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Tuesday, February 14, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Their Own Version of a Big Bang

Those who believe in creationism -- children and adults -- are being taught to challenge evolution's tenets in an in-your-face way.

WAYNE, N.J. — Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"

The children roared their assent.

"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.

"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.

"God!" the boys and girls shouted.

"Who's the only one who knows everything?"

"God!"

"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"

The children answered with a thundering: "God!"

A former high-school biology teacher, Ham travels the nation training children as young as 5 to challenge science orthodoxy. He doesn't engage in the political and legal fights that have erupted over the teaching of evolution. His strategy is more subtle: He aims to give people who trust the biblical account of creation the confidence to defend their views — aggressively.

He urges students to offer creationist critiques of their textbooks, parents to take on science museum docents, professionals to raise the subject with colleagues. If Ham has done his job well, his acolytes will ask enough pointed questions — and set forth enough persuasive arguments — to shake the doctrine of Darwin.

"We're going to arm you with Christian Patriot missiles," Ham, 54, recently told the 1,200 adults gathered at Calvary Temple here in northern New Jersey. It was a Friday night, the kickoff of a heavily advertised weekend conference sponsored by Ham's ministry, Answers in Genesis.

To a burst of applause, Ham exhorted: "Get out and change the world!"

Over the last two decades, this type of "creation evangelism" has become a booming industry. Several hundred independent speakers promote biblical creation at churches, colleges, private schools, Rotary clubs. They lead tours to the Grand Canyon or the local museum to study the world through a creationist lens.

They churn out stacks of home-schooling material. A geology text devotes a chapter to Noah's flood; an astronomy book quotes Genesis on the origins of the universe; a science unit for second-graders features daily "evolution stumpers" that teach children to argue against the theory that is a cornerstone of modern science.

Answers in Genesis is the biggest of these ministries. Ham co-founded the nonprofit in his native Australia in 1979. The U.S. branch, funded mostly by donations, has an annual budget of $15 million and 160 employees who produce books and DVDs, maintain a comprehensive website, and arrange more than 500 speeches a year for Ham and four other full-time evangelists.

With pulpit-thumping passion, Ham insists the Bible be taken literally: God created the universe and all its creatures in six 24-hour days, roughly 6,000 years ago.

Hundreds of pastors will preach a different message Sunday, in honor of Charles Darwin's 197th birthday. In a national campaign, they will tell congregations that it's possible to be a Christian and accept evolution.

Ham considers that treason. When pastors dismiss the creation account as a fable, he says, they give their flock license to disregard the Bible's moral teachings as well. He shows his audiences a graphic that places the theory of evolution at the root of all social ills: abortion, divorce, racism, gay marriage, store clerks who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

The science Ham finds so dangerous holds that the first primitive scraps of genetic material appeared on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago. From these humble beginnings, a huge diversity of species evolved over the eons, through lucky mutations and natural selection.

The vast majority of scientists find no credible evidence to dispute this account and a tremendous amount to support it. They've identified thousands of transitional fossils, such as a whale that lumbered on land; a bird with reptilian features; and "Lucy," a remote cousin of modern man who walked on two legs but swung from trees like a chimp.

Still, millions of Americans find evolution preposterous. Polls consistently show that roughly half of Americans believe the biblical account instead.

In the 1970s, Ham taught evolution and creationism side by side in Australian public schools. Raised in a Christian family, Ham trusted God's account over Darwin's; the more he studied Genesis, the more he felt moved to defend it. He quit teaching after five years to take up evangelism full time.

A father of five who bears an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, Ham moved his family to the U.S. in 1987. He worked for the Institute for Creation Research near San Diego and in 1994 founded the U.S. branch of Answers in Genesis in northern Kentucky. America sorely needed someone to stand up for the Bible, he reasoned. With a network of Christian radio and TV, the U.S. also offered Ham a launch pad to take his movement global.

The gamble paid off. Ham's daily 90-second broadcasts — on themes such as life in the Garden of Eden — are heard on more than 1,000 radio stations worldwide. He's building a $25 million Creation Museum near the Cincinnati international airport. He has produced dozens of books and videos for all ages, including a top-selling alphabet rhyme that begins: "A is for Adam, God made him from dust / He wasn't a monkey, he looked just like us."

At the heart of this vast ministry are the speaking tours — so popular that many are booked three years in advance. Ham, who earns about $120,000 a year, might address a few dozen men at a small-town service club or a packed family service at a suburban mega-church. His multimedia presentations swing in tone from revival meeting to college lecture.

About 6,000 adults and children attended at least some of the recent conference in this suburb north of Newark. (Tickets for the weekend cost $25 per family, though several events were free.)

In six hourlong lectures, Ham and his colleague David Menton, an anatomy professor retired from Washington University in St. Louis, laid out their best arguments for creationism. Ham described the fossil record as "billions of dead things … laid down by water" — proof, he said, of Noah's flood. Menton marveled at the mechanics of the human eye, far too intricate, he said, to have evolved by random mutation.

"We often come across to the world as if we have blind faith: 'The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it,' " Ham said. In his view, creationists need more than faith to win over the world. They need answers to the questions skeptics toss their way.

"We're giving you answers," Ham said. "We're like bulldozers, coming in to reclaim the ground."

In two 90-minute workshops for children, Ham adopted a much lighter tone, mocking scientists who think birds evolved from dinosaurs ("if that were true, I'd be worried about my Thanksgiving turkey!").

He showed the children a photo of a fossilized hat found in a mine to prove it doesn't take millions of years to create ancient-looking artifacts. He pointed out cave drawings of a creature resembling a brachiosaur to make the case that man lived alongside dinosaurs after God created all the land animals on Day 6.

In a bit that brought the house down, Ham flashed a picture of a chimpanzee. "Did your grandfather look like this?" he demanded.

"Noooooo!" the children called.

"And did your grandmother look like that?" Ham displayed a photo of the same chimp wearing lipstick. The children erupted in giggles. "Noooooo!"

"We are not just an animal," Ham said. He had the children repeat that, their small voices rising in unison: "We are not just an animal. We are made in the image of God."

As the session ended, Nicole Ableson, 34, rounded up her four young children. "This shows your kids that there are other people who are out there who believe what you believe, and who have done the research," she said. "So they don't think 'This is just my parents believing in fairy tales.' "

Emily Maynard, 12, was also delighted with Ham's presentation. Home-schooled and voraciously curious, she had recently read an encyclopedia for fun — and caught herself almost believing the entry on evolution. "They were explaining about apes standing up, evolving to man, and I could kind of see that's how it could happen," she said.

Ham convinced her otherwise. As her mother beamed, Emily repeated Ham's mantra: "The Bible is the history book of the universe."

Ben Watson wasn't quite as confident. His father, a pastor in Staten Island, N.Y., had let him skip a day of second grade to attend. Ben went to public school, the Rev. Dave Watson explained, "and I thought it would be good for him to get a different perspective" for an upcoming project on Tyrannosaurus rex.

"You going to put in your report that dinosaurs are millions of years old?" Watson, 46, asked his son.

"No…. " Ben said. He hesitated. "But that's what my book says…. "

"It's a lot to think about," his dad reassured him. "We'll do more research."

Ham encourages people to further their research with the dozens of books and DVDs sold by his ministry. They give answers to every question a critic might ask: How did Noah fit dinosaurs on the ark? He took babies. Why didn't a tyrannosaur eat Eve? All creatures were vegetarians until Adam's sin brought death into the world. How can we have modern breeds of dog like the poodle if God finished his work 6,000 years ago? He created a dog "kind" — a master blueprint — and let evolution take over from there.

Accountant Paul Ingis, 43, has been studying such material for years, and looks for opportunities to share the answers he's mastered. When clients ask what he's been up to, Ingis responds that he's been studying creation science. If they express interest, he launches into his routine.

"It's fishing. You never know when you might meet the one in 1,000 who will listen," Ingis said.

It's impossible to measure the success of the one-on-one evangelizing inspired by Answers in Genesis. But Glenn Branch, who defends evolution for a living, does not doubt it's having an effect.

Ham and his fellow evangelists "do a lot to promote a climate of ignorance, skepticism and hostility with respect to evolution," said Branch, deputy director of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education.

Evolution has scored a few high-profile victories. A federal judge ruled in December that the school board in Dover, Pa., could not require teachers to discuss intelligent design (the concept that some life is so complex, it could not have evolved by random chance). And in Cobb County, Ga., a federal judge ruled that disclaimers pasted onto science textbooks were illegal. (The stickers, removed last year, called evolution "a theory, not a fact.")

Still, those who teach and promote evolution say the challenges are multiplying.

Several Imax theaters in the South — including a few in science museums — have refused to show movies that mention evolution or the Earth's age.

Bills that would allow or require science teachers to mention alternatives to evolution have been introduced in Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah. State boards of education in Kansas and Ohio adopted guidelines that single out evolution for critique. The governor of Kentucky used his State of the Commonwealth address to encourage public schools to teach alternative theories of man's origins.

A national conference for science teachers in the spring will focus on helping them respond to creationists' challenges. In an informal survey, the National Science Teachers Assn. found that nearly a third of its members felt pressured to play down evolution.

Ham's dream is to increase that pressure.

He will evangelize in Rocky Mount, N.C., next weekend and in Bossier City, La., after that. The month of March will take him to Modesto; Avon, Ind.; and a college retreat outside Cincinnati. His colleagues from Answers in Genesis will match his pace, preaching over the next few weeks in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio.

At every stop, they will recruit men, women and children to stand up for God as the creator.

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