A strange transformation has overtaken the murky world of the creationists. This article is based on a presentation to the 2007 NZ Skeptics Conference.

Creationism has always been primarily an American phenomenon. But something strange has happened in the creationist world over the last decade or so. While the US remains its heartland, a small but highly active group of Australians have seized control of large sections of the movement. Now, with the creationist movement worldwide growing and fragmenting, a situation has arisen in which two factions, both headed by Australians, have become enmeshed in a vicious battle for what has become a global, multi-million dollar industry.

Although creationism is of course an ancient concept, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that it really arose as an organised movement, actively opposing the spread of evolutionary ideas. Today it comes in many flavours-there are Old Earth creationists, who are happy to accept that the Earth may be millions of years old, and may have a history which includes eras not mentioned in scripture. And of course there’s Intelligent Design, which claims to set aside any biblical presuppositions, and simply argues that because life is so complicated, it must have a designer. Here I’ll mostly be discussing Young Earth Creationism, which is the brand seen most commonly in this country, and arguably the most vociferously promoted worldwide.

The modern creationist movement is generally held to have begun with the publication of The Genesis Flood, by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, in 1961, the first widely published work to present the stories of Genesis as if they were scientifically credible. Morris would go on to be one of the founders of the Creation Science Research Center in 1970, before splitting to form the Institute for Creation Research in 1972. The ICR would for many years be the pre-eminent creationist organisation.

Going global

Elsewhere in the world, creationism was operating on a much smaller scale. There were early glimmerings in New Zealand when Dr Tony Hanne, an Auckland GP and obstetrician, invited Henry Morris to undertake a speaking tour here after reading The Genesis Flood. Over the next decade or so there were a few more tours by creationists, including Morris’s colleague at the ICR, Duane Gish, in 1975. (Gish made a presentation at our school when I was in the sixth form-I credit him with convincing me once and for all that creationism had no scientific credibility.)

But if the creationist candle was kept alight through the 70s in New Zealand largely through the efforts of a few individuals and very occasional overseas visitors, Australia was developing a significant home-grown movement. Credit for this development goes to three Queenslanders, who are still very active, as we shall see.

The one with the highest profile today is Ken Ham, who began giving creationist addresses in 1976 while still working as a science teacher. In 1979 he dedicated himself full-time to his creationism advocacy work, drawing no salary and relying on the support of family and friends. Working from home with his wife Mally, he ran two ministries-Creation Science Supplies, which distributed creationist books, and Creation Science Educational Media Services, which concentrated on teaching resources.

Also at about this time, general practitioner Dr Carl Wieland founded the Creation Science Association, and began publishing a small magazine, Ex Nihilo (‘Out of Nothing’). Ham and Wieland joined forces in 1980 to form the Creation Science Foundation; Wieland then handed over the running of the magazine to Ham, and to the third of our key players, John Mackay, who became editor. The magazine’s name was changed to Creation Ex Nihilo; in time it would become just plain Creation.

For several years these three worked harmoniously together, building up their business and establishing a management framework. The first significant hiccup came in 1986, when their financial records showed a loss of $92,363. This came about because one of their directors, John Thallon, had invested interest-free loans from members, along with a substantial sum of his own money, in a company that re-invested it fraudulently. Their rank-and-file members were not informed until the Australian Skeptics went through their books and brought the loss to widespread attention.

But that incident was nothing compared to what happened the following year. Margaret Buchanan, a widow in her early 40s, was working as Ken Ham’s personal secretary and appears to have been well-liked and respected. But in 1987 John Mackay announced that he had discovered, by a process of what he called “spiritual discernment”, that Margaret Buchanan was a servant of Satan. Specifically he accused her of being:

“… an ‘angel of the devil’… the literal incarnation of Jezebel … a broomstick riding, cauldron-stirring witch … a frequent attender of seances and satanic orgies; a witch with the ability to invade both inanimate objects … and animate objects (at least one dog and one cat-and even John himself) with [her] own personal demons.”

Her supporters have also stated that Mackay insisted “that Margaret had claimed to have had intercourse with the corpse of her late husband”!

Mackay then gave CSF an ultimatum-either she goes or I go. Ham stood by Buchanan, as did Wieland, who later married her.

John Mackay was left with no option but to form his own organisation, also based in Brisbane, which he called Creation Research. You can find him on the web at creationresearch.net, not to be confused with creationresearch.org, which is the website of the Creation Research Society, a small American group. Creationists often remind me of the Judean liberation organisations in Monty Python’s Life of Brian-the People’s Front of Judea, always at war with the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea. Keeping track of all these different groups is not easy-and it’s about to get even messier.

CSF spreads its wings

Ken Ham also made a move in 1987, going to work on secondment for the ICR in the US. He stayed there until 1994, then left to found a US branch of the Creation Science Foundation. Since, in the US, a foundation is a body that hands out money, and CSF didn’t do that, he had to change the name. He first called it Creation Science Ministries, but predictably there was already a group with that title, so he adopted the name Answers in Genesis.

Also in 1994, CSF opened an office in New Zealand. It and the Australian, UK, Canadian and South African branches adopted the Answers in Genesis brand in 1997. The UK branch is now the biggest creationist organisation in that country.

The local branch, currently headed by former lawyer, drug education officer and fireman Adrian Bates, operates out of Tony Hanne’s 1.5 ha waterfront property on Bleakhouse Rd in Howick, Auckland. Dr Hanne runs a bible school and youth camp from here, although in 2003 he was subject to an enforcement action by the local council for running a bible college in breach of his resource consent and the council’s district plan. Presumably this issue is now resolved.

Linking and Feeding

Meanwhile in Australia, Carl Wieland was proving himself to be a good business manager and a master strategist. Rather than taking on the educational and scientific establishments head-on, as the American creationists had tended to do, Wieland focused on creating and developing a grass-roots creationist organisation (see NZ Skeptic 45). He did this primarily by making connections with church groups through public meetings, and today his operation holds more than 100 such meetings around Australia every year, and several in New Zealand. Adrian Bates and occasionally other local speakers engage in speaking tours, and there are usually two or three visitations annually from across the Tasman, although the last year or two have been fairly quiet on the touring front, perhaps because, as we shall see, they have other things to think about.

I have attended a few of these events, one of them addressed by Wieland himself (in person he comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, and quietly competent-quite unlike Ham and Mackay, who both have a fanatic’s gleam in their eyes). And at these meetings, they sell their books and videos, and hand around forms on which people can subscribe to their magazines. Once those links are made, they feed material out into the community, which they urge people to spread as widely as they can.

Their main instrument, Creation Magazine, comes out quarterly, and has very high production values. They also have a “peer-reviewed” journal-it’s peer-reviewed by other creationists-which again has had several name changes, but is currently called the Journal of Creation.

The big split

So the decades since the 1980s have been interesting times for the creationism movement in this part of the world. But things have gotten really interesting in the last five years. As Australian skeptic Roger Stanyard (http://www.noanswersingenesis.org/aig_inherit_windbags.htm) has put it, Carl Wieland and Ken Ham don’t appear to be buddies any more.

It seems in part this has to do with AiG-Australia’s adoption of this notion of peer review. The issue is highlighted in an anonymous article on an obscure website lambasting AiG’s strategy; Stanyard managed to discover the author was John Mackay, of all people. In summary, AiG would urge anyone producing creationist material to send it to them, and they would, for a substantial fee, critique it and make any changes deemed necessary for the work to be scientifically credible. (Yes, they really do think this is achievable.) If the authors refused, AiG would publish and distribute negative reviews of the work. In effect, Mackay is accusing AiG of extortion.

AiG-Australia also developed a web page pointing out arguments it urges creationists not to use (http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/2996/), for example the claim that Darwin recanted on his deathbed, or that the rotted carcass of a plesiosaur was fished out of the water off the coast of New Zealand in 1977. Quite correctly, they say it was almost certainly a basking shark.

Ken Ham, however, has rejected this approach, and is much more prepared to trot out any argument which supports the creationist position. I sometimes wonder what’s going to happen if Wieland and company ever realise that all creationist arguments are flawed. I suspect Ham has the correct instincts for long-term creationist survival.

The peer review issue is just the beginning though. In 2004 Carl Wieland criticised the way the US branch was run, and Ken Ham appears to have taken offence. The following year the US and UK ministries announced their desire to operate autonomously, and not to be subject to the peer review system. Most of what follows is based on material from the Australian group’s website. They’ve adopted a strategy of being very open in telling their side of the story, while the American group has played things much closer to their chests. So this account may be rather one-sided. But it mostly seems plausible, and is backed by a lot of documentation. This material is not easy to stumble across on their website, but Jim Lippard, a long-time creationism-watcher in the US, found it and linked to it on his blog (http://lippard.blogspot.com). The Australian group’s expressed concerns were about the way Ken Ham dominated the ministry and spent money on his fellow executives, and his shift away from delivering the creationist message to raising donations. He has very much, in other words, adopted the modus operandi of many of the evangelists in his adopted country.

Memorandum of Agreement

According to the material on the Australian group’s website, in October 2005 the Australian directors, without the knowledge of Carl Wieland and the rest of the Australian management, were induced to fly to the US to sign a Memorandum of Agreement setting forth the terms of the separation. The memorandum had been drafted by the US group’s attorneys, and was entirely favourable to them. Once it was signed, the Australian directors resigned en masse, under condition that they be given indemnity for their actions, then joined the US board in Kentucky. One of them was John Thallon, who had lost the $92,363 back in 1986.

The MOA was a beautiful piece of work. It hands over to the US group perpetual licence for all articles published in Creation magazine and the Journal of Creation, which are produced in Australia, including the right to modify articles and change the names of the authors. It also includes a false statement that the authors have given permission for this. If anyone sues the US group for copyright infringement, the Australian group is to pay all costs. And all costs for items are to be set by the US group, which promptly trebled the prices it charged the Australian group for DVDs and other material.

Another magazine

The following year the Americans dropped their publishing agreement on Creation magazine, and attempted to start their own magazine under the same title. Their attempted theft of the Creation name failed, and in 2006 they released their first issue of a new magazine under the title Answers. The 35,000 US Creation subscribers were told they could be “upgraded” to the new magazine, or have their money refunded. They were not given the option of remaining with the Australian magazine, in fact its continued existence was not even mentioned! Recently AiG have also launched their own “peer-reviewed” Answers Research Journal.

And so, in March 2006, having had the rug well and truly pulled out from under them, AiG-Australia rebranded as Creation Ministries International, along with the NZ, Canadian and South African ministries. Later that year, AiG-US began sending speakers on tours of Australia; CMI now run tours in the US, and have opened branches there and in the UK. The two groups are now in direct competition for the creationist dollar. Ken Ham appears to have set aside his former contretemps with John Mackay, and is using him as AiG’s man on the ground in Australia until they get their own structure up and running in that country. Which is why CMI have posted all the background information on the Margaret Buchanan Affair-they want their supporters to understand the sort of guy Mackay is. Legal proceedings have now been initiated by CMI, accusing AiG of deceptive conduct, and seeking damages.

High finance

Jim Lippard has posted a series of reports on creationist finances which give an indication of the money involved. The most recent Inland Revenue declaration (Form 990) from Answers in Genesis-US, for the first half of 2005, indicates the organisation had revenues for the year close to US$11 million, and net assets of $11,673,847. With the recent completion of their Creation Museum in Kentucky, reputedly valued at $27 million, funded entirely from donations, this figure is now likely to be substantially higher. Ken Ham’s salary is around $120,000, with tens of thousands more in benefits and expenses, not bad for a resident of a state where median household incomes are about $40,000 (all figures in US dollars).

The ICR meanwhile, once the biggest by far of all the creationist organisations, is languishing. Andrew Snelling, who has been one of their recent stars, and one of the few creationists with a genuine geology degree (he has published in the mainstream literature, keeping his beliefs under wraps), has recently gone to work for AiG as the Research Journal editor. It hardly needs to be said that he’s another Australian. The ICR’s revenue and expenses in 2005 were both a little over $4,000,000 (revenue slightly ahead of expenses), and they had net assets of $5,228,062.

CMI, despite the best efforts of AiG, don’t seem to be doing too badly either. They opened a new headquarters building in Brisbane, in 2007. Again, it’s funded entirely by donations, and they own it freehold. John Mackay is a regular visitor to the UK, and comes to New Zealand every couple of years, giving talks and leading so-called geology field trips, but his organisation on the ground here seems to be very much part-time. He does have a few supporters, though. His website claims a couple of them have opened a creation museum in Dannevirke, although it’s hard to find much independent information on this-it sounds like it’s just a few fossils and rocks.

Christianity in New Zealand is currently in decline-55.6 percent of those who answered the religion question in the 2006 census identified as Christian, compared to 60.6 percent in 2001. But the devil is in the details. Pentecostalists have increased over that period to 79,155 from 39,228, which was 55 percent higher than the census before. There are also good numbers of Baptists, and quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. We seem to be seeing a polarisation of New Zealand society on religious matters-more moving away from any religious belief (about 1.3 million stated they had no religion), but a rapidly growing though still small percentage who insist on the literal truth of every word of the Bible. If they spent less energy fighting among themselves, their numbers could be even higher.

Recommended Posts