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 His fine was overturned on a technicality, but the Tennessee statute remained in effect until the legislature repealed it in 1967, both to improve the image of the state and to head off a threatened lawsuit.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 The last anti-evolution statute was repealed in 1969.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.
Kenneth S. Saladin
Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
National Center for Science Education. <http://www.natcenscied.org> .
Strahler, Arthur N. Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987.