A new piece in The Atlantic, “You can’t educate people into believing in evolution” (shouldn’t that be “accepting evolution?”) reports the results of a survey by Calvin College sociology professor Jonathan Hill. The survey was commissioned by BioLogos, the accommodationist organization funded largely by the Templeton Foundation, so although the results aren’t surprising, they’re spun by both the magazine and the National Center for Science Education as showing that since we can’t bring people around to evolution by giving them the facts (as I tried to do in WEIT): you have to cozy up to their faith. In other words, the survey is used to justify accommodationism.
Hill did what the Gallup Poll does every year or so: survey Americans on their views about evolution. Here’s a summary of his data from The Atlantic:
In a nationally representative survey of more than 3000 people, Hill divided respondents in the survey into “creationists,” “atheistic evolutionists,” “theistic evolutionists,” and “unsure,” but even creating four categories is tricky. Under his definition, all “creationists believe that God created humans as part of a single, miraculous act,” but some think that happened within the last 10,000 years (often called “young-earth creationists,”). Others believe the earth has been around much longer (“old-earth creationists”). That group accounts for about 37 percent of the population; another 16 percent accept the scientific evidence for evolution while still believing God was involved in creation in some way (or “theistic evolutionists”); 9 percent embrace evolution and reject God (or “atheistic evolutionists”).
This leaves 39 percent who are unsure, or whose views don’t fit into the categories typically used to frame this issue.
This differs somewhat from the recent Gallup poll on the issue, which gives Americans only three choices besides “don’t know”:
The proportion of creationists in both polls was similar (42% vs. 39%), but the proportion of theistic evolutions was much lower in the BioLogos poll (16% vs. 31%). The proportion of naturalistic evolutionists was also lower in the BioLogos poll (9% vs. 19%), and these disparities may reflect the way the question was asked (I can’t find a description of Hill’s survey, though he talks about the results in Christianity Today). Another difference is that Hill found a much higher proportion of people who were “unsure, or whose views don’t fit into the categories used to frame the issue” (39% vs. 8% in the Gallup poll). Hill explains the difference as follows
The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.
The Atlantic adds this:
In his report, Hill argued that Gallup’s numbers are wildly misleading. “The difference between Gallup and [this survey] is almost certainly due to Gallup respondents being forced to choose from limited options, even when many are unsure of what they believe or maintain beliefs that do not fit into the options available,” he wrote.
Hill might be right, but we won’t know until we see his survey and the data. But the proportion of straight creationists in the U.S., to me the most important figure, is still about the same in both surveys. The 15% discrepancy in theistic evolution needs explaining (could it be the sampling techniques that differ between the surveys?), as does the 31% discrepancy in “don’t knows”. Another disturbing result is Hill’s finding that Americans have a much lower acceptance of straight naturalistic evolution—he calls it “atheistic evolution”, even though you could have naturalistic evolution occurring with a hands-off God—than did Gallup. So the news isn’t as encouraging as Hill and The Atlantic seem to imply.
Here’s something that’s not so surprising, though: a graph showing the proportion of people in each class (in Hill’s survey) that felt it was important to be right about human origins:
Since creationists are almost all motivated by religion, it’s no surprise that they cling to their beliefs more tenaciously. And of course the uncertainty in one’s own belief (“unsures”) will be reflected in uncertainty about how important it is to settle the question.
And here’s something that’s not a surprise, but explains the title of The Atlantic‘s article:
But ultimately, this may be what matters most for influencing Americans’ opinions on the origins of life. In his report, Hill found that religious belief was the strongest determinant of people’s views on evolution—much more so than education, socioeconomic status, age, political views, or region of the country. More importantly, being part of a community where people had stated opinions on evolution or creation, like a church, had a big impact on people’s views. “Creationists are substantially more likely to belong to networks who agree with them about human origins,” he wrote. “Likewise, creationists are more likely to belong to congregations who have settled positions that reject human evolution.”
That’s been found repeatedly, of course, although some surveys show a greater influence of education. But what’s clear, and what I’ve been saying for some time, is that we won’t rid America of creationists by simply teaching people the facts about evolution. Both Hill and The Atlantic agree:
What that means is that “debates” about evolution and creationism actually might not be that effective. “For those invested in the position that human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, the findings from[this survey] tell us that persuasion needs to move beyond a purely intellectual level,” Hill wrote. “Ideas are important, but ideas only persuade when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them.” For those who value the widespread acceptance of evolution, this is an important insight: There may be more effective ways to persuade people to consider principles of biology without trying to debunk the existence of God.
Yes; but in fact there are two ways to accomplish this. The first is to weaken the grasp of religion on America, something that will take a long time (but is happening) but I think is the only real way to rid our country of creationism. We can take an active role as “militant atheists,” or simply sit back and wait for the inevitable process of secularization to take care of the issue. Either way, the elimination of faith has the additional advantage of getting rid of the many bad side effects of religion, side effects (like opposition to abortion, and the disenfranchisement of women and gays) that are far more onerous that mere creationism. Nobody ever died from believing in creation, but plenty of kids die because their parents give them faith-healing instead of scientifically-based medicine.
Or you can take the BioLogos strategy, which is to engage in theological discourse, persuading people that their faith really does allow them to accept evolution. I’m sure this is what Hill means when he talks about persuading religious people to get down with Darwin.
The problem is that this strategy hasn’t worked. I haven’t seen any evidence of accommodationist tactics making, say, evangelical Christians say en masse, “Hey, you’re right! I misunderstood what my religion, and my fellow believers, think about the origin and diversity of life.” The problem with that is that creationism is, as Hill notes, buttressed by its imprimatur as a sign of belonging to a community—a religious community. That means you have to convince the community as a whole, for an individual defector loses his or her community by embracing evolution.
In contrast, when people individually decide leave religion, they often come around to accepting evolution (see Richard Dawkins’s “Converts Corner“, no longer kept up, for the testimony of over 2000 people). One you give up faith, there’s simply no reason to hang onto creationism, which is invariably based on religion. Or, many people have abandoned religion because they saw that evolution was true, bespeaking a fundamental incompatibility between science and faith.
But of course Josh Rosenau, the accommodationist policy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), takes the view of BioLogos. The underlying philosophy is a “belief in belief,” so that their overweening mission is to get people to accept evolution without bruising their religious beliefs. From The Atlantic:
But all the anxiety around the origins of human life may partially be a matter of framing, Rosenau said.
“No creationist wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I have really strong opinions about whether Archaeopteryx is the ancestor of modern birds,'” he said. “Who are we as people? That’s the question that they think evolution is answering. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be an animal?”
In other words, the cliche of pitting science against religion is a category error, to a certain extent: Evolutionary biology provides certain insights into the mechanisms of how human life has formed and changed over time, but it can’t provide insight into the meaning behind those changes. Yet the meaning part is often what matters in vitriolic “debates” about the origins of life.
. . . “This is the century of biology, and evolution is the foundation of biology,” Rosenau said. “Being open to those conversations [about getting people to accept evolution without ‘debunking God’] is really important for scientists.”
By all means let the Little People have their religiously-inspired “meaning”—the fictions and lies that have the unfortunate side effect of polarizing humanity, killing people, disenfranching religious minorities, gays and women, opposing abortion and assisted dying, and terrorizing children with thoughts of hell. That is the “meaning part” that is so important for people like Rosenau (and BioLogos) to preserve.
More power to you, BioLogos and Rosenau, and I hope you can get those pesky fundamentalists and evangelical Christians to see that their faith really is compatible with evolution. Let’s hope that religionists get their V-8™ moment, realizing, “Gee—I could have had Darwin all along!”
As for me, I’ll go where the evidence points, which is that religion immunizes people against accepting evolution, and once they’ve had the shot, they’re immunized pretty effectively. Better to not give them the shot in the first place.