In its broader sense, creationism is the belief that the universe was created by a personal God, at a specific time, and for a specific purpose. In its narrower sense, creationism is the belief that the account of creation as related in the Judeo- Christian Bible is completely reliable. This is held to be the case because of the unique authority of the Bible, and because contemporary science has confirmed its account as related in the Book of Genesis. More specifically still, creationism has come to amount to the following set of assertions: that the earth was a special creation by a creator; that the law of entropy reveals deterioration in the earth as opposed to the supposed evolutionary ideas of progress; that life is also a special creation by a creator; that, once created, each species remains fixed according to its initial model; that Homo sapiens has an ancestry distinct from the animals; that the flood as reported by Noah is a historical event, and that, as reported in the Book of Genesis, the earth is relatively young.
The core feature of these assertions, for creationists, is that they are true because they are found in the Bible. It is only an incidental corollary that science is believed to have confirmed them. The strong emphasis on the Bible explains the largely Protestant nature of contemporary creationism. In contrast, Catholic and Orthodox varieties of Christianity have had fewer qualms about accommodating evolutionary teaching within a Christian perspective. No less a Protestant than Martin Luther spoke in terms of a 6-day creation and a worldwide flood. In the United States the Adventist prophet Ellen White (1827-1915) was one of the first to insist specifically on the main features of what is now called creationism.
Without doubt, the core tenets of creationism owe a large debt to the five fundamentals laid down by the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910 in the United States as being fundamental to Christianity. The first four fundamentals all relate to the dogma of Christ: his miracles, the Virgin Birth, his bodily resurrection, and his atoning sacrifice. But the fifth fundamental laid down is that the Bible is directly inspired by God and therefore literally true. It was from this document, and the ones that followed it until 1915, that the notion of being a “fundamentalist” derived. The word fundamentalism was not coined until 1920. The five fundamentals were important in the growth of creationism in America.
Creationism, like the Protestant fundamentalism of which it is an offshoot, is best understood as a by-product of secularization. Since the 17th century, the Christian scriptures have receded in importance as the sole source of authoritative accounts of how the universe works and of the place of humanity in that universe. This has provoked a range of responses among Christians, with most accepting the scientific account and understanding that an amendment to the role of the Bible is required. For a significant minority of Christians, however, this response seems inadequate. To people used to seeing the Bible as the sole repository of authoritative information about the world, the new authority of science could not go unchallenged.
What has come as a surprise to many people is the strength and resilience of this backlash. As the pace of scientific, technological, and social change has quickened, so has anxiety about them developed among fundamentalists, leading, in turn, to a determination to halt what they see as a collapse of the only world that makes sense to them.
Creationist thinking had been simmering away unnoticed in some lesser theological colleges in the United States early in the 20th century. Of particular importance was the Adventist George McCready Price (1870-1962), whose books, in particular The New Geology (1923), presented an essentially creationist account. Price had no formal training in any area of science, but had grown up familiar with the writings of fellow-Adventist Ellen White. Mainstream opinion seemed to be moving against them at the time, and the creationist account was seen as little more than a peripheral relic.
The Scopes Trial and Its Aftermath
All this changed in 1925 as a result of the trial of a young biology teacher, John T. Scopes (19001970), in Tennessee. The trial attracted widespread attention, not least because of the stature of the lawyers brought in to conduct each side’s argument. The creationist case was conducted by William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) and the evolutionist champion was Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), a very well-known progressive lawyer. The creationists can be said to have won the battle but lost the war. Scopes was found guilty, since Tennessee law specifically forbade the teaching of evolution. But the negative publicity, largely at the hands of the influential journalist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), did much to discredit the creationists’ cause.
The Scopes trial stimulated a flurry of protocreationist literature around the English-speaking world, as conservative Christians woke up to the threat they perceived evolution posed to their beliefs. A quick survey of titles published outside the United States will be instructive and help dispel a long-standing fallacy that creationism is a phenomenon peculiar to that country. An early example of British antievolutionary writing in the interest of evangelical Christianity was The Bankruptcy of Evolution (1924) by Harold C. Morton, who made specific use of the word creationism. Morton was familiar with some of the works of George McCready Price, but most of his sources were British or European. In the wake of the Scopes trial an evolution protest movement (EPM) conducted a series of debates and a pamphlet campaign critical of evolutionism and its necessary links with unbelief. Their chief spokesman was Douglas Dewar, a barrister and amateur ornithologist. The EPM was also active in Australia and New Zealand and achieved its greatest victory in New Zealand in 1947 when the government of the day responded to complaints from its leading spokesperson, Dr. D. S. Milne, about the content of a radio series called How Things Began. Milne complained that the series was “unbalanced” in its presentation of a naturalistic account of human origins. The minister of education agreed and pulled the series, to the dismay of the Royal Society of New Zealand and much of the public.
Another prominent British antievolutionist was R. E. D. Clark, whose Darwin: Before and After (1948) and The Universe: Plan or Accident? (1949) explored many themes used later by the American creationists, such as the appeal to entropy as a disproof of the supposedly “upward” trajectory of evolution. Clark’s books were part of a series published by Paternoster, a religious publishing house, and designed as refutations of a popular series of publications by the Rationalist Press Association called the Thinker’s Library. Paternoster’s series was called The Second Thoughts Library.
Despite all their activity, it was clear that by the end of the 1950s the antievolution movement in Britain and the English-speaking commonwealth was petering out. Contemporary British fundamentalism has not developed exclusively along creationist lines. At about this time new impetus to the movement came once more from the United States. As a result of the Scopes trial, evolution was left out of American school science teaching. The Tennessee decision remained in force until 1967. The need for change became apparent after 1957 when the United States was embarrassed to find its science program lagging behind that of the Soviet Union, which had recently put an unmanned spacecraft, Sputnik, into orbit in space. Realizing it needed to catch up, the U.S. government oversaw a comprehensive overhaul of science education, which included the teaching of evolution. But this decision, coming as it did shortly before the massive social and political upheavals of the 1960s, motivated religious fundamentalists once more to bestir themselves.
The first evidence of this new assertion of creationism came in 1961 when Henry M. Morris (1918-2006), an engineer, and John C. Whitcombe (1924- ), an Old Testament theologian, coauthored The Genesis Flood, which owed a significant debt to McCready Price’s earlier work. Two years later Morris helped establish the Creation Research Society (CRS), which became a leading voice of creationism in the United States.
In 1972 Morris set up a new vehicle for his cause, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Coincident with the establishment of the ICR was Morris’s next book, The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (1972), which reiterated the central role of the Bible as a record of the creation of the earth. Morris’s handling of the issue of the age of the earth can stand as representative of his overall approach: “The only way we can determine the true age of the earth,” Morris wrote, “is for God to tell us what it is. And since He has told us, very plainly, in the Holy Scriptures that it is several thousand years in age, and no more, that ought to settle all basic questions of terrestrial chronology.” This, and many other similar works, including those by Duane T. Gish (1921- ), became the staple of creationist literature, being short and designed for nonspecialist readers.
At first the creationists tried to have the teaching of evolution banned and replaced by creationism. But the tide of opinion was moving against them. In 1967, the Tennessee decision from the Scopes trial of 1925 was overturned by a second challenge by a high school teacher in that state, Gary Scott. The next year Arkansas followed suit. A case going to the Supreme Court ratified the states’ decisions, confirming that the bans on the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional.
As a result of these defeats, the creationists turned to a new tactic. They rebranded creationism as “creation science.” Overt Christian references were expunged and a more “scientific” flavor was added. As part of their campaign to gain acceptance as a credible scientific movement, the Creation Research Society (CRS) prepared a textbook for use in schools. Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity (1974), by J. N. Moore and
- Slusher, purported to be a credible scientific work. Alongside this came a shift in their campaign goals. No longer were the creationists campaigning for a simple replacement of evolution with creationism. Now the tactic was to argue for “equal time” for the two accounts.
This was a very shrewd move, as it tapped into a deeply held preference among Americans for open disputation and for all sides to get an equal hearing. The scientific community was at something of a disadvantage as they now had the difficult job of demonstrating why “creation science” did not merit equal time. The creationists’ case was helped by the intervention of some prominent antiscience philosophers such as Paul Feyerabend. At the beginning of 1977 a large number of scientists and science educators signed an open letter condemning creationism. The sponsoring committee for the letter included Isaac Asimov, Linus Pauling, and George Gaylord Simpson. The preamble began by denying that creationism is a science at all, but rather a “purely religious view held by some religious sects and persons and strongly opposed by other religious sects and persons.” As evolution had the confidence of the scientific community and most of the religious community as the best available explanation of the existence of diversity of living organisms, they saw no need for poorly supported and religiously inspired alternatives to be given equal time in schools.
The equal-time argument was a clever move and was beginning to win support for the creationist movement. A new tactic of turning their attention away from state legislatures to local school boards, which were easier to influence, was also beginning to pay dividends. For example, in Arkansas and Louisiana, pressure from these sources persuaded their state legislatures to pass legislation in 1981 requiring equal time for creationism with evolution.
The Arkansas decision, known as Act 590, could not go unchallenged and soon developed into a test case. And a lot was at stake; the case was widely seen as a rerun of the Scopes trial 56 years previously and became known as Scopes II. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a case against the Arkansas Board of Education. In the case that followed, a wide range of leading theologians, scientists, and philosophers testified. But it was not a simple science-versus-religion divide. Indeed, the case presented by the evolutionists included a large number of theologians and church historians whose testimony was probably the most decisive in the case.
On January 5, 1982, Judge William Ray Overton of the District Court overturned Act 590, ruling that creationism was not a genuine scientific theory and did not justify equal time in schools alongside evolution. Overton had clearly paid attention to scientists who had testified, because he outlined a simple 5-point criterion for something to be labeled scientific, including being guided by natural law; being explanatory by reference to natural law; being empirically testable; presenting tentative conclusions; and being falsifiable. Overton then described at length how creationism failed to meet any of these criteria. A court later that year in Louisiana made the same decision, adding that creationism’s main goal was to discredit scientific evolution with a religious belief masquerading as a scientific theory.
Creationism never recovered any serious momentum as a major public force after these landmark defeats. The scientific credentials for creationism had failed to achieve traction, and now the “equal time” argument had been dismissed as spurious. This is not to say, however, that creationism withdrew from the scene altogether. It has continued its program within the American evangelical community and, increasingly, in other English-speaking Protestant countries as well. Its continuing success in holding this market is reiterated each time a new opinion poll emerges that shows a high percentage of Americans reject the evolutionary account of human origins. And in Kentucky a large and generously funded creationist theme park is being developed to cater to this market.
More recently, the creationist community has regrouped and rebranded itself once again, this time calling itself “intelligent design.” For a short while it looked as if it had finally acquired a degree of scientific legitimacy in the form of Michael Behe’s work, Darwin’s Black Box (1996), in which the design argument was applied at the biological and molecular levels of organization. But within 2 years the grave weaknesses of Behe’s argument had been given a thorough airing. Behe, as with most other supporters of intelligent design, was anxious to distance himself from the discredited creationism, but few people saw a great deal of difference. Indeed, the essential similarities were part of an important decision in Dover, Pennsylvania, where, in December 2005, Judge John E. Jones III overthrew a move by creationist parents to impose antievolutionary teaching in the classrooms there.
From the beginning, the creationist movement was beset by contradictions, no more so than in its shifting positions on science and religion. On the one hand, it demanded it be seen as a valid arm of science, but on the other, it argued that science is no less a religion than Christianity. This then tied in with the other contradiction: Creationists insisted that “secular humanism,” its bete noir, was a religion and should therefore be treated as other religions (which presumably included creationism) and be banned from the classroom.
One of the ironies of American creationism is that its closest allies are conservative Muslims, whose views are very similar regarding evolution, the fixity of species, and the paramountcy of scripture as a reliable creation record. There is little active creationism in the Muslim world to date, because there is very little in the way of a scientific critique of Quranic claims about creation. Active, organized creationism is strongest in Turkey, the most secular country of the Muslim world. There the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or Science Research Foundation, works in ways very similar to its American colleagues.
See also Bible and Time; Creation, Myths of; Design, Intelligent; Genesis, Book of; God as Creator; Gosse, Philip Henry; Mythology; Religions and Time; Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925
Behe, M. (1996). Darwin’s black box. New York: The Free Press.
Brockman, J. (Ed.). (2006). Intelligent thought: Science versus the intelligent design movement. New York: Vintage.
Eldredge, N. (2000). The triumph of evolution and the failure of creation. New York: Freeman.
Godfrey, L. R. (Ed.). (1984). Scientists confront creationism. New York: Norton.
Morris, H. M. (1972). The remarkable birth of planet Earth. Minneapolis, MN: Dimension Books.
Morton, H. C. (1932). The bankruptcy of evolution. London: Marshall Brothers.
Plimer, I. (1995). Telling lies for God. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House Australia.