On the current usage of the term "creationist" as applied to ID

One of our members, @Eddie, who is a fervent supporter of what I, and many others here, refer to as Intelligent Design Creationism, has objected to the term “creationist” being used to describe all members of the ID movement. Specifically, he believes that the term should not be used to refer to individuals such as Michael Behe and Michael Denton who accept common ancestry between all organisms on earth, including humans.

In defense of his position, he recently started a topic in which he purports to demonstrate thru quotations that the term “creationism” is generally used in narrow sense that would exclude any views that accept that humans and other organisms evolved from common ancestors, even if it is claimed that this could not have occurred entirely thru the naturalistic processed described under the theory of evolution and, instead, required the intervention at some point of an “intelligent designer.”

There ensued an, at times, rather spirited if not heated discussion in which I was an active participant. However, I think it appropriate to write a more detailed and clearly worked thru response, rather than have it buried in fragmented form in that discussion.

My disagreement with @Eddie is mainly twofold:

  1. I believe his citations are selective and not representative of the full range of ways in which the term “creationist” is currently used.

  2. He sets up a premise by which there are two dichotomous ways in which the term can be used:

My position is that these two extreme positions to not exhaust the possibilities, and in what follows I will give examples in which the term is used in a manner that is more narrow than the first, but broader than the second. Specifically, I will demonstrate that the current practice includes using the term “creationism” to refer to ID as a whole, including those of its proponents who accept common ancestry.

(I also believe that @Eddie misrepresented or misunderstood many of the quotations he used, but I do not wish to get bogged down in an exhaustive point-by-point debunking of his post. In the interest of fairness, I will also mention that at least one person who opposes ID agrees with Eddie’s definition.)

To begin with, I took an admittedly rather simplistic approach and did a Google search for pages containing the terms “Behe” and “creationist” or “creationism.” Here are some of the examples that came up:

“Since the publication of his book Darwin’s Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996), Behe has made dozens of public appearances to promote his creationist ideology and respond to criticisms with specious arguments…”

https://ncse.ngo/michael-behe-and-intelligent-design-national-public-radio

“If you go to the website of the biology department of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where resides the ID creationist Michael Behe, you’ll find this disclaimer:…”

Now, admittedly, these are drawn from sources that are critical of the Intelligent Design movement. However, there are also examples from ID proponents acknowledging this use of the term. For instance, this from none other than the founder of the ID movement, Philip E. Johnson:

“Some readers may wonder why the scientists won’t admit that there are mysteries beyond our comprehension, and that one of them may be how those complex animal groups could have evolved directly from pre-existing bacteria and algae without leaving any evidence of the transition. The reason that such an admission is out of the question is that it would open the door to creationism, which in this context means not simply biblical fundamentalism, but any invocation of a creative intelligence or purpose outside the natural order.”

http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/pjdogma1.htm

Regardless of whether Johnson himself endorses or agrees with this use of the term, it cannot be denied that he explicitly confirms that it is used in this way. And this if far from the only example of ID proponents complaining about being referred to as creationists. If this use of the term was truly as rare and anomalous as @Eddie would have us believe, one would have to wonder why ID proponents are spending so much time and effort trying to correct it.

Additionally, if we look at the scholarly literature, we find that there are philosophers of science who refer to ID as “Intelligent Design Creationism”, to the point that it is even sometimes referred to by the acronym “IDC”:

And, of course, let’s not forget the example that was most devastating to the intelligent design movement, the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial where a US federal court was convinced by evidence, including testimony from Michael Behe himself, that ID is nothing more than a form of creationism, rebranded for legal and political purposes.

So we have multiple examples, including the academic literature and legal decisions, in which ID is referred to as a form of creationism. Now, certainly Eddie and other defenders of ID are free to try argue that this is a result of a misconception or misunderstanding of ID, of other forms of creationism, or of both. But that is a battle for them to fight, and no one is obliged to concede the argument to them. What is clear is that it is untenable to claim that, in practice, the term “creationism” is not frequently used in a manner which includes all versions of intelligent design, including those forms which accept common ancestry.

Beliefs like creationism are not usually not static, and neither is language. There may have been a time when creationists all but universally believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old, and this could be taken as a sine qua non of creationist belief. However, over time increasing numbers of creationists have conceded that this belief is untenable in light of the available evidence, hence the splitting of creationism into “young earth” and “old earth” varieties. What I suspect we may now be observing is a recognition by an as-yet small number of creationists that the evidence for common ancestry similarly cannot be denied, and that creationism must be modified to reflect this. If this becomes a larger trend within the movement, it may soon be denoted a third stream of creationism, perhaps called “Common Descent Creationism”. To my thinking, this would be far more reflective of reality than to lump Behe and Denton in with proponents of evolution, and as opponents of the forms of creationism that deny common descent. A mere look at the rhetoric of these individuals, of other members of the ID movement, and of those who defend the theory of evolution against creationism will show a clear demarcatioin, with Behe and Denton on the same side of the divide as the other creationists.

The definition of creationism that I believe is most reflective of the facts as given in the above discussion would be along the lines of “The belief that any attempt to account for the diversity of living forms that have populated the earth which does not require the direct intervention of an intelligent agent such as a god fails as a scientific theory.”

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That’s not the way I’ve phrased it, but it’s a fair match for how I define creationism. It neatly captures the narrow line between theistic evolution and progressive creationism.

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That’s what I was going for. Specifically, I was looking for a definition that would draw a line between Michael Behe and @swamidass.

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If it walks like a creationist, and quacks like a creationist, then it’s a creationist.

@Eddie seems to want a rigid dictionary definition of “creationist”. But that’s not how language works.

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It should be clear to anyone who has followed the ID movement that insisting on the sort of definition of “Creationism” that @Eddie advocates is part of a broader strategy to insinuate creationism into school curriculum in the guise of “intelligent design” or “teaching the controversy.”

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An astounding statement, if you have read my article above. In fact, I established my definition inductively. I examined the usage not only as reported in dictionaries, but in a wide range of non-dictionary texts. Did you read what I wrote?

Quite the opposite. You fail to understand the difference between “establishing the normal meaning of a term in the language” and “endorsing the contents of the term as true.” I think that “creationism,” as I have defined it, is a FALSE teaching about reality. So not only do I not think it should be taught in the schools, I don’t think it should even be believed by anyone.

Of course, I do believe that the world was created, but that is not the same as upholding “creationism,” which is a much narrower belief, as I demonstrated by an inductive philological study.

My personal history is one of strong opposition to creationism, as defined above, from the time I was maybe ten years old. I never went to any fundamentalist church (only to mushy mainstream churches which are fine with evolution), and I came to a position that was ID-friendly not through creationism, but from academic study of science, philosophy, and the history of ideas (including the history of science) in a secular university setting. When ID came along, my ideas about design, chance, teleology, Darwin, etc. were already well-formed; it was not ID authors who first persuaded me that there was design in nature; I already held that view. What ID gave me was more detailed documentation of that order and design, in terms of the molecular world, and the fine-tuning of nature.

I’m dead against bringing the Bible or any religious revelation into science class as the basis of any argument about how nature works. In science class, observation, experiment, mathematics, and general reasoning are what should be employed, not theology or textual exegesis. I’m certainly opposed to the old creationist program of “equal time” in science class for Creation Science and evolution. And so is Discovery.

As for ID, I’m of the view that ID is not sufficiently developed theoretically to warrant a place in the science curriculum as yet. What the future may bring, I cannot say. If more and more evidence emerges of design in nature, it may be that design in nature will become an acceptable position in mainstream science. If and when that happens, then of course ID should and will find its way into the curriculum. But for now, it should stay out.

But that doesn’t mean that everything taught under the name of “evolution” in the schools should get an uncritical pass. All of science, all of every subject in the schools, needs to be taught critically; students need to be encouraged to learn, not just the latest conclusions accepted by the majority, but how those conclusions were reached, and how all knowledge is tentative and revisable. That goes not just for evolution, but for all claims of absolute certainty, whether regarding climate change, or the latest dogmas about what foods are good for you what foods aren’t, or the claim that we can get “universes for free” out of “nothing.”

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Faizal Ali’s procedure for proving that “creationism” includes ID involves assembling quotations from very recent authors and sources, all of whom are biased partisans in current debates surrounding ID. Basically, his argument is: “Lots of partisan people in very recent years call ID creationism, and therefore that is legitimate usage.” But what “lots of partisan people” say is not a measure of the general usage of terms in a language. To establish that, one needs a wider inductive study. Faizal Ali has just cherry-picked a bunch of recent sources who employ the same misuse of “creationism” that he does; there is nothing scholarly, objective, or historical about his study. In contrast, my study of the word made use of a much wider range of sources (including many sources hostile to my own point of view regarding ID – a safety check Faizal Ali did not perform), and covered a much wider historical sweep.

Lots of people nowadays confuse the meanings of “infer” and “imply”; is it correct to use the terms interchangeably, merely because there are many linguistically incompetent people writing nowadays? I hope not. People should familiarize themselves with the standard use of terms before they apply them. The people who would call Behe a “creationist” do not understand the standard meaning of the word.

But as I’ve already indicated, this is not merely a question of philological incompetence. There is a political agenda. As I have already demonstrated (and Faizal Ali has not yet answered the objection), any definition that would make Michael Behe a “creationist” would also make Ken Miller one (both are Christian, both Catholic, both think God created everything, and both endorse bacterium to man progression), yet Eugenie Scott and the NCSE never called Ken Miller a “creationist.” The motivation for this preferential treatment is obviously political. “Creationism” is a term of reproach in NCSE vocabulary, and they weren’t going to attack one of their own members, Ken Miller, by using that term to describe his views. That Faizal Ali can’t recognize this blatant politicization of vocabulary is proof that he himself is politicized in exactly the same way as the NCSE. He cannot stand back and examine the meaning of words with historical, empirical objectivity.

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That’s being too generous with Eddie. For instance, here is one of the examples @Eddie used, which he thinks demonstrates the use of the word “Creationism” that he endorses:

Eddie seems to think that, on the basis of this quote, Scott places Michael Behe on the same side of that divide as the “evolutionists.” Isn’t that just hilarious?

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At the start of this thread Faizal Ali offered a definition of creationism. Please elucidate why that definition would make Ken Miller a creationist.

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Here, Eddie. Read what Behe has to say himself:

Scott refers to me as an intelligent design “creationist,” even though I clearly write in my book Darwin’s Black Box (which Scott cites) that I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent.

Isn’t that odd? Eugenie Scott, the person you cited in your own post, uses the word “creationist” in exactly the manner that I suggest. according to Michael Behe himself.

How could that be, Eddie?

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Please try to follow the discussion. This started way back, before you entered the fray. I pointed out back then, that the definition of “creationism” that was being employed by the NCSE in relation to Michael Behe would apply equally well to Ken Miller, and I pointed out that the NCSE carefully avoided labeling Miller as a creationist, while gleefully doing so with Behe. I was talking about that, but Faizal Ali never answered my point. So I raised it again above.

I am not claiming that Faizal Ali’s current philologically incompetent attempt at defining the word would apply to Ken Miller. I discount Faizal Ali’s presentation as philologically worthless, for reasons set forth above, so I wouldn’t bother to use it for any purpose.

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I am not aware of what definition they were using. If it labels Ken Miller a creationist, it’s a crappy one. But I want you to first demonstrate that it would do so. Thanks.

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Hmm. So your definition of “philologically worthless” is “consistent with the word’s use in the scholarly literature”?

OK, sure, right.

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I suggest that you read it:

Scott refers to me as an intelligent design “creationist,” even though I clearly write in my book Darwin’s Black Box (which Scott cites) that I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent. In fact, my own views fit quite comfortably with the 40% of scientists that Scott acknowledges think “evolution occurred, but was guided by God.”

Behe makes exactly the point that I am making. The point is that Scott is using the word “creationist” wrongly in applying it to Behe. And Behe’s complaint is justified in terms of the actual usage of the word over the past century – as my study showed. Scott is deliberately misusing the term for political purposes, which was another of my points.

Since philology is not your field, and it is my field, let me give you a bit of instruction. When one is deciding whether or not a current contested use of a term is in line with established usage, one can’t use the very authors who are employing the contested use as evidence of established usage. That would be arguing circularly.

Here is an example: “Obama was a Communist.” Now, suppose that I could find a hundred examples in right-wing political literature written in the past 15 years in which Obama was called a “Communist.” Would that prove that the writers understood the meaning of “Communism” and were applying it correctly to Obama? No, it would not. The proper way of handling that claim would be to look at the standard usage of the term “Communism” over a significant period of time, by a significant range of writers, and then decide whether the policies of actions of Obama could be classed as “Communist,” based on that philological study.

This is exactly what you have failed to do. You haven’t first established dispassionately the usage of “creationism” in American popular debate, and then gone to recent writers like Eugenie Scott and the NCSE people, and tested their usage to see if it’s in line with established usage. You have simply treated it as established usage because that’s the way they use it – which is begging the question.

Whereas you assembled quotations also from biased partisans, but misrepresented or misunderstood them.

Afraid I come out ahead on that score, Eddie.

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No, he just didn’t like the way she used it.

Anyway, you are ignoring the main point: You had cited Scott as an example of someone who uses the word “creationist” in the way you think it should be used. Now, all of a sudden, you say she’s using it incorrectly because her use hurt Michael Behe’s little fee-fee’s, poor thing.

You don’t seem to understand the sources you are citing, since they actually support the argument I am making.

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In either scholarly literature or popular debate, the newfangled, polemically-driven usage that would make Behe a creationist is non-standard.

I already explained this, more than once. Miller and Behe both affirm that God created the world, and both affirm descent with modification from bacterium to man. So how can you call one a creationist and the other an evolutionist? Both would be “theistic evolutionists” in common parlance. And Denton would be either a theistic evolutionist or a deistic evolutionist. Neither Denton nor Behe are creationists, unless Ken Miller is also one. So choose your poison: concede that Miller is a creationist, or admit that Behe isn’t one. You can’t have it both ways.

Am I alone in finding this whole discussion useless and, worse, uninteresting? It began with a complaint about the term “intelligent design creationism”. Whether that term makes sense requires both a definition of “creationism” and an idea of who or what it’s being applied to. Neither of these questions has a single answer, there being multiple definitions and multiple applications.

Now it’s devolved into whether Michael Behe, specifically, deserves to be called that. This is a tempest in Russell’s teapot.

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