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Theisms, Creationisms, and Evolutionisms: An Exercise in Definition

The debate about labels is one of the most interesting aspects of the creation-evolution controversy to me, and at the same time one of the most frustrating. Since my primary training is in Biblical languages, and by my own efforts in linguistics, the way words are used simply fascinates me.

There is plenty of influence of the PR efforts, particularly those made on the intelligent design side, but also by those of folks in mainstream science. I’m not writing to complain about this. I think it is a natural thing for those who think they are advocating a true or valid position to try to label themselves and the issues in the most favorable fashion. Often this will seem to them as the most accurate labeling as well. After all, they are presenting a “true” position!

My attention was brought back to this topic a couple of days ago when I read this entry on the Panda’s Thumb which shows that [tag]Bill Dembski

rejects common descent. I then looked around for some evidence, because I thought I remembered that [tag]Michael Behe
accepts common descent. And sure enough I found it on Telic Thoughts in an article complaining about the use of terminology:

In reality, it is more accurate to label Behe a theistic evolutionist, as this label would accurately communicate that a) Behe is an evolutionist and b) believes God was involved in the process of evolution. And in fact, this is how most people interpret theistic evolution, as some sort of God-guided process. How most people interpret a label is the most important point.

I’m always interested when someone uses the phrase “most people” without any statistics, and despite the fact that the referenced post cite statistics, none of those demonstrate what “most people” believe theistic evolution means. I have argued before that “theistic evolution(ist)” is a problematic label (also here, and that while I see no real option but to accept it, I don’t think it describes my own position all that well.

Two factors come into play here. First, there is the simple enumeration of similarities and differences. In comparative literature or religion, I frequently emphasize the importance of looking at both similarities and differences when making a comparison. Volumes of writing on comparative literature and mythology are almost completely useless because authors have made the error of simply enumerating either similarities or differences. Second, there is the matter of weighting those similarities and differences. This weighting depends on one’s perspective. What is the most important element?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, Kenneth Miller and Michael Behe in the same room for a debate, and then suggest the topic of debate. (I’m not concerned here with whether they would actually debate these topics, just where those who have read their books and heard them speak would place them.) If the question is “Does evolutionary theory provide an adequate explanation for the diversification of life on earth?” then most likely we would find them on opposite sides of the table. If the question is “Is there a God?” then they are likely on the same side of the table. If the question is just how that God intervenes in nature, if at all, then it’s quite likely they end up on opposite sides of the table again.

I suggest this exercise with any group of scientists or theologians. If you consider all aspects of their life and views, then they will move around the table depending on the specific question that is asked. You can extend this mental exercise by asking how likely it is that your particular candidate will be in the room in the first place, because that will reflect that person’s interests, always provided you correct for their interest in a debate or panel as a form of exchange. One suspects that Kenneth Miller is much less likely to appear in a room where the debate is the existence of God than one where the debate is about some aspect of evolution.

The natural tendency is to create binary labels and definitions based on your primary interests. Thus to a hard-line atheistic evolutionist, only those who reject all divine intervention will be regarded as real evolutionists, and everybody else is a creationist. To a hard-line young earth creationist, only those who believe the world is young and was specially created in a short period of time are real creationists, while everyone else is some variety of evolutionist, and possibly also an atheist. This is how I got called both an atheist and a fundamentalist over the same post once on an online forum.

To counter this tendency I like to place viewpoints on a continuum. One could start by placing the creation-evolution controversy on a single continuum. At one end would be [tag]young earth creationism

, then [tag]ruin and restoration creationism
(the [tag]gap theory
), then [tag]old earth creationism
, next [tag]theistic evolution
, and finally [tag]atheistic evolution
. One of my first efforts in teaching this topic in churches is to move people away from a simple, binary creation-evolution controversy to an understanding that Christians hold a variety of views on the how of creation (see my pamphlet God the Creator).

But this division leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of description. For example, just what is necessary for someone to be called a creationist? How much divine involvement is required? If someone is an atheist, but believes that variation and natural selection don’t adequately explain the diversification of life on earth (a position that seems perverse to me, but nonetheless exists), can he be called an old earth creationist? Without a belief in God it seems odd to do so.

So it seems to me that we need at least three continua on which to represent this situation, and possibly a fourth. How this impacts the way labels are used will depend on one’s perspective. What is the most important content of the label?

  1. Theisms – There is a continuum from atheism through deism, then a god who interferes in very minimal ways, then an interventionist god, and finally one who interferes so much that we might as well forget science. Let’s fit this with a response to a critically ill child: Don’t pray, there’s no god — don’t pray, God won’t intervene — pray, it can’t hurt, but count on scientific medicine — it’s important to pray, but don’t neglect medical care — forget the doctors, god will heal.
  2. Creationisms – This is harder to do without including the age of the earth, but I would suggest that the range goes from creation is a divine act with almost no natural processes, next to God uses natural processes but intervenes regularly, God uses mostly natural processes but intervenes rarely, God uses natural processes for diversification, but intervened to create life in the first place, God is involved only in maintaining natural laws, there is no god.
  3. Evolutionisms – The range is narrower here if one includes only those views accepted by mainstream science, but nonetheless we can invert a portion of the “evolutionisms” scale. Start from: Variation + Natural selection explains (or will explain) not only life and its diversification but other things as well, next Variation + Natural selection explains (or will explain) everything about the diversification of life, intervention or currently unknown processes are necessary to explain the diversification of life, variation + natural selection explains very little.
  4. Age of the earth – I think this argument is off to the side, because there is simply no remotely reasonable scientific argument for a young earth, but nonetheless, let’s look at it. We would have to start from omphalism, the belief that the earth was created recently but given the appearance of age, then a hard young earth position based on the historical reliability of the genealogies of Genesis making the earth approximately 6,000 years old, then the slightly relaxed young earth position of 6-10,000 years, and then there is a huge gap going to old earth, which is the same as the general scientific consensus.

Now let me apply this to labeling. Is my use of the term intelligent design creationism (IDC) deceptive or accurate? Well, I use it so obviously I think it’s applicable, but why? Am I not merely tarring innocent ID advocates with a creationist label, trying to make them look like unreasonable young earth creationists? Actually it’s fairly hard to pin down. ID has the dubious honor of being a theory that can be embraced and rejected by folks just about anywhere on the spectrum. Those who object to the term should remember that ID has been embraced by young earth creationist Paul Nelson as well as near-evolutionist (but how near?) Michael Behe.

But the real reason I use the term is because my point of entry to this debate is the integrity of science education. From my perspective the important question is this: Does this person maintain the integrity of science, i.e. follow and advocate following the scientific evidence where it leads? In the case of Michael Behe, I don’t think one can say that. In fact, you regularly see him as an advocate of the opposing view, even where Bill Dembski doesn’t seem to want to go, such as at Dover. So in one sense Behe is closer to an evolutionist, but apparently that aspect is less important to him than is the advocate of some sort of divine intervention, however limited. That attitude spells a form of creationism with me. Whatever that elusive “majority” believes, I would suggest that it is appropriate to push an adjustment in their definition rather than merely accept it.

And at this point I need to make a note on definitions. First, they are not binary, but rather spheres of meaning. In other words, “theistic evolutionist” might describe people with quite different views, provided they have something in common that the definers regard as more critical. Second, definitions are not static things. Definitions do not arrive ex-nihilo, but rather are an expression of actual use by people. Thus there will always be pressures that change the definition in common usage, as well as new terms proposed.

So who should be regarded as a theistic evolutionist? It seems to me that the label evolutionist is most commonly used not for a technical description of someone who accepts common descent and a certain large role for variation and natural selection, but rather for someone who accepts the current theory of evolution as explaining the diversification of life. The situation becomes much more fluid with the introduction of the word “theistic.”

This fluidity is why I have a problem with this label. I am described as a theistic evolutionist, but I don’t believe that any intervention by God is required from start to finish. One label for that is a “fully gifted creation.” Note that I’m not excluding the possibility of miracles, but they would not be essential to the function of the universe, and if they had a physical impact, they would remain a singular unexplained event, rather than a whole category of events as in intelligent design.

Other theistic evolutionists believe that God subtly guides evolution, without leaving identifiable tracks. Is this the same view? I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me to have it in the same sphere of meaning, but there is a difference, however subtle. Then there is Michael Behe again. If there is a need for regular divine intervention, the focus is very strongly on “theistic” and not so much on “evolution.” Where the boundary would be, I don’t know. But if the label applied to me also applies to Michael Behe, I need a new one.

Finally, let’s simply note that labels are shortcuts, and only those who are unwilling to spend the time discovering someone’s actual views need be deceived. Unfortunately that leaves the vast majority of the population subject to deception. It’s interesting to find ID advocates complaining about “theistic evolutionist” considering the much bigger problem with their attempt to label IDC as science!

4 comments to Theisms, Creationisms, and Evolutionisms: An Exercise in Definition

  • If you read more on Telic Thoughts, you’ll find that we’ve distinguished between ID creationists and ID evolutionists. ID Creationist is accurate for some ID proponents but not for others. I would label Behe an ID evolutionist.

    Also, most of the contributers to Telic Thoughts (and MikeGene, for sure) don’t think ID is science (or, they think it is bad science). Nor do most of us (perhaps none of us, I can’t remember) think it should be taught in schools.

  • I’m glad to hear those particular points, but I was in no way intending a general response to Telic Thoughts as a blog, but rather simply commenting on the specific issue of how ID is labeled. I quoted the Telic Thoughts post particularly because of the classification of Michael Behe’s view.

  • You may be interested in this post, where I quote from both Behe and Dembski (also from Johnson) on some of what they believe that does not agree with Young-Earth Creationism.

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