Creation/evolution continuum, or NCSE is too nice to theists … and to atheists!

There are those who say "Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right." There are others who say:

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.

i-92e0ff3155a09f222c5d9679cd9e7d4b-c-e_continuum.jpgFor 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.

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Nice post. I hate to see the NCSE wasting time with this tug-of-war considering the great need of their services.

--"They tend to describe first learning more about evolution, then rejecting some form of creationism, and ultimately drifting away from religion entirely."

I have to admit I fall into this group. Even though I never rejected evolution for creationism, I am intimately familiar with those who believe in special creation. And through my own study have come to see flawed logic in quite a bit of what I hear coming from religious folk. This has become a wedge for me that is a struggle. It's rather difficult when the people in your life who are devout see you drifting. It changes their view of you (and I of them) and that creates contention at times.

--"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."

I recently had this experience with a creationist on the CBS new website forum over the story of Ida. It was clear to me that he was doing this on the point of geocentricity.

These reconciliation arguments for the existence of God invariably arise from the need for religion to keep up with the juggernaut of new knowledge we have about the natural world. Answers in Genesis now even has a section on evolution and how it "God-driven" of course. Eventually I predict that creationist arguments will get so close to the scientific explanation that they will just say "well, we believed in evolution all along" (as many religious people already do), "it's just God-driven".

But ultimately their strategy is just to move the goal posts as they need to cover their implausible arguments and place God in any gap they can still find. One thing I appreciate about the YEC's is that they are true to the word of the Bible. Where do all these neo-creationists like Collins get their inspiration if not from the Bible. Once you start picking and choosing from the Bible what you like and ignoring what you dislike there will be no end.

I would love to see a book that covers the changing argument for Creation over the centuries. That would show the world how relativistic and in many ways poll-driven religious belief is.

By Sarah Bellem (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

Hi Josh,
Yes nice post - some food for thought here (at least for me).

Just two quick points:

1. re: your point that there are some in group C that believe evolution and theism might be compatible, but that they reject theism on other grounds.

That is an excellent point. Essentially the shared viewpoint I identified for B & C (that evolution and theism are mutually exclusive concepts) is true for only a subset of those in group C. Iâm definitely going to have to think about that.

2. Re: the relationship between B & C and ânot being aware of anyone who made the transition without at least a brief layover in theistic evolutionâ

I would say there are lots. Iâve seen many anecdotes on just that. Eg. See the Young Earth Creationists Anonymous mission statement. If you peruse standard deconversion / Christian debunking apologetic sites youâll see similar stories. My own view is that the standard âevolution / faith false dichotomyâ is one of the major reasons that Evangelical Christianity is leaking so badly among our youth. That is one of the reasons that ECâs can be so passionate about addressing the false dichotomy. Yes, we too want to ensure good science education, but we have a second objective â we want our youth to have a viable faith option.

Question: Do you have a link to the Peter Hess "graphical analogy"? I'd be very interested in seeing that.

Quick correction note: Thanks for the kind words but I am not anywhere close to being an evolutionary biologist (or a practicing scientist of any kind) - my academic background is mathematics & computer science but I have a very strong amateur interest in both natural sciences and theology. You may be thinking of Stephen Matheson

When I taught an undergraduate seminar on the history of the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution last semester and when I spoke to a church congregation about Christian responses to ToE in January and February, I found the NCSE continuum very useful in a modified form. As Josh suggests above, the modification (which I thought was original with me) consisted in splitting the main axis into two axes, one of denial-acceptance of science and the other greater or lesser theological accommodation.

That split into two axes is useful because, for example, in the 19th century there were considerable disputes within Christianity regarding how to accommodate to the geologists' finding of deep time and an old earth. Was day-age theory or gap (reconstruction) theory a better theological accommodation to deep time? They accepted the science and fought about the theology. In the mid-20th century, in the 1930s, that same theological dispute led to schisms among Christians, with young-earth creationists deeply suspicious that covert day-agers would infiltrate the Religion and Science Association, a "scientific" society for the support and advancement of Flood geology formed by a former student of George McCready Price.

As I commented on Steve's post, I also found it useful to distinguish among theological positions I called fiat instant creation (e.g., YEC), serial creation (e.g., progressive creationism), and continuous creationism (e.g., evolutionary creationism). That seems to me to better capture the essential differences among them with respect to how they interpret the Biblical stories of creation. And that's a question of theological accommodation to science, or, as Steve might prefer, a question of theological interpretation in the light of both an ANE audience for the original writings of the Bible and modern science. That question would not arise were it not for moerns science, in particular deep time and biological evolution, and is a problem in theology, not science.

But in understanding the history of the controversy it is essential to distinguish between theological accommodation and science acceptance.

Somewhere I have a powerpoint slide that illustrates how I see it. If anyone wants it I'll dig it out and email it. Let me know at rbh.third [at] gmail [dot] com.

...but NCSE is not in the business of endorsing particular religious philosophies

I have always thought that even the most fundamentalist YEC is claiming an evidence base to their position. Their evidence being a particularly fluid and contradictory book, known to be written by primitive goat herders and rewritten by most every tyrant who could write, but it's still evidence. They're not yet pomo enough to reject reality altogether, they just have a blind-spot for the contradictions. In fact, that they can even read the bible is proof that education has already won over ignorance.

That the NCSE supports education and evidence based views is not opposed to the sort of theology that is not opposed to evidence as such.

It's much more important I feel to address the motivations for people to hold on to views that many of us can see flatly contradict themselves. It's important to highlight the power weilded by essentially small men. The celebrity and money, with their big card and stupid sheep.

I personally believe that fundamentalists are not theist at all. If they truly believed there was a god, would they continue to rape children? Or fleece their marks? Or would the so-called moderates; the facilitators, continue to leap to the defence of child rapers and frauds?


I think it is more useful to divide the continuum into belief and practice with respect to evolution, in other words:

young earth creationism: supernaturalism
old earth creationism: supernaturalism
intelligent design: methodological supernaturalism
theistic evolution: methodological naturalism
philosophical naturalism: methodological naturalism

I'm borrowing "methodological supernaturalism" from a post by Greg Mayer. There are some aspects of methodological supernaturalism in YEC/OEC, like belief in "microevolution," but most of it hinges on outright denial of science.

There are many more than 1 or 2 dimensions here. As someone who embraces the scientific method and also has theistic beliefs, I admit that the linear chart on NCSE's site has always bothered me. While I tend to agree that many fundamentalists are irrational and anti-scientific, it is not always so. Similarly, I've encountered a few atheists who, while accepting evolution, think that there is no such thing as human-caused global warming. They think that it is all some sort of liberal conspiracy to make people worry.

I think one of the important dimensions is how willing someone is to accept uncertainty and question their own beliefs. I try to look at both the evidence before me and the assumptions I bring to an issue. Too many people do the former without thinking about the latter. Whether or not someone believes in God or evolution isn't really the main issue - it is the methods one used to arrive at those beliefs. What bothers me about the creationists is not that they believe God created the world, but that they use faulty methods and deny good solid evidence. I've also encountered people who treat Darwin's work like a religious text and are into funny new-age stuff. They also seem to use faulty methods.


Glenn Branch said that he would cc you on some comments I sent NCSE. Minor quibbles aside, the overriding point is that we all agree that it (old or new version) is a useful starting point - light years more useful than the "evolution vs. creationism" model that plays right into the hands of the "we're not creationists" ID activists.

I often have to remind myself that the target audience for the "continuum" consists of people who think for themselves. Some (like me years ago) accept evolution but are confused about the "debate." Others deny evolution or are undecided based on misinformation that pervades our culture and drowns out what little science most people learn. In contrast, the committed evolution-deniers will not benefit from that or anything mainstream science offers, and the anti-evolution activists read it only for quotes to mine.

As you say:

"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)."

Exactly. Which is why I'd like to see more "what happened when" questions, and fewer "whodunit" ones. In my experience the "think for oneself" audience appreciates them ("gee, I never thought of that"), and and the ID peddlers hate them ("we don't need to connect no stinkin' dots).

Nice article. I didn't come across this until after I had posted some related comments on my own blog, in which I also proposed a two dimensional model. (I haven't seen the Peter Hess model to which you refer, but will have to look for it now and see his take on the subject.)

If you're interested, in invite you to take a look at how I approached the problem:

I decided to come up with my own model because I was troubled by how the one-dimensional continuum seems to perpetuate a simplistic and erroneous description of the spectrum of beliefs. Yes, I also found two dimensions to be not enough, and yes, my placement of names on the grid is probably arbitrary and debatable. But after recognizing how the one-dimensional model forces people to assume that, when it comes to faith and science, you can't fully embrace one without compromising the other, I felt it was time for a different way of looking at it. It's nice to see that others have been having similar ideas.

Thanks for contributing to the dialog.