On the Use of the Term "Creationism" in Popular Debate in the Past Century or So

[Historical Introduction from Eddie: Years ago, on BioLogos, I posted a lengthy discussion of the meaning of the term “creationism” in popular usage in the USA. Since at Peaceful Science we keep coming back to wrangle about the use of the term, I think it will save time for me to simply reproduce this discussion here. Though I have linked to this discussion before, on BioLogos it is in grayed-out print and is not easy to read, so I think a reproduction in darker print would be helpful. Here is exactly what I wrote:]

Under another column, there has been a debate over whether, in American popular debates over origins, “creationism” generally means something very broad, i.e., the belief that the world has been created by God, or something narrow, i.e., the belief that macroevolution did not happen, that instead all the basic types of living creature were created directly by God, that the Biblical story of creation is Genesis 1 was intended historically and is essentially historically accurate, and that science must conform to the Genesis account.

If the first position is right, then not only old earth and young earth creationists are “creationists”; so are all virtually all ID people and all TE/ECs. Indeed, if the first meaning is the common one, then all Christians, and pretty well everyone who holds to any theistic religion, would be a “creationist.” “Creationist” would then be such a broad term that it would cease to be of any use in identifying distinct parties in origins debates. On the other hand, if the second meaning is the common one, then “creationism” would clearly distinguish some Christians from other Christians on the subject of origins.

I have maintained that by far the most common usage of “creationist” and “creationism” (when these terms are used without an adjective in front of them) is the narrower usage. I thought that everyone familiar with the debates would instantly assent to this, but some still disagree. So I offer here samples of usage which, taken together, clearly demonstrate the frequency of the narrower usage. All emphases, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

Let us start with dictionaries. Dictionaries, which tend to be descriptive more than prescriptive, make a point of recording common usage. Here is what several dictionaries have to say:

From Dictionary.com:


  1. The doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist , by an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed .
  2. (Sometimes initial capital letter) the doctrine that the true story of the creation of the universe is as it is recounted in the Bible, especially in the first chapter of Genesis .

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

Simple Definition of creationism: the belief that God created all things out of nothing as described in the Bible and that therefore the theory of evolution is incorrect.

Full Definition of creationism: a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis — compare “evolution.”

From Oxforddictionaries.com:


  1. The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution .

1.1. Another term for “creation science.” [Eddie’s Note: Creation Science denies evolution]

Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

creationist: a ​person who ​believes that the ​world was made by ​God ​exactly as ​described in the ​Bible and does not ​accept the ​theory of ​evolution .

Collins English Dictionary:

creationism: the doctrine that ascribes the origins of all things to God’s acts of creation rather than to evolution.

Summary of Dictionary Entries:

None of these dictionaries includes the extremely general meaning “the belief that God created the world.” All of them include various versions of the narrow meaning, and imply a contrast between “creationism” and “evolution” and/or an appeal to the Bible against evolution when it comes to origins questions.

Now let’s look at some other reference works:

From Wikipedia:

Creationism is the religious belief that the Universe and life originated “ from specific acts of divine creation .”

[Eddie’s note: “specific acts of divine creation” is obviously not what Darwin or anyone since has meant by “evolution.”]

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“At a broad level, a Creationist is someone who believes in a god who is absolute creator of heaven and earth, out of nothing, by an act of free will… The focus of this discussion is on a narrower sense of Creationism, the sense that one usually finds in popular writings (especially in America today) . Here, Creationism means the taking of the Bible, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, as literally true guides to the history of the universe and to the history of life, including us humans, down here on earth (Numbers 1992).

[Eddie’s Note: This work, unlike the dictionaries, grants the existence of the broader meaning; however, it goes on to describe “the sense that one usually finds in popular writings (especially in America today)” as the narrower one. I had not read this article before, but its resemblance to my own wording is remarkable, as is its citation of the work of Numbers, whom I also had cited.]

An important part of the popular debate is the legal debate regarding evolutionary teaching in the schools. Here are some references to that debate which shed light on popular usage:

Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory :

(p. 981) “But creationism surged again in the 1970s… Creationists enjoyed a second round of success in the late 1970s, culminating in the passage of ‘equal time’ laws for creationism and evolution in the states of Arkansas and Louisiana.”

[Eddie’s Note: the context implies that “creationism” is a competing theory against “evolution.”]

(p. 989) “… the Arkansas trial permitted full scale testimony about creationism in a court of law. I feel honored that I had the opportunity to present the case for evolution as natural knowledge, and for creationism as pseudoscience …”

[Eddie’s Note: the context makes clear that “creationism” refers to the views of anti-evolutionary fundamentalists, not a broad general belief that God created the world.]

Resolution of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church on Evolution and Creationism (1982):

“Whereas, the state legislatures of several states have recently passed so-called “balanced treament” laws requiring the teaching of “Creation-science” whenever evolutionary models are taught … Whereas, the terms ‘Creationism’ and ‘Creation-science’ as understood in these laws do not refer simply to the affirmation that God created the Earth and Heavens and everything in them , but specify certain methods and timing of the creative acts , and impose limits on these acts…”

[Eddie’s Note: I am not trying to conceal the fact that the Resolution goes on to reject “creationism” so defined; the point is that “creationism” was so defined in some states, indicating the currency of that meaning of the term.]

Now, let’s look at some book titles :

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? (Watchtower, 1967)

[Eddie’s Note: the argument of the book implies polar opposition throughout.]

Creation or Evolution? , by David D. Riegle (Zondervan, 1972)

[Notes from Eddie: Quote from inside the book: “… the true antitheses that exist between anti-Biblical evolutionary theory and the Biblical account of creation found in Genesis”; further, the book was edited by and endorsed by John N. Moore, leading exponent of “Creation Science” – which is explicitly anti-evolutionary creationism.]

Now, here is an assortment of examples from various sources, all non-ID or anti-ID sources :

Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education , http://ncse.com/creationism/general/creationevolution-continuum

“Many — if not most — Americans think of the creation and evolution controversy as a dichotomy with “creationists” on one side, and “evolutionists” on the other.”

[Eddie’s Note (to avoid charges of out-of-context quoting): It must be added that Scott goes on to indicate that she wishes this were not the case; nonetheless, she starts out by describing what is the case, regarding current usage.]

Ken Miller, Finding Darwin’s God , p. 63:

“I first approached the creationist literature … The very first time I read through the creationist literature on this subject … I dug into Henry Morris’s Scientific Creationism …”

[Eddie’s Note: Henry Morris is adamantly anti-evolutionist.]

Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods :

(p. 258) “… some fundamentalists called for balancing instruction in evolution with creationist teaching as a supposedly constitutional alternative to excluding any one theory.”

[Eddie’s Note: Obviously the fundamentalists here understood creationism and evolution as opposing theories.]

(p. 265) “… the amens for creationism have increased in both number and volume over the years since 1955 … a vast number of Americans still believe in the Bible and accept it as authoritative on matters of science… [and] accept the biblical account of special creation over the scientific theory of evolution.”

Edward Humes, Monkey Girl (HarperCollins, 2007):

(p. 135) “Yet a steady stream of controversies continued, as the underlying conflict remained as strong as ever. Each side had its victories during the next quarter century, with the evolutionists prevailing in court, but the creationists winning in the court of public opinion…”

[Eddie’s Note: Obviously this implies stark opposition between “creationism” and evolution.]

(p. 137) “In 1996, Pope John Paul II dealt creationists a blow when he released a formal Vatican position paper stating the the human body might not, after all, be an immediate creation of God , but the product of a gradual evolutionary process.”

[Eddie’s Note: If “creationism” meant merely “affirmation of God as Creator,” then the Pope would be a “creationist” and would never “deal creationists a blow”; obviously, then, “creationist” here means something narrower, i.e., that the human body is “an immediate creation of God” rather than “the product of a gradual evolutionary process.”]

[Note that Humes comes to anti-ID conclusions in his book, so these definitions of “creationism” come from a source hostile to my position.]

These examples are only a very small sample of what I could come up with, if I had time. :slight_smile:

I think a reasonable person would conclude that the sense of “creationism” I have been using is very widespread, and that my decision to employ that very widespread sense is not based on any “apologetic” desire on my part, but simply on my conviction that a clear discussion about who is, and who is not, a “creationist” can best be held if everyone sticks with the meanings of “creationism” and “creationist” that are the ones most widely used in the arena of discourse (i.e., the arena of popular American discussions of origins).


You’ve introduced a false dichotomy between the very broad, and the narrow. Several of us here would argue that the common meaning is somewhere between those extremes. (Your narrow definition would exclude Reasons to Believe, Jehovah’s Witnesses and half or more of the Discovery Institute.)

Many of us treat rejection of science as the boundary condition, and would draw the line between theistic evolutionists and progressive creationists. Those who want to affirm their belief in divine creation (evolutionary creationists) draw the category wider.


Additionally he’s only treating the common use of “creationism” and “creationist” as isolated nouns, completely avoiding the fact that they are also commonly used in adjectival noun phrases, specifically with the broader meaning that he wants to avoid.

He’s also ignorant of how old terms such as “evolutionary creationism” and “creation by evolution” are, but that’s another story.

Yes. That’s precisely why terms such as “creation by evolution”, “evolutionary creationism”, “Young Earth Creationism”, and “Old Earth Creationism”, actually predate the term “intelligent design”. I have no problem at all identifying myself as a kind of creationist; specifically, an evolutionary creationist.

No. That’s precisely why “creationism” and “creationist” continue to be used in common terms such as “Young Earth Creationst” and “Old Earth Creationist” and “Evolutionary Creationist”, because people fully recognize that it is of use in identifying distinct parties in origins debates. No one reading those terms says “Well you’ve used the word “creationist” each time, so it’s totally unclear how they’re all different, they all look the same to me, I can’t tell them apart”.

The use of the word “creationist” in those terms does exactly what it’s supposed to do; identify what they all have in common. That’s precisely how it’s used when speaking of “ID Creationism”.


Two words: " cdesign proponentsists ".

End of discussion.


The dividing line for me is natural processes and supernatural miracles. We could point to Stephen Meyer who argued that some of the taxa we find in the Cambrian had no ancestors. What are we left to conclude? That they were created by God through supernatural miracles . . . err . . . “designed”. Look at any website that supports Intelligent Design and you will find diatribes against “materialism” and complaints that science won’t accept God’s supernatural miracles. Everywhere we look we see an attempt to deny natural processes in favor of supernatural miracles. For me, that is creationism.


I think Meyer indicates pretty clearly that he thinks there were massive inputs of new information at various stages in earth history, and I think he has in mind what most people would call supernatural intervention. That’s “Meyer” that’s not “ID”. Just as there are “libertarian Republicans” and “religious right Republicans” who differ from each other on some issues, but are still Republicans, so various ID proponents can differ on some issues, while remaining ID proponents. It’s clear that Meyer and Denton don’t envision things in the same way. It’s also clear that they both think that design was necessary. I don’t see the problem you have with this. It’s no different from realizing that there can be egg-laying mammals, and marsupials, and placentals, but that they are all still mammals.

“Creationism”, when used by itself, is almost always understood as denying the reality of bacterium-to-man evolution. John Harshman understands this.

Yes, one can put adjectives in front of creationism such as “Old Earth” and “Young Earth”, because they don’t modify the basic sense of anti-evolution. Everyone knows that YECs and OECs are anti-evolution, as evolution is commonly understood.

However, when one fiddles around with terms like “evolutionary creationism”, one invites confusion and misunderstanding, because the “ism” at the end of “creationism” is loaded with cultural resonances, even if the user of the compound term wishes those resonances didn’t exist and hopes to abolish them. Thus, the attempts by BioLogos etc. to talk about “evolutionary creationism” merely muddy the waters.

You fail to appreciate the weight of history in language – the loading of words with connotations that become widespread in a culture. The aroma of evolution denial clings to the word “creationism”, and that is why attempting to sanitize the term for use by evolutionists, by the addition of a qualifying adjective “evolutionary,” either fails or engenders confusion.

You might try attempting to revive the original sense of the word “gay” by using compounds such as “light-hearted gay” or “playful gay” in contrast with a compound such as “homosexual gay” – and see how far you get. The connotations of homosexuality that “gay” has picked up are, at least at the moment, impossible to erase. Words aren’t simply blank tokens on which we can write any value. They come loaded with history, culture, ideological slant, etc.

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I see. Could you cite some of the research from other ID Creationists who dispute or disagree with Meyer’s suggestion?

Congratulations on highlighting ID-Creationism’s worst flaw. There is no coherent IDC position. IDC proponents in their Big Tent can’t say when the Design was done (once or continuously), or where, or how, or by what physical mechanism(s). The only common point they share is they all think their Christian God did it.

That’s why IDC is not science and doesn’t belong anywhere near a science classroom.


Not in the context of ID-Creationism discussions it isn’t. You can keep making the false claim all day long and it will remain false.

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Since I deny the validity of the term “ID Creationists”, I can’t answer your question as asked.

However, if you rephrase your biased formulation to make it accurate and non-polemical, i.e., if you ask:

“Could you cite some of the research from other ID proponents who dispute or disagree with Meyer’s suggestion?”

Then I can answer: Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to debate publicly about the relationship between creation, evolution, and design. For those who accept the inference to design, but don’t much care for miraculous interventions, Denton is the man to look at.

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This response has nothing to do with my column above, which is an empirical study of the terms “creationism” and “creationist.” It was not about “design” at all.

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Intelligent Design theory lacks specific examples of design, so it’s supporters are free to assume almost anything. I know there are a few over at Uncommon Descent who believe that evolution is incapable of generating any new information. For such people, ID supports their notion that God is directly responsible for creating, at the very least, every kind if not every species to walk the Earth. That seems like a good fit for the Creationist label.

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I’d like to know how IDC people think they get from the mind’s “design” mental image to the final physical instantiation of the “design” without there being a creation / manufacturing step.

I know, I know. " ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories." :slightly_smiling_face:

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Yes, “for such people.” But not all ID proponents are “such people.”

ID in itself offers no view regarding how design is instantiated, and therefore ID can be adopted by either creationists or evolutionists – where “evolutionist” has the simple meaning of “one who accepts descent with modification, even possibly as far as from bacterium to man.”

As I showed above, the general meaning of the term “creationism” in popular origins debates is “anti-evolution.” But ID is, in principle, neutral on the question of evolution (if by evolution one means simply “descent with modification”). ID theory is thus incapable of taking a side regarding “evolution vs. creation”.

However, ID theory can take sides regarding particular proposed methods of evolution. For example, it argues that classical neo-Darwinian theory never provided an adequate designer-substitute, despite its claims. It argues that only intelligent design could produce some of the patterns that neo-Darwinism explained wholly through chance mutations and natural selection. I’m not here to debate whether that is true – it has been debated endlessly. My point is only to show that ID does not oppose “creation” to “evolution” – while “creationism” routinely does that.

It is of the very essence of creationism to deny that evolution (beyond trivial microevolution) occurred. ID, on the other hand, has no required position on the question “whether or not evolution occurred.” That’s why Behe and Denton can be on the same ID team as Nelson and Wells.

It’s also of the very essence of creationism to regard the Bible as true regarding matters of origins, whereas ID has absolutely nothing at all to say about the Bible.

Of course, individual ID proponents can be creationists, and most are. But the theory allows for ID evolutionists as well. Discovery has published four (4) books by Michael Denton. There is no reason why an organization devoted exclusively to creationism would publish any books at all advocating evolution. So ID theory is not co-extensive with creationism. Where “ID proponent” and “creationist” overlap, the two views are held together. But there is no necessity for such overlap.

The remark is foolish, because, of course, they don’t think that. But they don’t insist on any particular account on the physical side. It’s analogous to knowing that a structure (e.g., the Great Pyramid) is designed, while allowing several competing theories on how the structure was physically built, because one is not sure how it was done.

Your comment actually belongs in the other discussion, not here. I intended my column to be focused on how the term “creationism” is generally used in popular debates about origins. It is not about intelligent design theory.

That’s the problem. The ID-Creationists don’t think at all. They claim to be doing science but they never ask a single pertinent question about the details of what is being investigated. To use your pyramid example, can you imagine archaeologists uncovering a new pyramid in the desert and going “Hey, it looks DESIGNED! Who cares who designed it, or who built it, or when, or the resources required, or the method used for construction, or how it fits in with other similar structures? It’s DESIGNED! Let’s go have a beer!” :roll_eyes:

I replied here because the point was somewhere between the design and the instantiation then must be a DELIBERATE CREATION of the physical object. That’s why it is correct to refer to IDers as Creationists.


That’s a book intended for a general audience. I asked for research.

Some helpful reading for you:

You also might not realize that Denton’s ideas had been empirically tested a few decades before he wrote his book. Can you guess the results?


On the contrary, this response demonstrates that even the people you refer to as “Intelligent Design Proponents” recognize that the term is synonymous with “Creationist”, to the point that they used the terms completely interchangeably when rewriting their textbook.

It’s still a great joke they pulled on themselves.


And as we have shown, ID was invented specifically to oppose evolution, which is why opposition to evolution is a typical characteristic of ID literature. ID theory has not only taken a side regarding “evolution vs creation”, it was invented specifically to promote one side, the anti-evolution side. ID is not neutral on the topic of evolution, and routinely opposes it, just like creationism.

How unsurprising.