The term has traditionally referred to the belief that evolution is in some way a God-ordained process that nevertheless appears to follow purely natural laws. In other words, theistic evolutionists (TE) differ from Intelligent Design (ID) folks in that IDers hold that there's ample evidence that the evolutionary process, to the extent that it has occurred, has been engineered by an intelligent agent whereas TE holds that even though evolution is a result of God's will you can't deduce that from the empirical evidence. According to TE there's no observable difference between God-ordained evolution and purely naturalistic evolution. God's role is discerned only through the eyes of faith.
So what do the people Farrell quotes have against the term "theistic evolution"? Here's what Stacy A. Trasancos, who has a PhD in chemistry and is a Catholic with her own blog about religion and science, writes:
Think about it. 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. Who speaks of theistic reproduction? Or theistic gestation, theistic meiosis, or theistic menstruation? Plus, to qualify a biological process as ‘theistic’ implies that the opposite is possible, that God may not be involved in creating certain laws of nature.Trasancos' objection, I think, is off the mark. The reason for employing the qualifier "theistic" in front of the word "evolution" is to distinguish that view from naturalistic evolution, i.e. the view that evolution is a process resulting from purely purposeless, physical influences and independent of any superintendency by a transcendent intellect. Pace Trasancos, the word "theistic" is a perfectly reasonable clarifier unless one assumes that all evolution is a purely naturalistic phenomenon, but why assume that?
Naturalistic evolution presents itself as a defeater for theism, and the conflict between the two is a worldview-level clash. There is no such controversy raging at the organismic level so no qualification or clarification is needed at that level.
One Catholic scientist who does believe that evolution is a wholly naturalistic process is Brown University biologist and author Kenneth R. Miller:
To me, and in the minds of most people who use the term, it implies that a god had to pre-ordain the outcome of the evolutionary process or at the very least guide it along to produce the world of today, including human beings his chosen creatures. I don’t believe that at all. Evolution is a fully-independent natural process driven by chance and necessity.Miller, who professes Roman Catholic theism, sounds nevertheless very much like an 18th century deist, seeking to carve out in the world a major sphere of activity from which God is excluded. It's understandable, therefore, that he would object to being called, as he often is, a theistic evolutionist because he doesn't sound like a theist at all.
Farrell quotes Miller further:
The very fact that so many feel obliged to attach a statement about religious faith to evolution implies that evolution itself is a religious process, or at least has a special religious significance that other fields of science do not have. I reject that premise.I think Miller is here poisoning the well a bit by introducing religion into what is in fact a discussion of issues in the philosophy of science.
Theistic evolution is a philosophical position, it's not necessarily religious, though religious people could hold it, nor do theistic evolutionists necessarily turn evolution into a "religious process."
To assert that the universe was designed and created by an intelligent agent is not to make a religious claim, although it certainly may have religious implications. After all, consider that those philosophers who assert that the world is really a computer simulation designed by intellectually advanced denizens of some other universe are not considered to be making religious claims. It's a mistake to assume that all talk of God, design, or creation is necessarily "religious."
One reason there's so much misunderstanding surrounding the question of origins, particularly the evolution/creation debate, is that there's so much misunderstanding about what the terms used in the discussion actually mean. Perhaps in an upcoming post we'll review some of the terminology to help facilitate understanding of this very important issue.