The continuum [between creationism and evolution] 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.
A simpler person than I would take this to mean that NCSE is in the happy middle, with theists and atheists both claiming we’re giving too much away philosophically to the other side. I’m on the record opposing that approach, which leaves me a chance to be long-winded.
I happen to think this disagreement means that NCSE’s critics on both sides are right about some things and wrong about others (and do recall that my comments on this blog don’t reflect NCSE policy, and I’m not speaking for NCSE or anyone but myself here). For instance, Jerry Coyne is right that “[NCSE] are the good guys,” and Steve Martin is right that NCSE’s “Creationism/Evolution Continuum is a useful starting point for understanding the origins controversy and for engaging in dialogue.” Coyne may or may not be right that NCSE’s website is occasionally too favorable to religion (some of his critiques are surely wrong), and Martin is right “that there are … significant problems with” the Continuum.
For those of you unfamiliar with the continuum, check out NCSE’s page on The Creation/Evolution Continuum. Genie Scott observes there that:
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. This assumption all too often leads to the unfortunate conclusion that because creationists are believers in God, that evolutionists must be atheists. The true situation is much more complicated: creationism comes in many forms, and not all of them reject evolution.
This continuum of belief ranges from absolute rejection of scientific evidence to absolute rejection of anything unsupported by science – from flat-earthism to atheism. In the middle of that continuum are people who believe in the doctrine of creation, that a deity created the universe and life in it, and who accept that science can explain how the natural aspects of that process worked. Deists, theistic evolutionists, and evolutionary creationists (as pro-evolution evangelicals call themselves) all fall into this middle area.
Steve Martin, an evangelical Christian and an evolutionary biologist who writes eloquently about how he reconciles the two, rightly notes that this oversimplifies a complex situation. Peter Hess, NCSE’s Faith Project Director, uses a much more complex graphical analogy in his talks, in which there are at least two dimensions, not a straight line between creation and evolution. This allows one to get around some of the complexities that Martin raises, such as that the continuum conflates factors, where “many Progressive Creationists … would be comfortable with relatively ‘non-literal’ interpretations of scripture, whereas some [theistic evolutionist]s would advocate ‘more literal’ interpretations of scripture.”
Furthermore, Martin is probably correct that none of the evolution-accepting groups on the continuum “differ in their science,” and the differences are all philosophical and theological.” One could probably find small differences on some points, but there is a large discontinuity at that point in what is meant to be a continuum. Because the continuum mixes a range of issues as far as someone’s acceptance of science, someone’s theology, and his or her philosophy of science, things get tricky. Martin argues, and I don’t necessarily disagree, that “the middle of this continuum is a mid-point only if you ignore other important parameters.” Certainly the middle of the continuum ought to be wider than the endpoints.
Martin then offers a different model, which is not linear but cyclical:
This captures some truths, but obscures others. I don’t think I’ll be adopting this, nor do I imagine other NCSErs will.
The nice thing about the continuum graphic is that, regardless of its faults, it emphasizes an easily obscured point: one need not set evolution against belief in a deity who acts in the world, and it is possible to move toward acceptance of evolution without moving out of the realm of theistic belief. The continuum oversimplifies by making it seem like there’s just one path one might take in doing so, but NCSE is not in the business of endorsing particular religious philosophies, and making an exhaustive list is beyond the scope of the continuum. Martin’s graphic breaks apart some essential continuities, and treats groups of different size and nature as if they were coequal.
More significantly, the continuum is helpful as a way to reach out to folks who have simply never thought about the issue before, and naively assume there are two camps: one for creationism and the other for evolution. So when forced to choose (as, for instance, by a pollster) they glom onto whichever camp they think best fits them. If the question is asked in a way that frames the decision in terms of science, they’ll tend to favor evolution, if framed around religion or morality, they tend to choose creationism (at least in the US). Pointing out that there is a broad and diverse middle ground, that the choice is not nearly so stark, can help people get comfortable accepting evolution before confronting religious issues. Martin’s graphic certainly elevates that middle ground, but obscures the range of options people have within it, making it harder for people to comfortably locate themselves in that group.
Martin’s model presents three camps: one favoring materialist evolution, one favoring non-evolutionary creationism, and one collecting the various pro-evolution religious views. All that diversity and complexity gets squashed into a single cluster.
His model does have some interesting features. It’s true that many people in his group C (materialist evolution) find evolution and theism incompatible, as he writes on the line between them. However, others find that the two might be compatible, but reject theism on other grounds. In terms of literalism (which is one of the variables the continuum is supposed to represent), Martin is right to note that some atheists adopt the evangelical’s “literal” reading, an odd convergence. But many people in group C do not accept that reading. I’m not a theistic evolutionist, but I don’t find the inerrantist/literalist readings to be at all plausible, either from a perspective of historical Biblical reading or based on standard approaches to literary interpretation. As Martin notes, too, some people in his group B adopt a more inerrantist interpretation than others, and even moreso than some members of his group C.
The continuum is a tool, and a useful one. It helps introduce the complexities of the interplay between science and religion to audiences who may simply think that everyone has to choose one or the other. It often surprises audiences to learn that many people do not see a need to choose, do not find an inherent conflict. (Standard disclaimer/troll repellent: Those people might be wrong, and I take no position on that topic.)
As such, the simple tactic of drawing a bridge between what people think of as two mutually exclusive beliefs is pedagogically powerful. Martin’s cyclical model is less clear on that essential point.
It also obscures the relationship between his three groups. He links belief in non-evolutionary creation with evolutionary materialism, but I’m not aware of anyone who made that transition without at least a brief layover in theistic evolution. I’ve heard lots of creationists testify about how they grew up as atheists who “believed in” evolution, who then became Christian, and then suddenly found evolution flawed. I don’t know of people who can credibly claim that they first rejected evolution and then changed their religious views. Similarly, I don’t know of formerly religious atheists who first rejected religion and then came to accept evolution. They tend to describe first learning more about evolution, then rejecting some form of creationism, and ultimately drifting away from religion entirely. Thus, the link between Martin’s group B (creationists) and group C (evolutionary materialists) is much weaker than the link between A (theistic evolutionists) and C or A and B. Group A is thus some sort of reasonable middle ground. But his model sets it off of the line between B and C, obscuring that point.
Martin is right that his model does a better job of separating two factors; but I’d rather present them as continuous variables than as dichotomous. I suspect, though I’ll have to ask Genie about this, that the continuum is on a slope precisely because it really encompasses two axes (or it could be a matter of graphical convenience). On one axis, you have a measure of someone’s understanding of science, on the other a measure of belief in the role some deity plays in the world. The continuum is a simplification, a line drawn through a scatter graph of individual people’s places in that plane.
That diversity is a key point of the graph, and Martin’s model looses that diversity. He writes that “Placing all the positions that do not accept evolution in a single ‘Non-evolutionary Creation’ group means the model is easier to understand,” but it actually obscures a key pedagogical value. When I use the continuum in talks, I make the point that as you progress from flat earthers to geocentrists to young earthers to old earthers, each group claims to be interpreting the Bible in an inerrant manner, yet there is a progression of greater acceptance of scientific evidence. Thus, even people who regard themselves as fully creationist are, in fact, almost surely rejecting some set of beliefs that someone at some point has regarded as necessary for an inerrant (or literal, if you prefer) reading of the Bible. One can progress along that axis of scientific acceptance without even venturing past the line between belief in “special creation.” And so one can emphasize that acceptance of science is almost never entirely at odds with religious faith, and urge people to be more catholic in one’s acceptance of science.
That same approach isn’t possible with Martin’s model of nodes in a cycle. He captures some useful truths, but as a pedagogical tool, I can’t see myself adopting it.
Nor, if presented carefully, does it imply that atheism is more scientific than theism. When I use the continuum, I present it as a graph of how much one thinks must be explained by invoking a deity, or conversely how much one is willing to explain through only testable, natural (i.e., scientific) means. Atheists reject all explanations involving a deity, agnostics find such claims unhelpful and set them aside, and theists explain more and more as a direct result of divine will as one moves up and to the left on the continuum. This is imperfect in many ways, and the correlation between that continuum and various others Martin and I have mentioned is not perfect, but it is quite good, and serves as a good starting point.
Martin promises more discussion of his model, and I look forward to his suggestions.