In May of this year the Center for Public Policy of Virginia Commonwealth University, collaborating with VCU Life Sciences, commissioned a telephone poll of 1001 American adults, asking for their views on science and scientific issues (global warming, evolution, stem-cell research, etc.). They also partitioned out people’s answers by age, education, and religiosity. The survey, conducted by Princeton Data Source, was selected to be demographically representative of Americans, and is claimed to have a 95% confidence interval of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. You can download the survey results here.
Since the document is 59 pages long, I won’t go into detail about the results, but want to highlight a few items dealing with evolution.
First, what’s the state of American “belief” in evolution?
Which of these statements comes closest to your views on the origin of biological life: biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process, biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process, God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time? [Note: the order of answers was randomized among people]
God directly created life: 43%
Life developed over time, God guided this process: 24%
Life developed over time, God didn’t guide it: 18%
None of these/didn’t know/refused to answer: 16%
This is pretty much in line with previous surveys over the past 25 years. 67% of Americans are either creationists or believe that God directed evolution; only 18% accept evolution as the unguided process seen by biologists. Now how many respondents know much about evolution?
How much have you heard or read about the theory of evolution?
A lot: 44%
Not too much/nothing: 23%
Don’t know/refused to answer: 2%
That 44% seems high to me, and I suspect that if you asked people to explain what evolution or natural selection really are, you’d find that the figure is inflated. In line with that, these results are a surprise:
From what you’ve hear or read, do you think the evidence on evolution is widely accepted within the scientific community, or do many scientists have serious doubts about it?
Widely accepted: 53%
Many scientists have serious doubts: 31%
Don’t know/refused to answer: 16%
If so many people are widely acquainted with the theory of evolution, it’s curious that nearly a third of them think that scientists have serious doubts about it. But this surely reflects people’s religious biases or what they hear from religious figures. That’s supported by the following:
In general, would you say the theory of evolution conflicts with your own religious beliefs, or is mostly compatible with your own religious beliefs? [Again, order of responses was randomized among people]
Conflicts with my beliefs: 42%
Is mostly compatible: 43%
Don’t know/refused to answer: 16%
The large chunk who see conflict is bad news for accommodationists. But the accommodationist response—at least that of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—is this: You don’t understand your own faith, because if you did, you would see that there’s really no conflict. They have a big theological task in front of them.
And what do Americans think about religion, specifically the Bible?
Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible—The Bible is the actual Word of God, the Bible is the Word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, or the Bible is a book written by men and is not the Word of God?
Actual Word of God: 40%
Not everything to be taken literally: 34%
Bible written by men: 21%
Don’t know/refused to answer: 6%
That’s more Biblical literalists than I would have guessed, but of course it explains why many people see their faith in conflict with evolution. Good luck, accommodationists, convincing these people that the Bible is just a metaphor.
As expected, the answers to questions about evolution are highly correlated with people’s faith:
Of those see the Bible as the Actual Word of God (378/1001), 69% believe that God directly created biological life in its present form, 12% believe that biological life developed over time but was guided by God, and only 5% believed in unguided evolution (14% don’t know/none of these).
Of those who see the Bible as the Word of God, but not all of it should be taken literally (366), 35% were straight creationists, 42% were theistic evolutionists, and 11% were adherents to unguided evolution (11% don’t know/none of these).
And of those who see the Bible as written by men (205), 12% were straight creationists, 18% accepted theistic evolution, and 56% were adherents to unguided evolution (13% don’t know/none of these).
Finally, there’s a strong relationship between how one views the Bible and whether one sees evolution in conflict with one’s religious beliefs:
Of those see the Bible as the Actual Word of God, 62% see evolution in conflict with their faith, 22% see it as mostly compatible, and 17% don’t know.
Of those who see the Bible as the Word of God, but not all of it should be taken literally, 35% see evolution in conflict with their faith, 53% see it as mostly compatible, and 12% don’t know.
And of those who see the Bible as written by men, 20% see evolution in conflict with their faith, 68% see it as mostly compatible, and 12% don’t know.
What can you conclude from all this except that the acceptance of evolution depends heavily on the nature and extent of religious belief? That’s not news to anyone—except, perhaps, some accommodationists. How do we solve the problem? Many scientists—atheists and accommodationists alike—are trying to educate people about what evolution is and how much evidence supports it. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be working very well, at least judging by how little acceptance of evolution has budged over the last few decades.
We diverge from accommodationists, though, in how we go further. The accommodationist technique is to accept that people are religious but to convince them that evolution doesn’t really violate their faith. Good luck with that. We atheists see religion itself, and its adherence to superstition and acceptance of irrational ways of thought, as the root cause of not only evolution denial, but of a whole host of maladies that afflict society. Our strategy may be harder, but has the benefit of dispelling these other maladies as well. As Sam Harris observed when discussing Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America:
The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.