A new Pew survey has just been released, examining opinions of a worldwide sample of evangelical Christian leaders on a number of issues. The survey questions relate to social issues, religious beliefs, gender roles, what to do about non-Christians, and more. It’s interesting reading, and there is an excellent summary of some of the findings regarding evolution, atheism, and conflicting Christian values over at Why Evolution Is True.
Some of the results from this survey tie into a subject that I’ve been wanting to write about: why public acceptance of evolution in the majority of developed nations around the world is high, but with a few notable exceptions. Take a look at this chart from a 2006 article in Science that compared public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries (click to enlarge).
The majority of respondents were accepting of evolution in most of the nations surveyed. A notable exception, with the second to lowest acceptance of evolution, was the United States.
Why is this?
Keep in mind that acceptance of evolution among scientists is overwhelmingly strong the world over. In contrast with the American public, 97% of American scientists agree that humans and other living things have evolved over time. So why the division among the laypeople, and why only in certain parts of the world?
As readers have probably noticed, denial of evolution or criticism of the evidence for evolution is often voiced specifically by creationists – people who think that a supernatural being created humans and other living things in their current form. This is because, in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, they believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and should be taken literally.
Is religious fundamentalism the cause for evolution denial, or is it something else? We already know that acceptance of evolution is divided along national lines, but is it also divided along religious lines?
The evidence says yes.
Keep in mind that it isn’t a person’s religion per se that determines whether or not they accept evolution. Many of the countries in the above chart are predominantly Christian, and yet they still show high acceptance of evolution. Rather, it is how religious a person is that influences their attitude toward evolution.
Religiosity is commonly measured by looking at frequency of prayer, frequency of religious service attendance, belief in god and an afterlife, Bible literalism, and so on. It is on measures of religiosity that America really stands out among developed nations (see tables below).
But that’s not all. There must of course be differences in religiosity from person to person within the same country. Not all Americans are religious, and not all religious Americans are weekly churchgoers who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. If acceptance of evolution is influenced by religiosity, we would expect the most religious Americans to be the most unaccepting of evolution.
The 2006 study I cited earlier showed this to be the case. They found that “…individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views.”
Subsequent research has replicated this result. A 2009 Pew survey found that 49% of respondents who attended weekly religious services believed that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. However, only 26% of those who attended services monthly or yearly believed this, and only 17% of those who seldom or never attend. Meanwhile, those respondents who attended religious services less frequently were much more likely to believe that life evolved.
A 2010 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University similarly found that Bible literalism was negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution. Of respondents who answered that the Bible is the actual word of God, 69% believed that God directly created life. Of those who said that the Bible is the word of God, but not everything can be taken literally, 35% believed in creationism, 42% believed that God had guided the evolutionary process (theistic evolution), and 11% believed in unguided, natural evolution. Lastly, of those who said that the Bible was written by men, only 12% believed in creationism, 18% believed in theistic evolution, and 56% believed in unguided evolution.
Finally, the survey I began the post with extends these findings, showing that they apply to evangelical Christian leaders from around the world. Of those surveyed, almost half reject evolution, and 41% believe in God-guided, theistic evolution. Only 3% accept the scientific understanding of evolution as being the result of natural processes.
The evidence is undeniable: religiosity is negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution, and this can only be because people deny the facts of science that conflict with their religious beliefs.
In an effort to fight this conclusion, creationists often try to argue that the evidence for evolution is lacking. Not only is this claim false, but in making it, creationists expect us to believe that they are more fit to evaluate the evidence for evolution than the rest of the world, including the vast majority of scientists and relevant experts! This is simply a ludicrous argument. The fact is that evolution is true, and most of the world knows it. The United States is an anomaly among nations – even among Christian nations – because of a unique history of religious fundamentalism that promotes belief in no-longer tenable myths about human origins.