Who’s calling who a creationist?

GodAdampurAnyone who has read GetReligion for a while knows that, as a rule, we are fans of the work of religion-beat star Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Click here for a flashback to her fine work on a story that other papers we could mention have been, well, oversimplifying a bit.

It has been a busy week for me and I have been struggling to catch up the whole time, at work and here at the blog. Dozens of stories I wanted to write about have come and gone. One of them was Goodstein’s coverage of a July poll — done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press — on what Americans believe about creation.

As so often happens on the Godbeat, language is everything and the problems start right there in the headline: “Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey.” It turns out that this is the rare story in which it is possible to use the term “creationism” and have it mean something more than a slur. You betcha, there are real-life “creationists” in this poll and lots of them.

More on that in a minute. The key is that Goodstein is caught in a thicket of words, trying to draw lines between two very different groups of people and her newspaper seems to want to describe all of them with the same word — creationists. In fact, I would argue that the story centers on three or more different groups.

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of all Americans say they think “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. But things get more complex right there in the second and third paragraphs.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was “guided by a supreme being,” and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

Well now, that’s complicated. In other words, there are strict biblical literalists and millions of them. Then there are people who believe that the mechanism of evolution could not have been random and impersonal. Some of these people probably call themselves “theistic evolutionists,” except that the Darwinian establishment is not going to allow that definition of “evolution” in any educational space that is meaningful. There also appear to be true evolutionists who are in favor of free speech on issues of science and philosophy in the public square — even if the idea is tainted with the word “creationism.” Thus:

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of “American pragmatism.”

The problem, of course, is that Goodstein and her editors have only two words to use — evolution and creationism — and they have a number of other camps to describe, on both sides of the divide.

There are evolutionists who truly believe that schools should lurch beyond science and teach that the evidence proves that evolution is random and impersonal, thus locking the God of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam out of the equation. There are other evolutionists who believe that they should just stick with the facts and remain neutral on the theological questions. They do not behave the same in these debates. There are young-earth “creationists.” There are other “creationists” who think the world is millions and millions of years old and that God has worked in ways that produced evidence — big word, evidence — of design in that process. There are other “creationists” who affirm some aspects of Darwinian dogma and reject others. This pope and the last one fit in this particular “creationist” camp, even if journalists hate to say so.

So what is a “strict creationists” and what is a “creationist” and what is a “creationist” who accepts some Darwinian doctrine and rejects other parts of the canon?

What in the world does “creationist” mean, anyway? Is this puzzle something like the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of “pornography”? New York Times editors cannot define the word “creationism,” but they know one of these crazy people when they see one (or millions and millions of them)?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com Peter T Chattaway

    Re: the term “theistic evolutionst”. Just to complicate things further, for accuracy’s sake, Denis Lamoureux says he prefers the term “evolutionary creationist“:

    “The better term for born-again Christians who accept evolution is ‘evolutionary creationist.’ This is to distinguish us from deists (those who believe in the impersonal God-of-the-philosophers) and liberal Christians. Evolutionary creationists believe in miracles. I’m charismatic and have often experienced signs and wonders. We believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. I drink from it daily, for my spiritual nourishment. And we believe in intelligent design in nature, as revealed in Psalm 19 and Romans 1 — for example, that complexity within the cell declares the glory of God. In fact, evolutionary creationists will even say the Big Bang and the evolution of life reflect the mind of God.

    “The problem with the term ‘theistic evolution’ is that the substantive — the more important term — is a scientific theory (the noun ‘evolution’); and God is only the qualifier (the adjective ‘theist’). I refuse to have the Lord as secondary to a human theory about the origin of the physical world. I am first and foremost a creationist. I believe in the Creator. I believe the world is His creation. From my perspective, it is clear to me that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit created the world through an ordained and sustained evolutionary process, in the same way that God created each of us in our mother’s womb through an ordained and sustained embryological process.”

  • Brad

    In some of the theology writings I’ve seen, they talk about both “theistic evolution” and “progressive creationism,” with the former leaning slightly more toward the science and the latter slightly more toward God’s direct intervention. I think I fit somewhere between these 2, which would probably make me a creationist in the NYT poll, despite the fact that both accept at least some of Darwin’s evolution (the science, but not the philosophy he developed as a result).


  • Mark

    I find the information science arguments against macroevolution persuasive. Put me down firmly in the creationist camp.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    How about referring to “evolutionary biology” rather than making dark references to “Darwinist dogma”? Mind that log in the eye…

  • tmatt


    If you have read GR on this issue, you know that this is a reference to Darwinian PHILOSOPHY that is goes past what the science can show in the lab. Ditto for the philosophical assumptions of Intelligent Design. Both sides want to do the science-logic-philosophy sequence. In both cases, you end up with something that can be called doctrine or dogma.

    This is not an national fight over lab work. This is a fight over interpretation of lab work.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com Peter T Chattaway

    Terry, I have to say I share Barth’s concern — a sentence like “There are ‘creationists’ who affirm some aspects of Darwinian dogma” makes it sound like Christians are capitulating to someone else’s heresy. I am also not sure how you would draw the line between “theory” and “philosophy”. “Theory”, by its very nature, goes beyond the evidence produced “in the lab”, but it is still rooted in evidence. And if all other science is rooted in methodological naturalism (as opposed to metaphysical naturalism), why should this branch of science be any different?

    Keep in mind, too, that the theory of evolution was around for about a hundred years before Darwin introduced the mechanism (i.e., natural selection) by which evolution might work. I’m not sure whether that affects the discussion here, but it’s helpful to remember that not all that is evolutionary is necessarily “Darwinian”.

  • francis


    I understand your concerns about “theistic evolution” (to which I subscribe, as a Christian), but one thing that this cannot refer to is the opinion of deists. This would be “deistic evolution”, but that’s a nonsensical term, since deists believe God created the world and then left it to itself. Hence “deistic evolution” would be just as unguided and random as any atheist would have it.

    “And if all other science is rooted in methodological naturalism (as opposed to metaphysical naturalism), why should this branch of science be any different”

    Well, if this branch is rooted in “methodological naturalism” it simply cannot prove “metaphysical naturalism”. This would be begging the question, wouldn’t it.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    “Darwinian PHILOSOPHY that is goes past what the science can show”

    What would that be? A few grumpy op-eds from Richard Dawkins about religion, or something more substantial about how scientists actually do their job? Do biology journals and textbooks make statements about the existence of God etc?

    “This is a fight over interpretation of lab work.”

    Most of which work is done by one side…

    But my main complaint is about the idea that evolutionary biology should be seen as “Darwinist dogma” or “doctrine”. It gives the impression that scientists are continually consulting Darwin’s tomes in order to interpret their findings and to judge how acceptable new scientific discoveries may be.

    That’s simply a mischaractarisation of how science works; although I can understand why Creationists and IDers (Demskiists?) would like to downgrade scientific naturalism to some sort of “ideology”.

  • Phil Blackburn

    There is an interesting overview from a scientific perspective of a range of positions in the evolution/creation argument on the AAAS website: http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/evolution/perspectives/haught.shtml (apologies if this doesn’t link automatically).

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    The use of loaded words like “ideology” and “Darwinian dogma” to describe philosophical positions, when those positions have been only vaguely defined, seems to me to constitute the very problem we’re faced with in this debate. What, exactly, is Darwinian philosophy? I’ve heard every idea out there, from a sociological theory (the actual origin of the term “survival of the fittest”) best left to the dung-heap of history to a vague set of evolutionary metaphysics, which would include Whitehead, Bergson, and de Chardin, as well as Heidegger. However, never have I found an actual link that would justify calling these systems “Darwinian.”

    Peter is absolutely correct: evolution was suggested long before Darwin. Recall, if you will, the discussion of Lamarck from your history of science texts and his model of acquired inheritance.

  • dan doyle

    I think the term Darwinian dogma can be traced to the materialistic and aggressively atheistic attitudes of many prominent scientists such as the late Carl Sagan or the equally late Steven Jay Gould. Sagan wrote in his popular Cosmos series “The Cosmos is all that ever was, is, and all there ever will be.” That’s a statement of almost biblical scope, a hypothesis that could never be proven, thus it strays out of the scientific and enters the realm of the metaphysical (dare I say religious). What it most certainly does is exclude a Creator for that cosmos. That he cannot prove the absence of a Creator, yet strongly asserts that absence, is classic dogmatism.

    I like the full title of Darwin’s seminal work “The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Natural selection is almost a truism, of course creatures most suited to their environment will compete more effectively than creatures less suited to their environments. But does this mean that there is no God? That is presumptuous, and basically unscientific.

    It is true that natural selection may cause creatures to change over time to a changing environemnt. But they may more easily go extinct. Or they may change without a change in their environment through seemingly random mutation. But the fact remains that every living thing on Earth has a common origin. Natural selection cannot account for the very origin of life, its very singular origin.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    Basil: You can go back much further than Lamarck. Try Genesis 30: there we find the explanation for why some sheep are speckled and some are not. Apparently, it is due to the parents of particular sheep viewing speckled objects while mating. Curiously, “Answers in Genesis” tends not to push that bit of Biblical science too vigorously…

    Dan: Yes, Sagan and Gould were atheists. Whether or not their declarations on the subject amounts to “Darwinian dogma” is debateable, but I’d like to see examples of such rhetoric from academic journals and textbooks, not popular paperbacks. It is only there where we can judge the assertion of IDers and Creationists that the way scientists work is biased against scientific evidence for a creating diety or alien.

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