views updated May 21 2018


Creationism in a general sense refers to the theory that God made the world on his own, by miraculous means, out of nothing. In a more specific sense, the one encountered in America today, creationism is the theory that the Bible, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, is a literally true guide to the history of the universe and to the history of life, including us humans, down here on earth. This encompasses a number of beliefs: a short time since the beginning of everything ("Young Earth Creationists" think that Archbishop Ussher's sixteenth-century calculation of about 6,000 years is a good estimate); six days of creation (there is debate on the meaning of "day" in this context, with some insisting on a literal twenty-four hours, and others more flexible); miraculous creation of all life including Homo sapiens (with scope for debate about whether Adam and Eve came together or if Eve came afterward to keep Adam company); a worldwide flood some time after the initial creation, through which only a limited number of humans and animals survived; and other events such as the Tower of Babel and the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt. Creationists have variously been known as fundamentalists or biblical literalists, and sometimes (especially when they are pushing the scientific grounds for their beliefs) as scientific creationists. Today's creationists are often marked by enthusiasm for so-called intelligent design.

History of Creationism

Creationists present themselves as the true bearers and present-day representatives of authentic traditional Christianity, but historically speaking this is simply not true. The Bible has a major place in the life of any Christian, but it is not the case that the Bible taken literally has always had a major place in the lives or theology of Christians. Tradition, the teachings and authority of the Church, has always had main status for Catholics, and natural religionapproaching God through reason and argumenthas long had an honored place for both Catholics and Protestants. Catholics, especially dating back to Saint Augustine (354430), and even to earlier thinkers like Origen (c. 185254), have always recognized that at times the Bible needs to be taken metaphorically or allegorically. Augustine was particularly sensitive to this need, because for many years as a young man he was a Manichean and hence denied the authenticity and relevance of the Old Testament for salvation. When he became a Christian he knew full well the problems of Genesis and hence was eager to help his fellow believers avoid the traps of literalism.

It was not until the Protestant Reformation that the Bible started to take on its unique central position, as the great Reformersespecially Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564)stressed the need to go by Scripture alone and not by the traditions of the Catholic Church. But even they were doubtful about totally literalistic readings. For Luther, justification by faith was the keystone of his theology, and yet the Epistle of Saint James seems to put greater stress on the need for good works. He referred to it as "right strawy stuff." Calvin likewise spoke of the need for God to accommodate his writings to the untutored publicespecially the ancient Jewsand hence of the dangers of taking the Bible too literally in an uncritical sense. The radical branch of the Reformation under Huldrych Zwingli (14841531) always put primacy on God's speaking directly to us through the heart, and to this day one finds modern-day representatives like the Quakers uncomfortable with too biblically centered an approach to religion.

Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century revivals.

It was really not until the revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain and Americarevivals that led to such sects as the Methodiststhat a more full-blooded literalism became a major part of the religious scene. Then, the emphasis was on Christ's dying on the cross for our sins (the Atonement), the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as a guide to the converted heart, although even then there were many opposed, often quite violently. To take but one example, the most significant movement within the Church of England (Anglicanism; Episcopalianism in America) was the High Church movement known as Tractarianism, the Oxford movement of the 1830s, led most significantly by the future Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman (18011890). No one was more vitriolic and sarcastic on the subject of biblical literalism than was Newman. In one of his major writings, Tract 85, he ridiculed those who would use the Bible as a guide to science or religion, and, with the vigor of a hardened humanist, he pointed out inconsistencies in the sacred book.

In America particularly, however, literalism did take hold, and especially after the Civil War (18611865), it took root in the evangelical sectsespecially Baptistsof the South. It became part of the defining culture of the South, having as much a role in opposing ideas and influences of the North as anything rooted in deeply considered theology. This was the time of Charles Darwin (18091882), whose great work, On the Origin of Species (1859), provoked much theological opposition. But for the great Christian opponentsSamuel Wilberforce (18051873), bishop of Oxford in England, and Charles Hodge (17971878), principal of Princeton Theological Seminary in Americasimple biblical literalism was far from the front of the objections. They were certainly keen on what became pretty standard arguments against evolution in general and Darwinism in particular. Gaps in the fossil record played a major role, as did the origin of life and the nonexistence of the direct observation of natural selection changing species. But crude reference to the Bible had no place in their scheme of things. Six thousand years of earth history was as far from the thinking of Wilberforce and Hodge as it was from that of Darwin. Problems of natural theology were far more pressing, as were topics that only tangentially have their basis in Genesis, such as the existence of immortal souls.

Early twentieth century.

Creationism became more than just a local phenomenon in the early part of the twentieth century, thanks to a number of factors. First, there were the first systematic attempts to work out a position that would take account of modern science as well as a literal reading of Genesis. Particularly important in this respect were the Seventh Day Adventists, especially the Canadian-born George McCready Price (18701963), who had theological reasons for preferring literalism, not the least being the belief that the Seventh Daythe day of restis literally twenty-four hours in length. (Also important for the Adventists and for other dispensationaliststhat is, people who think that Armageddon is on its wayis the balancing and complementary early phenomenon of a worldwide flood.) Second, there was the realized energy of evangelicals as they succeeded in their attempts to prohibit liquor in the United States. Flushed from one victory, they looked for other fields to conquer. Third, there was the spread of public education, which exposed more children to evolutionary ideas, provoking a creationist reaction. Fourth, there were new evangelical currents afloat, especially the Fundamentals, tracts that gave the literalist movement its name. And fifth, there was the identification of evolutionDarwinism particularlywith the militaristic aspects of Social Darwinism, especially the Social Darwinism supposedly embraced by the Germans in World War I.

The "Scopes Monkey Trial."

This battle between evolutionists and "fundamentalists" came to a head in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, when a young schoolteacher, John Thomas Scopes (19001970), was prosecuted for teaching evolution in class, in defiance of a state law prohibiting such teaching. There was more at stake than just the facts, evolution versus the Bible. Local businesspeople welcomed the opportunity of a high-profile court case to put their community on the map and to reap financial rewards. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), backing the defense, was eager for such a case to bolster its standing with America's liberals and to highlight its existence (it was founded in 1920). Indeed, the ACLU actively sought out someone who would be willing to stand trial. Prosecuted by the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (18601925) and defended by the noted agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow (18571938), the "Scopes Monkey Trial" caught the attention of the world, especially thanks to the inflammatory reporting of the Baltimore Sun journalist H. L. Mencken (18801956). Matters descended to the farcical when, denied the opportunity to introduce his own science witnesses, Darrow put on the stand the prosecutor Bryan. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although this was overturned on a technicality on appeal. Despite never again being enforced, the Tennessee law remained on the books for another forty years.

Toward the Present

After the Scopes trial, the creationism movement declined quite dramatically and quickly. This was not due to Americans losing interest in the science-religion relationship, for now was the time of the foundation of such organizations as the American Scientific Affiliation, which tried seriously to seek a meeting ground between science and various forms of evangelical Christianity. But as is shown well by the trials of this particular organizationforever torn by the quarrels over geology and evolutionfull-blooded Creationism no longer captured universal support among biblical Christians. Yet Creationism had its lasting effects, in that textbook manufacturers increasingly took evolutionDarwinism especiallyout of their books, so that schoolchildren got less and less exposure to the ideas anyway. Whatever battles the evolutionists may have thought they had won in the court of popular opinion, in the trenches of the classroom they were losing the war badly.

Things started to move again in the late 1950s. A major factor was that, in the years since the Scopes trial, evolutionary thinking had not stood still. Indeed, the three decades from 1930 to 1960 were times of great ferment and development, for Mendelian genetics (and after this, molecular genetics) had reached such a point that it could be synthesized with Darwinian selection to make a fully integrated evolutionary theory, known variously as "neo-Darwinism" or the "synthetic theory of evolution." Naturally enough, evolutionists were excited and vocal about their advances, and particularly contemptuous of all who did not follow them down to the last detail. At celebrations in 1959 in Chicago to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, fundamentalist objectors to the new paradigm were objects of particular scorn. This set a general background of un-ease and determination by biblical literalists, adding to a causal mix that had already started to ferment a year or two earlier when a more specific yeast had been added. It was then that, thanks to Sputnik, the Russians so effectively demonstrated their superiority in rocketry (with its implications for the arms race of the cold war), and America realized how ineffective was the scientific training of its young. In response, the country poured money into the production of new science texts. In this way, with class adoption, the federal government could have a strong impact and yet get around the problem that education tends to be under the tight control of individual states. The new biology texts gave full scope to evolutionto Darwinismand with this the creationism controversy again flared up.

Fortunately for the literalist, help was at hand. A biblical scholar, John C. Whitcomb Jr., and a hydraulic engineer, Henry M. Morris, together wrote what was to be the new Bible of the movement, Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (1961). Following in the tradition of earlier writers, especially those from Seventh Day Adventism, they argued that every bit of the biblical story of creation given in the early chapters of Genesis is supported fully by the best of modern science. Six days of twenty-four hours, organisms arriving miraculously, humans last, and sometime thereafter a massive worldwide flood that wiped most organisms off the face of the earthor rather, dumped their carcasses in the mud as the waters receded. At the same time, Whitcomb and Morris argued that the case for evolution fails dismally. The gaps in the fossil record show that there can have been no evolution; the nature of natural selection is such that it allows no genuine check and even if it did, it could not account for the complexity of life; the measures of earth time are dicey; and much, much more.

Genesis Flood enjoyed massive popularity among the faithful, and led to a thriving creation science movement, where Morris particularly and his coworkers and believersnotably Duane T. Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! pushed the literalist line. Particularly effective was their challenging of evolutionists to debate, where they would employ every rhetorical trick in the book, reducing the scientists to fury and impotence with their bold statements about the supposed nature of the universe. By the end of the 1970s, creationists were passing around draft bills, intended for state legislatures, that would allowinsist onthe teaching of creationism in state-supported public schools. In the biology classes of such schools, that is. By this time it was realized that, thanks to Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment to the Constitution (which prohibits the establishment of state religion), it was not possible to exclude the teaching of evolution from such schools. The trick was to get creationismsomething that prima facie rides straight through the separation of church and stateinto such schools. The idea of creation science is to do thisalthough the science parallels Genesis, as a matter of scientific fact, it stands alone as good science. Hence, these draft bills proposed what was called "balanced treatment." If one was to teach the "evolution model," then one had also to teach the "creation science model." Sauce for the evolutionist goose is also sauce for the creationist gander. In 1981, these drafts found a taker in Arkansas, where such a bill was passed and signed into lawas it happens, by a legislature and governor that thought little of what they were doing until the consequences were drawn to their attention.

At once the American Civil Liberties Union sprang into action, bringing suit on grounds of the law's unconstitutionality. The judge agreed, ruling firmly that creation science is not science, it is religion, and as such has no place in public classrooms. And that was an end to matters, reinforced by a similar decision (that did not go to trial but that was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court) in Louisiana.

Phillip Johnson and Naturalism

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1990s, creationism had again reared its head. The spark was an antievolutionary tract, Darwin on Trial (1991), by a Berkeley law professor, Phillip Johnson. Although smoother in presentation, the work covered familiar ground: gaps in the record, the complexity of DNA, the origin of life, the randomness of mutation. The main difference in Johnson's strategy was to turn the debate in the direction of philosophy. He argued that the creation-evolution debate was not just one of science versus religion or good science versus bad science, but rather of conflicting philosophical positionswith the implication that one philosophy is much like another, or rather with the implication that one person's philosophy is another person's poison and that it is all a matter of personal opinion. Thus, if it is all a matter of philosophy, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that bars the teaching of creationism in schools.

Crucial to Johnson's position are a number of fine distinctions. He distinguishes between what he calls "methodological naturalism" and "metaphysical naturalism," and contrasts them with what he calls "Christian theism" or "theistic realism." A methodological naturalist is one who assumes there is no god when he or she does science. All must be explained through unbroken law. A metaphysical naturalist is one who believes that there is no god. He or she is directly opposed to any kind of theist, who starts with the assumption that there is a god who was and is active in the creation. According to Johnson, although you might think that you can be a methodological naturalist, something which he links with evolutionism, without necessarily being a metaphysical naturalist, in real life the former always slides into the latter. Hence, the evolutionist is the methodological naturalist, is the metaphysical naturalist, is the opponent of the theistic naturalist, which for Johnson is the equivalent of denying God's existencethat is, denying theistic realism. So ultimately, it is all less a matter of science and more a matter of attitude and philosophy. Evolution and creationism are different world pictures, and it is conceptually, socially, pedagogically, and with good luck in the future, legally wrong to treat them differently. More than this, Johnson's argument suggests that creationism (a.k.a. theistic realism) is the only genuine form of Christianity.

Irreducible Complexity

One oft-made criticism of Johnson was that he was too negative. It was obvious that he was against evolution, but he left unsaid whether he was a young-earth creationist like Whitcomb and Morris or whether he believed in something more moderate, perhaps an old earth and some kind of guided, law-bound creation. Later in the decade, with Johnson's encouragement, a number of younger thinkers produced an alternative to Darwinian evolution. This they called "intelligent design theory." There are two parts to this approach, beginning with the empirical. Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe identifies something that he calls "irreducible complexity." This is "a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning." Behe points out that there is no way that something like this could be produced by a slow, gradual evolutionary process, for all of the parts need to be in place in order to get any functioning.

But are there such systems in nature? Behe argues that there are, and he instances the micro-world of the cell and of mechanisms (or "mechanisms") found at that level. Take bacteria, which use a flagellum, driven by a kind of rotary motor, to move around. Every part is incredibly complex, as are the various parts combined. The external filament of the flagellum (called a "flagellin"), for instance, is a single protein that makes a kind of paddle surface contacting the liquid during swimming. Near the surface of the cell, just as necessary is a thickening agent, so that the filament can be connected to the rotor drive. This requires a connector, known as a "hook protein." There is no motor in the filament, so that has to be somewhere else. "Experiments have demonstrated that it is located at the base of the flagellum, where electron microscopy shows several ring structures occur" (p. 70). All are much too complex to have come into being in a gradual fashion. Only a one-step process will do, and this one-step process must involve some sort of designing cause. Behe is careful not to identify this designer with the Christian God, but the implication is that it is a force from without the normal course of nature. Darwinism is ruled out and we must look for another explanation. There is only one possible answer. Irreducible complexity spells design.

The Explanatory Filter

Backing the empirical argument are the conceptual arguments of the philosopher-mathematician William Dembski, who introduced the notion of an "explanatory filter." We have a particular phenomenon. The question is, what caused it? Is it something that might not have happened, given the laws of nature? Is it contingent? Or was it necessitated? The moon goes endlessly round the earth. We know that it does this because of Newton's laws. End of discussion. No design here. However, now we have some rather strange new phenomenon, the causal origin of which is a puzzle. Suppose we have a mutation, where although we can quantify over large numbers we cannot predict at an individual level. There is no immediate subsumption beneath law, and therefore there is no reason to think that at this level it was necessary. Let us say, as supposedly happened in the extended royal family of Europe, there was a mutation to a gene responsible for hemophilia. Is it complex? Obviously not, for it leads to breakdown rather than otherwise. Hence it is appropriate to talk now of chance. There is no design. The hemophilia mutation was just an accident.

Suppose now that we do have complexity. A rather intricate mineral pattern in the rocks might qualify here. Suppose we have veins of precious metals set in other materials, the whole being intricate and variedcertainly not a pattern you could simply deduce from the laws of physics or chemistry or geology or whatever. Nor would one think of it as being a breakdown mess, as one might a malmutation. Is this now design? Almost certainly not, for there is no way that one might prespecify such a pattern. It is all a bit ad hoc, and not something that comes across as the result of conscious intention. And then finally there are phenomena that are complex and specified. One presumes that the microscopical biological apparatuses and processes discussed by Behe would qualify here. They are contingent, for they are irreducibly complex. They are design-like for they do what is needed for the organism in which they are to be found. That is to say they are of pre-specified form. And so, having survived the explanatory filter, they are properly considered the product of real design.

Although his arguments are philosophical, Dembski and his supporters see his work as supportive of the empirical case made by Behe. Most particularly, it speaks to an obvious theological problem that is raised by irreducible complexity. If indeed such a phenomenon exists and if one has to suppose a designer to explain its origins, then presumably this designer was also involved in the production of the reducibly simple. And this being so, why did he do such a bad job? We have some mutations, like sickle-cell anemia, that have horrendous physical effects causing massive pain, and yet are triggered by the smallest of changes at the molecular level. Surely the designer could have prevented these? Not so, according to Dembski. Malmutations are just chance, and hence no one's fault, especially not that of the designer. Hence he gets credit for the good and is saved from blame for the bad.


Not surprisingly, many Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) as well as scientists object strongly both to traditional creationism and to the more recent intelligent design theory. Both Christians and scientists deny vehemently that being a methodological naturalist at once tips you into being a metaphysical naturalist. In addition, Christians assert, as they always have, that creationism in any form is a distortion of real traditional Christianity. There is absolutely no warrant for literalistic readings of Genesis, whether or not they are dressed up as science. In like fashion, scientists object that traditional creationism (the kind to be found in Genesis Flood ) is simply wrong in every respect, and that intelligent design is little better. It simply is not true to say that there are examples of irreducible complexity that could never be explained through evolution. Even if all the parts are now necessary for proper functioning, it may well have been the case that the parts were assembled in ways that allowed for incomplete (or completely different) functioning before they reached their present interconnected forms.

Yet, whether or not creationism is good or bad religion, and whether or not creationism is good or bad science, it would be foolish to deny its ongoing appeal. In the early twenty-first century, opinion polls regularly found that 50 percent of Americans supported some form of creationism, and most of the others thought that blind law could never, unaided, have led to the production of the higher animals, especially humans. It would therefore be unwise to pretend that creationism is about to go away or will never raise its political head. It still has the potential to force us back to the 1920s and to attempt to legislate the contents of the science curricula of publicly funded schools.

See also Evolution ; Fundamentalism ; Religion ; Religion and Science .


Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Brooks, Deborah J. "Substantial Numbers of Americans Continue to Doubt Evolution as Explanation for Origin of Humans." Poll Analyses, Gallup News Service, 3 May 2001.

Dembski, William A. The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

, ed. Mere Creation: Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Gilbert, James. Redeeming Culture in an Age of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gish, Duane T. Evolution: The Fossils Say No! San Diego: Creation-Life, 1973.

Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1991.

. Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.

McMullin, Ernan, ed. Evolution and Creation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Miller, Kenneth. Finding Darwin's God. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. New York: Knopf, 1992.

. Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Ruse, Michael, ed. But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1988.

. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Turner, Frank M. John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Webb, George E. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Whitcomb, John C., Jr., and Henry M. Morris. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Philadelphia, Pa.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961.

Michael Ruse


views updated May 23 2018



Creationism is an idiosyncratic form of Protestant biblical literalism that developed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Creationism comes in two forms, one that accepts that the earth is probably very old but that insists that there was an intervention of a creative kind at the beginning to populate the world with organisms, and the otherknown as young earth creationism that claims that the earth is about six thousand years old (based on the genealogies of the Bible). Creationism should not be confused with the belief by Christians (and others in the Abrahamic tradition) that God created the earth from nothing, nor should it be confused with traditional Christian thinking about the veracity of the Bible. From at least the time of Saint Augustine (354430 ce), it has been the position of ChristiansCatholics and (later) Protestantsthat God often spoke in simplified or metaphorical terms, and that the Bible should not be used as a work of science. In an oft-quoted phrase, the Bible tells human beings where they are going, not where they came from. It should also be noted that although traditional Christianity has always had a place for natural theology, proving God and his attributes through reason, it has never been the case that natural theology has taken the primary role. For Christians, faith is what counts. Hence when skeptics criticize proofsfor instance, pointing out that if one claims that God is the first cause, then who caused God?believers are not worried. They argue that God is the cause of himself and this is something that is beyond rational proof.

The nineteenth century saw major divisions in the United States, particularly between North and South, exploding into the violent Civil War (18611865), something that to this day still marks social and cultural fractures in the country. People in the North, particularly Protestants from older denominations (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Unitarians), moved steadily in tune with the major movements from Europe, especially the movement to interpret the Bible as a work written by humans (so-called higher criticism ), and advances in science, especially Charles Darwins (18091882) theory of evolution as expressed in his On the Origin of Species (1859).

In the South, and increasingly (as the country moved West) in the central states, Protestants in the more evangelical religions (Baptists and Methodists) turned to the Bible read literally for comfort and understanding. Holy scripture was used to justify slavery and, after the Civil War, many took heart in the ways in which God often punishes or makes life hard for those who have a special place in his heart. The Old Testament story of the Israelites in captivity in Babylon was taken to be a cameo for the way in which, after the war, the South was seen as a society in captivity to the North. New doctrines were added to Christianity, particularly the belief in dispensations, or historical periods ended by violent conflagration, the first of which terminated in Noahs flood and the last of which will end with Armageddon and the return of Jesus. Often added to this was a belief in the Rapture, according to which the saved will go straight to heaven before the end times, and also the significance of Israel with the return and conversion of the Jews.

This literalism, known in the first part of the twentieth century as fundamentalism, was as much a social as a religious movement. The emphasis was on returning to God and working toward personal purity, rather than trying to effect wholesale changes in society for the overall good. This underlying theology was exhibited clearly by the famous Scopes trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, when a young school teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution to his class. Prosecuted by three-time presidential candidate and ardent evangelical Christian William Jennings Bryan (18601925) and defended by noted agnostic Clarence Darrow (18571938), the trial was less about gaps in the fossil record and more about the new modes of education and learning that people in the South felt were being imposed on them by northerners.

Many laughed at the literalists of Tennessee, and fundamentalism withdrew from the public gaze. Then, in the early 1960s, the divide was again exposed and deepened, thanks to a book penned by biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb and hydraulics engineer Henry M. Morris (19182006). The Genesis Flood (1961), much influenced by Seventh-day Adventist views about the very short (less than 10,000-year) span of the earth, argued that all of geology can be traced to the worldwide deluge through which Noah and his family sailed for forty days. Deeply committed to dispensationalismthe belief that the worlds history is divided into phases (seven is a popular number), each ending with a disasterWhitcomb and Morris were determined to show that there had been such an upheaval, and they warned of one to come. Before The Genesis Flood, the general belief had been in a long-history earth; now public opinion followed these authors in opting for young earth creationism.

As before, the main message was less one of science and more one of social prescription, with dire warnings about a nation lax on sexual and other morals. Because The Genesis Flood was clearly religious in nature and because of the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States, creationists (as they were now called) began to present a supposedly science-based version of their views creation science and a law mandating its treatment in state-supported schools was enacted in Arkansas in 1981. A federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional, and a similar bill in Louisiana met a similar fate later in the decade. But creationism was evolving and since 1990 has presented itself in a new guise, intelligent design theory. Sparked by law professor Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial (1991), its supporters claim that the organic world is so complex that it could not have been produced by blind law. Publicly, it is denied that this intelligent designer necessarily has anything to do with the God of the Bible. Privately, both supporters and opponents agree that intelligent design theory is a form of creationism-lite designed to slip through the barriers between church and state.

Legally, intelligent design theory has been no more successful than creation science. In 2005 a federal judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, ruled that it is not science and hence cannot be taught in state schools. But the battle is not yet over, especially given that polls constantly show more than 50 percent of Americans believe that the earth was created in six days less than ten thousand years ago.

Creationism remains a threat to biology, and also to the rest of science. Geological theories about plate tectonics are ruled out, physical theories about big bangs are ruled out, and in the social sciences, at the very least, anthropology and archeology as understood today are made impossible. This point should be emphasized, for often people think that creationism affects only the biological sciences. If one takes a literal biblical view, then it is hard to see how one can have any approach to humankind that argues (for instance) that social factors were supreme in ordering human behavior. The same is true of biological factors with the same effectsfor instance, the purported discovery by geneticist Dean Hamer (2004) that there is a gene for belief in Gods existence. All of these thingsfor instance, the suggestion that sexual orientation might not be a function of someones free willwill be anathematized. So far, science is holding fast, but the battle has not ended.

SEE ALSO Fundamentalism, Christian; Scopes Trial


Hamer, Dean. 2004. The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes. New York: Doubleday.

Johnson, Phillip E. 1993. Darwin on Trial. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Larson, Edward J. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and Americas Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1992. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. New York: Knopf.

Ruse, Michael. 2005. The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Whitcomb, John C., Jr., and Henry M. Morris. 1961. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing.

Michael Ruse


views updated May 14 2018


The meaning of the term creationism has varied greatly over time. In the history of Christian theology it once designated the idea that God creates a new soul for each person born, in contrast to traducianism, which envisions the soul as propagating in a manner similar to the way bodies propagate.

In contemporary culture, however, the term has taken on a number of substantially different meanings that need to be distinguished. For the purposes of this entry, the term theological creationism designates the basic belief, held by members of many religious communities, that the universe is not self-existent but is a creation; that is, the universe has being only because a self-existent creator-God gives it being. The existence of a creation is held to be dependent on the effective will of a creator not only to give it being at a beginning but also to sustain it in being from moment to moment.

But the term creationism usually entails more than this basic belief that the universe is a creation. The term now ordinarily designates the conviction that the creator-God of which the Bible speaks has both (1) brought the basic material of "the heavens and the earth" into being from nothing at the beginning of time, and (2) conferred specific forms on that basic material in the course of time through occasional episodes of divine intervention. Because of its strong emphasis on the need for several episodes of form-conferring supernatural action, this perspective will here be called episodic creationism to distinguish it from theological creationism as defined above. Episodic creationism has historically been called special creationism because of its idea that each basic kind of creature was specially created (given a specific form) to function in its environment.

Within the category of episodic creationism, however, there are numerous and vastly differing concepts of the particular manner and timetable of the creator's form-conferring interventions. Following are the basic tenets of the most common versions of these creationist portraits of God's creative action.

Young-earth episodic creationism

Young-earth episodic creationism is committed to the belief that the universe was brought into being recently (usually taken to be six thousand to ten thousand years ago) and that God's form-conferring interventions (or "acts of creation") were performed during a week of six twenty-four-hour days immediately following the beginning. The primary basis for this perspective is the belief that this portrait of the creation's formational history is the clear teaching of the Bible and that all faithful believers of biblical faiths must accept it.

Bible inerrancy. Understanding the creationists' beliefs concerning the nature and authority of the Bible is essential for understanding all forms of episodic creationism. The Bible (made up of the Hebrew Scriptures plus the New Testament writings of the early Christian era) is generally taken to be not only a trustworthy guide for faith and practice, but also an inerrant source of information on any topic that it addresses. How does the Bible come to have this remarkable character? The Bible has this quality because, inerrantists believe, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. The Bible is believed to be the product, not of human knowledge or of human experience alone, but of divine revelation of information and divine guidance in the writing of the text. As God's revelation and as the product of divine inspiration, what the Bible says can be trusted to be true and unblemished by error of any sort.

This concept of the Bible, combined with an interpretive approach that favors "the plain reading of the text," has led many to insist upon a literal interpretation of biblical narratives unless there is strong reason (derived from the Bible itself) to read it in a more figurative or artistic sense. The application of this belief to the first three chapters of Genesis has led a large proportion of the Christian community (at least in the past century) to treat the creation narratives of Genesis 13 as literature that is more like a documentary photograph than an artistic portrait. Consequently, Genesis 13 is taken to be a chronicle of God's acts of creationa concise account of what happened and when during the first week of time. Young-earth episodic creationists read Genesis 1 as a divine revelation that God not only brought the universe into being at the beginning of time but also performed a series of form-conferring interventions over the next six days. Similarly, Genesis 69 is taken to be a chronicle of a catastrophic global flood event that occurred within human history, perhaps four thousand to five thousand years ago.

Creation science. Furthermore, if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it must be true. And if it is true, then it must be open to empirical confirmation. Empirical confirmation of the recentness and episodic character of divine acts of creation is the task of a science-styled enterprise known as creation science. Creation science stands in the tradition of flood geology, which presumes that the major structural features of the earth's surface were formed as a consequence of the great flood of Noah. In both cases, selected empirical evidence is reinterpreted in such a way as to reach the conclusions that: (1) the age of the universe is not fourteen or fifteen billion yearsas conventional science has concludedbut more like six thousand years; (2) new forms of life could not have evolved in the manner that most biologists believe, but must have been specially created by supernatural means; and (3) the Noachian flood can account for all of the major geological structures that characterize the surface of the earth.

There are several societies and institutions that actively promote young-earth episodic creationism, flood geology, and creation science. The Creation Research Society (CRS), for example, was founded in 1963. Its members must subscribe to a statement of belief that affirms, in the order listed:

  1. that the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, is historically and scientifically true;
  2. that all basic types of life forms were made by direct creative acts of God in six days;
  3. that the Noachian flood was a worldwide historical event: and
  4. that salvation through Jesus is necessary because of Adam and Eve's fall into sin.

The CRS has published its technical journal, the Creation Research Society Quarterly, since 1964 and now supports a variety of "creation-related research" projects at its Van Andel Creation Research Center in north central Arizona.

Creation science is taught in many conservative Christian schools and colleges. Graduate degrees in creation science can be earned at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in Santee, California. The ICR maintains an extensive resource center for books, pamphlets, research monographs, textbooks, and videos prepared for a variety of age and educational levels. Its educational outreach programs include Back to Genesis regional seminars, Good Science workshops at a variety of grade levels, creation science camps, Case for Creation community seminars, and creation/evolution debates in which biochemist Duane Gish defends young-earth creationism against various representatives for evolution. Programs of this sort are presented not only throughout the United States but in countries around the world.

The ICR supports research expeditions to locate the remnants of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey and to study catastrophic phenomena at Mount St. Helens in Washington. It sponsors both research trips and public tours in the Grand Canyonresearch trips "looking for evidence to support a young-age creation interpretation of the formation and history of the Canyon," and Grand Canyon outreach tours that are "devoted to reaching pastors, teachers, professionals, and business leaders with the creation message" and designed to give its participants "an opportunity to see evidences for the Genesis Flood firsthand."

Other forms of creationism

Creationism has many variants. Three of the most prominent interpretations are old-earth episodic, progressive, and Intelligent Design creationism.

Old-earth episodic creationism. The tenets of old-earth episodic creationism are very similar to those of young-earth creationism with the exception of the timetable. The Bible is taken to be the inspired and scientifically inerrant Word of God. The formational capabilities of the created world are presumed to be inadequate to sustain biotic evolution, so that a succession of episodes of form-conferring supernatural intervention remains an essential feature of the creation's formational history, and the Noachian flood was a historical event within human history. However, the "days" of the Genesis 1 creation narrative could have been extended periods of time so that the scientifically-derived timetable for the universe's formational history may be accepted without fear of contradicting the Scriptures.

Progressive creationism. Like old-earth episodic creationism, progressive creationism is open to the contributions of science on such matters as the timetable of the creation's formational history. It also gives recognition to the idea, rooted in the Augustinian tradition, that the creation was provided by God with the formational capabilities needed to actualize the structures and life forms that God intended to appear in the course of time. Progressive creationism envisions God giving being at the beginning to the raw materials of the universe and generously providing them with formational powers. Then, in a progressive manner, the Spirit of God is thought to have stimulated and enabled these causal powers to actualize a vast array of preordained physical structures (like dry land and seas) and life forms (like plants, cattle, fish, and birds). The formational history of the creation is envisioned as a progressive and cooperative venture in which both divine and creaturely action contribute to the outcome.

Intelligent Design creationism. The Intelligent Design movement is a recent entry into this arena of creationist perspectives on the character and role of divine action in effecting the assembly of new creaturely formsespecially new life formsin the course of time. Proponents of Intelligent Design argue that there is empirical evidence that the universe's system of natural capabilities for forming things is inadequate for assembling certain information-rich biological structures. And if the system of natural capabilities is inadequate, as Intelligent Design proponents argue, then these biological structures must have been assembled by the action of some non-natural agent, usually taken to be divine. Exactly how and when this divine action might have occurred is not specified. Little or no appeal is made to the biblical text to support the theological implications of this concept.

See also Creation; Creation Science; Design; Design Argument; Divine Action; God; Intelligent Design; Scopes Trial; Scriptural Interpretation


behe, michael j. darwin's black box: the biochemical challenge to evolution. new york: free press, 1996.

dembski, william a. intelligent design: the bridge between science and theology. downers grove, ill.: intervarsity press, 1999.

gilkey, langdon. maker of heaven and earth: a study of the christian doctrine of creation. garden city, n.y.: doubleday, 1959.

johnson, phillip e. defeating darwinism by opening minds. downers grove, ill.: intervarsity press, 1997.

morris, henry m. the modern creation trilogy. green forest, ark.: master books, 1996.

numbers, ronald. the creationists: the evolution of scientific creationism. new york: knopf, 1992.

ramm, bernard. the christian view of science and scripture. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmanns, 1956.

ross, hugh. creation and time: a biblical and scientific perspective on the creation-date controversy. colorado springs, colo.: navpress, 1994.

young, davis a. christianity and the age of the earth. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmanns, 1982.

young, davis a. the biblical flood: a case study of the church's response to extrabiblical evidence. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmanns, 1995.

howard j. van till


views updated May 21 2018


Creationism is the belief that plants and animals were originally created by a supernatural being substantially as they now exist. Proponents of creationism today are primarily evangelical Christians who adopt a literal reading of the book of Genesis in the Bible. Several hundred creationists also hold advanced science degrees and claim that the best scientific evidence supports creationism; these creationists advocate what they call "scientific creationism."

Scientific creationism is far afield from prevailing scientific orthodoxy, and although most of its proponents are evangelicals, many evangelicals do not subscribe to it. Scientific creationism teaches that the earth is several thousand years old, rather than several billion, and that much of the fossil record was created in a worldwide deluge, rather than by the gradual accumulations of the ages. It harkens back to catastrophism of the type dominant in the scientific community before the theories of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin gained acceptance. Scientific creationists claim that the fossil record supports the idea that when life first appeared it was already complicated and multifaceted; at the very least, they argue, the fossil record shows no support for the gradual progression of life forms taught by classical Darwinian theory. Much of the evidence cited by creation scientists comes from evolutionists, who continue to have marked disagreements with one another about the mechanism by which evolution occurs.

Creationism originally became a constitutional issue because creationists tried to keep evolution from being taught in the public schools, a policy the Supreme Court struck down as violative of the establishment clause in epperson v. arkansas (1968). Creationism remains a constitutional issue, however, because creationists now seek to have scientific creationism taught in public schools. In fact, they have sought state laws that require the teaching of creationism side-by-side with evolution.

Opponents of these laws maintain that teaching creationism is tantamount to teaching religion and hence abridges the establishment clause; as evidence for their position, they point to the religious underpinnings of creationism and claim that few if any scientists hold creationist beliefs. Creationists respond that how they derived their theory is irrelevant; the sole question is whether or not it can be validated by scientific research. As for the dearth of scientists who are creationists, creation scientists point to their own doctorates in science from secular universities. Nevertheless, creationists readily admit that few scientists have adopted creationism, but claim that this is the result of prejudice on the part of evolutionists, marshaling evidence that graduate students and professors believing in creationism have been systematically discriminated against because of these beliefs. Creationists argue that laws requiring the teaching of scientific creationism alongside evolution are required to break the stranglehold of such prejudice.

In response to creationist concerns, Louisiana enacted a law requiring the balanced treatment of the theories of "evolution science" and "creation science" in the public schools. The act defined the respective theories as "the scientific evidences for [creation or evolution] and inferences from those scientific evidences." The act did not mandate that either theory be taught in the schools; but it did demand that if one was taught the other must be taught. The act also required that neither evolution nor creation science be taught "as proven scientific fact."

The Supreme Court held 7–2 that the act failed the first part of the lemon test because it did not have a valid secular purpose; hence, the statute was unconstitutional on its face under the establishment clause.

Writing for the majority, Justice william j. brennan rejected the act's explicitly stated secular purpose of "protecting academic freedom " because the statute did not in any way enhance the freedom of teachers to teach science. Brennan also rejected the contention that Louisiana wanted to ensure "fairness" by requiring that all the evidence regarding origins be taught, noting that the law unequally provided for the development of curriculum guides for creation science, but not evolution.

The core of Brennan's argument, however, was his determination that creation science embodies "religious doctrine" and that the "preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature was … to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind." Brennan sought to show from the legislative record that legislators in fact supported the act because evolution contradicted their own religious beliefs. Hence, the motivations of the legislators, rather than the clear language of the act, was the decisive factor in invalidating the law.

Justice antonin scalia, joined by Chief Justice william h. rehnquist, filed a lengthy dissent attacking many of the central premises of the majority's opinion. Scalia maintained that the majority was able to dismiss the act's stated secular purpose only by misconstruing it. According to Scalia, the "academic freedom" the act sought to guarantee related not to the teachers, but to the students, whom the legislature wanted to be able to study various views of the origin and development of life. Furthermore, the act on its face treated evolution and creation science equally, and the few differences that did exist could be readily explained. For example, the state provided for the development of study guides for creation science, but not evolution because "of the unavailability of works on creation science suitable for classroom use … and the existence of ample materials on evolution."

Scalia saved his most cutting remarks for the majority's inquiry into the subjective motives of Louisiana's legislators. Scalia showed through copious citations that the majority had distorted legislators' intentions. But in Scalia's view, even had the majority correctly read the motives in this case, motives alone should not have invalidated the law. The act should have been struck down only if its objective language clearly violated the Constitution or if the primary effect of the law in practice was to advance religion impermissibly (a question not before the Court).

Edwards v. Aguillard raises questions both difficult and deep; it is not really analogous to cases dealing with school prayer or Bible reading because these practices are devotional exercises clearly designed to inculcate religious truth. In this case, however, the state officially disclaimed any intention to present creationism as "true." So even if creationism is inherently religious—as the Court determined—it is not necessarily the case that teaching about it promotes religion in violation of the establishment clause. As Justice lewis f. powell pointed out in his concurring opinion, the Court has often maintained that public schools have the right to teach objectively about religion. So to strike down the Louisiana law, the Court not only had to find creationism religious, but it had to maintain that the purpose of the law was to teach creationism as true. As a factual matter, however, this was by far the weakest link in the Court's logic.

Why then did the Court rule as it did? One can only speculate; but it would not be inappropriate to point out the obvious: creationism conjures up images of the Scopes trial and intolerant fundamentalists who are none too bright. In the battle between science and superstition, creationism has been accounted superstition, and one can readily understand why the Court would be reluctant to uphold a law that might appear to sanction creationism. Unfortunately, there are problems with excluding beliefs like creationism from the classroom entirely.

Evolution remains so controversial primarily because it is part of a much larger debate over the nature and meaning of life. The study of how life began almost inevitably raises questions of why: Why did life begin? Why are humans rational? Why is there order in the universe? Men and women have debated these questions for thousands of years, considering them to be some of the most important inquiries human beings can undertake. Yet these are the very sorts of questions that modern science cannot answer. All modern science can legitimately offer are tentative explanations about the physical process by which life developed after it first appeared; of its own accord, it can tell us nothing of the purpose or meaning of the development of life. Nor, in all probability, will it ever unravel the mystery of how life first arose from nonlife. The result is that if one relegates the discussion of the origin and development of life to science textbooks that discussion will be, at best, incredibly impoverished because modern science cannot legitimately provide answers to questions of meaning and purpose. At worst, the discussion will be disingenuous because attempts will be made to answer the questions of meaning in the guise of science. One does not need to know much of recent history to realize that science has been used quite often to justify a variety of philosophically laden schemes, from social darwinism to eugenics. The encroachment of science into the domains of philosophy and theology may be more subtle in the public schoolroom, but it occurs nevertheless. It can be seen in the 1959 biology text that declared that "nothing supernatural happened" when life first arose or in more recent texts that emphasize "chance" and "randomness" as the sole determinants of how life developed. Such statements advance philosophical and theological claims just as surely as creationism; yet these claims are allowed because they are made in the name of science. In such a situation, one can readily understand why some creationists have tried to distance their theory from its religious underpinnings; they know this is the only way their ideas will get a fair hearing.

It might be better if public schools—and the Court—recognized more forthrightly that both philosophy and theology have a place in the discussion of origins and that their inclusion in school curricula need not be equated with their advancement by the state. One can teach about various theories, after all, without advocating any of them.

John G. West, Jr.

(see also: Religious Fundamentalism; Separation of Church and State.)


Bergman, Jerry 1984 The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America. Richfield, Minn.: Onesimus.

Bird, Wendell R. 1978 Freedom of Religion and Science Instruction in Public Schools. Yale Law Journal 87:515–570.

Curtis, V. Kay 1988 Religion: Church and State Relations: Balanced Treatment of Theories of Origins—Edwards v. Aguillard. Oklahoma Law Review 41:740–758.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Creationism affirms that God directly created the first humans. Creationism is, therefore, a particular interpretation of a broader notion of creation, widely shared among world religions, that attributes the ultimate origins and ongoing ordering of the cosmos to a being that transcends it. Although Judaism and Islam share the same basic creation account with Christianity, creationism is a uniquely Christian notion that cuts across denominational boundaries. To varying degrees, all Christian creationists share opposition to a biological evolutionism that accounts for the uniqueness of the human species exclusively through adaptive processes that began on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.

The two major models of Christian creationism are found in Roman Catholicism and among North American Protestants who regard the inerrancy of the Bible to be a "fundamental" tenet of Christian faith. The roots of Roman Catholic creationism can be traced to the fourth century and the position of Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 315–367) that though human flesh is always born of flesh, the human soul can be "from nowhere else than from God." (On the Trinity, Book 10, no. 22). This form of creationism is rooted in a metaphysical notion of the human borrowed from the classical Greek philosophy that held that the human is composed of body and soul. This metaphysical anthropology is evident in the positions of Roman Catholic popes in the second half of the twentieth century. Although Pius XII (the encyclical Humanae Generis, 1950) and John Paul II (the address "Evolution and the Living God," 1996) do not explicitly use the term "creationism," both argue that God immediately creates the spiritual soul of the human, while the body depends on its origins from cells provided by the parents. John Paul II, although cautious about scientific reductionism, explicitly accepts evolutionism (a.k.a. "generationism") as the origin of the human body, while retaining creationism as the origin of the spiritual soul. Since the teachings of Pius XII and John Paul II on human origins have the authority of "non-infallibility," they are not necessarily the final word and are subject to revision. What is likely not to be revised is the position that the capacity of human persons for relationship with God cannot be accounted for on scientific grounds.

The Protestant model of creationism is different from that of Roman Catholicism, because Protestant creationists reject metaphysical anthropology of soul and body in favor of a biblical one that envisions the human person as a unity. The goal of Protestant creationists is to end the hegemony of the theory of Darwinian evolution by proposing an alternative theory that they call "scientific creationism" or "creation science."

The roots of creation science can be traced in the United States to the 1920s and the antievolution articles published in the Princeton Theological Review, as well as to the antievolution movement promoted by William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), a prohibitionist and three-time presidential candidate. Creationists gained notoriety in the well-publicized trial of John T. Scopes in 1925. Earlier that year, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill banning public school teachers from instructing their students about any theory that denies the divine creation of humanity as taught in the Bible. Scopes broke that law by teaching evolution. At the trial Bryan represented the school board of Dayton, Tennessee. Clarence Darrow, a lawyer associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, represented Scopes. The decision of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" went against Scopes but was reversed on a technicality. Shortly after the trial, many southern states passed antievolution legislation.

In 1967 an antievolution law passed in Arkansas in 1928 was tested by Susan Epperson, a first-year biology teacher who chose a textbook that included evolution. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1968 declared the Arkansas law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the wake of this decision, creationists had reason to believe that any legislation that forbade evolution to be taught in public schools would meet the same fate.

In 1969 the California Board of Education agreed to have the Genesis account of creation taught in public schools as an alternative to the evolutionary account. In 1970 Henry Morris, a hydraulic engineer, founded the Christian Heritage College at San Diego, as an educational center explicitly committed to creation science and the defeat of evolutionism. In 1974 California reversed its decision, but in 1981 "balanced treatment" legislation was passed in Arkansas (no. 590) and Louisiana (no. 685), requiring public schools teaching Darwinian evolution to give equal attention to creation science. Among the tenets of creation science included in these statutes are positions that reflect a literal interpretation of Genesis 1–11:

  1. The sudden (special) creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing.
  2. The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection to explain all living kinds of organisms.
  3. The separate ancestry for humans and apes.
  4. Explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood.
  5. The relatively recent inception of the earth and life (six thousand to ten thousand years ago). [Arkansas Act no. 590, Science, Technology and Human Values 7 (1982): 11–13.]

The "balanced treatment" acts of Arkansas and Louisiana were struck down in U.S. District Court in Arkansas ( January 5, 1982) and in the U.S. Supreme Court ( June 19, 1987) because they contravened the First Amendment of the federal Constitution and promoted the advancement of religious doctrine.

Creation science not only has political significance for the relations between church and state in the United States but also has cultural significance for how the relations of religion and science are conceived. For people who interpret the scriptures literally, the Bible, as the inerrant word of God, presents a higher truth than fallible human reason, including science, can know. Biblically based religion and evolutionary science, therefore, necessarily conflict.

Not all North American Christians agree with the creationists. Other Christians interpret the Bible symbolically rather than literally. Some simply see creation doctrine and biological evolution as independent and contrasting conceptions of reality, while others believe that society can benefit from dialogue between Christians and scientists. Many in the latter group perceive meaningful analogies between cosmic evolutionary processes and God's continuous creative activity.

See alsoBible; Church and State; Fundamentalist Christianity; God; Prayer in School; Roman Catholicism; Secularization.


Barbour, Ian. Religion and Science. 1997.

Colin, Norman. "Supreme Court Strikes Down 'Creation Science' Law as Promotion of Religion." Science 236 (1987): 1620.

Gilkey, Langdon. Creationism on Trial: EvolutionandGod at Little Rock. 1985.

Larson, Edward. Trial and Error: The AmericanControversy Over Creation and Evolution. 1985.

Morris, Henry. Scientific Creationism. 1974.

Pope John Paul II. "Evolution and the Living God." In Science and Theology. The New Comsonance, edited by Ted Peters. 1998.

Anne M. Clifford


views updated Jun 11 2018


Creationism is a Christian doctrine holding that the world and the living things in it—human beings in particular—were created by God. There have been a variety of creationist viewpoints, and some of these viewpoints are in conflict with mainstream scientific theories, especially the theory of evolution.

After Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859), which not only defended the pre-existing theory of evolution but also maintained that evolution took place through natural selection, many fundamentalist Christians reacted with horror. Then as now, anti-evolutionists maintained that evolution was contrary to the Bible, that it was atheistic pseudo-science, and that, by proposing that man descended from lower animals, it denied man's spiritual nature. Evolutionists denounced creationists for allegedly misinterpreting both the Bible and the scientific evidence.

In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, a former Nebraska Senator, Presidential candidate, and U.S. Secretary of State, joined the movement to prevent the teaching of evolution. In response to lobbyists like Bryan, the state of Tennessee passed a law making it a crime for a public-school teacher or state college professor to teach the allegedly un-Scriptural doctrine that man evolved from a lower order of animals. However, under the Butler Act (and similar laws in other states), it remained permissible to teach the theory of evolution as applied to species other than humans.

A test case of the Tennessee law was arranged in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. A teacher named John Thomas Scopes was charged with violating the law. Bryan was brought in to help the prosecution, and an all-star legal defense team, including famed attorney Clarence Darrow, was brought in to defend the young teacher. Scopes was convicted after a highly-publicized trial, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court. A play based on the Scopes Monkey trial, Inherit the Wind, was turned into a movie in 1960. Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, and Frederic March were among the cast of this popular and anti-creationist rendering of the trial. The movie altered some of the historical details, but the movie version of the trial was probably better-known than the actual trial.

Arkansas had also passed a "monkey law" similar to Tennessee's Butler Act. In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Arkansas law was designed to promote religious doctrine, and that therefore it was an unconstitutional establishment of religion which violated the First Amendment. The Epperson decision had no effect on the Tennessee Butler law, since that law had been repealed in 1967.

Since the Scopes trial, the views of some creationists have been getting closer to secular scientific position. Scientists who were evangelical Christians formed an organization called the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) during World War II. ASA members pledged support for Biblical inerrancy and declared that the Christian scriptures were in harmony with the evidence of nature. Within this framework, however, the ASA began to lean toward the "progressive creation" viewpoint—the idea that God's creation of life was accomplished over several geological epochs, that the six "days" of creation mentioned in Genesis were epochs rather than literal days, and that much or all of mainstream science's interpretation of the origins of life could be reconciled with the Bible. These "progressive creation" tendencies were articulated in Evolution and Christian Thought Today, published in 1959. Some of the contributors to this volume seemed to be flirting with evolution, with two such scientists indicating that Christian doctrine could be reconciled with something resembling evolution.

Other creationists moved in another direction entirely—towards "flood geology." This is the idea that God had created the world in six 24-hour days, that all species, including man, had been specially created, and that the fossil record was a result, not of evolution over time but of a single catastrophic flood in the days of Noah. George McCready Price, a Canadian-born creationist, had outlined these ideas in a 1923 book called The New Geology. At the time, Price's ideas had not been widely accepted by creationists outside his own Seventh Day Adventist denomination, but in 1961 Price's ideas got a boost. Teacher John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and engineer Henry M. Morris issued The Genesis Flood, which, like The New Geology, tried to reconcile the geological evidence with a strong creationist viewpoint.

In 1963, the Creation Research Society (CRS) was formed. The founders were creationist scientists (many of them from the fundamentalist Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod), and voting membership was limited to scientists. The CRS was committed to Biblical inerrancy and a creationist interpretation of the Bible, an interpretation which in practice coincided with the doctrine of flood geology.

The CRS and others began lobbying for the inclusion of creationist ideas in school curricula. This was a delicate task, on account of the Epperson decision of the Supreme Court, which prohibited the introduction of religious doctrines into the curriculum of the public schools. Creationists campaign all over the country, trying to get creationism (now often dubbed "creation science") into textbooks on an equal basis with evolution. Some states allowed the use of creationist texts like Henry M. Morris' Scientific Creationism. The Texas Board of Education required that textbooks used by the state must emphasize that evolution was merely a theory, and that other explanations of the origins of life existed. On the other hand, California—which together with Texas exerted a great influence over educational publishers due to its mass purchasing of textbooks—rejected attempts to include creationism in school texts.

Laws were passed in Arkansas and Louisiana requiring that creation science get discussed whenever evolution was discussed. However, the federal courts struck down these laws. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana law in 1987, on the grounds that creation science was a religious doctrine that could not constitutionally be taught in public schools.

In Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, the legislature passed a law in 1973 which required that various ideas of life's origin—including creationism—be included in textbooks. A federal circuit court struck down this law. An 1996 bill in the Tennessee legislature, authorizing school authorities to fire any teacher who taught evolution as fact rather than as theory, was also unsuccessful. But in Tennessee and other states, the campaign for teaching creationism continues.

—Eric Longley

Further Reading:

de Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1968.

Edwards v. Aguilland, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).

Harrold, Francis B., and Raymond A. Eve, editors. Cult Archeology & Creationism. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1995.

Irons, Peter. The Courage of Their Convictions. New York, Free Press, 1988.

Johnson, Robert C. "70 Years After Scopes, Evolution Hot Topic Again." Education Week. March 13, 1996.

——. "Tenn. Senate to Get New Chance to Vote on Evolution Measure." Education Week. March 27, 1996.

Kramer, Stanley, producer and director. Inherit the Wind, motion picture (original, 1960). Culver City, California, MGM/UA Home Video, 1991.

Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. New York, Random House, 1955.

Mitchell, Colin. The Case for Creationism. Grantham, United Kingdom, Autumn House, 1995.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York, Borzoi, 1992.

Sommerfeld, Meg. "Lawmakers Put Theory of Evolution on Trial."Education Week. June 5, 1996.

Webb, George E. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1994.


views updated May 21 2018


As the term has come to be understood in the United States, creationism is an ideological stance adopted by the fundamentalist movement in opposition to evolutionary theories of life that favors a literal reading of the book of Genesis. Creationists tend to insist on a literal six days of creation, the special creation of each major "kind" (not necessarily each current species) of life, and the direct creation of the first man and woman by God. Many creationists oppose the "day-age" compromise, wherein each "day" in the first chapter of Genesis is taken to mean an indeterminate eon in which God did part of the work of forming the universe and the Earth's species. They attribute many of the geological characteristics of the Earth to the great flood of Noah's time, and possibly to other catastrophes caused by God even when not mentioned in the Bible. Few are so literal-minded, however, as to accept such Biblical ideas as a hard firmament overhead, a flat Earth, or a geocentric universe.

Creationist beliefs have been a part of the fundamentalist reaction that began in the 19th century against liberal religion in general and evolutionary theories in particular. Creationists see the theory of evolution as a challenge to belief in God's creative and providential activity and to the special spiritual status and destiny of the human person. They hold that evolutionary theories are naturalistic, mechanistic, and reductionistic, that they seek to explain everything in terms of natural physical processes, thereby excluding a priori the possibility that supernatural agency might be at work in the world. Creationists view evolutionary theory as a manifestation of secular humanism and of unbelief in general, as an anti-Christian interpretation posing as neutral science, and as a theory that leads to disregard for the sacred character of human life and therefore to such evils as pornography, abortion, and totalitarianism.

In the 1920s in the U.S., creationist efforts produced laws against the teaching of evolution in public schools in several states, leading to the famous confrontation of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in the Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. Following this controversy textbook publishers cautiously minimized any discussion of the topic. The result was a miseducation of a generation of students concerning the major organizing theory behind much of modern biology, including zoology, genetics, and paleontology.

When Sputnik's orbiting in 1957 provoked interest in improving science education in the U.S., new biology texts became more explicitly supportive of evolutionary theory, as well as of other ideas which many fundamentalists saw as part of naturalistic humanism. Attempts to oppose this change, in the name of belief in the Bible, were rebuffed on the grounds that religious belief had no place in determining public school curriculum.

Scientific Creationism. In response, Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and others of the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) at Christian Heritage College, San Diego, along with members of other creationist associations, began to develop a Biblical alternative to evolutionary theory, calling it "scientific creationism." A combination of Biblical ideas concerning creation and the great flood with some quasi-scientific theorizing. In certain cases this doctrine includes a micro-evolution of present day species from the basic "kinds" of life forms created originally by God and preserved in Noah's ark. A few creationists propose that there have been additional creations of new kinds or species by God that are not mentioned in the Bible, which do not contradict its teachings and account for the appearance of new kinds of fossils in certain geological strata.

Scientific creationists emphasize real as well as spurious difficulties with evolutionary interpretations of scientific data. They argue that evolution is a theory and not a fact, and that science is tentative and should be open to different theories. They note accurately that the actual processes whereby new species may arise are still in dispute (or in dispute once again) among biologists. They claim that the fossils, geological appearances, and other evidence do not require an evolutionary interpretation and are sometimes contrary to it. Their arguments, however, are often specious in spite of a scientific-sounding complexity, and tend to rest on attacks against some real or imagined weakness in a specific point in biology, paleontology, or other relevant field of science. They fail to review adequately, much less integrate into a coherent alternative explanation, the vast amounts of information and theories from the various fields of science that constitute the rather overwhelming evidence for the conclusion that there has in fact been a process of evolution of life on this planet over the last three and a half billion years or more, even though some aspects of the process are still not clear.

In recent years creationists have demanded that equal time be given in public school classes to scientific creationism wherever evolution was discussed. They have proposed laws to this effect in numerous states, winning in Arkansas and Louisiana. In a widely-reported trial in Arkansas, with leading theologians and representatives of various Christian and Jewish traditions speaking against the state's law, the federal district judge, William Overton, ruled that scientitic creationism is not science but religion, and that the law requiring its presence in the curriculum was unconstitutional.

Creationists offer a religious justification for their belief, attributing it to their decision to accept the Bible as God's word. Social scientists, on the other hand, searching for the reason that only a minority of Christians are creationists, have advanced different theories, including resentment by creationists against modern science and other cultural influences that have disturbed traditional allegiances and security, as well as a general literal-mindedness among fundamentalists.

Official Catholic reactions to the Darwinian theory of evolution have been guardedly tolerant, although usually insistent that the human soul is created by God directly and that belief in the inheritance of original sin must be maintained. In the first part of this century the emphasis was on caution, represented by the warning from the Roman Biblical commission in 1910 against demythologizing the early chapters of Genesis, by the resistance of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to the ideas of teilhard de chardin, and by the insistence of Pius XII in Humani generis on the importance of monogenism (belief that all people have descended from one original set of parents). This has given way to an easier acceptance of evolutionary ideas. Catholic theologians now find themselves comfortable working with Teilhardian, Whiteheadian, and other evolutionary schemes to help them interpret Catholic tradition. In all of this, determining the correct relationship between traditional religious doctrines and changeable scientific theories has remained a friction point, although the Catholic practice has been to assume the reasonableness of faith and its compatibility with good science.

See Also: fundamentalism.

Bibliography: r. m. frye, ed., Is God a Creationist? (New York 1983). l. gilkey, Creationism on Trial (New York 1986). d.t. gish, Evolution, The Fossils Say No (San Diego 1979). l. r. godfrey, Scientists Confront Creationism (New York 1983). c. hyers, The Meaning of Creation (Atlanta 1981). h. m. morris, The Scientific Case for Creation (San Diego 1977). d. nelkin, The Creation Controversy (New York 1982). p. p. t. pun, Evolution, Nature and Scripture in Conflict? (Grand Rapids 1982).

[m. barnes/eds.]


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In the broad sense, creationism is the belief that the universe and life were created by God. Within this definition are a broad range of beliefs. At one extreme are biblical literalists who believe that all life was created in its present form, including Adam and Eve as the first humans, as described in Genesis and with little or no evolutionary change since then (special creation). At the other end are creationists who have no quarrel with evolution and believe it is God's method of creating life (theistic evolution), the view accepted today by most Christian denominations.

In the United States, the creationism controversy began in earnest with the birth of Protestant fundamentalism in the 1910s. Fundamentalists, as they began calling themselves, argued for the literal truth of every word in the Bible, and thus rejected evolution and other philosophies of "modernism." They waged a campaign to outlaw the teaching of evolution and succeeded in getting five states to pass such laws from 1923 to 1929.

In Tennessee, this resulted in the famous Scopes trial of 1925, in which teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution. His fine was overturned on a technicality, but the Tennessee statute remained in effect until the legislature repealed it in 1967, both to improve the image of the state and to head off a threatened lawsuit. A similar law that had passed in 1928 in Arkansas was challenged by biology teacher Susan Epperson in 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1968, stating that these anti-evolution statutes violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits an entanglement of church and state. The last anti-evolution statute was repealed in 1969.

Creationists therefore changed their strategy. Briefly, they campaigned for laws to require "equal time for Genesis" if evolution was to be taught. Tennessee was the only state to pass such a law, in 1973, but it was overturned in court in 1975.

Failing at this tactic, creationists tried to have their views recognized as an alternative scientific theory and thus taught in the science curriculum. Many called their doctrine "scientific creationism," and founded such organizations as the Creation Research Society and Institute for Creation Research to promote their views. "Scientific creationists," as they called themselves, attacked the evidence for evolution, arguing over gaps in the fossil record, questioning the validity of radiometric dating, disputing the significance of human fossil remains, arguing that statistical probability or the laws of thermodynamics make evolution impossible, and claiming that geological features such as the Grand Canyon were evidence of Noah's flood, among many other lines of attack.

The scientific community never took the claims of creationists seriously but did publish numerous books to educate the public on why the claims were fallacious and why creationism was not a science. They founded organizations such as the National Center for Science Education and state Committees of Correspondence to counter the strategies of creationists in legislatures, school boards, and the media.

Despite their failure to convince many scientists of their views, creationists were more successful at the political level. Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws requiring the teaching of "creation science" in 1981. The Arkansas law was quickly struck down in a federal district court in 1982, whereas the Louisiana case dragged out until 1987, when the law was finally struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Both courts ruled that creationism had no reason to be part of a science curriculum; they recognized that these laws represented merely fundamentalist religion in disguise and were therefore in violation of the First Amendment. Creationists continue to press their case with some success, however, in local school boards, state boards of education, and textbook adoption committees. The result is often a watering down of the curriculum to include less (often much less) about evolution.

The eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky declared, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Because of the political efforts of creationists, evolution remains widely censored in biology courses today, and countless students are being kept in the dark about the facts of evolution.

see also Darwin, Charles; Evolution; Evolution, Evidence for; Natural Selection

Kenneth S. Saladin


Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

National Center for Science Education. <>.

Strahler, Arthur N. Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987.


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CREATIONISM, the belief that life on Earth is the product of a divine act rather than organic evolution, has had a strong and persistent presence in American culture. From the first responses to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in the 1860s through vigorous curriculum debates at the end of the twentieth century, American voices have been raised in defense of biblical accounts of the history of life. Indeed, prior to the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, America's leading naturalist, Louis Agassiz, had articulated a scientifically sophisticated creationism—a position he continued to defend until his death in 1873, using it to point out flaws in Darwin's theory. In response to Darwin's work, many American scientists sought to retain a place for divine intervention in the history of life, even if they—like renowned botanist Asa Gray—considered themselves evolutionists. While American naturalists were embracing some form of organic evolution, conservative American theologians criticized the theory for its inconsistency with scriptural accounts.

As organic evolution became a generally accepted scientific principle and an element in school curricula in the early years of the twentieth century, American Christianity was experiencing the rise of fundamentalism. These two cultural developments collided dramatically in the 1920s as fundamentalist-led movements in twenty states sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although their challenges to evolutionary theory were rooted in its incompatibility with a literal interpretation of the Bible, Christian critics also made opportunistic use of criticisms raised about the scientific merits of Darwin's theory. The conflict between supporters of evolutionary theory and the theory's fundamentalist opponents reached a high point in 1925, when a Tennessee high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, confessed to violating that state's new law forbidding the teaching of evolution. The courtroom clash between defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Williams Jennings Bryan ended badly for the creationist movement, despite their guilty verdict, as Bryan—elderly and poorly prepared—failed to present a coherent challenge to the evolutionists.

The creationist movement, as it was now known, received less publicity during the four decades following the Scopes trial. Nevertheless, a strong constituency opposed to evolution remained among American Christians, especially conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals. For the first time, a significant number of individuals with advanced scientific training became active in the movement. This gave the creationists a more effective voice in criticizing evolutionary theory for its scientific flaws as they organized groups such as the Creation Research Society (founded in 1963). Increasingly, the debate between creationists and evolutionists used the language, credentials, and style of science.

The goal of scientific creationism, as the movement came to be known in the 1970s, differed from that of earlier creationist movements. Rather than trying to outlaw the teaching of evolution, scientific creationists argued for equal curriculum time. By working to demonstrate that evolution and creationism were two competing, legitimate scientific theories, they portrayed the exclusion of creationism from textbooks and classrooms as an act of prejudice rather than a defensible exclusion of religion from scientific education. This tactic brought significant victories. More than twenty state legislatures considered balanced treatment laws, and several passed them. While most of these legal victories were quickly reversed, the debate's impact on textbooks, teachers, and local school boards was subtle and long-lived. Particularly in the South and Midwest, where fundamentalist Christianity had the greatest influence, the argument for a balanced science curriculum swayed classroom content away from the rigorous teaching of evolutionary theory. The universal condemnation of scientific creationism by accepted scientific authorities was labeled intolerance By the creationists.

By the end of the twentieth century, the American-based creationist movement had inspired similar movements in a number of other countries. While evolutionary theory retained the full confidence of practicing scientists, the wider public remained more skeptical, with sizable fractions of the population around the country professing not to accept evolution. Clearly, the persistence of the creationist movement helped this belief survive well beyond the community of fundamentalist Christians.


Godfrey, Laurie R., ed. Scientists Confront Creationism. New York: Norton, 1983.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

———. Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Ruse, Michael, ed. But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1996.

Loren ButlerFeffer

See alsoEvolutionism ; Fundamentalism .


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1. The view that the universe and all things in it were created directly by God and are not the result of a long evolutionary process, in contrast to the theory of evolution associated with Charles Darwin. The immediate ancestry of creationism can be found in the inter-war attempts of fundamentalists to get state laws passed which would ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. These attempts received a set-back in the Scopes trial in Tennessee (1925): John Scopes was convicted for teaching Darwin's theory, but the conviction was later overturned. Creationism emerged more specifically in the 1960s when creationists demanded equal time for the teaching of creationism (hence the importance of insisting on the equal validity of both as theories). The Creation Research Society supports the publication of creation science papers, but these have not been recognized as serious science outside the movement.

2. The view that God creates a soul for each human being, in contrast to pre-existence (that souls pre-exist bodies and enter into them) and traducianism (that souls generate souls as and when bodies generate bodies).

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