Evolution rejection in the American South: It’s the religion, stupid!

Here’s a 9-minute video featuring science educator Amanda Glaze, who’s deeply concerned with the rejection of evolution by students and their parents in the American South. It was featured on NPR’s Science Friday, and imparts two important lessons:

  • How much students know about evolution doesn’t affect whether they accept it as true. I believe earlier studies have verified this, showing that the more you know about what scientists think about evolution, the less likely you are to accept it.
  • Religious background has a huge influence on whether students accept evolution: far more than knowing anything about evolution itself.

Well that’s no surprise, is it? People worry about the proper teaching of evolution, or how to present it so that students will buy it, but the real problem is religion. And until the grip of those faiths that reject evolution lessens in the South, evolution will continue to be taboo. What we need is not more or better evolution education, but less religion. Everyone who’s studied the issue realizes this, but nobody wants to say it.

Even Amanda Glaze, at 5:50 in this video, argues that the “perceived conflict between religiosity and science” is a “false dichotomy.” Well, in the case of evolution, the dichotomy is very real, for both the facts and implications of evolution directly contradict the students’ religious upbringing.  (For a very good discussion of why evolution makes people of faith bridle, read Steve Stewart-Williams’s 2010 book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew.  It’s highly recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus.)

Further at 8:25 Glaze says, “This is not a war of evolution versus religion; to me, this is a war for science literacy.” On that count she’s also wrong, and her own data show that! Until religion is gone, we’ll still face a formidable problem of getting evolution accepted despite its palpable truth. And when religion is gone, there will be almost no problem with acceptance. Every creationist I’ve met or know about (with the exception of David Berlinski, who says he’s a non-believer) has a religious background that influences their view.

For more information, see the Vox interview with Glaze by Sean Illing.

h/t: Barry


  1. Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I went to High School in the early 80s in British Columbia. My biology teacher was a Jehovah’s Witness and completely skipped evolution. This was the last year before a return of province wide standards tests for Gr 11/12 (Jr/Sr) high school courses.

    I thank Prof Emeritus Ceiling Cat and Dr. Muhammad Noor for the chance to finally learn in detail what evolution is and how it works. (I’d never rejected evolution, but I didn’t really understand it either)

  2. Simon Hayward
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I’m not convinced it’s religion as such but rather fundamentalist forms of it. Evolution caught on pretty quickly in europe in the nineteenth century – and really wasn’t that controversial in the US then either. Those were not really irreligious societies, but didn’t have the same fundamentalism that you (commonly) see in the south or in many muslim countries.

    My wife – who taught high school biology for seven years in TN – always tells me that resistance to evolution, in her experience, is a function of the class type more than anything. The kids doing basic biology classes tended to be resistant to the idea (she got her share of bible verses from disgruntled fundie kids, those doing AP classes who want to go to college to do science or pre-med type degrees are pretty much over that and are much more accepting/eager to learn. I’m sure it’s worse in the rural than sub-urban south but that may also be true in rural northern areas too.

    • Posted October 25, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink


      You are aware that far more people than just fundamentalists reject evolution, right? For example, 23% of American Catholics are young-earth creationists, despite the church’s own acceptance of evolution.

      That is, unless, you tautologically define “fundamentalist religions” as “those religions whose adherents have a problem with evolution.”

      • John Perkins
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Do you have any form of confirmation to back up your assertion that 23% of US Catholics are YECs ?

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        “Yes, but”…. the main stream christian groups(Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, whatever) don’t seem to be the major problem here. I know a lot of catholics (Chicago seems to be swarming with them) and I’ve never had to argue the truth of evolution with them, versus many baptists with whom I have had that conversation. I was conflating fundamentalism with literalism, in the context of belief in, at least some aspects of, “holy” texts.

        Catholicism has its own issues. Clearly the bizarre idea of god implanting a soul in an ancestor at some point is one. But it doesn’t generally seem to inhibit people from taking the basic ideas on board with little problem. (Obviously a generalization)

        The theme of the video seems to be more about the detrimental effects of resistance to the whole concept for the scientific literacy of the population. If we got everyone to the position of a liberal catholic or anglican there probably would not be an issue, even in the presence of religion.

        As an aside my best guess is that a lot of the folks in that video would not consider catholics to be christian anyhow – another (jaw dropping) conversation from my history of living in the south.

        Enjoy your trip – eat well!

        • eric
          Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          There is a difference between claiming ‘problem x stems from religion’ and ‘all religions have problem x.’ Jerry is saying the first, and you are responding that the second isn’t true.

          A digression to make the point: something like 90% of all violent crimes are carried out by men. We don’t know what’s causing the difference in violence rates between men and women for sure, but male biology probably has something to do with it. None of this implies that *you, a male* are violent. Male biology could contribute to the vast majority of violent crime even while the vast majority of men aren’t violent.

          …see the analogy?

          • Simon Hayward
            Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            My reading was that Jerry was saying both part one and part two – notably in the last paragraph.

            “Until religion is gone, we’ll still face a formidable problem of getting evolution accepted despite its palpable truth. And when religion is gone, there will be almost no problem with acceptance.”

            That seemed pretty inclusive, however, it’s hardly worth an argument, in essence we agree anyhow.

      • Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        “For example, 23% of American Catholics are young-earth creationists, despite the church’s own acceptance of evolution.”

        Is there a breakdown of those numbers by region? I was born, and raised in Massachusetts as a Catholic, and I can’t recall meeting a young-earth creationist catholic. I could imagine that here in Alabama, where I live now, they are commonplace, but I suspect that’s due to cultural influence rather than their religion.

        • Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I wanted to add that religion is still the cause, but I think those who are influenced by culture can be reached through education without their having to battle their religious beliefs.

          • steve
            Posted October 26, 2016 at 4:39 am | Permalink

            In Ontario Canada, it IS also the Catholic religion that causes a bias against evolution or teachers teaching about evolution. I have had many Catholic students and teachers at a Catholic high school, tell me I should not be teaching evolution (even though it is mandated by the government in government funded Catholic High-schools). They think it is against their religion.

            • Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

              Note the (somewhat related) matter of the “Catholic hospitals” and concerns over contraception, abortion and assisted dying (the latter which is just coming up as a topic of discussion in the broader society).

              I realize now we need “one school system” *and* “one hospital system”.

              • Carl
                Posted October 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                Keith Douglas writes:
                I realize now we need “one school system” *and* “one hospital system”

                I hope this is meant to be ironic. Otherwise it shows a zealot’s self righteousness. Good ideas, methods, and procedures, and improvements in general are not best discovered by squelching debate and competition. It’s the way Christianity controlled Europe for centuries.

              • Posted October 27, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

                I wasn’t being ironic. Ontario has Catholic-run hospital and *four* school boards. (English, French) x (Catholic, Public)

                Unfortunately, “Catholic” in both cases are publically funded by general tax revenues, so …

                (I would have a problem still even if they weren’t, but …)

  3. Stonyground
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    In the UK there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of religiously motivated rejection of evolution. There is however a general ignorance of science generally among ordinary people. I remember reading some survey that claimed that something like 85% of Brits thought that the Sun orbited the Earth. I found this difficult to believe so I started asking around. It turned out that most of my colleagues at work simply didn’t know either way. I also asked my junior karate class and almost all of them knew the correct answer. This would suggest that people often forget things that they learn in school.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know why people would reject evolution without a religious motivation to do so. But maybe they would reject it because it says we evolved from animals, and they want to believe in human exceptionalism. I guess that is possible.

      • eric
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Incredulity and the human inability to understand compound or exponential change (without practice).

        People without a math education typically vastly underestimate the ability of compound interest to grow bank accounts. Ask them how much money they’ll have after 20 years of steady investment at x rate compounded continuously, and they’ll usually lowball the total by a factor of 2-10. They typically extrapolate linear growth and then add a swag factor instead of actually thinking through what compounded interest does. Mutation is just a biological form of “compound interest,” because your children will inherit all your mutations plus their own. So it’s not surprising to me that you’re average person-on-the-street would be skeptical that structures like eyes could evolve, even given millions of years. They’re lowballing an exponential rate of change, just like they do with money. Thinking evolution is impossible or can’t explain the sheer amount of change between organisms is basically the equivalent of thinking buying a lottery ticket is better than putting that dollar in an investment account.

      • Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        Some secular youths (and even adults) in Bulgaria reject evolution so that to be “contrarian”, to be “cool”, to be against the old-fashioned establishment. I thought that the same motivation could make US youths from fundamentalist families turn to evolution, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

        • steve
          Posted October 26, 2016 at 4:42 am | Permalink

          No. It makes them vote for Trump.

  4. eric
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    “This is not a war of evolution versus religion; to me, this is a war for science literacy.”

    Its a war for science literacy as long as people are rejecting evolution out of ignorance or even out of incredulity. If, however, they’re rejecting it because their Sunday school teacher told them all humans came from Adam and Eve, then religion is obviously involved.

    My five-year-old still remembers the Great God Fight (his words) they had in his pre-school class a year ago, with several of the kids claiming God made the rain, God gave you blue or brown eyes, etc.. and several of the other kids saying no, clouds deliver rain, you get your eyes from your parents, etc. The teacher put a stop to it pretty fast and in (IMO) a very good manner that respected all the kids’ beliefs. However, that argument between four- and five- year olds would never have happened if this was merely ‘a war for science literacy.’

    • Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Lends new plausibility of use to the usually facetious saying “my god is bigger than your god”.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I had heard before about the claim that among the religious, education about evolution does little to move the meter on acceptance of evolution. I did not know that it can make acceptance less likely. I wonder why they would do so. Perhaps it is b/c they better understand the power of the threat to their core beliefs, and so they circle their defenses into a more fundamentalist posture.

    • Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      I also suspect that those who are already incurably opposed to evolution read more about it to prepare counter-“arguments”. By the same token, I have also read that we atheists, on average, know more about religion than the respective believers.

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I know anecdotes aren’t data, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I have yet to meet a person who actually understands the concepts behind evolution and still rejects it. Every single person I’ve talked with personally who’s rejected evolution had some very serious misconceptions about how it works.

      Has anyone here ever met a person personally who understands the concepts behind evolution but still rejects it? Even among prominent creationists and ID proponents, I can only think of a handful who actually seem to understand evolution and not some strawman version of it (e.g Behe, though even he has problems with irreducible complexity).

      • Jeff Lewis
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        I’ll just add, though, that even a lot of people who claim to accept evolution still show some major misunderstandings when you start talking to them about it. Lamarckism and teleology still seem to be widely accepted in the general public.

        • Posted October 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          I think part of the problem is that some popular expositions of evolution (even in science and natural history museums) use a kind of “teleological shorthand”: X evolved Y to do Z.


          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted October 25, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

            It is, as you say, a kind of shorthand, and it can be very convenient to explain an evolutionary change without getting bogged down in the details. (So long as it’s understood to be figurative language).

            “The xxx hunts at night so its large eyes have evolved to be sensitive in dim light” sort of thing, without lengthy digressions into differential fitness and reproductive success.

            If every natural history program had to explain its subject in an evolutionarily correct manner there would be few viewers.

            Besides, surely Lamarckism/teleology is better (and closer to the truth) than ‘Goddidit’.


            • Posted October 26, 2016 at 12:21 am | Permalink

              “So long as it’s understood to be figurative language”

              Well, that’s the nub. I suspect a majority of lay people don’t.


      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        I have run into a few who are more knowledgeable about it than the average person, but still reject it. But you are right they will show some key misunderstandings to make the theory seem ridiculous to them.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Jeff, FWIW, (and anecdotal, so not much), the religious people with whom I have tried to discuss evolution have been almost wilfully unwilling to take on board what it actually is and what it implies. It is as if, at some level, they know it contains some profound truths that threaten their worldview and which they cannot refute.

    • Zado
      Posted October 25, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      The answer to why evolution education would make people less likely to accept it has to do with what mayamarkov and Jeff Lewis said above. Misconceptions about evolution are often perpetuated and enforced by religious educators (or educators who happen to be religious). They will only mention it to paint it in as implausible a light as possible: they will emphasize the randomness of mutation without explaining natural selection, they will work off the assumption that the Earth isn’t as old as geologists say because carbon dating is only accurate so far back in time (ignoring other types of radiometric dating), they will say evolution is a post hoc theory which doesn’t make predictions and therefore isn’t real science, etc, etc…

    • derekw
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it is as quite black and white as the polling numbers might have us believe. Nor do I feel misconception/misunderstandings are root belief causes. You see varying degrees of acceptance/rejection of the Darwinistic evolutionary model among the religious (the ‘first group’ might include the theistic evolutionists like the well noted Christian evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ken Miller – Catholic, Francis Collins (BioLogos), Simon Conway Morris (teleological component). Then you have a ‘second group’ the intelligent design/old earth creationist crowd (Behe, Dembski, Meyer, Hugh Ross/Reasons to Believe) with a third group mostly composed of young earthers like Morris, Ken Ham, Lubenow, ICR. I’d argue the the first two groups (and those that adhere to those positions) have a very good grasp on evolutionary theory but vary in interpretation and criticism of the mechanisms. They would both accept scientific inquiry/results (ie old earth, radioactive decay, fossil record) but may differ in interpretation. Young earthers tend to deny validity of the published science to so fit their own preconceived ideas IMHO.
      The one thing that is black and white and does clearly color anyone’s evolutionary view (religious, atheist, agnostic alike) is their a priori commitment either to naturalism or belief in the supernatural.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Like Ben Stein, Berlinski has a propensity to blame Darwinism for Naziism, though he admits it is not a “sufficient” condition for same.

    But centuries of Christian anti-Semitism surely was an influence on Naziism, and their favorite racial theorist, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, was an opponent of Darwin.

    • Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Even if Darwinism had a harmful influence of Nazi minds, this cannot make it untrue.

  7. lwgreen1
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I live in Alabama and in my experience, it is absolutely a war between science and religion. Most of the people I know are religious to varying degrees, and I don’t know a single one who accepts evolution outright. The best you can get is an admission that species might go through microevolution, but speciation is out of the question. They would all tell you that it is, indeed, a war. Talking with a mother with a child in college (soon to be a teacher), I asked her what her daughter thought about the evolution being taught in her biology class. She said her daughter learned enough about it to pass the test, but it didn’t change her negative opinion about evolution. She also used the argument that science doesn’t know everything, and that one day scientists would no doubt discover that the Bible was right all along. Telling her about the mountains of evidence for evolution didn’t move her at all.

    I was heartened when my now grown sons were in high school (in the nineties) and I talked to their biology teacher about evolution. She said that she teaches it as the cornerstone of biology, but gives students the option of leaving the classroom if they object, with the understanding that they would get a zero for the day, which would lower their grade average considerably. She said so far no one had ever left the classroom. Sadly, she has retired and I don’t know what her replacement does. Now I am weary of discussing evolution with friends and usually avoid the subject unless they bring it up.

    • Carl
      Posted October 25, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      JAC writes:

      “This is not a war of evolution versus religion; to me, this is a war for science literacy.” On that count she’s also wrong, and her own data show that! Until religion is gone, we’ll still face a formidable problem of getting evolution accepted despite its palpable truth.

      Absolutely true. In the West, religion held free thinking under it’s thumb for centuries. In the 17th century, the good guys started a rebellion that, to this point, has made religion a shadow of its former self. It is a war. A long war. Have patience (not complacence) while the mop up operations proceed. Outside the West, it’s hard to be so optimistic – maybe “the West” is best defined as those areas where progress against religion has been made.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 25, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        I am with both the above comments on this issue. Religion is the problem and prime factor apposing the science of evolution. I know some hard core creationist in various religions and it makes no difference if baptist or SDA or whatever. They have no interest in knowing anything about evolution because it has been pounded into their heads by the church and they will not give an inch. Many refuse to even discuss it as though g*d is watching and gives them black marks for even thinking about it. I have had a copy of PCC’s book and offered to lend it and see them become offended at the sight of it. How does better education have any affect on this? Less religion is the answer as best I can see.

  8. W.Benson
    Posted October 25, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    To get evoluton across to kids, it has to be made fun as well as relevant. A lot of good natural history teaching material can be found in the pine woods of east Georgia.
    Amanda Glaze and the biology teachers she works with are heros.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 1:17 am | Permalink

      “To get evoluton across to kids, it has to be made fun as well as relevant.”

      “Relevant” with regard to whom or what – whoever or whatever is currently “cool” in the mass pop culture?

      It seems that what makes evolution “relevant” to a kid depends on the kid, on what the kid is interested in, eh? Surely at least a few kids find intellectual curiosity “relevant” and its own reward.

      • steve
        Posted October 26, 2016 at 4:52 am | Permalink

        “You are learning about how the universe works. Isn’t that cool? Aren’t you excited!”

        That is how it is relevant. Education is supposed to be an attempt to get children to think of things other than themselves, and this is not made any easier by always trying to connect things to “How is this relevant to me?” ways of teaching a concept.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I see where you’re coming from, but I think it’s an extremely limited technique nonetheless. If a main selling point of science is that it’s fun, what happens when something even more entertaining presents itself? And what happens when they encounter those bits of science that are almost stubbornly NOT fun? Heck, I’m a great fan of science, and if I wrote a list of what makes it great, “being fun” wouldn’t even make the top hundred. Besides, I think children are smart enough to see through most ploys to jolly up a “boring” subject.

      More to the point, things like “being fun” are what people bring to science, not the other way around. If people want to have some fun with it, more power to them, but fundamentally science is a truth-seeking enterprise and an extension of rational inquiry, not an alternative to parties or a night out. That, I think, is what needs to be stressed, especially in the long run.

      Of course, that it can be fun, eye-opening, wonderful, relaxing, exciting, etc. is a major draw, I suppose. 🙂

  9. Anca
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    “Until religion is gone, we’ll still face a formidable problem of getting evolution accepted despite its palpable truth.” – so true.
    religion is like a language. departing from the idea that humans are able to learn any language they’re consistently exposed to, i’ve started looking at religion in the same way. a person can learn many languages, but they can only adhere to one religion. the linguistic rank seems to be lower than the religious one, in terms of personal identity. what anatomic structure and/or physiological function defines this ranking system? what is its importance in the context of our information processing abilities? why is there a widespread need for information processing proxies? why is factual reality not perceived as the only source of information? is it an intellectual “failure to launch” syndrome? are we as a species holding ourselves down on purpose, and did we forget the password for the “abort program” sequence?

  10. reasonshark
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    “What we need is not more or better evolution education, but less religion.”

    I think part of the problem is that we expect people to be rational disputants when, most of the time (and us included), people are too busy being social animals. Social identity, group attachments, one-on-one relationships, all of it – consciously or not – will get in the way of critical thinking, because when our ancestors were surviving in the Ice Age, they weren’t relying on their ability to be scrupulously keen scientists.

    That’s a major reason why religious belief gets in the way of scientific education, and also why so many liberal people are reluctant to admit it. If you spend 90% of your life immersed in and emotionally surviving in a pro-religious cultural sea, and only 10% considering the rational implications of evolutionary theory, it’s no more going to be to your benefit to jump the 90% than it would be a clownfish’s benefit to jump onto dry land.

    In such a scenario, I take the long view. If we get there at all, we’ll get there with the slow change of cultural development. Changing people’s backgrounds, religious or otherwise, doesn’t happen overnight.

    Of course, the tricky part is making social identity et al work for science, and not to use it as a kind of cheat code. It’s not enough to make people’s cultural background pro-science or anti-religion, but to make it clear why it should be. Otherwise, the techniques are simply rhetoric and manipulation, and we want people to become rational disputants, or at least the next best thing.

    That’s why I oppose the accommodationist “no-conflict” angle; to paraphrase Sam Harris, it is trying to get people to appreciate honesty and integrity by lying to them.

    • reasonshark
      Posted October 26, 2016 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      If that penultimate paragraph is a bit unclear, then let me clarify it:

      I think we can agree that a major part of getting more pro-evolution views is in changing the cultural sea people swim in.

      But one way would be to highlight how science is an extension of principles like honesty and integrity and consistency and impartiality, and to get rid of stereotypical ideas and pigeonholes like the “lab coat boffin with no social skills”. That is using social identity without compromising scientific principles.

      Another way is to convince people that findings uncovered through careful and meticulous research can honestly sit side-by-side with millennia-old superstitions borne of ignorance and credulity, and that this is a good thing. That is rhetoric and manipulation, firstly because it’s more interested in getting the result – people accept science – than in caring about the method used – in this case, either diminishing science or inflating religion – and secondly because any attempt to get people to respect honesty and integrity… by upholding neither… can only work through rhetorical skill, (the case having already compromised its strength of argument), and thus through manipulating people into accepting a conclusion, albeit subtly.

      This is using social identity and compromising scientific principles, aka getting honesty valued by lying. Quite apart from the intellectual hypocrisy, how stable is such a foundation, especially when it can just as easily be changed by an even more skillful rhetorician and manipulator?

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 26, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        Very nice exposition of the problem being a such a social animal presents to the willingness to “shift paradigms.” It always reminds me of the old saying that it is hard to get a person to change his opinion if his salary depends on not changing, in this case the stakes being a tad higher; if survival depends on “fitting in.”

        And on top of being a social animal we have to add the extended period of human brain development, during the first part of which it can be pretty critical to believe whatever you’re told by your parents. Those of us who’ve done our best to raise free-thinking kids generally find that they do end up making intelligent decisions when they’re capable of them, but those brainwashed by dogma throughout childhood face a much tougher row to hoe.

        Combine that with the fact that most children in US public schools encounter evolution for the first time in middle school–if even then–while religious indoctrination begins literally from the cradle on. Churches, of course, have capitalized on this for millennia.

  11. AdamK
    Posted October 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Somebody should write a book explaining why evolution is true.

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