Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Creationism and the Mangling of Good Words | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Today’s post comes from our friend and colleague Dr. Rodney KennedyRodney’s post is an excellent reminder of why language matters when it comes to understanding young earth creationism. 

There is no getting around it. Young earth creationists twist, even mangle, the definitions of words in order to give these words meanings that fit their worldview.

Take, for example, the word “theory.” Creationists love to insist that evolution is only a theory, meaning by theory that evolution is unproven speculation, just one of thousands of possible unproven speculations. This definition of theory often shows up in courtrooms where evolution is being debated in the context of the science curriculum of public schools. For example, the Cobb County School System in Atlanta, Georgia had a small sticker placed on the inside of all biology textbooks:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Once “theory” is defined in this way, then creationism is on a level playing field with evolution and thus can be offered as a viable theory for science. (And once this leveling has taken place, then creationists play their trump card, which is that Genesis is an “eyewitness account of creation,” with God as the eyewitness to what he did – a bizarre argument, indeed).

While the notion of “theory” as unproven speculation is common in popular parlance, this is not how the word is used in science. Evolution is the central organizing principle of the biological sciences, and the word “theory” is used in the context of what is currently accepted truth. This doesn’t mean that evolution is false but that evolution is what science has concluded is true but is open to revision. It is a word of humility to use the word “theory” instead of the word “truth.” In no way are scientists suggesting that theory has the meaning of unproven hypotheses.

It turns out that it is creationism that is a “theory” in the popular sense. In other words, creationism is what it accuses evolution of being: a suspect, fallacious claim about the origins of the universe. Creationism has no merit and no legitimate warrant. All creationists can manage is to keep repeating the mantra of a six-day literal creation and keep reassuring “true” believers that it is true.

Another word that creationists mangle is “myth.” They have worked for over a century to define “myth” as an ancient story that is not true.

This is a complete misreading of the word “myth.” A Native American chief told his grandson a wonderful story about the origin of their tribe. The grandson asked, “Did this really happen?” The chief smiled, and said, “It didn’t actually happen but it is true.” Myth, like metaphor, is charged with meaning. In fact, myth and metaphor have reality-producing capabilities. They also have the power to encourage, uplift, and challenge entire societies.

But as with “theory,” creationism turns out to be a “myth” in the popular sense. In other words, creationism is a tall tale that is not true. Creationism is a false myth but it has tremendous epistemic power among “true” believers.

Sometimes false myths can do great harm. Sometimes we are best served by demythologizing false myths and showing that they are not true. In this understanding, someone should write a book called The Myth of Creationism.