Creationist Definitions

This is intended to be one of our reference posts, to which we will link from time to time when it seems appropriate. We’ll be adding to it as we think of new material.

Whenever we hear people speaking of “faith in science,” or “faith in evolution,” we cringe. Why? Because it’s a complete misuse of the word “faith.” In Hebrews 11:1 (King James version, of course) we’re told: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That’s the unique thing about faith — it doesn’t require any evidence. And of course, that’s what makes it so different from science.

One of the definitions of faith commonly used in on-line dictionaries is “belief that is not based on proof.” In the context of science, however, a more rigorous definition would be: “Faith is belief that is not based on verifiable evidence or logical proof.” Beyond that there’s what we might call brain-dead faith — belief that is flat-out contradicted by evidence or logical proof. That extreme kind of faith is pure reality denial.

So what’s the appropriate word to use when one understands a scientific theory and accepts it, based not only on the verifiable evidence, but also on the fact that in all the theory’s tests, it has never been disproved? Obviously, “faith” is inappropriate. Our preferred word is “confidence,” that is, one has confidence in the theory — which is justified as long as the theory is consistent with the evidence.

There’s an intermediate area. What about matters where we have no expertise, but which we accept anyway? An example is the functioning of aircraft — assuming one isn’t an aeronautical engineer with a solid understanding of such things. We routinely board aircraft, assuming that we will safely arrive at our destination. Is that an act of faith?

No, of course not. Regardless of our lack of technical knowledge, we literally see that aircraft fly, and we know people who have traveled in them. It may not be the same degree of confidence we have in something like evolution, about which we know the theory and the evidence, but we are nevertheless justified, based on our observations, in having confidence that such things are indeed functional. So here too, “faith” isn’t involved. The term “faith” should be reserved for things about which we literally know nothing.

While we’re talking about definitions, we’ll discuss a few others. Creationists love to confuse their drooling followers about the meaning of “theory,” attempting to equate it with a poor definition of “hypothesis,” so that it becomes nothing more that a wild guess — or even an arbitrary assumption.

Creationists are skilled at generating confusion about such matters. They often resort to dictionary definitions of “faith” and “theory” in an attempt to mislead their drooling followers. But when a creationist reaches for the dictionary, you may be sure of two things: First, he has no other non-scriptural reference book; and second, he’s going to select the least appropriate definitions he can find, which have no relevance to scientific work. To counter their shoddy practices, it’s useful to have meaningful definitions available, so we’ll provide a few sources:

A good set of definitions is provided by the National Academy of Sciences: Definitions of Evolutionary Terms. There’s also this: Scientific Hypothesis, Theory, Law Definitions. The National Center for Science Education has definitions right here.

And for the ultimate in creationist distortions of definitions, we must mention Ken Ham’s re-definition of science itself — see Creationism and Science, in which we discuss ol’ Hambo’s bizarre distinction between historical and observational science, with the result that science — as defined by him — can’t tell us anything about the past. Only the bible can do that.

Creationists also like to use a dictionary to “prove” that evolution — and all of science (or atheism, which they equate with science) — is just a religion. Often they’ll quote the fourth definition of religion in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” They skip over the more commonly-used definitions given earlier, such as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural,” and “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.” Ol’ Hambo did that here: Ken Ham: A Collection of Creationist Clichés.

To be continued.

See also: Creationist Language Abuse.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Creationist Definitions

  1. As a scientist I suggest our usage of “acceptance”, that is we accept a theory as the most reasonable tool available at the time. All scientific “truths” are provisional, hence all theories based upon such “facts” are also provisional. So, either we accept the Theory of Evolution or we reject it. If one rejects a generally accepted theory, they had better have their reasons all lined up because they will get challenged and if their reasoning is faulty they will lose credibility with their peers.

    For example Lord Kelvin didn’t believe in the age of the earth being estimated at many hundreds of millions of years old was valid. His reasoning was the assumed initial temperature of the earth would have cooled to the point the earth was solid all the way through in that much time. But Lord Kelvin, as were we all, was unaware that the earth’s core had substantial radioactives in it, the decay of which isotopes fueled the fires and would have extended his calculation of the age of the earth several orders of magnitude. So, his reputation didn’t suffer because his calculations were based on then current knowledge which didn’t include that internal source of heat.

    The people still arguing for a 6000 year old Earth are either idiots, over zealous, or in need of an explanation for why their god would create an Earth appearing to be 4.3 billion years old 6000 years ago.

  2. There is also often a matter of relying on someone. I have faith in my partner, that there is not going to be anything hurtful in the relationship.
    We do not have that kind of trust in the workings of nature. We don’t have faith in gravity, for we know that it will work in its ways, whatever the consequences to me.

  3. TomS says: “There is also often a matter of relying on someone. I have faith in my partner …”

    I suggest that too is confidence, not faith. You know your partner.

  4. Its obvious but worth pointing out that when creationists accuse their reality-based opponents of practicing just as much “faith” and “religion” as they do, it is part of the shallow rhetorical ploy of employing the tu quoque or “you too!” fallacy.

    They cannot float their beliefs out of the intellectual cesspool, so the only tactic available tends to be trying to bring others down to their level.

    Hey mister scientist, I’ve got faith, but so do you!

    Hey there mister non-religious, I’ve got religion, but you do too!

    Ham loves his term “”religion of naturalism” (atheism)” as part of this.

  5. Reflectory says:

    Ham loves his term “”religion of naturalism” (atheism)” as part of this.

    Good point. I should add something about the definition of “religion.”

  6. michaelfugate

    And just yesterday you mentioned the use of “-ism” to deride anything they don’t like.

  7. If you’re going to discuss “religion”, how about “I don’t have a religion, I’m a Christian”?

  8. Mike Elzinga

    It is also important to note that ID/creationists don’t just stop at redefining concepts like “theory” and “hypothesis;” they have been systematically bending and breaking every scientific concept from physics, to chemistry, to biology in order to make these concepts consistent with their sectarian dogma. Their thought processes are those which they have been taught in doing sectarian apologetics.

    So when an ID/creationist says that the second law of thermodynamics means that everything falls into decay and disorder, he is setting up a “law of physics” that supports the literal interpretation of The Fall in which a perfect world plunges into decay because of a single imaginary incident in an imaginary garden 6000 years ago.

    Having established that everything is falling all apart according to the ID/creationist second law of thermodynamics, it now becomes “obvious” to ID/creationists that scientists require a lot of “blind faith” and a stubborn, hate-filled avoidance of their ID/creationist deity in asserting that evolution in the form of “molecules to man” occurred despite such an “immutable law of physics.”

    From what I have observed since the 1970s, this notion of having a law of physics that allows ID/creationists to support their belief in “The Fall” is the most fundamental misconception of all of ID/creationism. Once the followers of ID/creationism have established that erroneous notion in their minds, then everything scientists do and say is contrary to “reason” and “evidence.”

    Furthermore, such a notion supports ID/creationism’s “Big Tent” in that some ID/creationists can believe that “intelligence” – i.e., their deity – was involved in every step of micro-evolution, and that “information” – i.e., the opposite of ID/creationist “entropy” – can’t come from nowhere without such a deity. With such a notion, an ID/creationist doesn’t have to take a stand on the age of the universe; the existence of all that “information” requires a deity; and scientists have faith in “extreme improbabilities” because they can’t face the consequences of the ID/creationist “laws of physics.”

    For something like 50 years now, ID/creationists have been mangling scientific concepts to fit their sectarian beliefs and then accusing scientists of maintaining irrational faith in the face of those mangled ID/creationist concepts. Note the projection. When you argue with an ID/creationist, you are expected to accept his definitions and argue on his territory; otherwise you are irrational.

    Of course, that raises the interesting question of what is wrong with the ID/creationist’s “faith.” Why do ID/creationists need a “science” in order to prove what is supposed to be a matter of faith? I suspect that they know somewhere inside their shallow little minds that their “faith” is not worth much in the face of real scientific evidence; so they redefine science to make themselves feel morally and ethically superior to the rest of us.

  9. TomS,

    That drives me nuts too. I’m from fundamentalist Appalachia and the most common way I hear it phrased is: “I’m not religious. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Lord.”

    The ironic thing is that individuals who use such silly and wrong plea to semantics are implicitly admitting the weakness of “religious” epistemology by trying to distance themselves from it.

  10. @Mike Elzinga:
    Yes, I agree.
    And it is no disagreement to point out that the Arkeologists admit that complex order can be produced by natural processes, when it is needed to support their stories. It has been said that the complex pattern of fossils, which is consistent with evolution, was the result of hydrodynamic sorting. That is, a purely natural occurrence can sort the fossils. That is contrary to the creationist exposition of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. (Of course, it has other problems, such as explaining the order of plant fossils.)

  11. Our curmudgeon has been hard at work. And using his gift for defining issues regarding faith and science in a manner that is both compelling
    and elegant. For shame that the worlds dogmatic science haters can’t stop for a moment and think. It would stop a lot of pain and ignorance in our world
    if they would but use their God given powers of reason.

  12. I would prefer to refer to confidence in science rather than faith. We are confident that scientists know what they’re talking about. We are confident that if they turn out to be wrong, it will be other scientists who disprove their ideas. And our confidence is based on centuries of experience.

    By contrast, those same centuries have seen the faith-based view of the physical world slowly retreat. It has been a very long time since people believed the Earth was flat (though believe it or not, there are a few kooks who still do) or is stationary at the center of the universe (ditto).

    I’ll make a prediction: five hundred years from now, there may still be people who believe God created everything, but only a tiny nut fringe, numbering in the thousands at most, will still believe it was all done in six days a few millennia ago.

  13. I’ll make a prediction: there will be people who will argue that there never were people who rejected evolution.

    There will be people who realize that standing in individual relationship with one’s Creator and Redeemer has nothing to do with collectives or other abstractions.

  14. SC, your friendly proofreader reports in:

    In your last paragraph, the sentence, “Often they’ll quote fourth definition of religion in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith ” needs a period, and it also needs to have the word “the” inserted after “Often they’ll quote.”

    An excellent essay, by the way.

  15. And your friendly proofreader went “Poof!” with the html tags.

    [*Voice from above*] There was a nasty galactic flux, but it’s under control now. Everything is fixed.

  16. Dave Luckett

    I think it is worth saying that most dictionaries order their definitions from most literal to most metaphorical. It is true that “religion” can be used to mean “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith ”, as Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition specifies, but that is a highly metaphorical meaning.

    It’s another example of fundamentalist doublespeak. They insist that methodological naturalism is a religion, because they want to use a highly metaphorical reading of “religion”; but they insist that metaphorical readings can never be applied to the Bible. (Unless, of course, such a reading is convenient to them.)

    The dishonesty is palpable.

  17. Dave, I never heard of a dictionary editor ordering definitions “from most literal to most metaphorical.” I just checked the front matter (explanatory material) in several dictionaries from my lexicography shelf, and none of them describe their order of entries that way.

    Merriam Webster’s and Webster’s New World use historical order: oldest senses first, followed by successive developments.

    Random House starts with the “most frequently encountered” meaning and orders the rest in diminishing order of frequency.

    The New Lexicon Webster’s hybridizes these methods, claiming to order definitions by “Frequency of use and by apparent semantic derivation.” (This sounds to me a little like the physical education teacher I heard about who told the class, “All right everybody, line up alphabetically by height.”)

    Two dictionaries I checked do neither. The editors of Webster’s New Twentieth Century throw up their hands and admit, “No fixed, arbitrary arrangement of the senses within a give entry has been attempted.” Maybe developmental order, or maybe the the order showing how one meaning flows logically into another. American Heritage similarly says definitions “are ordered analytically, according to central meaning clusters from which related subsenses and additional separate senses may evolve.” This method stands the biggest chance of going from concrete to metaphorical meanings.

    But really, any of these schemes might have a similar effect, but by accident rather than editorial intent. For example, “maidenhead” began as an abstract word synonymous with “virginity” and later got physicalized to mean “hymen.” If those definitions are listed in order of frequency, readers might conclude that the concrete noun has given rise to a metaphor–unless they have read the dictionary front matter carefully.

  18. Another great blog article, especially because I found that it finally started me on an article I’ve been pushed to do by so many readers (“Why do you believe in God?”) and because the definitions of faith and evidence are very accurately representative of what one typically sees on-line these days but which are not necessarily what Christian orthodoxy has generally asserted and not what most creationist pastors and leaders I’ve known would recognize as their concepts of faith and evidence.

    Indeed, as far as how the Bible uses/defines those two terms, the typical on-line definitions are quite foreign to my evangelical background—even though I would readily admit that some less informed Christians, including some creationists, would probably even concur with them. I can think of a great many fundamentalist and evangelical Christian theologians I’ve known who would be downright startled at the assertion that “faith is belief without evidence”—and many would also want to tweak the meaning of “verifiable evidence.” For certain, the definitions as posted are something which strike me as having developed in the days since ARPANET. (And did anybody else here start with one of those old orangy-text PLATO system plasma-terminal??? Those were the days….)

    I found myself writing a point-by-point commentary on many of our SC’s interesting definitions and observations. It already represents too much theological overload for this page but perhaps I’ll finish it on the Bible.and.Science.Forum blog and post a link here for those who care about the topics. Although that commentary would appear to focus entirely on typical misunderstandings of faith and evidence by non-Christians, many of the points hit Young Earth Creationists just as hard, because so many YECs can be just as scripture-illiterate (or brainwashed in bizarre Hamisms and Hovindisms which butcher the Biblical text) as they are science-illiterate—even while thinking themselves brilliant at both.

  19. Our Curmudgeon proposes better terminology for ones response to established scientific theories:

    Obviously, “faith” is inappropriate. Our preferred word is “confidence,”

    I understand your point, but your preferred usage here is vulnerable to some nit-picking: etymologically, “confidence” (from Latin confidere, ‘to have full trust’) still carries too much connotation of ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ (Oxford Dictionaries gives us “The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something”).

    So I prefer Steve Ruis’s proposal of “acceptance” instead. Where there is no alternative to something, we must either accept it, or else reject reality, e.g., I accept that all men are mortal. If I believe that, miraculously, I will not die, then I am rejecting reality.

    Or, where there are alternatives to something, we accept that one which we have determined, as rationally as we are able, to be the best fit to information available, whether or not we like the consequences. Or, if in that situation we instead prefer to embrace an alternative on other grounds (such as, we prefer that alternative’s apparent connsequences), we do so as an act of belief or faith.

  20. SC: “Our preferred word is ‘confidence,’ that is, one has confidence in the theory.”

    I have been using the word “confidence” a lot in the context that anti-evolution activists, be they Biblicals or Discoveroids, have little or no confidence in their alternate “theories” (why else would they obsess so much over “Darwinism”?). In an ironic contrast, most evolution-deniers-on-the-street appear very confident about their origins stories. That is, until you start asking “what happened when” questions. Then the fun begins, Usually they concede the billions of years, but get uncomfortable when it comes to “kinds.” Many they admit that they don’t care about the evidence, suggesting (and sometimes admitting outright) that their personal “revelation” from scripture overrules any conflicting evidence. But some show signs of being on a fast track to becoming a full-fledged activist. Like when they write those funny “wisdom” editorials.

  21. Mike Elzinga: “Furthermore, such a notion supports ID/creationism’s “Big Tent” in that some ID/creationists can believe that “intelligence” – i.e., their deity – was involved in every step of micro-evolution,…”

    The example I often give is that Michael Behe and Ken Miller appear to fully agree on that part, as well as the ~4 billion years of common descent. Yet they are as far apart on the “debate” as one can get. Behe claims that there’s “some difference” between “micro” and “macro,” but knows better than to make any positive statements about that “other process,” much less test it. As for designer “intervention,” he admitted that there could have been just one (the first cell, 4 billion years ago – Dembski conceded even more ground, suggesting that a Big Bang “intervention” was sufficient), so that, along with “continuous intervention,” lets him off the hook from having to admit that the micro-macro “barriers” coincide with “interventions.” But he still needs to tell us what testable process went on, where, when and how, where “RM+NS” failed. He won’t. because he knows there “ain’t no other explanation.” So do all the other Discoveroids. Biblical activists (Ken Ham, Hugh Ross) apparently know that too, but unlike Discoveroids, may believe that their particular interpretation of scripture overrules all evidence. But they know that there’s no evidence for their alternative, otherwise they too would have no need to obsess about “Darwinism.”

    Most importantly, they all play word games to fool the masses, and keep critics preoccupied with religion. Sadly, it’s still working.

  22. “An example is the functioning of aircraft”
    One of the preciously few advantages of English compared to Dutch is that there is another word: trust. We Dutch unfortunately have to use the same word for both faith and trust (vertrouwen). When I enter a plane I trust a whole lot of people plus some theories of physics.
    Sometimes acceptance is more appropriate though.

  23. mnb0 says: “One of the preciously few advantages of English compared to Dutch …”

    Yes. You guys have 47 different words for tulip.

  24. “Yes. You guys have 47 different words for tulip.”

    And the Inuit language has a multitude of words for “snow”, making them naturals for the Discovery Institute.

  25. Pope Retiredsciguy notes

    the Inuit language has a multitude of words for “snow”

    Amateurs! The Scots ‘have 421 words’ for snow

    As for the Dutch: it isn’t semantic redundancy for which they cannot be forgiven, it’s their unconscionable vowel hoarding. The ridiculous overuse of vowels in the Dutch language (I mean, who needs to spell ‘new’ as ‘nieuw’?) is directly responsible for the appalling vowel famine in such languages as Welsh (c.f. ymchwiliad = ‘investigation’). And who can doubt that the Boers violently appropriated, not only the mineral wealth of South Africa, but also the vowels of the Xhosa language, leaving the speakers to struggle on manfully with consonantal clicks in their place.

    The disproportianately huge number of vowels used by the relatively modest number of Dutch speakers is a dreadful and unsustainable instance of global inequality. I am hoping to secure sufficient crowd-sourced funding to organise a gigantic global Vowel Movement to correct this woeful inbalance and render all languages equally pronouncable.

  26. Addendum to previous: it is doubtful that Inuit languages actually have a notable plethora of words for ‘snow’, whereas the Scottish count of 421 terms, referenced above, is well-documented.

    But the Scots lack any words to denote any vegetables apart from neeps, as green vegetables are either unknown north of Carlisle or else popularly believed to be lethally poisonous.

  27. Megalonyx links to yet another “everybody knows that _____” cliche that everyone should be equipped to shoot down the next time they hear it at a cocktail party. The alleged abundance of words for “snow” in the “Eskimo language” [There is no one “Eskimo language”] is a great segway into the Benjamin Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. And from there, you’re ready for a long series of linguistic myths which still get circulated in the same kinds of churches where “creation science” is considered cutting edge stuff. Perhaps you’ve heard some of them:

    (1) “God chose to write the New Testament in the Greek language because it was and is superior to all other languages.”

    (2) “The Greek of the New Testament was further sanctified to produce a ‘Holy Spirit Greek’ dialect where a long list of special words were invented to communicate ideas which couldn’t have been expressed by any other language.”

    (3) “Old Testament Hebrew was well suited to conveying emotions and the majesty of God—but the deep theological concepts which the New Covenant brought to Gentiles as well as the Jews called for the rich language which had so well served the great poets, playwrights, historians, and philosophers of the intelligentsia of the Greco-Roman Golden Age. And the Greek definite article coupled with a rich vocabulary of participles, infinitives, and adjectives could generate a limitless variety of articular substantives capable of conveying absolutely any real or speculated abstraction, state, or doctrine—for which the Semitic mind confined to the Hebrew language could never have imagined, much less articulated!”

    (4) “Yes, just as the New Covenant required new wineskins in place of the old, so did that New Covenant require a new language, Holy Spirit Greek. The Hebrew language of the Old Covenant was ideal for the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the boy shepherd turned poetic-king—but the most intellectual apostle “born out of due time” required the powerful language of the world’s greatest philosophers.”

    (5) “As with everything else tainted by the Fall of Adam, human language continues to devolve. Every aspect of language continues to degenerate, losing more and more of its formerly perfect ability to convey every possible nuance with 100% accuracy.”

    (6) “A single verb in the Biblical Greek language of the New Testament can have over 640 different forms, the powerful permutations of complex systems of prefixes and suffixes as well as the six principal parts (each a possibility for the “core” of the word.) Compare that to our degenerate English language where we find ourselves left with only a very few of those powerful types of verb suffixes (e.g., -ed, -ing.) As result, a single Greek word in the New Testament might require a string of over a half dozen words in the English Bible translation!

    (7) OPTIONAL [Found only in the KJV-Only Fanatics]: “Those King James suffixes like -eth and -est which Bible-hating fools like to mock are, in fact, the very kind of precision which modern English has lost. They serve as a reminder of why God chose the King James Bible as his inspired translation for the English speaking world.” The KJV-only cult is generally a phenomenon within the same Fundamentalist world found where YECdom thrives. Yet, there are exceptions. The linguistic and textual fallacies—and general, all-around nuttiness— is deserving of its own special, at-length exposition. It has probably spawned some great dissertations.

    Many readers probably have their own gems to add to this list. I would bet that everyone with background in Young Earth Creationist churches have heard the “There are three[or four] Greek verbs for love” and “Only Christians can AGAPAO-love others!” (I would make that bet within American churches. I’m not so sure that the YEC-ism transplanted to other countries has also exported much of the associated “folk-exegesis” and pseudo-scholarship commonly found within American fundamentalist churches.

  28. …but also the vowels of the Xhosa language, leaving the speakers to struggle on manfully with consonantal clicks in their place.

    Anyone not familiar with those amazing CLICK-sound phonemes should listen to some of the Youtube videos which provide some great sound-bites. Xhosa has somewhere close to 20 different “click phonemes”. (??) But as impressive as that has always seemed to me, I was shocked to learn that a language in nearby Botswana has over 80 of them! (Grad school was a long time ago so I can’t remember if it was its own language or just one dialect of a more common language, but I think the name of it was something like Thaa or Ta (??) and, at least at that time, it held the world’s record for largest number of consonants in any language.)

    Isn’t it the Khoisan people who are considered most like the genetic ancestors of all humanity? I know that their language has the click phonemes also—-but I don’t recall if or how they may be related to the Xhosa speakers. (Are they closely related people groups?) I find it interesting that such an interesting and relatively unique language feature in a world of so many diverse languages is found among a people group with such a special place in the family tree of Homo sapiens sapiens. If someone among the SC’s readers have background on these topics, I’d be fascinated to read whatever you may choose to share on this topic.

    If anyone wants to hear tongue-twisters involving the click-phonemes, here ya go: