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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 other—known 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 (354–430 CE), it has been the position of Christians—Catholics and (later) Protestants—that 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 proofs—for 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 (1861–1865), 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 Darwin’s (1809–1882) 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 Noah’s 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 (1860–1925) and defended by noted agnostic Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), 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 (1918–2006). 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 dispensationalism—the belief that the world’s history is divided into phases (seven is a popular number), each ending with a disaster—Whitcomb 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 effects—for instance, the purported discovery by geneticist Dean Hamer (2004) that there is a gene for belief in God’s existence. All of these things—for instance, the suggestion that sexual orientation might not be a function of someone’s free will—will be anathematized. So far, science is holding fast, but the battle has not ended.
- 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. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
- Larson, Edward J. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s 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.
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