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Monday, 18 May 2009

The NCSE Creationism-Evolution Continuum: It is Time for a New Model

The creation-evolution dialogue is complex. This complexity has lead many to misunderstand the issues, and is an important reason why the false creation/evolution dichotomy continues to enjoy such wide support. Any tool that can accurately simplify the discussion should be welcomed.

A) The Creationism/Evolution Continuum

At first blush, the NCSE's “Creationism-Evolution Continuum” appears to be such a tool. To support their objective of encouraging quality science education, the NCSE developed the tool to combat the perceived conflict between religion & science. In Eugenie Scott’s brief overview of the continuum on the NCSE site she states:

It is highly desirable to move people away from this inaccurate [creation / evolution] dichotomy. A simple classroom exercise, the Creationism/Evolution Continuum, has been used successfully by middle and high school teachers as well as university professors to illustrate the many intermediate positions between the extremes.
Pointing out these intermediary positions is a good way to help people understand that there is some complexity to this discussion. However, it is my view that this model may actually be counter-productive, particularly when promoting evolution in various faith communities. I believe that those of us that support the coexistence and coherence of evolution and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith need a much better model if we are to make any progress on this issue within the Evangelical community.

1) An Overview of the Continuum
The following diagram illustrates the continuum with two modifications that I added myself. These are the addition of an “Evolution Line” in red and a “Faith Line” in blue.

In the diagram, each of the names to the right of the black diagonal line is a position on origins. Those above the grey dotted line believe the earth was created 6-10 thousand years ago; those below accept the scientific consensus regarding the age of the earth. The red-line separates those that oppose evolution (above) from those that support it (below) while the blue line separates those who profess faith in a creator God (above) from those who do not (below). As a list of origins positions, this is not bad. If you have never seen these before, I encourage you to read Scott’s summary. Her description for most of the positions is quite fair.

2) Problems with the Continuum
Although the Creationism/Evolution Continuum is a useful starting point for understanding the origins controversy and for engaging in dialogue, I think that there are three significant problems with it. These problems include 1) how views on scriptural interpretation are placed on the continuum 2) how views on science are placed on the continuum and 3) there is no simple progression of change within origin views so any model based on a continuum is misleading.

a) The Continuum and Scripture
The first parameter that Scott uses in her continuum is scriptural interpretation. She describes the differences in origin positions this way:
[The diagram] presents a continuum of religious views with creationism at one end and evolution at the other. The most extreme views are, of course, at the ends of the continuum. The creation/evolution continuum reflects the degree to which the Bible is interpreted as literally true, with the greatest degree of literalism at the top.
This is partly true. For the positions above Progressive Creationism this is the case, but after that the characterization of “more literal on top” breaks down. For example, many Progressive Creationists (the last position above the evolution-line) would be comfortable with relatively “non-literal” interpretations of scripture, whereas some TEs would advocate “more literal” interpretations of scripture (eg. Glenn Morton and Dick Fischer).

b) The Continuum and Science
How Scott uses the second parameter – the acceptance of science - is a much bigger concern. She states:
Although it is a continuum of religious and philosophical beliefs, the Creation/Evolution Continuum inversely reflects how much of modern science holders of these different views accept.
This characterization is incorrect. At least when it comes to biological evolution, none of the positions below the evolution-line differ in their science whatsoever; the differences are all philosophical and theological. The EC / TE position is excellent science combined with (IMO) excellent theology and philosophy. The positions below the faith-line also encapsulate excellent science, but (again at least IMO) combine it with incorrect theological and philosophical conclusions.

And here is the key point. The continuum as described on the NCSE site strongly implies that “atheist science is better science”. Even though the objective of the continuum is to counter the belief that “evolutionists must be atheists”, it indirectly implies that evolutionists should be atheists. For this fact alone, I think the model needs to be replaced.

c) There is no Continuum
Continuums by definition are unidirectional; as a parameter changes, one progresses along the scale. The discussion above demonstrates that the Creationism/Evolution Continuum model is incorrect for the two parameters identified on the NCSE site (ie. Scriptural interpretation & acceptance of the scientific evidence). However, my contention is that, if the salient parameters are considered, the Creation-Evolution dialogue is not a continuum at all. In fact, I believe that those positions placed on the bottom of the continuum (those below the blue faith-line) share a very strong common viewpoint with those above the red evolution-line. In other words, the middle of this continuum is a mid-point only if you ignore other important parameters.

B) A New Model

I think a much better model is one that groups the positions above based on their answers to two simple questions:

1. The “Who” question: Did a loving God create the universe, the earth, and life in all its diversity, and does he continue to sustain that creation?
2. The “How” question: Is the theory of biological evolution correct? That is, did life on earth develop over millions and millions of years through the process of evolution?

1) Three Basic Groups
Based on how each position answers these questions, I think that all the positions can be grouped into three broad categories that I’ve defined as “Non-evolutionary Creation” – those above the evolution-line, “Evolutionary Creation” – those between the evolution-line and the faith-line, and “Materialistic Evolution” – those below the faith line.

2) Relationships Between the Groups
What is important to note is that the relationship between these three positions is NOT linear; each group has shared viewpoints with the other two groups. Groups A & B both believe that the universe was created by a loving God, and that he continues to sustain his creation. Groups A and C both believe that the theory of evolution is correct. Finally, Groups B & C also share a common viewpoint, that is that the theory of evolution and theism are mutually exclusive concepts ie. Either God is the creator or evolution occurred. The following diagram illustrates these relationships.

C) Some Brief Concluding Thoughts

I realize that this is a fairly simple model and that there are some weaknesses in it; I will likely comment further in future posts. However, let me briefly list some of the advantages I see in this model:

1. A Simpler Model: Simple is often better and this model includes only the most important categories of positions on creation & evolution. Distinguishing between the many different anti-evolution positions (as the Creationism/Evolution Continuum does) needlessly complicates the picture and is unnecessary when the salient point of discussion is evolution. One either accepts that the theory of evolution is correct or one doesn’t. Placing all the positions that do not accept evolution in a single “Non-evolutionary Creation” group means the model is easier to understand.

2. Connecting the Continuum Extremes: The model points out that there is a very strong shared viewpoint between the “opposite ends” of the Creationism/Evolution Continuum. That is why you sometimes see statements of (tepid) respect from those in group B for those in group C (and vise-versa) when lashing out at the wishy-washy EC crowd in the middle.

3. Creation & Evolution: Independent Concepts: This model clearly illustrates creation and evolution as independent concepts; an answer to one does not necessarily dictate an answer to the other. Of course many disagree vehemently with this claim, but that just shows how committed they are to the BC shared viewpoint, a viewpoint that is just as contentious as the AB and AC viewpoints. Identifying and understanding our shared viewpoints, and where we disagree, is an important step towards dialogue.

4. EC is not one step towards Atheism: This model illustrates (IMO correctly) that the EC position is no closer to atheism than other creationist positions. We too believe in a Creator God, and EC theology can be as orthodox (or more so) and EC faith as strong (or stronger) than that of Christians that take other Creationist positions.

5. EC = good science: This model demonstrates that when it comes to science, EC’s share a common view with other evolutionists. From a scientific perspective, the positions are indistinguishable.

Finally, although I’ve been thinking about this for awhile (see the end of this comment on a past post) I should note that the model shown here is really Draft 0.1 – I fully expect that I’ll need to modify it somewhat. I am interested in hearing feedback and criticisms from readers. Is this a helpful model? What would you change? Are there other models that also deal with these issues better than the Creationism/Evolution Continuum?


Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Hello, my friend.

I like the model, though it lacks some of the statistical properties desirable if the model is to be tested psychologically (i.e., to see if it conforms to how people actually think about origins, which has been the focus of recent research I am conducting).

Regrettably, there is a statistically significant negative correlation (r = -0.552) between belief in God and belief in evolution in my research sample. That is, most students think that theism and evolution are opposed. This doesn't invalidate your theoretical schema, but it suggests that it's not the one that governs the thinking of those in my research population (freshman and sophomore college students).

Still, it's a step in the right direction!

By the way, I think that the term "literalist" is a red herring. No one is a Scriptural literalist; all agree that metaphors and phenomenological language are found in Scripture. One can be a Scriptural inerrantist and still believe in evolution. But I recognize that it wasn't your term, it was Scott's.

T'sinadree said...

Nice post, Steve. I'm curious to see how the model progresses.

I also just wanted to point anyone interested to the following forthcoming (and quite affordable) book:

Walton, J. H. (2009). The lost world of Genesis One: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Table of ContentsPrologue

Proposition 1: Genesis One Is Ancient Cosmology

Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function-Oriented

Proposition 3: "Create" (Hebrew bara') Concerns Functions

Proposition 4: The Beginning state in Genesis One is Non-Functional

Proposition 5: Days One Through Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions

Proposition 6: Days Four Through Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries

Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is In a Temple

Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple

Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration

Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Geneissi 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins

Proposition 11: "Functional Cosmic Temple" Offers Face-Value Exegesis

Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough

Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature

Proposition 14: God's Roles as Creator and Sustainer are Less Different Than We Have Thought

Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose

Proposition 16: Scientifice Explanations of Origins Can Be Veiwed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable

Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger Not Weaker

Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose

Summary and Conclusion

The publisher has a nice write-up, while Amazon has some sample pages.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Not to clog this up with a side note, but just to clarify the problem, in my research I asked subjects to respond to 50 items relating to origins. Two of the items were:

* I believe in the existence of a personal God to whom one may pray in the reasonable expectation of receiving an answer.

* My great-great-great-great-----------------------grandfather was a therapsid.

No logician could find any direct contradiction or incompatibility between those two propositions alone (without introducing any others), yet only a small minority of my subjects endorsed both. Most responded as if endorsing one item meant rejecting the other.

This may explain why EC/TE remains a minority position in the culture?

Discuss among yourselves.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Marlowe,
Thanks. I am looking forward to the results of your research … as is this commenter who found one of your old posts recently.

Re: your findings, maybe a good modification to the model would be to size the circles based on the relative number of people in each group. Unfortunately, in this case the circle I’m trying to promote (EC) might be so small in relation to the other two that you could hardly see it.

Re: “No logician could find any direct contradiction or incompatibility between those two propositions alone (without introducing any others)” … exactly!

Thanks for the note on Walton’s new book. “Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature” looks particularly relevant to the discussion we are having here.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Let me know by private email how you want me to report the results, and I will. I have enough data now that I have some interesting findings to report, and it would be very useful to get comments/reactions from the group.

Jimpithecus said...

Hi Steve. I enjoyed your deconstruction of the NCSE continuum. I have my own idea of how it ought to be structured. I think that people come to how they belive/accept things based on decision trees and have constructed my model thus. I have left it on my blog and invite your comments.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,
As I commented on your blog, mapping a model based on decision trees is a good way to view all the resulting decisions on origins. In fact, your approach is a much better method of identifying those views than the NCSE continuum; it does not have the flaws identified in the OP.

Your criticism that I am grouping a lot of very diverse positions into a single category (fixed earth & progressive creationists in the non-evolutionary creationist category) is also fair. In fact, I’ve done that with the other categories as well (particularly group C). But my objective is different than yours (or the NCSE’s for that matter). I’m not particularly concerned with every theological or scientific decision available. What I want to do is identify the most important decisions, and show the relationships between the different groups based on those decisions (more on that in future posts).

When it comes to science, I believe the key question is: “Does one accept scientific theories that are supported by overwhelming evidence?”. That boils down to evolution – E3 definition from Allan Harvey’s model - ie. common descent. Or will one allow the scientific evidence to be trumped by one’s limited theological views? (And as finite and fallen creatures we are all limited).

Just like one can not choose to be “a little bit pregnant” one can not choose to compromise scientific integrity “a little bit” (Progressive Creationism).

Incidentally, this is the same argument made by vocal atheists (PZ, Jerry Coyne) about EC’s (the buzz word these days is accomodationist). But my rejoinder to these commentators is that they are conflating science & their own (IMO wrong) philosophy.

Doug Hayworth said...

Hi Steve,

I've got some hand-scribbled diagrams for an alternative scheme that I was thinking about. I just haven't had a chance to draw it out digitally and present it. My concept is to plot positions in two or three dimension (i.e., axes). I have several ideas for what the dimensions would be. As you pointed out, the main problem with the continuum is that it plots multiple variables on one axis.

And, to address Marlowe's point about the high correlation of some variables, I would say that it is instructive for people to see the entire "logic space" of possible positions even if some quadrants are not occupied by any adherents. With my ongoing interest in communicating about these issues in the homeschooling realm, I plan to work on my diagram soon, which I'll post on my blog.

Kyle said...

I really like your depiction of the model. It is simpler than the NCSE model and does not contain the erroneous implications that increased acceptance of science is necessarily accompanied by increased rejection of scripture and faith and that materialist evolutionism is superior scientifically to evolutionary creationism.

Dr. Embree's first comment would be correct if depicting a model "which conforms to how people actually think about origins" were the goal, but it is not. It would lessen the value of Steve's model to try to depict this (e.g. resizing the circles proportional to the number of adherents). Dr. Embree's reseach is valuable, but serves a completely different purpose. We know that most people find theistic creation and evolution to be contradictory. This is the false dichotomy that Steve has written so much about on this blog. It would be counterproductive if this false dichotomy depicted as somehow inherent in the positions themselves.

I have always had the impression that the NCSE is supremely interested in saying that science and faith are compatible without really understanding the faith component. They seem to just want to throw out some examples of people or groups that adhere to both, or to simply state that they are compatible.

Steve, I truly hope that your critique and counterproposal are read and considered by leaders at NCSE. If you know of anything we can do to help encourage them to consider the subtler implications of these models, please let us know.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Douglas: Very interested to see your alternate schema – and what you choose for the variables / dimensions. Hey, maybe my 0.2 model will simply be a link to your website :-).

Re: showing the whole “logic space” … hmm, that’s a good point .. and for my model to show the whole logic space I guess I should have a “No God” and “No evolution” circle as well … now THAT circle might be truly empty.

Steve Martin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Martin said...

Hi Kyle,
Good to hear from you again. Re: the NCSE and what they say about faith, I believe they need to walk a very fine line. They do have support from many EC’s (eg. of the authors that have contributed here, at least Keith Miller & Stephen Matheson). However, they also have a healthy dose of atheist supporters that take an “evolution means no God” view, and some of these supporters strongly believe the NCSE must avoid talking about religion altogether (ie. Even mentioning that evolution and Christianity CAN be compatible should be prohibited). Check out this interesting exchange on pandas thumb: here from RBH (who occasionally comments on our blog), here from PZ Myers, and here again from RBH.

So I think the odds are pretty low of having the NCSE replace their faulty continuum with a model that shows the EC position in such a positive light (or even worse, any connection between categories B and C :-) ). But frankly, my goal is not to replace the NCSE’s model, but to promote a model to Evangelicals (or science-literate people who are considering making a commitment to Christ) that offers them an alternative view. It doesn’t necessarily have to be used by the NCSE to be useful.

RBH said...

In talking with one church congregation about historical Christian responses to evolution, I found it useful to distinguish three 'kinds' of Christian creationism: fiat instant creation (e.g., Ken Ham-style 6-day young earth creationism), serial creation (e.g., progressive creationism), and continuous creation (e.g., evolutionary creationism).

Of course, there's elaboration to go with all three, so that the labels aren't sitting out there naked to the world. For example, I use the phrase "enabling and sustaining" to describe what I understand ECs' and TEs' conception of God's role, which from what I've read here and elsewhere seems to me to be a reasonably accurate description.

I also employ two separate axes -- theological accommodation and science acceptance. One end of the former is anchored in the most literalist of Biblical inerrantists, as is the extreme denial end of the science acceptance axis.

I find the geometry of your model interesting, especially what gets to be at the top of the triangle. :)

Steve Martin said...

Re: your three kinds of creationism, that is very good. In fact, I think “Continuous Creation” might be a better label for group A. And regarding my geometry, I agree that was hardly subtle - but part of it was based on how I visualized moving from one-dimension to two (see comment I referred to in OP).

Re: your two dimensions, science acceptance is good but I’m a little uncomfortable with “theological accommodation” as a label for the second axis. I’m not sure I have anything better right now but the way I see “accommodation” used in this context a lot (particular when used as a slur by those at both ends of the NCSE spectrum) hints at not only change and modification but also compromise and concessions. So, for example, many Christians view theology of EC proponents as a movement away from orthodoxy. I, on the other hand, see it as no such thing.

The theological concept of accommodation has more to do with divine revelation (ie. It is God doing the accommodating not us). Our new theological understandings may be different because of new knowledge (eg. learning more about God’s creation through modern science) but these new theological understandings are (hopefully) closer to ultimate truth.

But again, not sure I have any better label for your second axis right now, even given my own point of view. More food for thought for me I guess.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the suggested model.

I would suggest what I think to be a fundamental addition to your entire discussion, including the model. Namely, please define "evolution" as it is used in the model. Do you mean "natural selection is a valid mechanism?" Do you mean "humans have non-human primate ancestors?" Do you mean "All the great groups of organisms have a single origin?" or something else?


Martin LaBar said...

P. S. I have discussed the different meanings of "evolution," and related matters, here.

Thanks again.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Martin,
Excellent point on definitions – and this is applicable for both “evolution” and “God”.

Re: the definition of evolution, I mean Allan Harvey’s E3 definition (common descent – including humans).

Re: the definition of God, I’m primarily interested in the God of orthodox Christianity (ie. A loving God who continues to interact with his creation) so that is how I define it. I realize however that this definition means there is no home in my model for many people (eg. Deists, non-theistic religions). Still thinking about that.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Steve.

I'm checking Harvey's definition.

Anonymous said...

interesting discussion

so where would you place my position in any of your models? It may be called postmodern origin-agnostic Creationism or something like that. agnostic in the meaning of 'we can not know' that is. The main thing is that I can't believe that science (or even human languages and concepts) will ever be able to explain how the world was created, those things are bigger than all we can know and grasp and find traces off... Science is based op the parameters of the world now and language is based on concepts we can understand with what we can see and know in our 3D + one time dimension world... If Creation is bigger than anything our brains can understand, it is just a matter of logic the only thing we could have is an accomodation, like the creation poem in genesis. So in the end everything is an accomodation, the evolution model, the big bang, or any creation story is a way to say something that can not be said accurately.

So to conclude: Creation is bigger than any story we can make out of it... If science proves that the world is old and that there is some kind of evolution who am I to not believe that, but even then it will never be the whole story... The story is bigger and encompasses more than the material traces that it may or may not have left, so digging in the ground will never make us able to have all the details... I think in the original diagram with the continuum, I would be somewhere away from the diagonal black line but close to the red line. I'm closer than ever to being an 'evolutionary creationsist' right now; and I'm much more happy with that term than I ever was with the term theistic evolutionist, believing in Creation and the CReator comes before any idea how it might have happened..

But still it is all just fallible human theorie, like flatlanders in a 2D world discussing about the form my guitar...



Steve Martin said...

Welcome. First, I agree that the model is still rather simplistic & some people will find it difficult to place themselves anywhere. When I get some time, I want to provide some additional posts on the model and maybe correct it in places.

Also, I agree that our understanding of science is incomplete and constantly changing. However, I’d put myself in the critical realist camp (ie. That the world we “see” - much of it with modern scientific technology & ideas - is more-or-less the way the world is). Sure, we will discover new things, some of them absolutely mind-boggling. But there are many things that are more-or-less assured (eg. The earth is spherical and very old, it goes around the sun, and there are relationships between all living species on earth with the best explanation being common descent).

Re: the term “Evolutionary Creationist”, maybe an even better term is the one Keith Miller uses quite a bit “Continuous Creationist”.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I should explain myself more:

Well; I'm reminded of the verse that says that "the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." Not that I will ever use it to say everything was created 'ex nihilo' as some do for I do not see that explanation in the verse. I would say the verse says that the visible is made out of the 'invisible'. And it's the invisible I have questions about. I don' believe this 3D-world and this matter is all there is, not even in this world. I believe in angels and spiritual beings, even if I don't know how to place them in my own paradigm. I've experienced too much of that to ever not believe in them...

And yes; I would agree that if we follow the evidence concerning the material side of creation, that we must conclude that the earth and the universe probably are very old, that the earth is sperical and goes around the sun, and that common descent may be the best explanation to all biological life-forms. But I've seen too much of a world 'outside the box' of naturalistic thinking to believe that the visible and measurable world is all there is. And yet while I cannot suscribe to most of the theories about the occult that are popular among evangeicals, I know at least those things are real.

I know there is more than the visible and measurable. And I wouldn't call it supernatural, but part of the invisible side of the natural world. I believe in holism here and I surely don't believe we can use the modern laws of nature to discen what's natural and what not, as most contemporary Christians who write about the occult do. And we know not much about it, and we cannot know much about it probably, to me that's no problem to me. But I guess it makes a world of difference between you and me... (And I hope you don't think I'm crazy, I'm not!)

Another thing, after reading your blog and some of your e-books (which are very helpful, thanks!!!) thinking about terms I wondered if it woudn't be better to dump all the '-isms'. I believe in the Creator and hat he created his creation, but I don't know if I want to turn it into an '-ism'.



Steve Martin said...

Hi Bra,
Re: the invisible & visible or maybe spiritual & physical, I’m not sure you and I actually disagree. I think what you are getting at is that science does not have the final word on everything (it can't - it only studies the material) & there are things that science may not be able to provide any comment on. I agree completely.

Here is a snippet from my most recent post:

On the other hand, science does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Making scientific statements like “this event is extremely unlikely to occur given our current knowledge” or “no scientific explanation for this past event can be made at this time” are valid claims. However, science cannot rule out any event a priora. As Evangelical Christians we firmly believe that God can, has, and continues to perform miracles within his creation, and that some of those miracles would be deemed “impossible” by science.

Re: getting rid of the “isms” (ie. Categorizing people), yes that would be really good if we could. But, there are valid reasons for doing this at times … as long as we as Christians that the category that matters most is that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone is aware of why evangelical christians might be motivated to move away from creation science. For me Creation Science is a dangerous and false interpretation of Biblical texts. This is why I worry about some of the talk about "reconciling the Bible with science." Why on earth do we think that is necessary? Isn't it clear that Evolution and the Creation texts are not even talking about the same thing? We don't have to reconcile them any more than you have to reconcile the great comission with cake baking.

Teaching the Bible as science destroys its power and puts people in spiritual danger. For example, if we believe Jesus' statement "you shall be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth." is intended to assert that the earth is flat (as the flat earth society does), then we avoid the calling Jesus is making. In the same way, if we take the creation stories as scientific accounts of what happened back then, rather than statement about the world having been made by ONEGod rather than many, (which is it's actual purpose), then we miss the truth of the text, and we live in error. Creation Science is bad science, but it is even worse theology.