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

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

How do we perceive truth in a time of alternative facts? How do we form a belief, and what does it take to lose one? Is it possible to not believe in dinosaurs, and ultimately, can I make myself unbelieve?

How to unbelieve 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 facts and theories. Meanwhile I searched for defaults in our current evidence. After each encounter I measured myself on a scale of 1 - 10, in which ‘10’ means being absolutely convinced that dinosaurs have in fact existed, and ‘1’ means having no faith at all that there were ever such creatures. The mathematical formula shows which factors come into play when going through a process of unbelieving, and in how much they affect the outcome.

Part two of the project takes place in various national parks in North-America and in the town of Dinosaur, where I went with my friend Alli. While simultaneously trying to prove that there were no dinosaurs, I asked Alli about losing her faith - the Christian faith we used to share. Why had she let go of that belief, and ultimately, what did that mean for mine?

How to unbelieve gives insight into what it means to doubt and to potentially lose a belief, using media we’ve traditionally turned to for both evidence and storytelling.


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’

It was early fall when Corine and I ended up in a conversation about our mutual Christian upbringing. Corine almost casually mentioned she had been taught that dinosaurs had never existed - a thought that was new to me, but one I could immediately place. After all, one could simply say there is no literal mention of dinosaurs in the Bible, and thus they cannot have existed. Case closed.

Contrary to Corine’s parents, mine must have been quite indifferent towards dinosaurs, or at least they hadn’t seen them as a threat to our belief in God or the authority of the Bible. I realized though that I had always simply assumed these creatures had existed - I had never considered otherwise. But could I turn that narrative around, and no longer believe in dinosaurs myself, much like Corine had in her youth?

On a scale of 1 - 10,  I decided that the initial value of my belief couldn’t be a 10 - for someone who had never been particularly interested in dinosaurs, a 10 seemed a bit excessive. A 9 felt more fitting: the existence of dinosaurs up until now had been somewhat obvious.

Encounter one - 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’

I met Pedro at a dinosaur museum - he was a paleontologist, and spent his days in the museum’s workshop. I asked him how I could unbelieve in dinosaurs, and without hesitation he replied that I had to be religious in order to do so. That didn’t sit well with me - I still consider myself to be religious, but did that automatically mean closing my eyes at evidence that possibly contradicts my beliefs, and is that restricted to religious people only?

The museum presented various theories about the extinction of dinosaurs, among them a particular one about a giant meteorite impact that had once fatally changed the climate. The Biblical account of Noah’s flood all of a sudden didn’t sound that absurd anymore. I wondered how much of what we know and believe depends on what other people tell us, and on the context in which each story is presented.

Pedro’s unwavering certainty paradoxically reminded me of what he had accused the religious camp of, and I found myself wanting to unbelieve in dinosaurs even more. Shortly after my visit I found out that the dinosaur bones Pedro had pointed to when talking about evidence weren’t original bones, but replicas. It meant that his evidence was fake to begin with.

Encounter two - 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 7 to a 5.

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

Once I figured out that the dinosaurs in the museum had been fake, I was determined to find out who had made them, and not too long after I found myself in Aart’s workshop. He made dinosaurs eighty hours a week, for both museums and amusement parks.

After talking to Pedro, I had started to continuously repeat to myself that dinosaurs hadn’t existed and the more I did that, the easier it became to find flaws in existing evidence. The Brontosaurus for example had been the product of fraud in the early days of paleontology, put together out of bones from various excavations and already known species, but presented as a newly discovered dinosaur. I also discovered that paleontology is currently booming in China, and that these newfound dinosaur bones are being used as a political treaty in order to strengthen international relationships.

Aart told me it’s very rare for dinosaurs to be found in one piece. There are always a lot of gaps to fill in, and that’s where he steps in; building the bones that are missing. It was quite absurd being at Aart and seeing what I had told myself to believe, namely, that dinosaurs weren’t real: the proof was right in front of me.

Encounter three - Frans

B = +1/5a, in which ‘a’ stands for ‘absurdity of the alternative’, and my belief goes back up to a 7.

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

As it turned out, the debate about the existence of dinosaurs seemed to have been settled among Christians – in favor of the dinosaurs. However, there still happened to be a group of people who knew for a fact that dinosaurs were fake, and I wasn’t prepared for their reasoning.

Frans was their spokesperson. 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 that there used to be a time in which giant humans and giant animals inhabited the earth. The fossils that we know now as dinosaur bones are actually the remnants of those giants, who eventually turned into stone. Dinosaurs aren’t real, but are a human invention to hide the truth about giants from us.

Frans showed me photos of rocks that looked just like animals, and he told me that he knew that this was true, because it was what he deeply 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 - after all, I was there to be convinced that dinosaurs were fake. But did that mean that I had believed him? How do you know whether you believe something or not? And, the most unsettling thought - what Frans had said about his beliefs, didn’t I somewhat feel the same about my belief in God?

After my conversation with Frans I realized I couldn’t go further down the 1 - 10 scale anymore. It would involve turning my worldview around, believing there was a conspiracy happening against me. I could keep pointing out where the evidence was lacking, but in the end, I couldn’t answer the question as to why someone would make dinosaurs up. Frans’ explanation had been so absurd that it made me want to believe in dinosaurs again.

Encounter four - Gert-Jan

B = +1/10t, in which ‘t’ stands for ‘trust’, in which my belief rises from a 7 to an 8.

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

Now that denying dinosaurs was no longer an option, I started wondering what had shifted in the Christian worldview that had made dinosaurs to become generally accepted. My next conversation partner had specialized in explaining dinosaurs form a creationist point of view, which starts with the premise that the earth has been created in the six literal days that the first chapter of the Bible gives an account of. Gert-Jan believed dinosaurs were created on the 5th and 6th day, had been present on Noah’s ark and that there was a possibility of them still being around somewhere. 

I expected Gert-Jan to be somewhat of a pseudoscientist, starting with a conclusion and forming the facts accordingly. To my surprise he told me he had always regarded the theory of evolution as obvious, until someone asked him questions about it - questions he didn’t have answers to. What followed was a period of research in which Gert-Jan stumbled upon facts that supported the Biblical creation narrative instead of Darwin’s ideas. While he wasn’t out to change his worldview, to him it felt necessary in light of that newfound information.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I agreed with Gert-Jan’s particular beliefs about a literal interpretation of the Bible. I was all too familiar with the arguments in favor of a young earth - they had been very relevant in my teenage years, when I first started questioning the beliefs I had grown up with. Years later I felt somewhat silly for being persuaded by them so easily, for using them as proof and validation for my faith while not looking into any counterevidence.

I did notice though that despite those differences it became more appealing to believe in dinosaurs again. After all, Gert-Jan was a person I trusted, given the majority of beliefs we had in common.


B ≠ f, in which ‘f’ stands for ‘facts’

In hindsight I noticed that a large part of my fluctuation on the 1 - 10 scale was directed, and I seemed to be able to make conscious decisions as to whether or not I wanted to believe in dinosaurs. Repeatedly telling myself that dinosaurs had never existed proved the most powerful strategy to get my belief to go down, alongside having a conversation partner who – regardless of their ideas - reasons with absolute certainty.

At times I wonder if deep down I didn’t want the experiment to succeed, simply because it would make me ‘that person who doesn’t believe in dinosaurs’, and was that something I really wanted? As it turned out, in my process of trying to lose or gain a belief, facts nearly hadn’t mattered. 


I had known Alli for over seven years when we went to Dinosaur together; her having lost the faith we once shared, me still holding on to it. I remember being curious as to why she had let go of her beliefs, and yet scared as to what her story would mean for my own.

Alli told me it had never been her intention to no longer believe. She had felt the need to back up her obvious belief in God by studying theology, with an unexpected end result. I didn’t like the questions she 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, would I have come to the conclusion myself that this was all true?

We drove for hours and hours, and the landscapes around us turned into dinosaurs, even though I tried so hard not to see them.

Dean owned a gift shop next to the gas station in Dinosaur, and was convinced he was selling real dinosaur bones. We asked him how he knew, and asked him again, and a third time. He finally admitted he was only told they were real.

Tom and Dorothy spent their days volunteering at the local welcome center. Yes, they’d had visitors who didn’t believe that the dinosaur bones the area was known for were real. ‘Let them believe what they believe’, Dorothy said. ‘That’s about all you can do, really.’

Whereas my belief in dinosaurs had been gradually growing again, my faith in God felt more and more unstable. I was losing a once obvious belief again, but this time it was involuntarily.

In the end, I can’t tell you exactly why I still believe - both in dinosaurs, and in God. Concerning the dinosaurs, I can simply point you towards the facts, even though I myself have only been told they count as evidence - I won’t be able to prove to you that they are true.

As far as my belief in God, there’s questions. Had it all been a matter of trusting the people around me, and repeating a narrative over and over again, for years? Had I learned to live with a conclusion that would inevitably have gaps – gaps I didn’t bother researching or filling up anymore? Or did my own experience with the divine weigh heavier than facts could ever do?

Ultimately, I know this to be true – I believe,

because I want to believe.


Look at the dinosaur in front of you

Do not look at the paper while drawing

Do not lift your hand off the paper

Draw the dinosaur in one single line

Your dinosaur is done

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