Thoughts on terminology re  Science 'vs' Religion

(Here in GENERAL 'cuz it’s Thoughts I’ve Thunk in various threads. No formatting, links or images d/t technical snafus.)

Words have meanings.

This seems to go without saying. But as a word nerd and former Christian who’s “been on both sides now,” I see certain conflicts over terminology that repeatedly overshadow discussions of the concepts themselves.

Anyone can use any terminology they like in a debate, but when:

:heavy_check_mark: Our understanding of a term conflicts with the understanding of those who “own” that term, or

:heavy_check_mark: Our terminology is intended to obfuscate our motivations

… discussion will go off the rails even faster than it needs to.

(Fellow atheists, don’t you get frustrated when Christians say “Atheists hate God?” It’s like that.)

With that in mind, I’d like to throw out some clarifications on terminology in the discussion of religion and science… things I’ve often seen misused, misinterpreted, or manipulated.

This is NOT a glossary or official statement on anything. I’m just thinking out loud, typos and all.

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When we (nonbelievers) START with the premise that “science is incompatible with religion” per se, we reinforce an unnecesary acrimony. In reality: a CERTAIN type of religion is in conflict with science (and the reverse is not necessarily true).

The “conflict” isn’t inherent or universal. Science does not conflict with the vast majority of religions in the world – not even with the majority of Christian denominations. (Nonbelievers often assume all Christians are Fundamentalists, but this is far from the case.)

Generally, the conflict is on the side of certain theists: a minority of Conservative Christians (and some Muslims) who require a literal reading of the Bible (or Qur’an). This group is both very vocal and very politically active. They are the noisy wheel that gets the grease.

The conflict doesn’t involve most Christians, who, like most Jews, interpret the Torah as metaphor. The whole discussion is totally irrelevant to adherents of Eastern religions.

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“Intelligent design” is a thing – a specific thing.

While the term isn’t copyrighted, nor a capitalized proper noun, the use of this phrase has been associated with one particular pseudoscientific theory in opposition to evolution for 30 years. When we use it, we should assume that MOST readers assume that’s what we mean.

Proponents of ID maintain that Darwin’s theory of evolution is disproved by both “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity,” which require an “intelligent designer.” They don’t specifically identify this designer as the God of Abraham, because if they did, the “theory” could not be taught in public schools. But ID was developed by a Conservative Christian think tank, and proponents are almost all Conservative Christians.

ID is a FORM of creationism, and often a Trojan Horse for creationism, but isn’t SYNONYMOUS with creationism. The distinction here is important. Creationism is a wide umbrella; some under it are Bible literalists who beliece in a 6,000-year-old Earth. Therefore, many creationists oppose ID, and most ID proponents reject creationism. ID proponents adhere to “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity,” not any particular interpretation of Genesis.

For the same reason, referring to any theology that allows for a “creator” as “intelligent design” is TECHNICALLY correct, but confusing and misleading due to 30 years of general use of “ID.” Theistic Evolution is theoretically intelligent design, but isn’t “intelligent design.” Beliefs that incorporate elements of Buddhism and theoretical physics aren’t “intelligent design” either. And, MOST Christians who accept evolution are NOT proponents of “intelligent design.”

To be clear: most Christians believe the God of Abraham somehow USED natural selection to create forms of life. These Christians (among them, most Roman Catholics – the days of Galileo are long gone – and Eastern Orthodox, as well as a large share of Protestants) simply see science as answering one set of questions, and religion another set of questions. They DON’T require “irreducible complexity” or “specified complexity” for their beliefs to make sense.

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It’s important to realize that as movements, “intelligent design” and “creationism”’ exist ONLY in opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution and other 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century scientific discoveries that threatened certain interpretations of the Bible.

In this case, I do go against their own claims about themselves… because it’s clear from the timetable of historical events that ID came out of Christian Fundamentalism, and Christian Fundamentalism was a reaction to scientific discoveries of the 1800s.

My namesake, William Jennings Bryan, was one of the giant Christian forces against the teaching of evolution – but at that time (late 1800s/early 1900s), politically Progressive Christians’ opposition to evolution included fears that it would lead to “Social Darwinism,” even eugenics. Today, it’s the Conservatives who seem to like Social Darwinism.

This is a reminder that even terms like liberal, conservative, Progressive, Republican, Democrat and Populist have changed, morphed and even switched places over the past 150 years.

So creationists and ID proponents ARE anti-science, at least those disciplines that are problematic for them (biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, etc.)

There is a huge overlap between these folks and climate science deniers, and these feelings come from the same place – a literal or quasi-literal interpretation of the Bible, in this case the Book of Revelation.

The reason we (in America, in the current era) are so conscious of a war between science and religion has much to do with Christian Fundamentalist lawsuits against school districts, such as those involving my buddy Bryan and in Dover. This is largely an American phenomenon.

By the same token, scientists aren’t motivated by a wish to “destroy religion.” In fact, scientists pretty explicitly say they CAN’T “prove God doesn’t exist.” Scientists seek out truth where it takes them. Insomuch as a scientific theory may seem to “disprove religion,” the problem is with specific theists who hold a specific position (such as the age of the earth.)

The idea that there is a giant conspiracy amongst scientists to ignore or cover up proof that God exists is just goofy. Frankly, if a scientist were actually to “prove” the existence of such a being, he/she would go down as the top scientist of all time.

But “religion” is not a monolith with “a definition” of who, or what, God is. There are almost as many concepts of “God” or “gods” as there are people. How science could “prove” the existence of a thing that cannot even be defined is beyond me.


Anyhoo… like I said, I’m just throwing this out FWIW.


That was an enjoyable train of thought.

One thing that I was not for sure what you were saying was when you said "…Evolution is theoretically intelligent design, but isn’t ‘intelligent design…’ ".

Glad you got the uniqueness of fundamentalism out there right away.

Not sure if the average believer would catch all the subtlety in your final few paragraphs. I should mention a little while back you said something about “not wanting to argue” about proofs, or something like that. I get that, whatever I said I was using some shorthand for the complex discussion we were in. Anyway, here, the idea of seeking out truth where it takes them is somewhat foreign to religion. Religion is, almost by definition, about relying on tradition. I know they evolve, but they do so culturally, over generations, whereas science is designed to be questioned and rewards new ideas and the refutation of bad old ideas.

Sometimes, I think if all the religions just got together and tried to agree on that monolith, they’d realize they were all wrong, except when it came to value choices, like caring and compassion.

This little bit of humor hits the nail on the head.

(Warning, crude language)

TimB said,

That was an enjoyable train of thought.

One thing that I was not for sure what you were saying was when you said “…Evolution is theoretically intelligent design, but isn’t ‘intelligent design…’ “.


Exactly!!! It is a quasi-intelligent design, which appears to have an underlying “intelligent motivation”. But a mathematical function needs not be motivated at all. It’s in the terminology that the difference appears.

Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made.

Complex systems
Collective behaviour[show]
Evolution and adaptation[show]
Pattern formation[show]
Systems theory[show]
Nonlinear dynamics[show]
Game theory[show

These mathematical functions appear to imitate human behaviors. Thus the concept of a human god. But it is the other way around.

Humans imitate mathematical functions. This suggests a fundamental mathematical essence to the universe, but does not require “motivation to create”.

The Universe displays a quasi-intelligent behavior due to the fact it is mathematical in essence. You could not tell the difference anyway…: )


Welcome to Center for Tanakh Based Studies' Monday morning "On the lighter side". Here comedian Lewis Black, a Jew criticizes Christians interpreting the Old Testament, his book.


This is HILARIOUS and true!

On Twitter, I’ve replied with this to Evangelical Christians who say the Jews “rejected” Jesus as Messiah despite their own prophecies…

…and gotten “likes” and retweets by Jews.

Because Black is 100% right. Christians reinterpreted the Jewish Scriptures, then retroactively blame them for rejecting the Christian interpretation.

I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and I saw this, like, in middle school.


Thanks again!!


There’s even a word for early readers of the scripture trying to figure out their own texts, pesher. It’s when then go through all the texts and try to connect them in ways they really aren’t connected. A well known one is the story in Isaiah of a young woman’s child and a specific King, that gets turned into a story of a virgin birth, so now we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. The Qumran library is full of them. They are also in the later OT books, like Daniel.

In my opinion…

[I used your headings and commented on what you wrote…]


Science is incompatible with religion, so any acrimony is unfortunate but reasonable and expected.

The incompatibility isn’t universal, but since (as far as I know) everyone on here lives where Christianity is the major religion causing grief, some generalization can be expected. So in casual conversation we can get away with it, but when we engage in more serious discussions we need to be more specific as to the specific religion/sect/belief.

Letting shallow religious believers off the hook is a problem. They allow the extremists to exist. Without the masses of ‘one-day-a-week’ Christians, extremists wouldn’t have the defenses and excuses they use as protection. Let the shallow believers see how they provide cover for extremists and maybe they’ll analyze their beliefs for once.

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  • ID is:
    • religious,
    • anti-science,
    • an underhanded way to sneak religion into school,
    • an underhanded way to make the public think religion is scientific,
    • an underhanded way to create a slippery-slope that allows religion to infiltrate more of our society,
ID is to creationism as ‘one-day-a-week’ Christians are to religious extremists. It’s simply a cover for the same... but worse.

The complete lack of thinking required to believe it is masked by the loud claims that it’s logical and scientific. The attraction is strong for those who don’t know science- without knowing actual science, ID is the natural option to choose (“It looks and sounds so much like science and it conforms to my beliefs… so it must be right!!)

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True scientists are looking for the truth. If religion isn’t blocking their search for the truth, they’re still likely to view it as a destructive meme that harms vast portions of the world (human, animal, environment, etc) so will more likely advocate against it than ignore or advocate for it. But they rarely devote a large portion of time and effort fighting it. It’s the Bill Nye’s and Richard Dawkins’s of the world who do that work for millions of every-day scientists.

Religion isn’t a monolith, but it is a monolith. By that I mean, it’s not a single entity, but it does interfere with and influence all aspects of life as though it were. In many instances it’s easier to talk about religion as a single thing (monolith), but when getting into more detail is it necessary to talk about the individual religion/sect/belief (not a monolith).

For @timb, re:

One thing that I was not for sure what you were saying was when you said “…Evolution is theoretically intelligent design, but isn’t ‘intelligent design…’ “.
...and @write4u re:
Exactly!!!!! It is a quasi-intelligent design, which appears to have an underlying “intelligent motivation"...
Thanks for this.

Hmm. I’ll try to clarify. I’m trying to find the correct words for my blog, and this seems more difficult than I’d expected…

The words intelligent + design, together, simply means a thing that someone designed. The phrase is not copyrighted. For example, there’s a woodwork company, a furniture company and an electronics company all named “Intelligent Design.”

But if someone uses the phrase “intelligent design” in the context of discussing the origins of life or the creation of the universe, we know they are talking about an intelligent being, a creator, a diety, a god, a spirit, a something, that made everything.

Even in this context, though, the phrase “intelligent design” isn’t copyright-protected. It isn’t capitalized, it isn’t a proper noun, it isn’t always in quotation marks, it has no ©, no ®, and no ™.

Therefore, anyone MAY use the term “intelligent design” any way they wish. Deists, Buddhists, liberal Christians, etc. can use it, even if they accept evolution. Several people here in the CFI forums have have used it in this way.

However, the phrase “intelligent design” has a connotation beyond the words in the phrase.

In 1989, the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics, a “Christian thinkthank,” published a “science textbook,” “Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins."
The book introduced “intelligent design” as the concept that life shows evidence of being designed by an intelligent agent rather than through natural selection, and presents polemical arguments against evolutionary theory.

Early drafts of the book used both of the terms “creation” and “intelligent design.” However, most proponents of this theory do NOT accept a 6-day creation, as many Bible literalist Creationists do. In fact, several Fundamentalist Christian organizations oppose ID, for this reason.

Also, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court ruled, that “creationism” is religion and not science.

For these reasons, the authors changed the terminology in the book. The word “creation” was dropped, and “intelligent design” was used throughout. From the time of the book’s second printing in 1993, the term “intelligent design” has been associated with the anti-evolution that actually coined the phrase.

As we are all aware, in 2005 the term was used in a lawsuit over the teaching of evolution in the Dover school district, the subject of a PBS NOVA episode first aired in 2003:

For further evidence I’m not making this up, let’s look at how various groups, religious and secular, define the term:

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Intelligent design (ID): argument intended to demonstrate that living organisms were created in more or less their present forms by an “intelligent designer.” Intelligent design was formulated in the 1990s, primarily in the United States, as an explicit refutation of the theory of biological evolution advanced by Charles Darwin (1809–82). ...supporters of intelligent design observed that the functional parts and systems of living organisms are “irreducibly complex".....
According to Merriam Webster:
Definition of intelligent design: the theory that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by a designing intelligence. First Known Use of intelligent design: 1990, in the meaning defined above.
According to the ACLU:
Q: What is intelligent design? A: Intelligent design (ID) is a pseudoscientific set of beliefs based on the notion that life on earth is so complex that it cannot be explained by the scientific theory of evolution and therefore must have been designed by a supernatural entity. ...Michael Behe, a Discovery Institute fellow, coined the term "irreducible complexity" as a description... ... The ID movement is led by a small group of activists based at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture (formerly Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) in Seattle, WA.
According to the Discovery Institute, on its Intelligent Design website:
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
According to Answers in Genesis:
The “Intelligent Design” movement is led by scholars who argue that the design of living systems—and even the nonliving elements of the universe—suggest a Designer. While these “intelligent design” proponents have been effective in challenging evolutionary theory, we’re not sure how effective the movement will be in the long run in changing many people’s hearts...
According to Got Questions?
The Intelligent Design Theory says that intelligent causes are necessary to explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable. Certain biological features defy the standard Darwinian random-chance explanation, because they appear to have been designed. Since design logically necessitates an intelligent designer, the appearance of design is cited as evidence for a designer. There are three primary arguments in the Intelligent Design Theory: 1) irreducible complexity, 2) specified complexity, and 3) the anthropic principle.
Etc. Etc.

So my point is, even if “intelligent design” isn’t a legal term or proper noun, it’s overwhelmingly associated with A SPECIFIC anti-evolution movement.

In regular usage, it does not apply to everyone who believes some diety or deities had something to do with the universe. And, it does not apply to all Biblical creationists.

Please tell me that this makes sense!!


Thank you for the info on pesher! I had never heard that before.

Interestingly, the term seems to apply specifically to Jews interpreting Jewish scriptures. I wonder how they refer to the Christians’ total reinterpretation of their Scriptures?

Please tell me that this makes sense!!
It does.

We’ve spilled gallons of ink saying the same thing a hundred times, even though it’s pretty obvious to anyone who cares about truth and honesty what the answer is.

You, me and the majority of the others here are all on the same page with this.


LOL, thanks for your comments! As you probably know, I think I already knew your opinion on this stuff. You aren’t wrong. But I’m trying to be objectively accurate, and also deciding whether I want to discuss, debate, or alienate.

You can blow off all the steam you want. (I do, often!) But with THIS, I’m attempting to find accurate language that won’t alienate people “on the fence” of religious deconstruction at this moment. (Actually, that’s a more difficult challenge than blowing off steam.) Any nameless, faceless person on the fence may or may not be moved by any given item they see, but millimeters add up.

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Letting shallow religious believers off the hook is a problem.
Well, again, it depends on how accutate you want to be, and what you are trying to accomplish.

Currently in the US, as much as 96% of people believe in something out there. (I use Pew, because it’s secular and widely regarded as pretty accurate.)

In polls where something like 25% of Americans identify “nones,” the nones aren’t all atheists. Most are people not affiliated with a specific church, or who are “spiritual but not religious.”

Until the day when a much larger share of Americans are atheists, you are offending and alienating a large percentage of the population – UNNECESSARILY. (I don’t know how old you are, but even if you live 70 more years, “religion” probably won’t be GONE in your lifetime.)

I don’t think you you ever responded to my post a few weeks ago, showing that you overestimate the share of Americans who reject evolution. Did you?

Here is another reference to the same poll – from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Dan Barker’s people):

It’s often reported that at least one-third of Americans reject evolution. But there’s reason to doubt that...

Not surprisingly, Pew has found that the answer can vary depending on how the question is phrased.

The share of Americans who reject evolution and express a creationist view drops considerably (from 31% to 18% of U.S. adults) when respondents are immediately given the opportunity to say God played a role in human evolution.

We may have more allies out there than we think. It’s also evidence that many Americans want to reconcile their faith with modern science and are rejecting the Religious Right’s claim that the two must be in conflict.

So, Rat, ask yourself – is it worth alienating 96% of Americans while addressing the 18% of them who oppose evolution?

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True scientists are looking for the truth. If religion isn’t blocking their search for the truth, they’re still likely to view it as a destructive meme...
Likewise, here, you may be overestimating -- in this case, the share of scientists who oppose religion per se.

Actually, half (or more) of US scientists have some religious belief. According to Pew, in the United States:

And worldwide, most scientists have a religious belief, according to Rice University:

Are all scientists atheists? Do they believe religion and science can co-exist? These questions and others were addressed in the first worldwide survey of how scientists view religion, released today by researchers at Rice University....

The study’s results challenge longstanding assumptions about the science-faith interface. While it is commonly assumed that most scientists are atheists, the global perspective resulting from the study shows that this is simply not the case…

The researchers did find that scientists are generally less religious than a given general population. (But) “More than half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify as religious,” Ecklund said…

Also, about the religion/science conflict:

When asked about terms of conflict between religion and science, Ecklund noted that only a minority of scientists in each regional context believe that science and religion are in conflict. In the U.K. - one of the most secular countries studied - only 32 percent of scientists characterized the science-faith interface as one of conflict. In the U.S., this number was only 29 percent....
You can Google for the article:

“First worldwide survey of religion and science: No, not all scientists are atheists”

I’m sure can find other polls, that show most scientists ARE atheists, or think religion IS a huge problem for them. Different polls have different results based on many variables. I get that.

But I didn’t go searching for polls that agreed with my view.

I suggest that objectively, my essential point that “the war between science and religion is mostly about Christian Fundamentalism” is objectively closer to fact than the claim that religion and science are incompatible.


Argh!! In moderation




It does sounded like it didn't
Thanks…it sounded like it didn’t
That's the biggest problem with dealing with willfully (or monumentally) ignorant people. Their apparent inability to get even the most basic concepts makes you wonder if you're the one who doesn't understand something basic.

Rest assured, you make complete sense. There’s no need to continually explain these simple concepts to us. If/when someone who genuinely doesn’t understand them comes along, resurrect these posts and finally put them to good use.





This forum is a testing ground for stuff I will be blogging about and writing about for publication. So it’s important for me to know if my writing is clear or not.


I don’t think you you ever responded to my post a few weeks ago, showing that you overestimate the share of Americans who reject evolution. Did you?
Sorry, no.

It is one of the many posts I have missed. My participation is only at work when I can squeeze in the time. I don’t use a computer at home, so lots goes on that I’m not aware of.

Your stats on religiosity amongst scientists is surprising and disappointing. Maybe I assumed my rural Alberta experience was the exception rather than the rule, especially in those with more education. Lots of interesting data in those graphs.

So, Rat, ask yourself — is it worth alienating 96% of Americans while addressing the 18% of them who oppose evolution?
As wrong as I tend to be on this topic, I still think that the majority of regular people put so little thought into their beliefs around science, evolution and stuff like that, that their answers can't be considered 'informed'.

I see more benefit than harm in letting people know they’re wrong, as long as you do it with patience and good humor (both of which I start out with, but tend to fail at when the other side is excessively close-minded.) If someone is offended by something as simple as evolution, it’s unlikely there was ever going to be a conversation with them anyways.

I see a few places where my answers aren’t that in line with your question (I only skimmed your post and missed a few things), but work calls. We can keep working on this.

Argh!! In moderation
Seemed like fewer false moderations today, but I think people are wary of posting links. There were 4 or 5 real spams that got caught too, if that makes you feel any better.

This is a talk by Dan Dennett that got me thinking about the idea of being nice to believers. The talk hasn’t changed, but I keep hearing different things in it when I re-listen. Obvious Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t really provide good reasons for believing, but he talks about why people do. In a simple list, fear, love, guilt, witnessing and metaphor. The first three are pretty obvious, if you live in Afghanistan, you should probably go along with believers, if not, it’s still good to be nice to grandma and not hurt her feelings, or there is still social pressure.

He gets a bit deeper into the psychology when talking about the con games currently played, like the deference you’re supposed to give to someone who has had a personal experience, or you’ll hurt their feelings, or that “punishment” is a just a metaphor, you’ll just separate yourself from the feelings of love or something. It’s more sophisticated than that, and he compares to our secular fictions, like how we once believed we needed gold to back up our currency, and some still think we do. Or worse, when people actually do lose confidence in their currency, you can get runaway inflation and collapse. He ends with an interview of Dick Cheney who said, as an Empire, they make reality, and while you are all reviewing the facts, they’ll go on to make another reality. This is the real danger of sticking to non-fact based system of understanding reality.

So, my summary of this is, we are still arguing about this idea of scientific truth being the better choice, knowing that it does not always motivate people to keep in line with the establish order. What was once adaptive is now maladaptive but we still have not adapted to living without those old ways. This is where some compassion is needed for those who are choosing between being ostracized by their communities and speaking what they know is true. They may need that support. We can set barriers and point out how their words compare to a con game, without making insulting comparisons to evil old white men.


Just a musing about terminology.

Religious God = that which creates reality from causal desire. Intent.

And IMO, causal desire (intent) is a divine personal motivation which cannot be reconciled with what we know about physics.

Scientific Potential = that which may become reality from latent inherent causal abilities.

And IMO, potential ability can be reconciled with what we know about physics.