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Defining terms carefully

Published: 14 December 2019 (GMT+10)

Why we need clarity when we debate evolution


When wading into the waters of apologetics and the origins debate, it usually doesn’t take long before we hit problems defining terms. Many words commonly used in these debates have large ranges of meaning that often get conflated and confused with each other. If we are to have a meaningful dialogue, we must be careful to define our terms carefully so that everyone understands each other.

L.K. from the United States wrote:

I’d prefer a response, or whether it be to still contact me in this email so I have a larger character limit to choose from, or to direct me to a better area, as your Q&A section wasn’t that helpful.

But I’d like to let you know two simple things.

Atheism is not a religion, it is a word, it has one definition, regardless of how people use it, it will always mean what its defined as, a lack in belief of god, and just because people lack a belief in god does not mean a god doesn’t exist, nor that it DOES, just because something doesn’t exist mean it does, but I’ll get into that later.

And evolution, evolution simply means CHANGE OVER TIME, regardless of how you think it is, the animal doesn’t have a genetic coding for different types of beaks (well, in a birds case, id be surprised if a dog had a beak) for many types of beaks, it has one “Switch”, which tells the beak when to grow, and when to stop, and multiple other “Switches” telling the beak how to form, they don’t have a pelican beak in one switch, and a finch beak in the other.

Also, natural selection is the process evolution takes, saying natural selection is a thing, but evolution isn’t is just plain stupid.

Mutations are evolution in a less controlled sense, but most times if the mutation is detrimental it will not be passed on.

Just, this entire website is full of unscientific lies meant to spread christianity, from making your own definitions to words to using arguments already disproven

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Have you actually bothered to look at our articles on these issues? Is atheism a religion? explores the meaning of ‘religion’ quite extensively, and settles on a broad sociological definition for the purposes of its analysis—which the author gets from a non-Christian sociologist of religion. This is probably the best value-neutral definition one could hope for in that context. If you don’t like defining ‘religion’ like that, you can complain all you like, but it won’t change the fact that sociologists of religion often use ‘religion’ in a sense that doesn’t imply a belief in the supernatural. See also ‘Evolution is science, but creationism is religion’ Using buzzwords to divide and deride.

On the other hand, saying that atheism “will always mean what its defined as, a lack in belief of god” is absurd. ‘Atheism’ traditionally meant “a rejection of the proposition ‘God exists’.” Your definition is the new and confusing invention. The very fact that you have to correct everyone else who assumes that ‘atheism’ means a denial of the existence of God shows that ‘atheism’ has not always meant “a lack of belief of god”. The only reason certain internet atheists define ‘atheism’ as ‘a lack of belief in gods’ (since atheistic philosophers know better1) is so that they can avoid defending their atheistic claim, which they don’t know how to defend, while still getting to criticize theism. Nobody cares about your psychological state regarding God; if you think it’s more probable than not that the statement ‘God exists’ is false, then you are a traditional atheist, and you have a claim to defend. And if you genuinely think the state of the evidence concerning God’s existence is ambiguous, then you are an agnostic, and you still have a claim to defend; i.e. that the evidence concerning God’s (non-)existence is ambiguous. See Atheism is more rational? and Agnosticism for more details.

As to ‘evolution’, if all it means is “CHANGE OVER TIME”, then we’re ‘evolutionists’! We believe change over time happens! But if biblical creationists are ‘evolutionists’ by this definition, doesn’t that show just how pointless such a definition is, especially if we want to use ‘evolution’ in contrast to ‘creation’? Read What is evolution? (Kerkut).

As to natural selection, there are plenty of evolutionists who don’t believe natural selection is central to evolutionary process. Ever heard of neutral evolution? Natural genetic engineering? Self-organization theory? There are plenty of theories of evolutionary mechanism that make natural selection a sideshow to the main evolutionary event. So, if we’re “stupid” for distinguishing between evolution and natural selection, then so are plenty of evolutionists. See also Defining terms: Evolutionist Dr John Endler’s refreshing clarity about ‘natural selection’ has been largely ignored.

And no, mutations are not evolution, though they are needed for evolution. See our Mutations Questions and Answers page for why mutations are no help for evolution. Moreover, most deleterious mutations do get passed on, regardless of natural selection. This problem is called genetic entropy, and it will inexorably lead to extinction rather than evolution.

You wanted a response. However, you call us liars. If you’ve already decided that we’re liars, why ask for a response? We’re obviously not going to agree with you, but we do genuinely believe what we say we believe. At any rate, most of the links I’ve provided you show that we didn’t make up the definitions we use for terms like ‘atheism’, ‘religion’, ‘evolution’, and ‘natural selection’. Non-Christians, atheists, and evolutionists who are experts in the relevant fields use them as well. If you have a problem with us using them, by force of logic you must have a problem with them using them as well. Nor are the definitions we use for these terms self-serving (unlike your anti-traditional definition of ‘atheism’); they don’t favour our views in any way. Defining terms is about trying to achieve clarity before one engages in debate; it’s not about trying to sway the debate before the argument starts.

References and notes

  1. Nielsen, K.E., On the definition of the words Atheism and Atheist, exminister.org, accessed 26 November 2019. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Cowboy Bob S.
Mr. Doyle made several excellent points and also pointed out some spurious reasoning. I wrote an article about how atheism is indeed a religion and gave numerous references (including legal rulings), but atheopaths insisted that "lack of belief" is the true definition and has never been changed. I told some that I lack belief that they were intellectually honest.

The vacuous "evolution is change over time" definition is so vague, it can be used in numerous situations, but accomplishes little. One supporter of atoms-to-atheist evolution insisted that "changes in allele frequencies" is THE scientific definition of evolution. Not hardly! Changes in allele frequencies are changes in allele frequencies and not an illustration of evolution.

As with the wording in the feedback letter, Darwin's disciples and atheists seem to simply want to be condescending. We have experienced these kinds of things at The Question Evolution Project many times; they detest the idea that creationists can be right about anything at all.
Jordan C.
Thank you Shaun for addressing this person's shallow objections. L.K. clearly does not have an intellectual problem hindering a belief in God, but a spiritual one. There is "no way" L.K. actually spent any reasonable amount quality time on this website seeking for explanations for the existence of God and the absurdity of materialistic evolution. L.K. may be guilty of glancing through CMI articles in order to attempt shallow rebuttals to our reasoned beliefs perhaps, but for L.K. to define evolution as mere "change over time", this is a clear indication of this person's lack of understanding of what we understand and believe and how far removed that definition stands from practically all contemporary materialistic evolutionary theories. "change over time" is either used as a deliberate bait and switch equivocation or the expression of ignorance.

L.K. needs to recognise that we are ALL guilty of sinning against an eternal, perfect, moral, and just God, and we all need to be reconciled to Him through Christ Jesus' atonement for the forgiveness of our sins. Like it or not we're all guilty L.K. and if you are reading this, this life is short, figure it out while you still have time, because the next life is eternal. If the question over whether or not God exists is completely irrelevant to you L.K., then why bother wasting your finite precious short time sending emails to CMI? The fact the that the concept of "God" is on your mind, makes it conceivable, the question as to why you spend most of your time ponding that concept by attacking should bring you to reflection on it's significance. L.K., figure it out, time here is short. The next life isn't. Figure it out!
Nathan G.
Dear L.K.
If we turn your own questions back around on you ...

1) Atheism is defined as: "There is absolutely no God."

2) How do you respond to world-class atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse having publicly and openly stated that evolution is a secular, replacement RELIGION for Christianity? (You can find their quotes in the internet or in such books such as Evolutionists Say the Oddest Things.) If confronted, atheists normally fudge by claiming to be "agnostic", but the waffling reveals the core duplicity of their professed beliefs. You need absolute knowledge to absolutely disprove the existence of God, but honest scientists don't pretend to have absolute knowledge of anything.

3) Merriam Webster defines religion as "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith." In short: a belief system. No god even necessary.
If you fervently believe in something, for example, the the Oort cloud, it makes up your belief system of truth statements (worldview). Core beliefs tend to be stubbornly nonnegotiable. They may, however, be false. Cosmologists admit that they have never observed or verified the Oort cloud scientifically. It remains a saving mechanism for the big bang. There are valid tests for truth, most of which are not scientific, but rather logical, epistemological, etc. Science gathers brute facts. It plays only a small role in determining truth and meaning.

3) Since evolution only allows matter and energy (materialism) to explain everything, can you explain things which are neither, for example, information? A mathematical formula is true regardless of the physical medium (paper, stone, words in the sand, smoke letters, etc.) By definiton, it is SUPERNATURAL: not dependent upon or equal to matter and energy for its validity.
David S.
This is a well-written and precise response to a poorly-written and imprecise attack based on that zealot‘s apparent ignorance of the solid work done by researchers at Creation.com. Thank you for all you do.
Steve B.
Great response Shaun Doyle, LK is like many of the atheist I've argued with over several years, they are all the same and have the same old and tired arguments that hold no water and lack logic. They believe they are logical people just ask them and they will each tell you they are, it's essential to their lives so they make this statement even though it's not true in most cases. LK shows a lack of respect for those who disagree with what he/she believes for one simple reason LK can't fathom being wrong and want accept such a thought to be presented. It's the age old I'm right because others have said what I'm repeating, LK doesn't understand that the position he/she holds hasn't any proof, LK is as gullible as he/she believes Christians are. I feel pity for them because of the spite they have for those who disagree with them.
Bob W.
Love it! I love me some Shaun Doyle! I wish CMI and all its information could be bottled up and distributed everywhere! God’s side is the winning side and I am so glad we’re on it!
Frank D.
My stance has long been that a religion is a reasonably coherent set of answers to the big questions in life: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going (or, what happens after we die), and what should we do in the mean time. Atheism purports to have those answers, and they are coherent in the sense of not being obviously nonsensical or self-contradictory.
Jack S.
Very astute response -- well said!
Marie T.
There are so many people – millions -- in the world operating in this person’s dimension of ignorance about science there is no way you can expect to personally respond to them all. A sign of this dimension of ignorance is outdated regurgitation of “scientific stuff” picked up in life (without investing time to do any deep investigation of the issues) and a tone of condescension. It’s like when five-year-old attempts to teach or outsmart an adult. Honestly, if it weren’t so head-shaking pitiful, it would be borderline humorous. However, I know God does not condone His people mocking others; and this is a serious matter. I wish there was a way for Creation Ministries to share comments like this under a tab on your website instead of sending them in email. Because although your responses are educational, the triggering comments are not always email worthy.
James H.
Shaun, your response to L.K. was excellent, about as tight as I can imagine. However, in my experience dealing with atheists, they put up a facade of evidence, science, philosophy, evolution and logic when the truth is they simply don't want to believe in God and don't want to be accountable to a supreme being. No amount of debating the 'facts' will change that. Your approach neutralized his points, but how often have you seen it change an atheist's attitude? It makes me wonder if the starting point should go for the heart first in getting them to realise they are rebelling against their creator.
Shaun Doyle
Thanks for your comments, and your kind words. On how to approach these sorts of comments, while I think intellectual objections can often be a smokescreen for a problem of the will, I don't think that's always the case. The Holy Spirit can use arguments and evidence to move people toward God.

At any rate, we're also not personally involved with our commenters. There's only so much we can do. And since we're an information ministry, that's the main thing what we try to provide: information from a biblical perspective. We try to provide resources and answers that people can use in their own personal contexts.

Plus, I think for us in this sort of format it's usually wisest to focus on the issues the commenter raises. We don't know where they are in their life situation, and we don't know how addressing the issues they raise may affect them. But if these are the issues that concerned them enough to write to us about, then starting with something other than what they've raised is likely to undermine our credibility more than we have to.

We are under no illusion that we can cover all the evangelistic bases with people who write in to us. But hopefully our information can be useful to people in their lives. I hope that gives you a little window into why we answer the way we do. And thanks again for your kind comments.
Kirk B.
I am grateful for your great answer and for your patience with this critic, because not everyone has the same mental abilities for clarity in thought and expression. Inexperienced critics like this probably have just read something which they liked and tried to stretch their own wings in the forums of discussion. I know that I have to struggle with clarity and depend on others like yourself to keep me on my toes; but my own limitations of intellect and reason make me sympathetic to those unbelievers who also have slimmer capacities for careful thought. Thanks again. KB from USA
Bill P.
Not long ago I used to live near a woman who is an atheist and it was a practice of her's to get me into a debate over the existence of The Living God. I did this until I realized that all she wanted was an angry debate. (I made that mistake 40 yrs ago when new to my faith in The Gospel of Jesus Christ and walked away w/regret for doing so. I'm in no way saying this is what you did in your response here). This woman taught me about atheists. I love to study The Word of God for many reasons. One of the reasons is that when it is used to answer their questions (when used truthfully as is) it is a very powerful weapon and causes the unbeliever to feel uneasy. The next thing that happens is that they get very angry and the cursing begins. In my experience w/her she would tell me (in anger) how she was tired of me always using the words of the Bible to answer her. Then she would say something that was a contradiction to her claim of unbelief. She would accuse God (Who she did not believe in) for ALL the evils of this world. I pointed this out to her and she left the room in anger slamming the door. Yes there were a couple of times when I used (for instance) the evidence around the world that revealed what one would find as a result of a global flood even showing photos to her and she refused to see it, AND, she was never able to give me an alternate explanation. I told her to not take my word and begged her to examine these things for herself. She told me she did this by listening to a scientist by the name a Dawkins. I later found out who he was. When a doubter refuses to let go of their unbelief they have no ability to see "The Truth of God" so that they might be saved. You folks keep up the good work and hang in there until "the end". See you soon.
Steven F.
Leftist lib atheists like to redefine terms or make up words and then call anyone who doesn't agree with their contrived definitions "ignorant," "stupid," "uneducated, and "bigoted." A few examples are: "gay," "gender," "homophobe," "transphobe," "male," "female," "they," "facsist," "partner," "bully," "hate speech," etc.. It is a way to manipulate the argument and deride people. It is like Jr. High School children making up slang and then ridiculing adults because they don't use their terms. Childish.
Grahame G.
LK asserts that atheism has always had one meaning and always meant "lack in belief of god". Not only are both claims easily disproven, but LK has the foolish hubris to accuse you of lying.

This is how shallow and ignorant most vocal atheists are.

Fantastic response, Shaun, which gently and clearly asserts truth.

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