themselves so that we could live … for we now understand that we are their children … we are star-stuff.” But that was as far as it went. Unlike Bailey, not only did I fail to write a book on the topic and kickstart a promising career, but I didn’t even save my heretical prose for posterity! So, there you have it: My path not taken is now represented by Bailey Harris.
About the Ark Encounter: Soon after CSICon, I came across Bailey’s video on YouTube called Secular Tour of the Ark Encounter: Atheist Bailey Harris vs. Fundamentalist Ken Ham. I had learned of plans to create a full-scale “replica” of Noah’s Ark even before its construction and was appalled to see the taxpayer-subsidized $100 million-plus travesty come to fruition in 2016. I have also seen many other tour videos by various skeptics and atheist activists, but this one was somehow special. Perhaps it was because I had met Bailey, or maybe because here was a “kid” who knew better than Ken Ham and the 30–40 percent of adult Americans who believe this myth represents reality and who was willing to challenge them on it.
If you are unfamiliar with this antiscience exhibit created by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis apologetics organization, all you need to know about it for the context of this article is that its goal is to convince people—especially children—that the Biblical creation story and global flood myth are true, and of course, that the Bible is inerrant. Yes, because of what it says in a few chapters of an ancient book, Ham wants you to believe that all of what has been uncovered about ancient history, as well as the mutually congruent facts uncovered about the universe by practically every field of modern science, are all fundamentally mistaken. (If you still want to know more about the Ark Encounter, you can read its Wikipedia article, here.)
Anyway, immediately after watching Bailey’s video smackdown of the Ark Encounter, I decided to get in touch with her to learn more about her perspective on this and share it with Skeptical Inquirer online readers. We also talked a bit about her life as an activist, and discussed her recent CSICon speaking experience.
Rob Palmer: Hello again Bailey! Thanks for doing this interview. I want to talk about two things with you: your new Ark Encounter video and your recent CSICon experience! First, please tell me: When did you originally hear about the Ark Encounter? What were your thoughts?
Bailey Harris: Hi, Rob! Thank you for inviting me to do the interview. I learned about the Ark Encounter when I watched the debate about evolution between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Bill Nye did such a great job, and the responses by Ken Ham were scary. And when I looked up his Ark Encounter, I couldn’t believe that it was a real thing!
Palmer: At the time, some said that debate should not have been done, because by doing it, Bill Nye put nonsense on an equal footing with science. What do you think about that?
Harris: I loved the debate. I know that many people didn’t think that Nye should do it. And I understand the concern from scientists such as Richard Dawkins that Ken Ham doesn’t deserve the time or publicity. But my guess is that it was good for our cause. The great thing is that Ken Ham’s view of this is SOOOOOOOOOOO extreme, that many religious people who might have watched it might be exposed to some of the literal stories in the Bible and some of the Answers in Genesis explanations for them for the first time. This would probably be hard for people who aren’t hardcore fundamentalists to want to associate themselves with. And Bill Nye is so likeable. But who am I to tell Richard Dawkins that he is wrong!
Palmer: When I shared your Ark tour video on my Facebook page, one of the commenters expressed his disappointment that part of the video’s full title “Atheist Bailey Harris vs. Fundamentalist Ken Ham” implied you were actually going to be arguing with Ham in the video. And, of course, you never got to do that. [What Bailey did was challenge Ken Ham’s fictional version of history and science on camera, but without him there.] What do you think about the idea of actually debating Ham?
Harris: I would love to do this someday. When I watched Bill Nye’s debate, I wanted to speak with Ken Ham right then. As an eighth grader in middle school, I would probably not do well in a formal debate today. I am not a trained debater (even though I debate people at school, like a kid about flat earth two weeks ago). I am not a professional scientist (yet). I understand and love the fundamentals of evolution, but I couldn’t do this as well as a professional evolutionary biologist. But some day!
Palmer: Is there anything you’d like to say to Ken Ham here and now? I’m sure he reads Skeptical Inquirer online!
Harris: Ha ha! I would just like to tell him that I believe that what he is doing is harming children. He presents things as though they are pure truth when he has had to use a thousand rationalizations to get to them, and children can’t understand this at their age.
Palmer: I used to hate getting this question when I was young, but because you’re out there so publicly at such a young age (and sort of just brought it up), now I have to ask you: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Harris: I actually don’t know at this point! I get asked this quite often, so I think about it a lot. I know that I love science and that could be a logical area for me to go into. I know that I have a passion for activism, so that would be very natural for me regardless of whether or not that is my full-time job someday. And I love animals and nature, so I could do something there as well. Maybe we can do an interview when I’m in college in six years, and I’ll let you know if I’ve decided yet.
Palmer: The video says that you partnered with the Secular Student Alliance to make it. How did that happen? And it was done on an Easter weekend but just released; was it earlier this year or last year?
Harris: I have been a member of Secular Student Alliance for the past two years, and I love what they do. We support each other in our activism. Ever since I saw that debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, I wanted to do something to help expose the antiscience in the Ark. So, I discussed this with Secular Student Alliance at a conference, and we started planning the tour. The tour was over Easter weekend earlier this year. The Executive Director of Secular Student Alliance was in Cincinnati for a conference that weekend, so it ended up being good timing for all of us! We finally finished the video editing and voiceovers a few weeks ago.
Palmer: You said in the video you had a run-in with Ark security. What exactly happened?
Harris: We were at a display that shows how Earth was created in seven days. There was a rather large crowd in this section of the Ark. I recorded video at this display and talked about how Earth is really around 4.5 billion years old. I messed up a couple of times, so by the time I got it right, some people were crowded around me, listening to my blasphemy. One lady heard me and went to security. Two security guards came up to us, and we were able to talk them into letting us stay in the Ark. It was pretty scary!
Palmer: After doing the tour, did your opinion change from what you had thought it would be like?
Harris: Actually, it was all much sillier than I expected. The dinosaurs that are everywhere in displays with humans, like in the Flintstones, gets old really fast. But, like I said in the video, because of the size and beautiful artwork, it is rather magnificent. This is what makes it so dangerous for children. The antiscience represented along with this magnificence is so dangerous to children. Watching all the little kids with their parents, as they looked at people hunting a triceratops in a beautiful art piece, made me realize that we need to fight against these crazy ideas even harder.
Palmer: How do you think people can be so wrong about something like the flood myth, which is so well proven by so much science and history to have never happened?
Harris: From what I can tell with my religious friends, kids basically believe in the religion that their parents teach them when they’re little. I was fortunate to be taught how to think, not what to think. I know that my parents will love me no matter what I believe. They basically taught me the scientific method and the platinum rule. But religious children aren’t given that option many times until they’re older. I don’t think that I’m smarter than my friends who believe in the literal flood or in gold plates. I was just not taught that these were undeniable truths when I was five years old!
Palmer: Near the end of the tour you came across a large sign with a snake sitting on top. You said it was important to you, and it had the “truest statement” in the Ark Encounter. Please tell me about that sign.
Harris: The sign in the ark says, “If I can convince you that the flood was not real, then I can convince you that heaven and hell are not real.” The idea of hell hit me at school when I was eight. This is the age that Mormons are baptized, so the kids at my school in Utah were very excited about religion. I was told numerous times that year that I was going to hell for not being religious. This is a long story, but this brought up a lot of questions for me with my parents. This negative exposure to religion, mixed with the idea that our bodies are made of stardust in a Cosmos episode, pushed me to write my first book, My Name Is Stardust. So, I hate the idea of hell. It is abuse. I went to counseling as an eight-year-old because of this.
So, I basically take their saying and make it mine! This is one of the reasons the Ark Encounter tour was important for me personally. And I use this photo at the end of many of my presentations at secular conferences.
Palmer: Tell me about your reaction to the amazing number of views your video has received. [It was published on November 17 and as of December 4 had over 139,500 views.]
Harris: I have been absolutely blown away. Hemant Mehta (aka the Friendly Atheist) has supported me ever since I launched my first book, and he made the announcement for the release of the video. This obviously set up the video for success. And then, people like Richard Dawkins, Seth Andrews (aka the Thinking Atheist), the Center for Inquiry, Dan Barker, Matt Dillahunty, and many, many others pushed it out to the secular community. I am so grateful for all the support of my activism from so many people in our community.
Palmer: What would you say to the parents who decide to bring their children to the Ark Encounter?
Harris: Even if you are Christian and believe in the Bible, please don’t expose children to this. It is extremism and antiscience. It is designed to overwhelm children with its size and beauty to then present untruths from beginning to end.
Palmer: I recently wrote an article where I interviewed people who were attending CSICon for the very first time. [It is available here]. Because you fit that category, I can’t let the opportunity pass without asking you for your CSICon newbie impressions.
Harris: CSICon was one of my favorite conferences ever, and I plan to go every year with my family now. For me, it all starts with the people involved. The people at Center for Inquiry couldn’t be any nicer. And I felt a love from them the moment I stepped into the conference. On top of this, it was very organized, and the talks and speakers were awesome. And my little sister and I had so much fun at the 1950s dance! CSICon was one of my favorite conferences to speak at. I spoke at the same conference as Richard Dawkins! What?!
Palmer: Can you tell me a bit about your CSICon presentation?
Harris: The title was Stardust: The Book of Truth. The title is based on the original title that I gave my first book at age eight because I knew that the Book of Mormon was so important to many of my friends. (My parents helped me come up with a better title for the book later.) I basically told my story: growing up in Utah, being bullied by religious children, coming out of this in a positive way with my book series. And then I talked about my activism. I am an activist for science education, equality (primarily women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights), and atheism. I explained that I fight for atheism because religion fights against science education and equality. I’ll post a video of the full talk soon on my YouTube channel.
Palmer: Were you happy with how the presentation went?
Harris: This was the first time that I delivered a presentation without any notes. So I was really nervous about trying this out in front of such a large crowd. I ended up being happy with how it went, and I felt like I was able to connect with the crowd better than ever because I didn’t have to look down at notes. I felt so much support from the conference goers during and after the presentation. It was such a great experience that I will never forget.
Palmer: Your dad is credited as coauthor of your three Stardust books. How does the collaboration process work between you two?
Harris: I wrote a draft of my first book at age eight and then I asked my dad to help me with it. He worked with me on it for over a year. He didn’t want coauthor credit, but I insisted. He was then very involved with me as a partner on the second and third books. Doing the books with my dad, who is a true science nerd, has been so much fun. He also supports me in my activism. I bring him along to all my talks, and he helps me set up my presentations. I’m not able to travel on my own yet at my age, so he or my mom will always be with me right now. I’m grateful for their support.
Palmer: What does your little sister think about your books and activism? How about your classmates and friends?
Harris: I’m not sure if my sister [who is nine] understands what I am doing very well yet. She knows that I have my book series and absolutely loves tagging along to conferences. I’m an introvert and actually very shy, and my sister is the opposite. So, she loves socializing at these events. She is actually working on a book about humanism and the platinum rule right now based on some conversations she’s been having at school with some of her friends. She learned from when she was three years old that children can write books, from watching me, so she just told my parents that she was writing it one day.
The reactions from classmates are mixed. Because I am shy, I try to not make a big deal of the fact that I am a published author and secular activist. But it’s not hard for people to see what I am doing online. And even though I’m shy, I don’t hesitate to stand up for truth. Most of my close friends are very supportive. Others don’t agree with what I am doing and see me as a fun target for a debate on evolution or flat earth, which I am always happy to have.
I want to thank Bailey for her participation in this interview; it has been edited for continuity and clarity with her consent. Note that in anticipation of her CSICon speaking engagement, Bailey was interviewed by Susan Gerbic; you can find that earlier article here.
Finally, Bailey sent me a very inspirational video, You are Stardust, from her YouTube channel, which features quotes from Sagan, Tyson, and others related to the stardust concept. It is available here.