Guardian story misleadingly blames atheists for perpetuating the notion of a science/religion conflict

On Saturday the Guardian published an article called, “Would you Adam and Eve it? Why creation story is at the heart of a new spiritual divide.” The point of the article, based on a A YouGov poll commissioned by Newman University in Birmingham, is to make a point that’s the subtitle of the article: “Major survey reveals that it’s atheists who perpetuate the conflict between religious belief and science.” In other words, it’s the damn atheists who keep saying there’s a conflict between religion and science when such a conflict doesn’t really exist. To wit:

According to the research, nearly two-thirds of Britons – as well as nearly three-quarters of atheists – think Christians have to accept the assertion in Genesis that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. But just 16% of believers accept the creation myth – according to which, in the words of the questionnaire, “humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form”. Only 9% of all Britons reject evolutionary theory.

According to Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker, who led the research, the findings suggest a need to revise stereotypes when it comes to Christian belief in Britain. “In a society that is increasingly non-religious, this mismatch in perception could be seen as a form of prejudice towards religious or spiritual groups,” she said. “It may be one of the contributing factors in religious groups or individuals saying they see a conflict between science and religion.” [JAC: There is a big difference in how the religious versus nonbelievers see evolution; I give the data below. In light of these data, the accusation of “prejudice” seems unfounded.]

According to the British Attitudes Survey, religious belief is continuing to decline in Britain, but the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams, says the YouGov survey confirms that a presumed incompatibility between science and religion is “a phoney war”.

“The number of mainstream Christians – certainly in this country – who have qualms about evolutionary theory is very small indeed,” said Williams. “But perceptions are different, and the presence of US-style fundamentalism in the popular imagination means that a growing number who know nothing of the actual history of intellectual discussion of these questions assume that all religious believers must be committed to combating scientific accounts of the universe’s beginnings.”

First of all, this study was conducted in Britain, not the U.S., so the conclusions (which are wrong even for Britain) can’t be extended the U.S., where the conflict is far more intense. And in the U.S. it’s not atheists who are responsible for the religious rejecting evolution; its their own conditioning and brainwashing. Further, wholesale rejection of evolution occurs in many Muslim countries, too, and you can’t pin that on atheists, who would often be killed or imprisoned for even saying that there’s a science/religion conflict. Finally, even in Britain, as Julian Baggini discovered to his chagrin (an atheist, he once said religion was not about specific beliefs but about human comity), British Christians believe in the literal truth of a whole lot of myths and superstitions (see here and here), including belief in miracles, heaven and hell, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and so on. Here’s part of Bagginis’s survey of Anglicans—admittedly not constructed scientifically. But have a look at the last row, as well as the second and fourth. If science contradicts the Bible, say these Anglicans, just as many of them will believe the Bible as will reject the Bible in favor of science. That bespeaks some conflict.

But on to the YouGov data. As reader Mark pointed out, if you look at that data, there’s a big difference between the “religious/spiritual” people and those who are not “religious/spiritual” or atheist.

The base population was asked the question “Which of the following statements comes closest to your view about the origin and development of life on Earth”? There were five choices, listed in order below. #1 is straight biblical creationism, #2 is theistic evolution (note that it refers to all creatures, not just humans), #3 is pure naturalistic evolution that we teach in biology class, #4 is “another theory” (I suspect largely religious), and #5 is “I don’t know”:


Here are the data divided by belief, with the five rows of percentages corresponding to the five answers given above—in order.


First, one issue: they frame the question as “evolution by natural selection” instead of just “evolution.” Of course genetic drift played a role in evolution, though not in adaptations. This isn’t hugely important given that most people don’t even know about genetic drift, but it would have been more accurate to say “Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural processes, in which God played no part,” leaving out “natural selection.”

Now, compare the “religious/spiritual” column to either the “not religious/spiritual” or “atheist” columns. (We’ll ignore “spiritual but not religious”, since the article is mostly about the conflict between religious believers and atheists.) If you add up rows 1 and 2, which correspond to God-created and God-guided evolution respectively, the sum is 55% for the religious, and 10% and 3% for the other two, respectively. That’s already a big difference. If you add in row 4, corresponding to “non-naturalistic evolution” (i.e., “I have a theory which is mine”), you get 68% of religious/spiritual people holding unscientific views of evolution, compared to 18% of “not religious/spiritual” folk and only 7% of atheists. That’s nearly a fourfold difference for those who are not religious/spiritual, and an eightfold difference for atheists.

Finally, look at the scientific view of evolution: column 3. Religious/spiritual people accept a naturalistic view of evolution only 23% of the time, compared to 72% for “not religious/spiritual” and a whopping 92% for “atheist.” Clearly, the less religious you are, the more you accept the view of evolution that science gives us. Comparing “religious spiritual” to atheists, it’s exactly a fourfold difference!

Christians like the reporter and Rowan Williams, may argue that the conflict is “phoney”, but they, and the Guardian author (a Catholic; see below) are simply presenting the figures in the best possible light for the faithful. What we see is another attempt to persuade everyone that science and religion don’t conflict.

If they don’t, though, why is there a huge difference in acceptance of naturalistic evolution between “religious/spiritual” folk on one hand and those damned pesky atheists on the other? The religious still cling to the belief that God had a hand in evolution, contrary to Rowan Williams’s statement in the article, ” “To say that all things depend unilaterally on the eternal action of God is not the same as saying that specific steps in the universe’s history must be the direct result of divine intervention.” But if God either created everything or guided evolution, then, yes, specific steps must have been the result of divine intervention.

After all, modern evolutionary theory is more than just “things changed over time.” It is in fact “things changed over time by purely natural processes“—in other words, the answer represented in row 3. We have no need of the God hypothesis. No, the atheists are not to blame for perpetuating the idea of a conflict. After all, who among British atheists can you name, with the possible exceptions of Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling, who even discusses the notion of accommodationism and its flaws The big difference between atheists and the religious/spiritual in how they think evolution happened bespeaks something about religion that prevents its adherents from accepting scientific fact. Is that not a conflict? And I’m betting it comes not from the activities of atheists, but from the tendency of believers to see as true whatever makes them feel good—or what they were taught at home or in school.

Oh, and reader Mark, who did his due diligence, also pointed out that this survey was funded by one of the Templeton organizations. Does that surprise you?  The International Society for Science and Religion notes that

Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker, at the Newman University in Birmingham, has been awarded funding by the Templeton Religion Trust to establish a research group to examine the relationship between science and religion in society. The project is established in partnership with Professor Bernard Lightman of the Institute of Science and Technology Studies at York University, Canada; Dr Carola Leicht of the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, in the School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK; and the National Life Stories programme at the British Library.

Finally, note that the reporter, Catherine Pepinster, is a Catholic commentator; she was former editor of the Catholic news weekly The Tablet, the UK Development Officer for the Anglican Centre in Rome (she’s not an Anglican), is the author of a forthcoming book on Britain and the Papacy, and has a Catholic blog that describes her as “a Catholic commentator”. This article is an example how you can dump on atheists and pretend there’s no conflict between science and religion simply by judiciously picking the figures you cite.

h/t:  Matthew, Mark (but not Luke or John)


  1. busterggi
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    “But just 16% of believers accept the creation myth”

    Seems to me that believers have one helluva conflict not only with science but with their own religion.

  2. Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that many of the claims in the article are not supported by the *public* YouGov survey data. For example:

    According to the research, nearly two-thirds of Britons – as well as nearly three-quarters of atheists – think Christians have to accept the assertion in Genesis that God created the world in six days …

    I asked the author, Catherine Pepinster, about this on Twitter and she replied:

    “the data was additional to that published, given to me for Obs story. I’ll ask researchers to upload it”

    Earlier today the study team, @SciRelSpec, Tweeted:

    “Extra Q data @CPsPepTalk used will be online hopefully by end of today. Full survey to follow in due course once fully analysed by our team”.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Good on you.

    • Barney
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      That data is now up – see ‘edit’ towards the end of their press release:

      It’s a small spreadsheet to download. We find that the questions are all “how difficult or easy do you think the following people would find it to accept information about evolutionary science, in reference to THEIR own personal beliefs or way of seeing the world?”

      They ask that about “a member of the general public”, which seems odd, because we know that people’s opinions vary, so it’s hard to give an answer for one “member”. Then they ask it about others. For “a scientist who is religious”, which is referred to in the article, we find that the ‘very difficult/difficult/somewhat difficult’ replies from respondents who are religious are 5/9/18, and from atheists 3/11/21 – no significant difference.

      For the question about “a member of the public who is religious”, the numbers are 11/16/27 from religious respondents, and 17/27/29. A bit of difference there, but if that’s where the “72% of atheists polled believe that someone who is religious would not accept evolutionary science” (with rounding) comes from, then 54% of religious people think that too.

      I don’t think the “it’s atheists who perpetuate the conflict between religious belief and science” subtitle is remotely justified by the figures.

      • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. 72% of atheists polled think that the religious would have some difficulty accepting “information about evolutionary science, in reference to THEIR own personal beliefs or way of seeing the world” ≠ “72% of atheists polled believe that someone who is religious would not accept evolutionary science”.

        And the fact that 54% of religious folk agree with 72% of atheists shows this is not an atheist phenomenon, contrary to the article’s sub.

        Coel ( and Stephen Law ( have pointed out these errors to the article’s writer. I won’t hold my breath for a retraction, however.

    • Posted September 19, 2017 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      The additional data is now public, but it doesn’t support Catherine Pepinster’s claims.

      I’ve written a blog on it: What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists.

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        Good blog, Coel.

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 3:50 am | Permalink

        I would just say that the figures you quote for UK Religious/Spiritual add up to 102%!

        • Posted September 19, 2017 at 3:52 am | Permalink

          Yeah, but to an astronomer like me, 102 = 100 to well within the margin of error! 🙂

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 19, 2017 at 3:59 am | Permalink

            And pi=3, right? 😀

  3. Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    And, just for good measure, the Newman University (which, for some reason, I’ve never heard of) is named after Cardinal Newman, and is “centred on the Catholic values of tolerance and inclusion”. That’s Catholic with a capital ‘C’.

    • Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      Link –

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      “Tolerance and inclusion” are not values I associate with Catholicism.

    • Genghis
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the Newman University is a new one to me as well.,_Birmingham

      • somer
        Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        There is a lot of mention on the Wikipedia and Newmans own Site (they are in Birmingham) of visits from Cardinals, Pope John Paul, and Mother Teresa, and honorary doctorates to Cardinals.

        I’ve heard Fern Baker say the other day there will be more surveys and she indicated she wants to compare with non Christian religions also to investigate if and how there might be points of commonality and underlying compatibility with scientific reasoning. Shades of Rowan Williams.

        Fern Elsdon-Baker is a Professor at Newman University who heads the centre that designed the survey “Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum” itself the (main) part of a broader religious program. (details about it on the Newman Uni website) Elsdon-Baker is an atheist but extremely critical of the modern Evolutionary synthesis – especially Richard Dawkins about whom she wrote a very critical book
        and her own website bagging of Dawkins
        “She argues that Dawkins is publicly misrepresenting Science as a whole and by exploring the way in which we communicate science she asks is Dawkins really acting to popularise Science or to popularise Richard Dawkins?”

        I must admit I’d only looked at the survey press release of “Keynote findings” which focusses on attitudes to consciousness and humans in evolution and conveniently omits the statistical details that show massive difference between atheists (even other non religious) and religious on all aspects evolution (and creationism). Plus the “Keynote findings” conflate interest in new scientific and technological developments of immediate use with interest in actually knowing about science, basic research, scientific method. What really matters at any rate are the data that JaC provided above.

        Elsdon-Baker is an atheist but her approach is “Too often when we communicate science we cleave to polarising narratives that create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach to science communication – which can exclude a large proportion of the world’s population. There is no ‘them’, there is only an ‘us’. In an increasingly globalised world where we all have multiple identities it is not possible to delineate between communities or cultures in the simplistic ways of the past. We cannot therefore assume, as has been done in previous years, that it is possible to create divisions between any culture – be that a disciplinary cultural divide between science and humanities or a cultural divide between world views.”

        And she doesn’t seem to accept basic scientific research based on a corpus of empirically derived scientific knowledge using scientific method as the only real driver of continuous technological development “For technology to flourish you do not necessarily need a flourishing ‘scientific’ culture – significant societal drivers such as industry and entrepreneurship play perhaps a bigger role than a purely ‘scientific’ approach. Scientific inquiry is as much a way of thinking, seeing and asking questions about the world around us, as it is a consensus on a type of agreed methodological approach.”

        • Posted September 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          There are a lot of people who don’t see the big distinction (which IMO is necessary for many purposes) between what I call technology, based on scientific research and craft, which is not. Ironically, I’ve encountered them in the context of the philosophy of technology which is admittedly equivocal – the terminology isn’t what matters, but the distinction.

  4. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    So it appears that not only is there conflict between science and religion, but between math and religion as well.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 19, 2017 at 2:28 am | Permalink


  5. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    If I had to guess, I’d say that most British Christians accept Jesus as divine (that’s what Christian means, after all) but they’re not literalists – that is, they wouldn’t insist that the Bible is word-for-word precise. They’d say the varying Jesus stories in the New Testament are what you’d expect from different observer’s accounts being passed down.
    They would also say that evolution is a fact, and that the Old Testament is a collection of folk history and traditional myths. So, no big incompatibility.

    The ‘outsiders’ view of Christians, I think, is probably influenced by the well-publicised beliefs of American Christians who are popularly supposed to be all fundamentalists, I’m sure this rubs off on the popular image of Xtianity as a whole.

    Hmm, I seem to have come to the same conclusions as Rowan Williams. 😦

    But – CONTRA the subtitle of the article – I can’t see from the quoted passages where either Elsdon-Baker or Rowan Williams blames the perceived incompatibility on atheists.


  6. Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Yep. The religious keep spouting antiscientific nonsense, and atheists perpetuate the conflict by pointing it out.

  7. Pete Taylor
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I’m just wondering how the 1% of “atheists” who believe “Humans and other living things were created by God (etc)”, and the 2% who believe “… in a process guided by God” reconcile their beliefs?

    Also, the third question in the survey that Baggini refers to seems open to misinterpretation. For instance I happen to believe Jesus was neither divine, nor a particularly great moral teacher etc (even if he actually existed). Hence my answer would have to be “Disagree”, but that would appear to lump me in with the 65% of true believers.

    I realise that the survey was given to Anglicans, but even accepting that it’s still poorly worded.

    • Genghis
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink


  8. Dragon
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I want to know what the two or three atheists who answered #1 for the question were thinking!
    (1% of 274 atheists)]
    Did they read the question wrong? Misreport themselves as atheists? I guess you will always have a few people answering at random or trolling the survey.

  9. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that the fundamental point Jerry has been trying to get across is not simply the existence of a conflict between religion and science, but rather the nature of that conflict – the fact that it’s an intellectual, epistemological conflict as opposed to a professional or cultural one.

    No-one I know has ever claimed that you can’t be religious and a professional scientist at the same time, but if you listened to religious apologists you’d think that that lay at the crux of the atheistic argument about incompatibility. It’s commonly implied that we atheists are dogmatically hitched to the idea that all scientists are exactly like us, and therefore all it takes is the example of a few John Polkinghornes or Francis Collinses and our joyless, pedantic robot-minds are blown wide open.

  10. Posted September 18, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The professor who would conclude “…this mismatch in perception could be seen as a form of prejudice towards religious or spiritual groups” is playing spin doctor.

    How can it be a prejudice, when that implies “an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge” (Merriam-Webster). There are just grounds and sufficient knowledge, in fact atheists are often more knowledgeable about the faith of Christians than are the Christians themselves.

    The good professor seems to be claiming that it is the right of Christians to define their faiths, when the churches they belong to claim that right. And just because some Christians are wishy-washy about their faith, doesn’t mean that they aren’t supporting the beliefs of others who are not.

  11. Randy schenck
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    What these stats tend to confirm is that being an atheist allows for the clear and unvarnished facts to enter the brain with complete understanding with no interruptions and nothing thrown out as it arrives. No preconceived nonsense to prevent landing.

  12. AD
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I see that there are no comments allowed on the Guardian article. I think I’m noticing a trend on the Guardian that articles like this don’t allow comments because the readers always savage the contents.

  13. Kevin
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Technically, the established dogma of the Catholic Church states that Adam and Eve are the literal first humans and that original sin derives from them:

    This would allow no scope at all for alternative opinions and this is clearly stated.

    However I know that many convinced Catholics are quite happy to view Adam and Eve (and Genesis in general) as a metaphor.

    This places original sin in a difficult position, since it would also logically become a metaphor itself. This however doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

    I suppose this is just a question of shifting the interface of already existing cognitive dissonance.

    Many Catholics would not be aware of such distinctions as which issues constitute dogma or not.

    Similar processes are involved with Catholics who practice contraception, unmarried cohabitation, divorce, gay sex, casual sex, attending church on Sunday (in theory obligatory) and worse.

    Just because the faithful profess adherence to the church, doesn’t mean that they actually follow ALL its rules.

    This is one thing I have always found difficult with Catholic (my background is Irish Catholic brought up in England). Its really hard to understand how their minds are working: their action are often in direct conflict with what they define as moral, though they don’t seem to see it.

    Its a mistake to seek logic in religion since it is fundamentally an illogical process.

  14. David Harper
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Catherine Pepinster has form as a Catholic apologist. She is a regular contributor on the “Thought for the Day” slot on BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs programme. That’s the slot which the BBC persists in giving only to religious speakers, despite repeated demands from humanists to be allowed to nominate speakers.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      There was something earlier this evening on BBC Radio 4 about religious polls, but I missed most of it.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      That’s “Cosy Thought for the Day”: I don’t think the idea is to introduce existential polemic.
      The BBC wouldn’t want to upset oppressed majorities by introducing “balance”.
      I think that “Thought for the Day” for the day is code for the “God Slot”.

      • David Harper
        Posted September 19, 2017 at 3:44 am | Permalink

        There’s also an actual “Prayer for the Day” slot on BBC Radio 4 around 05:43 each day, where the god-botherers can pretend they’re in their church/mosque/synagogue/temple preaching to the faithful, without even a semblance of keeping it non-denominational.

  15. Posted September 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink


  16. ashdeville
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, welcome to the world of Cat Pep! The phrase “oleaginously smug” was invented just for her.

  17. Bruce Gorton
    Posted September 19, 2017 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Actually a damn good Penny Arcade today

    Deals with the whole issue a whole lot better than The Guardian.

  18. Zetopan
    Posted September 21, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    “Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part”.

    The quoted statement actually contains multiple errors. Firstly, artificially constraining evolution to natural selection (No founder effect? no drift? etc) shows that the authors are not familiar with biology.

    Secondly, the “in which God played no part” clearly presumes the Christian god and ignores all others including polytheism. A much less biased phrasing would have stated: “in which the supernatural is not required”.

    And the response from theistic atheists are a hoot as well.

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