Theistic Science Words are Going Out of Style

March 19, AD 2016 7 Comments

If you read my blog back in 2013, then you already know why I do not like the adjective “theistic” in front of evolution or any other science word. Last week, I had an article at a new site, OneFaith, titled Theistic Evolution is Redundant. It was a polished up version of the old attempt.

I do not even know how to act like this is not a big deal, so I will go ahead and say that I am blown away with gratitude that John Farrell at Forbes / Science picked up on the idea and wrote about it. Here is his article:

It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution’

YES! It is not everyday you read something that shows both Richard Dawkins and Kenneth Miller can agree.

I could not articulate it as well back in 2013 because I was still trying to explain why using the word “theistic” to tie God to science was such an offense to me as a chemist and a Catholic. I mean, when I converted, all those big questions I once tried to ignore were finally answered when I prayed the Creed in faith. Where did all the order in the universe came from? The Creator. Having gone through the exercise now of writing a book about “science in the light of faith,” I have had the opportunity to spill out my thoughts and refine them to this point:

Design is an all-or-none proposition.

Consistent with:

  1. The Creed and Genesis 1:1—”I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth…”
  2. Divine Providence—”We must say, however, that all things are subject to divine providence…” Aquinas, ST.I.22.2
  3. Fifth Way—”Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.” ST.I.2.3
  4. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, based on Wisdom 8:1: “O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high/And order all things far and nigh…”
  5. The martyred mother in 2 Maccabees who watched her seven sons martyred—”But the Creator of the world, that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all…” (2 Mc 7:23)
  6. My daughter’s first Kindergarten science book that starts, “God Made Everything”
  7. Scientific Method—Observe, hypothesize, experiment, collect data, draw conclusions, and repeat does not work in a disordered world.
  8. Periodic Table—As far as we can tell, all the elements in the universe came from a single originating point, followed laws of nature, ordered themselves according to their subatomic particles, particularly the electronic structure, and bond and dissociate as atoms according to more laws of nature.

In my forthcoming (Fall 2016) book for Ave Maria Press, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science, I do not argue against theism or intelligent design, so much as I argue against shrinking away from it at all. We must see science in the light of faith, which is not the same thing as saying that faith and reason are not equal. They are equal in that we need both, like eagles need both wings. But when it comes to science, we start with faith as an order in our worldview. We do not depend on science to prove our faith, but we can appreciate science to inspire our faith.

People may object to this pervasive view because they differentiate between “natural” and “designed” processes, but that distinction makes no sense if you understand a high-school textbook level of atomic theory. I do not know how anyone can escape the conclusion that atoms themselves are designed, not just single atoms but their formation, their subatomic structure, their relation to each other, their rules for bonding. To back down on this point would mean I would have to toss out my physics and chemistry textbooks and let other people tell me where I should and should not see design. Perhaps the solution is to ask people to derive the Bohr radius and Rydberg’s Constant for a hydrogen atom before they call any natural process undesigned.

  • Yarwain

    “If you are a believer, it is already implied that you see all biological and physical processes as created and held in existence by God. You do not need ‘theistic’ in front of biological terms.”

    Yes, I agree. And the same should be said of ‘scientific intelligent design.’ Do you agree?

    What the Discovery Institute, and sadly, its several Catholic advocates like Michael Behe, Bruce Chapman, Richard Sternberg, and Jay Richards and IDist blogger Vincent Torley, believe, is that they are promoting & defending ‘strictly scientific intelligent design’. Isn’t such a view unnecessary for Catholics?

    As you have said, Tracy, Design on the cosmognomic level, as well as all the natural world, “is an all-or-none proposition.” (This differs, however, once human design and manufacture [anthropogenics] is taken into consideration; Creator/Creation.]

    What do you think it will take to change the minds of Catholic proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ theory (not simply the theological belief in ‘intelligent design’) and is it any part of your mission to help this?

    It seems that the people your book(s), columns, and remarks aim to reach and educate are already theists, particularly Christians. Otoh, most of the posts on ID advocating sites and by ideological ‘IDists’ (e.g. at EvolutionNews) are aimed mainly at and against atheists, as (barely veiled) apologetics exercises in attempted Judeo-Christian evangelisation and theistic ‘cultural renewal’.

    If you don’t see this difference in audience, then you likely won’t understand them or they you.

    “they differentiate between ‘natural’ and ‘designed’ processes”

    Yes, well it does make sense to do this at a certain level, since techné is not ‘natural’ in the sense of being ‘organic’ and human-made things are largely ‘designed’ in an anthropic (not simply chemical or biological) way.

    Similarly, from a sociological approach, if you reject the label ‘theistic evolution’ and/or ‘evolutionary creation’, then what label would you prefer, since using ‘Catholics (&/or other Christians) who accept limited evolutionary science’ is rather bulky? Farrell uses “Christian scientists who accept evolution,” but the term ‘Christian scientists’ is already unclear due to Mary Baker Eddy. What else would you propose? And do you also reject the term ‘evolutionist’, in addition to ‘theistic evolutionist’?
    I agree generally with you and Farrell, Stacy. But some further clarity still seems possible.

    p.s getting Kenneth Miller to agree with Richard Dawkins isn’t actually much of a difficulty, when it comes to ‘strictly science.’ The problem with Miller is that he is philosophically clumsy and has made many mistakes in his ‘randomness,’ ‘undirected’ (which he has attempted to correct, cf. Dover trial testimony) and ‘(anti-)evolutionism/evolutionist’ terminology. Is there not another biologist in the Pontifical Academy that can resonate more clearly and articulately than Miller, cutting off evolutionism generally, just as you reject ‘theistic evolutionism’?

    • Hi Yarwain,

      “And the same should be said of ‘scientific intelligent design.’ Do you agree?”


      “Isn’t such a view unnecessary for Catholics?”

      Yes, I think it does harm to the faith and science dialogue. “Scientism” does not need to be defeated by coming up with science-words to try to tie God and science together. Rather, there is a need in the scientific community for leaders who are also faithful, who have a clear vision of what science can do and not do and who understand what progress for humanity really is. These leaders need to engage the others, not try to trick them.

      “If you don’t see this difference in audience, then you likely won’t understand them or they you.”

      I agree. I think I understand them, but I do not agree with their approach to apologetics.

      “What else would you propose? And do you also reject the term ‘evolutionist’, in addition to ‘theistic evolutionist’?”

      I propose that the way to untangle the faith and science apparent conflict is to stop tying them together artificially. Study and critique evolution on its own merits. Understand it is not a complete theory. Seek to learn what evolutionary biologists are proposing. Meanwhile, know your faith. Know what the Church teaches. Be confident in the dogmas we do not deny, such as that God created everything with a beginning in time and that the human person is body and soul.

      I reject those terms in that I will not use them because they confuse rather than clarify.

      • Dhaniele

        Something that seems to be missing from this discussion is the role of philosophy in all of this. Long before the rise of modern science, there was an effort to integrate a rational (philosophical) vision with a vision of faith, e.g. Aristotle and Aquinas. To talk about faith and science without bringing in philosophy is to leave out an essential element of a rational discourse since science itself also presupposes a philosophical vision (whether science is aware of this or not, thus “cause and effect” is a classical philosophical problem). This role of philosophy is reflected in some of the statements of the official Catholic Catechism that tries to present in summary form Catholic thinking on this faith science question without focusing on in directly. Thus, the Catechism speaks in a philosophical language, but it has implications for science as well; thus: 301 With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end….. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living” (Wisdom 11:24-26). This line of thought actually has a strongly philosophical history that predates our modern science and yet is not unrelated to it. Thus, we see: 302 Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection: By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, ‘reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.’ For ‘all are open and laid bare to his eyes,’ even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.” Really any attempt to discuss the science-faith relationship without getting into the philosophical foundations of this discourse results in a very unsatisfactory picture that is clearly incomplete. The Catechism thus knits together these two visions (faith and reason, i.e. philosophy) in this short formula: 308 The truth that God is at work in all the actions of his creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes: “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Far from diminishing the creature’s dignity, this truth enhances it. Drawn from nothingness by God’s power, wisdom and goodness, it can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for “without a Creator the creature vanishes.”(Gaudium et Spes, 13 #36). It is this philosophical dimension of Catholic thought that prevents it from sliding into fundamentalism in which faith remains divorced from philosophical discourse.

  • Micha_Elyi

    IIRC, the very word ‘evolution’ implies a goal of progression toward superior forms. So I insist on the un-teleological term ‘natural selection’ when atheists try to bother me with what they call ‘evolution’. This makes it very hard for them to get their claims about an undirected, independent-of-intelligence evolutionary process off the ground.

  • Vincent Torley

    Hi Dr. Trasancos,

    You might be interested in the following piece I’ve written in response to John Farrell’s article, “It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution'”:

    Best wishes,


    • Yarwain

      Obviously this is a trap with ‘best wishes’ implied.

      • Not really a trap. He is not forcing me to respond, and I appreciate how he organized his thoughts. It helps me understand where he is coming from. However, he and I do not interpret Miller’s views the same way.