B = 9 – 1/5c – 1/10r – 1/10g – 1/10sb + 1/5a + 1/10t [how to unbelieve]

I grew up, and I learned that dinosaurs had never existed’

How do we perceive truth in a time of alternative facts?

Corine and I had gotten into a conversation about being raised in a Christian family. I was unfamiliar with this thought about dinosaurs, but I realized I had always simply assumed they had existed. It made me wonder if it would be possible to also not believe in dinosaurs. 

Could I make myself unbelieve?

This project dives into the notion of post-truth, where facts can be agreed or disagreed with and feelings function as evidence. What happens when we encounter information that goes against the narrative we’re familiar with, and how willing are we to doubt beliefs that we have always held on to?

For a year I tried to no longer believe in dinosaurs. I talked to four different dinosaur experts, each with their own beliefs and theories. Meanwhile I told myself dinosaurs had never existed and started looking for defaults in current evidence. After each encounter I measured myself on a scale of 1-10, in which 10 means being absolutely convinced that dinosaurs have existed, and 1 means firmly not believing in them at all. The mathematical formula created out of this graph functions as the guiding line through this project, each part pointing out a different factor in the process of unbelieving.

The second part of the project took place in Dinosaur [Colorado, USA] where I went with my friend Alli, who had lost the Christian faith we once shared. Why had she let go of that belief, and what did that mean for my own faith? To which extent could I and should I bend my belief in God?

How to unbelieve tries to give insight into what it means to doubt and to potentially lose a belief. It uses photography, video and audio to show this process; media that we’ve turned to for both evidence and storytelling.

download: how to unbelieve - master thesis

Encounter one - Corine [no photo]

B = 9, in which ‘B’ stands for ‘belief’, in which ‘9’ means ‘9’ on a scale of 1 - 10.

‘I grew up, and I learned that dinosaurs had never existed.’

Corine and I had gotten into a conversation about being raised in a Christian family. My parents never saw dinosaurs as a threat to our belief in God, but I could place the religious argument against them. You could say ‘dinosaurs were never mentioned in the Bible’, and leave it with that. I realized though that I had always simply assumed dinosaurs had existed, and that I had never considered otherwise. But could I turn that narrative around, and no longer believe in dinosaurs myself?

I created a scale of one to ten with the question ‘on a scale of one to ten, how much do I believe in dinosaurs?’ I placed myself at a nine, because I figured I had never been interested enough in them to be convinced of their existence. It became my goal to get as close to a one as possible.

Ever since my conversation with Corine I started illustrating the project by making blind drawings of dinosaurs. A blind drawing consist out of one uninterrupted line that is drawn when solely
looking at your object, without looking at how the drawing progresses.

Encounter two - Pedro

B = - 1/5c, in which ‘c’ stands for ‘certainty’, in which my belief drops from a 9 to a 7.

‘Well, you would have to be very, very religious in order to deny all of this evidence’

His name was Pedro, a paleontologist from Portugal. I met him at the local dinosaur museum, and I asked him how I could unbelieve in dinosaurs. His reply was that I had to be religious in order to do so, which didn’t sit well with me. I consider myself religious, so in a way I was halfway there already. But does that really mean that I close my eyes at evidence that possibly contradicts my beliefs, and is that restricted simply to religious people only?

The museum came with big claims about a giant meteorite, about massive volcano eruptions that completely changed the climate. The Biblical account of Noah's flood all of a sudden didn't sound that absurd anymore, and I wondered how much of what we know and believe depends on what other people tell us, and the context in which it is presented.

Pedro’s certainty paradoxically reminded me of what he had accused the religious camp of, and it made me want to unbelieve in dinosaurs even more. Shortly after my visit I found out that the dinosaur bones he had pointed to when he talked about evidence were all replicas, not originals. It meant that his evidence was fake to begin with.

Encounter three - Aart

B = -1/10r -1/10g -1/10sb, in which 'r' stands for repetition, 'g' stands for gaps and 'sb' stands for seeing and believing, in which my belief drops from a seven to a five.

‘I am not a scientist, I’m an artist. It’s my job to fill the gaps that are there.’

Once I had found out that the dinosaurs I had photographed in the local museum were fake I set out to find out who made them, and that search led me to Aart. He lived and worked in an industrial building, making dinosaurs eighty hours a week for both museums and amusement parks.

A lot had happened after I had talked to Pedro. I had started to repeat to myself that dinosaurs hadn’t existed and the more I did that, the more I was able to find gaps in existing evidence. I discovered that the brontosaurus was the product of fraud in the early days of paleonthology, and that China uses dinosaur bones as a political treaty.

Aart told me it is very rare for dinosaurs to be found in one piece, and that he makes the bones that are still missing. Only 50 specimens of T-rexes have been excavated, of which only a handful are complete for over 60%, none of them being fully intact.

It was interesting being at Aart and seeing what I had told myself to believe, namely, that dinosaurs were fake. And I was right because here they were: being manufactured right in front of my own eyes.

Encounter four - Frans

B = +1/5a, in which ‘a’ stands for ‘absurdity of the alternative’, and my belief goes back up to a seven.

‘I know that this is true, because it resonates with what I feel inside.’

My search for religious people who didn’t believe in dinosaurs had resulted in a dead end, but as it turns out, there were still other people who denied their existence. I was surprised though as to where I ended up finding them.

Frans didn’t believe in dinosaurs. How on earth would a T-rex have been able to get up from the ground with those tiny arms, and how would there have been enough hours in a day for the Brontosaurus to eat, given his body weight? Frans believed there had been a time where giant humans and giant animals lived on earth. The dinosaur bones as we know them now are not actually of dinosaurs, but of those giants who have turned into stone. Dinosaurs were invented as a cover-up to hide that truth from us. He showed me photos of giant rocks that looked just like animals, and he told me he knew that this was true because it was what he felt to be true.

I left Frans’ place quite confused. His reasoning had sounded logical within the worldview he had presented, and I didn’t have any counterarguments to what he said because I wanted to be convinced that dinosaurs were fake. But did that mean that I believed him, and how do you know whether you believe something or not?

Something else had been a bit unsettling. What Frans said about his beliefs I could repeat for mine - I believed in God because I intuitively felt it to make sense, but did that make my belief valid?

After Frans I realized I couldn’t go down on the scale any longer. I would have to start believing that there was a conspiracy happening against me, which clashed immensely with my deepest beliefs. I could keep pointing out why dinosaurs didn’t make sense, but in the end, I didn’t have a plausible reason as to why someone would make up dinosaurs. Frans’ explanation had been so absurd that it made me want to believe in dinosaurs again.

Encounter 5 - Gert-Jan

B = + 1/10t, in which ’t’ stands for ‘trust’, in which my belief rises from a seven to an eight.

‘It was a punch in the face, having to admit that I was wrong’

Gert-Jan had specialized in explaining dinosaurs from a Biblical point of view. He believed that they had been on Noah’s ark, and that there was a possibility that they still existed nowadays. I was very familiar with Gert-Jan’s convictions about the earth being only 6000 years old, created according to the first book in the Bible. These arguments had played a large role in my beliefs when I was a teenager, because it meant having science to back up my beliefs. Later on I didn’t find them relevant or credible anymore, and I noticed being very critical of Gert-Jan before even meeting him. Didn’t he simply have a conclusion already that made him selectively look at facts?

His story surprised me though.

Gert-Jan had always regarded the theory of evolution to be true until someone asked him questions about it, questions that he didn’t have answers to. When he started doing his research, he found facts that supported the Biblical creation narrative instead. He didn’t particularly like having to give up evolution, but for Gert-Jan, it felt necessary to change his worldview in light of this newfound information.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I agreed with Gert-Jans particular beliefs about a literal interpretation of Genesis, but I did notice my belief in dinosaurs went up again a little. After all he was a person I had come to trust because we had lots of beliefs in common.

B ≠ f, in which 'f' stands for 'facts'

In hindsight, my belief in dinosaurs ended up fluctuating mostly according to the narrative that I chose to tell myself. It depended on how I perceived the people I talked to, and it changed according to how certain they were, or how absurd their explanations were. In the end I realized that facts nearly hadn’t mattered. 

I had known Alli for nearly eight years when I asked her to come to Dinosaur with me. We had gotten to know each other in a Christian context, but over the years she had lost the faith we once shared. I wanted to know why she no longer believed, while I was still holding on to it.

Alli told me it had never been her intention to no longer believe. She had experienced God in a very real way, but she was afraid that experience alone wasn’t a sustainable way to believe. She went to study theology to back up her belief in God, but the end result was unexpected. The analogy she used was that of a circle in which she was a small dot. She had gradually moved closer and closer to the edge of that circle, until one day she was out of it.

We drove for hours and hours, and all around us the landscapes turned into dinosaurs, even though I tried so hard to deny them.

I didn't like the questions Alli asked me in return. Was there more evidence for dinosaurs than there was for a Christian God? And if people wouldn't have told me about the bones of Christianity, such as the Bible, such as Jesus, would I have come to the conclusion myself that this was all true?

We talked to various people in Dinosaur. Dean owned a gift shop, and was convinced he was selling real dinosaur bones. Alli asked him how he knew, and asked him again. He finally admitted he was told they were real by the lady he had bought them from.

Tom and Dorothy spent their days volunteering at the local welcome center. They told us sometimes there were visitors who didn’t think the dinosaur bones that were found in the area were real. ‘Let them believe what they believe’, Dorothy said. ‘That’s about all you can do, really.’

After Dinosaur, my beliefs were no longer obvious. Were they still valid after I couldn’t answer Alli’s questions, and after I had decided that my feelings about God didn’t count as evidence? Did I simply believe because for years and years I had told myself that this was true? Losing my faith had become a realistic scenario again, and I understood what Alli meant with unbelieving being painful.

I can't tell you why I still believe. Maybe I simply didn't want to let go in spite of the difficult questions and maybe I did close my eyes at contradicting evidence, like Pedro had said. But somehow it still all made sense, the narrative of the human God, and somehow for me, in an unexplainable way, it still classified as truth. 

Using Format