Australian creationist Peter Sparrow toured New Zealand recently.

Peter Sparrow is a black-bearded, bespectacled, bear of a man. He is cheery, articulate, and an excellent spokesman for the Creation Science Foundation (a “faith-funded” organisation with a presence in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Britain), under whose auspices he recently toured New Zealand. Originally from Australia, he has been touring that country for a number of years spreading a similar message to the one he delivered here.

In his travels over a three-month period, he addressed 53 meetings throughout the country. My brother John and I caught up with him on the 50th such occasion, at the East St Apostolic Church in Hamilton. Also present was Graeme Williams, a temporary maths lecturer at Waikato University, whom I had contacted through the Usenet newsgroup, and perhaps a hundred of the faithful.

The talk began with a brief account of Sparrow’s own conversion to the cause. At school, he said, he had been convinced that science had proven God did not exist, and that the secret to success in life was survival of the fittest. This he understood to mean walking over everybody else to achieve his goals. His life became complicated, however, when he met and fell in love with a Christian girl, who wouldn’t accept his arguments.

Confused, (he felt that for humanists there should be no such thing as love, since this meant giving something of yourself, making you weaker) he fled his native Adelaide for New Zealand where, to cut a long story short, he was converted to creationism — and two seconds later to Christianity — by listening to some creationist tapes while doing the dishes. The tapes made him realise, he said, that God had made him, and therefore owned him, and had the right to make rules over his life.

A belief in evolution provided no such rules for living, and led to a life of lawlessness, devoid of meaning, and a tolerance of such evils as homosexuality, pornography and abortion. Creationism, by contrast, required an acceptance of laws and standards, and gave meaning to life. The story of Adam’s Fall was also necessary to provide meaning for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross: if there were no Fall, and if humanity were not born into sin, then Christianity was without foundation.

The creationist cause was therefore fundamental to the church’s fight for its very survival: according to Sparrow, evolution represents an attack by Satan at the church’s foundation. His main message, then, was that Christians should not be fighting at the level of issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, since these were only symptoms of the underlying evil of evolutionary theory, whose amorality was progressively eroding society. It was necessary to get children out of the state education system into Christian or home schooling, to use creationist material in evangelical work, and to show up the flaws in the evolutionary model.

This he attempted to do at first by way of an analogy: he told a story of a printing press exploding and a completed book assembling itself page by page from the wreckage. Not surprisingly no-one believed the story, yet, he maintained, this was the sort of thing evolutionists expected people to believe. Chance and random processes produced only chaos, but evolutionists clung to the belief that they could produce order because the only alternative was creation and this required God.

He next produced examples of apparent design in nature: a nettle hair that was more complex than a hypodermic needle, velcro-like hooks on a plant leaf, and bacterial cells, which were far more complex than the needle point (looking very rough and blunt in the electron micrograph) on which they were sitting.

He showed photos of cliffs and canyons, produced in a day or two by the eruption of Mt St Helens, and argued that this showed that Noah’s Flood could have created massive sediment deposits, and carved out landforms such as the Grand Canyon. Finally, he attacked the textbook picture of horse evolution, maintaining that since all the species of varying sizes in one picture he showed all lived at the same time, they could not represent stages in a line of descent, any more than a girl could be the same age as her grandmother.

The talk was followed by the screening of a 1977 film, The World that Perished, a well-made if unintentionally hilarious retelling of the Flood story. (One small point: we were told how Noah sealed his Ark with pitch, then later that the petrochemical deposits were formed as a result of the Flood. Pitch is a petrochemical: where did Noah get his pitch from?)

Sparrow then went on to promote the books, magazines and tapes he had with him. These covered three tables, and included children’s books, the CSF’s Creation magazine, books on the scientific evidence for creation, and one with the answers to the most frequently asked questions creationists have to face. This one, he said, explained how the tuatara got to New Zealand from Mt Ararat. It actually spoke about the platypus in Australia, but, he assured us, change the name, and the argument still applied. This I had to see, so I headed straight for it. Predictably, it talked about land bridges. Across the Tasman Sea? Which is two miles deep? When according to the creationists the sea was at its shallowest during the flood and has only got deeper as the land masses rose up and the sea floor fell?

To his credit, Sparrow allowed plenty of time afterwards for discussion, and seemed a little flustered when I collared him on this one, hedging that maybe as things found their new levels a land bridge could still have existed temporarily. It was difficult to pursue any line of argument for too long, however, as there were only three of us surrounded by several of Sparrow’s supporters. I feel we handled ourselves quite well, and would like to think we planted some doubts in the minds of a few listeners. I was able to point out that descent of species should not be confused with descent of individuals, so comments about granddaughters and grandmothers, with respect to the horse family, were inappropriate.

I also went some way towards dealing with the matter of “random processes” in nature, showing that the notebook I was holding predictably moved downwards when released, rather than heading off in a random direction. The point was that there are natural laws and processes at work in the universe which make non-random things happen all the time, and that this applies to living things as well as everything else. He seemed to accept the fall-back position which was offered, that God could be responsible for these natural laws in the first place (you will never get a creationist to abandon belief in God, better to concentrate on Genesis), but wouldn’t accept that this was quite a different matter from asserting the Book of Genesis was literally true.

Meanwhile, John was involved in a lengthy discussion on the validity or otherwise of teleological and ad hoc arguments. He also pointed out that whereas scientists argue constantly in journals over how evolution occurs, there is no disagreement over whether it does: to the scientific community, creationism is a dead issue. And Graeme had brought along some very impressive papers on self-replicating molecules, including DNA strands of only six bases. These clearly worried several in the audience, and completely floored one fresh-faced creationist who was about to launch into an argument on the statistical improbability of long nucleic acid chains ever forming.

Issues that never got properly addressed were the proper interpretation of “survival of the fittest” in a human context — that our primary strength as a species is our ability to get along with one another in complex societies, and the matter of the argument from design. The argument that if a needle is designed, then anything more complex than a needle must also be designed, is logically invalid. What about a snow crystal? (See previous comments on non-random processes.)

In any case, most of the audience had gone home before this discussion session began, and it is sobering to think of all those newly fired-up creationist evangelists who may have been spawned by this tour. With hindsight, I realise that it would have been better to notify other Skeptics around the country as soon as I learned of this, so that others may have been able to attend meetings, perhaps find out Sparrow’s itinerary, compare notes, and prepare sticky questions for him. I was unaware until the night that the tour was so close to its finish. The meetings were not at all well publicised outside of the churches (I learned of them from a friend’s home-schooling newsletter), and were clearly targeted at the converted. Hopefully next time an event like this happens, we may be better prepared for it.

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