In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Creationism

  • Introduction
  • Darwin’s Ideas
  • Reactions to Darwin
  • Fundamentalism

Evolutionary Biology Creationism
Michael Ruse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0058


Creationism in the broadest sense refers to God as Creator. It is an essential element in the beliefs of the so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and centers on the claim that God made the physical world out of nothing. However, more recently “creationism” has been appropriated for an idiosyncratic version of Protestant Christianity, American made, and dating from the early 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century a series of pamphlets, known as the “Fundamentals,” gave a name to the overall position of a literal reading of the Bible, and this was followed by legal efforts in parts of the United States to enforce exclusion of nonbiblical ideas (first and foremost, evolution) from the state-supported schools of the Union. In 1925 in Tennessee a young schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for teaching that humans have natural origins. Although he was found guilty, the conviction was overturned on a technicality. Then some thirty years later, thanks to the book Genesis Flood (1961), written by biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb and hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris, the modern creationism movement was born. Matters came to a climax in 1981 when an Arkansas state law mandated “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism (now often known as “creation science” or “scientific creationism”). A challenge was mounted, and the teaching of creationism was judged unconstitutional. In the early 1990s, the shift was made to arguing that the problem with much science, especially science that challenges a literalistic reading of the Bible, is that it is overly reliant on the materialistic atheistic doctrine of “naturalism.” Backed later in the decade by the writings of both those trained in the sciences and those trained in the humanities, and backed financially by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, so-called intelligent design theory (IDT) elbowed aside the more traditional creationism. In 2005 after a court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, it was ruled that IDT violated the First Amendment separation of church and state no less than scientific creationism did.

Background to the Science and Religion Debate

Creationism is part of the overall debate about and conflict between science and religion. Necessarily one must consider the historical background but then also look at more conceptual or analytic works. Several good collections contain much of interest and value to those interested in the science and religion controversy. At a broader level these include Harrison 2010 and Ruse 2013. More specialized are Kohn 1985, Ruse 2009, and Ruse and Richards 2008. Larson 2006 is a tremendous introduction to the science that caused the whole creationism issue. Ruse 2014 stresses the urgency of much of the debate.

  • Harrison, Peter. 2010. The Cambridge companion to science and religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521885386

    This is a good collection of papers both historical and philosophical that deals with the overall relationship between science and religion. It covers some of the early debates and then the tensions and opportunities brought on by the so-called scientific revolution. Covering up to the early 21st century, it looks at the tensions brought on by evolution and other aspects of modern science. Although not too technical, this book is an excellent source from which to get up to speed on these issues.

  • Kohn, David, ed. 1985. The Darwinian heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This splendid volume covers just about everything of interest concerning Charles Darwin and his scientific revolution. Included are several papers of interest to those working on the relationship between science and religion, including discussions of Darwin’s own thinking. It turns out that the author of the Origin of Species was far more nuanced on these matters than were many of his supporters.

  • Larson, Edward J. 2006. Evolution: The remarkable history of a scientific theory. New York: Modern Library.

    Storytelling at its best. Edward Larson takes us through the history of evolutionary theory from its beginnings to the early 21st century. Charles Darwin, expectedly, has pride of place, but there is a full cast of absolutely fascinating figures. Shows why evolution is one of the most powerful ideas in history and why those who deny it show themselves to be petty and intellectually cramped.

  • Ruse, Michael. 2014. Atheism: What everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Although treating mainly the subject of atheism, the discussion touches on such pertinent topics as the growth of science and the conflicts with religion, the possible coexistence of science and religion, and non-Christian responses to science.

  • Ruse, Michael, ed. 2009. Philosophy after Darwin: Classic and contemporary readings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This collection deals more with philosophy than with religion, but there are useful pieces on the Pragmatists and then on more recent philosophers. Of particular interest is the attempt to provide a naturalistic backing to moral claims, especially in light of creationist claims that only a divine being can give a full justification for matters of moral obligation.

  • Ruse, Michael, ed. 2013. The Cambridge encyclopedia of Darwin and evolutionary thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139026895

    A large collection of newly commissioned articles covering the life, work, and influence of Charles Darwin. Considerable attention is paid to philosophical and religious issues, both at the time of Darwin and in 21st-century culture. The thinking of literalists is contrasted with the thinking of more conventional Christians, both Catholic and Protestant.

  • Ruse, Michael, and Robert J. Richards, eds. 2008. The Cambridge companion to the “Origin of Species.” Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Although somewhat specialized, the book includes discussions both of Darwin’s religious beliefs and of the religious reactions of others in the light of Darwin’s thinking in the Origin of Species.

  • Ruse, Michael, and Joseph Travis, eds. 2009. Evolution: The first four billion years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Given that one of the major claims by creationists and their successors is that the origin of life is inexplicable naturalistically, this collection contains several articles pertinent to this claim showing that it is no longer that well founded.

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