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Jan 02 2014

Americans Getting a Bit Better on Evolution

A new survey from Pew Research Center finds a little progress being made on Americans’ acceptance of evolution. While a couple decades of Gallup polls have found nearly 50% believe that humans were created in their current form within the last 10,000 years, this poll finds much higher acceptance of human evolution.

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

There’s an interesting distinction between evangelical Christians and those from mainline denominations:

A majority of white evangelical Protestants (64%) and half of black Protestants (50%) say that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. But in other large religious groups, a minority holds this view. In fact, nearly eight-in-ten white mainline Protestants (78%) say that humans and other living things have evolved over time.

That is consistent with my experience. The mainline denominations have not made a point of disputing evolution or arguing for a literal Genesis creation story, while the more fundamentalist and evangelical ones have.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    garnetstar

    In the words of Gene Damon, mainline denominations “have long since given up militant opposition to the visible world.”

    Unlike, alas, fundamentalist ones.

  2. 2
    garnetstar

    Whoops, that’s Gene Lyons.

  3. 3
    Synfandel

    The numbers are still astonishingly bad for one of the supposedly most educated countries in the world. I wonder what percentages of American evangelical Protestants, “black” Protestants*, and “mainline” Protestants believe that water is wet and that fire is hot?

    *As a non-American, I find the “black” Protestant concept baffling. It sounds comparable to left-handed Protestant or red-haired Protestant or over-six-feet-tall Protestant.

  4. 4
    wscott

    “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

    Come on, everyone knows humans weren’t created until 7 days AFTER the beginning of time.

  5. 5
    raven

    The mainline denominations have not made a point of disputing evolution…

    True.

    My old Protestant sect didn’t have a problem with evolution. It says exactly that right on their web site.

    And they didn’t hate science or scientists. Some of the members were…scientists themselves.

  6. 6
    John Pieret

    wscott:

    It was 6 days. Gotta be accurate, ya know!

  7. 7
    Nathair

    About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall).

    If you don’t accept “due to natural processes such as natural selection” then you do not accept evolution. Saying that things have changed but that goddidit through front-loading or sprinkles of magic fairy dust at key moments is just creationism-light

    32% is appalling.

  8. 8
    eric

    Matt Young over at The Panda’s Thumb notes that while the numbers are up overall, they went down for Republicans from 54% accepting evolution in 2009 to 43% accepting it now. IOW, the GOP is getting more creationist.

  9. 9
    matty1

    *As a non-American, I find the “black” Protestant concept baffling. It sounds comparable to left-handed Protestant or red-haired Protestant or over-six-feet-tall Protestant.

    Also not American but I think this is a result of “white” churches not allowing black people to join for a long time. It is also not dissimilar to having Catholic and Protestant football teams, or political parties based on whether one speaks French or Flemish. Once you put people in groups they will start to form all kinds of social organisations within those groups even if there is no apparent correlation between group membership and the type of organisation.

  10. 10
    Jordan Genso

    eric,

    That shouldn’t be surprising though, since fewer people are self-identifying as Republicans (which is what led to the “unskewed” polls), and those that have left the party are more likely to be the less-extreme conservatives.

    There’s probably a fair number of Republicans who have switched their position towards creationism, but I would guess that accounts for a smaller percentage of the change than evolution-accepting Republicans who have left the Republican label behind.

  11. 11
    Erp

    Re: Black denominations

    It isn’t so much that the protestant denominations didn’t allow blacks to join but rather that they were second class members (had to sit in the back or the balcony, couldn’t be ministers, etc.) so these second class members left and formed their own denominations (e.g., AME, AME Zion, National Baptist Convention, etc). I’m actually not sure from the report whether they divided by race or by membership in a traditional white evangelical, white mainline, or black denomination.

    I would have liked to see a breakdown between the pentecostal denominations and the white non-pentecostal evangelical protestant denominations. I note btw that Jews and Muslims are not mentioned in the survey, perhaps because there weren’t enough in the group surveyed.

  12. 12
    Sastra

    Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

    I would love to how these statistics line up (or fail to line up) with agreement to the following:

    “I believe a supreme being guided the events in my life for the purpose of creating opportunities for me to become what I am.”

    I don’t know what the results would be, but it would be interesting to note correlations (if any.) It’s the same principle.

  13. 13
    reddiaperbaby1942

    It might help if we stopped using the verb “believe” in connection with scientific facts and empirically supported information, as opposed to opinion and unsupported ideas. This usage is far too common, and suggests that scientific theory and religious doctrine are equally a matter of “belief”.
    Although in all fairness, Ed uses it correctly: “nearly 50% believe that humans were created in their current form within the last 10,000 years.” In this case, it’s the text of the Pew report that misuses the verb.
    By the way, with regard to the notion of journalistic “balance” (totally off-topic here?):.I’ve just been watching the first season of “Newsnight” on DVD, and I love these lines from the second episode: “If the whole Republican caucus marched into the House and decided that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with “Democrats and Republicans disagree on shape of Earth.”
    I’m actually not so sure it is off-topic here –unfortunately.

  14. 14
    d.c.wilson

    I remember seeing a poll several years ago that said the most segregated hour during the week in America is on Sunday morning. I doubt much has changed since then.

  15. 15
    Michael Heath

    Synfandel writes:

    I find the “black” Protestant concept baffling. It sounds comparable to left-handed Protestant or red-haired Protestant or over-six-feet-tall Protestant.

    There are plenty of reasons to parse out black protestants from white ones, for the same reasons we distinguish the difference between mainline protestants and evangelical/fundamentalists. One is voting patterns, where black protestants tend to vote for liberals whereas evangelical/fundamentalists tend to vote for conservatives where capturing the trends is informative.

  16. 16
    Mobius

    Evolution may be gaining a slight bit of ground among Americans overall, but that same poll shows that among Republicans it is losing considerable ground. The Republican war on science seems to be winning…at least among Republicans.

  17. 17
    chrisdevries

    I am not sure that this poll represents a true and large change in the acceptance of evolution amongst Americans, but I can accept that the numbers have shifted, just not as significantly as it seems.

    The Gallup poll that asked this same question last year found 47% of people in the USA accepted evolution, breaking down into 32% who saw it as a god-initiated or guided process, and 15% as occurring without divine involvement. Now we see 60% of Americans accepting evolution, with 32% seeing it as a wholly natural process, and 23% believing that God guided the evolution of living things to create human beings and all other life.

    Now, the main reason I am cautious to say this may not be a true trend is that the polls were phrased differently.

    Gallup last year:

    Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process – 32%
    Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process – 15%
    God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so – 46%
    Don’t know – 7%

    Pew this year:

    Humans and other living things have evolved over time and a supreme being guided evolution – 24%
    Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes such as natural selection – 32%
    Humans and other living things have evolved over time but respondent “doesn’t know” whether it was a god-guided or natural process – 4%
    Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time – 33%
    Don’t know – 7%
    As you can see, the Gallup survey uses the word “God” and the truth that we all accept, that God had no part in this process, was worded just like that, forcing respondents to actively deny the role of God. Pew this year uses the less specific “supreme being” and refers to “natural processes such as natural selection” instead of “God had no part in this process” in the option that refers to the naturalistic perspective, without a God.

    If we can roughly compare these polls, the divinely-guided evolution option fell 8% over the year, but the natural processes, sans God, option went up by a whole 17%. Overall belief in evolution went up by 13% while belief in divine Creation fell by the same amount. So it seems that up to half of the people who used to see a role for a supreme being in evolution have accepted that it was an unguided process, and something like 20-25% of former evolution-deniers have come around to the position that evolution probably happened but God was involved.

    These are VERY significant changes, even when you consider the +/-3% margin of error in the polls, but I think the way they posed the question has played a role in inflating the trend. Public opinion has probably shown a moderate change, but I’d like to see a new Gallup poll using the same wording as they used last year to confirm such a shift as seems to have occurred. My suspicion is that it would show that belief in evolution by natural processes over millions of years, without any involvement of God at ~27-30%, belief in evolution occurring over millions of years, initiated and guided by God at ~22-25%, and the belief that God created humans and all life in their present form about 10,000 years ago at maybe ~38-40%.

  18. 18
    eric

    @13:

    It might help if we stopped using the verb “believe” in connection with scientific facts and empirically supported information, as opposed to opinion and unsupported ideas. This usage is far too common, and suggests that scientific theory and religious doctrine are equally a matter of “belief”.

    I’m probably in the minority here because your point is one a lot of people make in regards to evolution v. creationism, but I flipping hate that reasoning. The reason the usage is common is because the usage is correct; the word “believe” in English has mulitple meanings and a lot of subtle nuance, and covers intellectual reasoning from known facts as well as religious faith.

    Yes, we can try and make our language more computer-codey by eliminating any ambiguity. Or we can be adults, get over it, and move on. When creationists use word games to try and undermine a scientific point, the proper response is to show why the scientific point is valid. Deciding to alter the English language so that their word game is impossible (a) will send you down an infinite rabbit hole of altering language, and (b) plays right into their hands by moving the discussion away from the science.

  19. 19
    heddle

    @Eric #18,

    Spot-on. If someone says “I believe in String Theory” or “I believe in evolution” I think people know what that means, and that it means something different than “I believe in god.”

  20. 20
    Michael Heath

    reddiaperbaby1942 writes:

    It might help if we stopped using the verb “believe” in connection with scientific facts and empirically supported information, as opposed to opinion and unsupported ideas. This usage is far too common, and suggests that scientific theory and religious doctrine are equally a matter of “belief”.

    I like to use the term “conclusion” rather than belief/believe. I make conclusions based on the relevant set of facts. Of course the quality of the conclusion varies based on a number of factors.

    eric writes:

    I’m probably in the minority here because your point is one a lot of people make in regards to evolution v. creationism, but I flipping hate that reasoning.

    I sincerely hope you’re in a tiny minority that’s quickly disappearing. Precisely because of how creationists equate scientific conclusions with religious beliefs when they and we use “belief/believe”.

    eric writes:

    The reason the usage is common is because the usage is correct; the word “believe” in English has mulitple meanings and a lot of subtle nuance, and covers intellectual reasoning from known facts as well as religious faith.

    Strawman; no one is arguing with dictionary definitions. In fact it’s dishonest of you to mutate what rediaperbaby wrote in your rebuttal here.

    The argument that we should eradicate belief/believe from the lexicon of critical thinking is the defective conflation of its differing terms by creationists and other defective thinkers that’s done either disingenuously or out of ignorance in regards to the scientific method and the basics of critical thinking.

    eric writes:

    Yes, we can try and make our language more computer-codey by eliminating any ambiguity. Or we can be adults, get over it, and move on.

    This is about quite the opposite of being childish. Instead it’s about upping one’s game when it comes to precision vs. sloppy thinking. Sloppy thinking and its attendant rhetoric is the very game creationists, demagogues, and others require to present arguments based predominately on a deficient framework of false premises.

    eric writes:

    When creationists use word games . . .

    Double strawman. Again, this is not about being childish or playing games, but instead challenging creationists to meet the same high standard the best of us are using to craft our arguments.

    eric writes:

    Deciding to alter the English language so that their word game is impossible (a) will send you down an infinite rabbit hole of altering language, and (b) plays right into their hands by moving the discussion away from the science.

    No, it’s about referencing the scientific method by demanding creationists come back out of a rabbit hole they already ran down when they equated faith-fueled belief vs. other definitions of belief. Again, this is about challenging the defective conflation of differing terms of the word belief, all in order to argue that scientific conclusions are no better than religious belief.

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