Creationism in Schools – A Paper Tiger. Historical Reflections from a U.S. Perspective

This work was expanded and adapted from an article published in the January 2021 issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

The fact that creationism – i.e., the belief that humans in their present form are the product of divine creation rather than natural evolution – is not only a U.S. phenomenon but has long since spread to Europe has now been confirmed in many ways by research (; ). In Germany, too, there are fears that creationism could spread in schools and infiltrate biology classes alongside the scientifically undisputed theory of evolution . Even if this phenomenon is mainly observed in private schools, especially evangelical ones, German taxpayers, who also largely finance privately run schools, rightly do not want to support religious indoctrination instead of scientifically accepted teaching, nor do they want to see a further spread of irrational skepticism about science. 

From a historical perspective and in view of U.S. developments, however, such fears can be somewhat cooled. In the United States, at least, creationism is rather a phenomenon of a defeated, if durable, minority. As I argue in my recent book, the political clout of today’s radical creationists is a serious problem, but over the course of the past hundred years creationism has not increased in power, but rather faced a steady series of setbacks and defeats .  

The Eternal Monkey Trial

The headlines about American creationism can seem distressing. After all, it has been almost a century since the infamous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, yet creationism is still a part of education in the United States, from local school districts all the way up to the last president’s White House (; ). At first glance, it might seem as if radical ideas about creationism are still just as dominant today as they were a century ago, with current polls finding that four in ten Americans think God created humans “pretty much in their present form” at some point in the last 10,000 years . It might seem as if America’s endless battle over evolution and creationism has not budged in a hundred years, yet a closer look at the history of creationism tells a different story.  

Back in 1925, the world’s attention was centered on the town of Dayton, Tennessee, for what was supposed to be the ‘trial of the century.’ Both sides jockeyed for position, for the right to define what American schools could teach as science. At issue was Tennessee’s new law, a law that banned outright the teaching of evolution in public schools. When substitute science teacher John Scopes agreed to serve as a legal test case, the stage was set. In the end, the trial did not solve anything. The anti-evolution law remained on the books, but creationists embarrassed themselves on the world stage, showing how clueless they were about the emerging truths of evolutionary science.   

Understandably, every new creationist show trial has been called a mere repetition of the drama in Dayton. In 1968, for instance, when science teacher Susan Epperson challenged Arkansas’s Scopes-era law, activists set up a meeting for her with John Scopes himself. Decades after Scopes had his moment in the spotlight, the two teachers found that little had changed—Epperson found herself just as persecuted and reviled in 1968 as Scopes had been in 1925. Becoming the symbol of evolution education was as hazardous as ever .

Over the decades, every new evolution trial has met a similar fate. In 1981, for instance, when a new creationist law wended its way to the US Supreme Court, journalists were quick to label it “Scopes 2” . Then again in the twenty-first century, a federal court case about creationism made headlines in Pennsylvania. Predictably, the headlines resurrected the ghost of the Scopes Trial. In the Wall Street Journal, for example, the Pennsylvania trial became “Scopes, 2005” .

As a result of this tortuous history, it is easy to conclude that the issue of creationism has remained unchanged ever since the 1925 trial. In reality, however, thinking in the United States about the proper role of religion in science class has changed dramatically over the years. The battle over creationism has not been an endless repetition of the Scopes Trial, but rather a steady string of victories for evolution education, some minor, some revolutionary. Those changes have been quieter than the headline-grabbing court cases, but they have played a decisive role in America’s public-school science classrooms. 

Scopes in context 

It becomes easier to see how the debate has shifted if we remind ourselves what was at stake in the original Scopes Trial. During the 1920s, many observers considered Tennessee’s anti-evolution law to be only the entering wedge for a vast creationist attack. Anxious science educators watched as lawmakers all around the country considered laws banning or regulating the teaching of evolutionary science. As I uncovered in the research for my first book, between 1922 and 1929, 21 state legislatures considered a total of 53 anti-evolution bills or resolutions, and the U.S. Congress also considered two laws that would have stifled the teaching of evolution in the Washington, D.C., schools .  

In the end, five states (Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas) passed laws or resolutions against the teaching of evolution. These laws and bills differed slightly in their wording, but their goals were the same: to ban the discussion of evolution entirely from public schools and colleges. Perhaps the best example of this sweeping ambition came from the first proposed law in Kentucky, in 1922. Their bill would have prevented not just the teaching of evolution, but also teaching about atheism or agnosticism. Moreover, an amendment by the state senate would have banned Kentucky’s public libraries from owning any books that “directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky” (; ). It’s hard to imagine what Kentucky’s schools and libraries might have looked like if that bill had become law. What books would remain on the shelves if libraries eliminated any book that — even “indirectly” — might weaken religious beliefs? 

Kentucky’s bill failed by only one vote, and even lawmakers who planned to vote against it told the bill’s author that they shared his aversion to the teaching of evolution. In backroom political deals, legislators had been promised that even if the bill failed, Kentucky’s public schools would “IMMEDIATELY” dump all “infidel textbooks” and fire all “infidel teachers” . If the legislators weren’t satisfied with the schools’ course of action, they promised to reintroduce the bill and ban evolution by state law.  

By the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925, evolution education certainly seemed to be on the defensive nationwide. As one alarmed observer warned at the time, anti-evolution activists wanted nothing less than to “dominate our public institutions” . And, throughout the 1920s, it seemed likely that they would be able to do so. When the world’s attention turned to Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925, it was not only John Scopes who was on trial. The authority of mainstream science itself was being judged, and Scopes’ defenders pleaded with the jury to allow evolution to be included in public schools.  

Instead of resolving the issue of evolution education, the Scopes Trial only added a great deal more culture-war angst to the ongoing debate.   

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One of the lawyers on the defense team, Dudley Field Malone, earned the respect of all by keeping his suit coat on despite the scorching Tennessee heat, and on the fifth day, he impressed the crowd even more when he made the most electrifying speech of the entire trial. He did not argue against traditional religion. He did not try to prove that Scopes had not broken the law. Malone only pleaded that evolution be part of a well-rounded education. As Malone put it, “For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open.” The theory of evolution, Malone insisted, was not trying to edge religion out of public schools. It only wanted to make its case to the children of America. In 1925, even the most ambitious hope of liberals like Malone was that children across the country would have access to evolutionary theory, even if it had to be taught alongside creationism.  

In the end, despite Malone’s rousing argument, Scopes was found guilty. Although the trial had been touted as the final word on evolution education, it was anything but. The defenders of science viewed the trial as a huge success because they thought Malone had won the day in the court of public opinion. In America’s public school science classes, however, the trial had mixed results. Ever cautious about their marketing appeal, textbook publishers cut the word “evolution” from leading textbooks, but they often left the science content the same .

Deflated goals 

Since the Scopes Trial, creationism has gradually lost its power over American minds and in American classrooms. At least in part, creationism’s decline has been the result of dramatic improvements in science. In 1925, at the time of the Scopes Trial, mainstream scientists still had not figured out some of the mechanisms of evolutionary theory. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, however, they worked out the main questions. By 1968, when Susan Epperson took her case against Arkansas’ 1920s-era anti-evolution law to the U.S. Supreme Court, the teaching of evolution had the backing of the entire edifice of mainstream scientific thinking. In her support, the National Science Teachers Association offered a statement signed by a who’s-who of leading biologists. There was no longer any question of the importance of evolutionary theory, they told the Court, and all “scientists and other reasonable persons” agreed that evolution was a vital building block of modern knowledge .

The Supreme Court agreed. In striking language, Justice Abe Fortas captured the dramatic shift in mainstream thinking about science and religion. Back in the 1920s, state lawmakers and judges alike had seriously considered banning a scientific idea in order to protect a religious one. Such thinking, Fortas wrote in striking down Arkansas’s anti-evolution law, went profoundly against the thinking of “the modern mind” .

By the end of the 20th century, the position of creationists and evolution education had reached a complete reversal from the days of the Scopes Trial. In 1925, Dudley Field Malone had pleaded for evolution to have a place alongside creationism; by 1995, one of the nation’s leading creationists, Duane Gish, begged instead for creationism to be allowed a place in U.S. public school classrooms alongside evolution.  

Gish had become famous for his highly effective debate technique, the “Gish Gallop,” in which he rattled off facts in such quick succession that scientists were left floundering, unable to keep up. Yet, in spite of his success on the debate stage, even Gish could not ignore the new dominance of evolutionary science and the waning political clout of creationism. He never tried to ban evolution; instead, and stealing Malone’s line from 70 years earlier, he argued that creationism should receive a fair shake, if only so that children’s minds could be kept open (; ).

In the 21st century, the teaching of evolutionary science has only become even more dominant, with one leading creationist organization, Answers In Genesis (AIG), acknowledging that not even Gish’s desperate plea for inclusion is realistic today. As AIG leader Ken Ham put it, unequivocally, “We do not believe that creation should be mandated in public school science classrooms” (, ). In today’s skeptical environment, Ham worried, public school teachers would likely just mock creationist ideas if they were forced to teach them. This deflation of creationist ambitions doesn’t receive nearly as many headlines as AIG’s 2016 reconstruction of Noah’s Ark in Grant County, Kentucky, but the shift has been dramatic all the same .

Other types of creationism have experienced similarly dizzying declines. Some creationists have tried stripping creationism of its overt religious content in order to seem more palatable to public schools. For example, institutions such as the Discovery Institute (DI) have promoted theories of “intelligent design.” They have insisted that their ideas were not religious, but merely represented scientific objections to mainstream ideas about evolution . As did more traditional creationism, intelligent design had its day in court. In 2005, federal Judge John E. Jones decisively rejected such arguments. Intelligent design, Jones ruled, was not science, but only warmed-over religion .

Viewed in historical perspective, everything about the teaching of creationism and evolution in public schools has changed since the 1920s. Then, wedging evolutionary science into public schools was seen as a fond, if impractical, hope. Now, even the most ardent creationist activists no longer bother to fight to get creationism into public schools. 

Long shadows 

Certainly, not all public school science teachers are optimistic about the larger trend. A decade ago, for example, one middle school teacher told of introducing the theory of evolution to his class, only to have a student leap from his seat and shout, “I didn’t come from no stinkin’ monkey!” From inside such a classroom, the long-term decline of creationism’s power can be hard to see .

In state and federal politics, too, while creationists’ ambitions have shrunk, they’ve hardly disappeared. In recent years, for example, state lawmakers have introduced dozens of “academic freedom” bills, which aim to protect the “right” of science teachers to present critiques of the scientific consensus of such topics as evolution and climate change, even though those critiques have no credibility among mainstream scientists and science educators (; ). 

At the same time, in the United States and around the world, the shrinking political power of creationists has retreated from traditional public schools to private ones. Some private schools have adopted textbooks that include creationist ideas. At times, they have received tax funding to do so. Through an expanding set of “voucher” laws, private schools in several US states have received public funding, even though their textbooks often include radical creationist ideas about science .

Problems such as these represent the durable power of creationist thinking in American society, and, taken alone, they justifiably raise concerns about the quality of American science education and the overweening influence of politics in America’s classrooms, both public and private. In historical perspective, however, these bills do not represent the enduring power of creationism so much as its remarkable decline. 

Just as Duane Gish’s creationist arguments of the 1990s echoed Dudley Field Malone’s pro-evolution line from the Scopes Trial, the “academic freedom” bills demonstrate the ultimate weakness of the anti-evolution movement today. They can only repeat the successful language of their opposition, seemingly unaware that they are simply proving the weakness of their own ideas. Creationists today who plead for the “academic freedom” to teach creationism-friendly science are fighting a desperate last-ditch campaign; they no longer hope to “dominate our public institutions” as their forebears did in the 1920s, they can only plead to squeeze bad science into public school science classes alongside better science. 

Similarly, lawmakers who finagle public dollars for private schools that teach creationism have given up all hope of influencing public institutions. Rather, they only hope to squeeze a few tax dollars for their sectarian religious purposes. 

Evolution educators are right to look askance at any attempt to water down good science education, but they should also feel reassured that a full century of science activism, at least in the United States, has led to successes that would be hard to predict from the overheated Rhea County Courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, circa 1925. It is possible that the same is true in the European and German contexts. At the very least, policymakers, educators, biology teachers, educational scientists, and historians of education should be aware of the true lessons of the U.S. experience.


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