Who's calling who a creationist?

GodAdampurAnyone who has read GetReligion for a while knows that, as a rule, we are fans of the work of religion-beat star Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Click here for a flashback to her fine work on a story that other papers we could mention have been, well, oversimplifying a bit. It has been a busy week for me and I have been struggling to catch up the whole time, at work and here at the blog. Dozens of stories I wanted to write about have come and gone. One of them was Goodstein's coverage of a July poll -- done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press -- on what Americans believe about creation.

As so often happens on the Godbeat, language is everything and the problems start right there in the headline: "Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey." It turns out that this is the rare story in which it is possible to use the term "creationism" and have it mean something more than a slur. You betcha, there are real-life "creationists" in this poll and lots of them.

More on that in a minute. The key is that Goodstein is caught in a thicket of words, trying to draw lines between two very different groups of people and her newspaper seems to want to describe all of them with the same word -- creationists. In fact, I would argue that the story centers on three or more different groups.

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of all Americans say they think "creationism" should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. But things get more complex right there in the second and third paragraphs.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was "guided by a supreme being," and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.

Well now, that's complicated. In other words, there are strict biblical literalists and millions of them. Then there are people who believe that the mechanism of evolution could not have been random and impersonal. Some of these people probably call themselves "theistic evolutionists," except that the Darwinian establishment is not going to allow that definition of "evolution" in any educational space that is meaningful. There also appear to be true evolutionists who are in favor of free speech on issues of science and philosophy in the public square -- even if the idea is tainted with the word "creationism." Thus:

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of "American pragmatism."

The problem, of course, is that Goodstein and her editors have only two words to use -- evolution and creationism -- and they have a number of other camps to describe, on both sides of the divide.

There are evolutionists who truly believe that schools should lurch beyond science and teach that the evidence proves that evolution is random and impersonal, thus locking the God of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam out of the equation. There are other evolutionists who believe that they should just stick with the facts and remain neutral on the theological questions. They do not behave the same in these debates. There are young-earth "creationists." There are other "creationists" who think the world is millions and millions of years old and that God has worked in ways that produced evidence -- big word, evidence -- of design in that process. There are other "creationists" who affirm some aspects of Darwinian dogma and reject others. This pope and the last one fit in this particular "creationist" camp, even if journalists hate to say so.

So what is a "strict creationists" and what is a "creationist" and what is a "creationist" who accepts some Darwinian doctrine and rejects other parts of the canon?

What in the world does "creationist" mean, anyway? Is this puzzle something like the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of "pornography"? New York Times editors cannot define the word "creationism," but they know one of these crazy people when they see one (or millions and millions of them)?

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