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A Survey of Clergy and Their Views on Origins

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May 8, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Creation & Origins
A Survey of Clergy and Their Views on Origins

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today's post was first featured in The Conversation, a monthly newsletter from BioLogos. If you'd like to receive our latest updates to your inbox, we encourage you to sign up under our News section.

What do today’s pastors think about science?   What views do they hold on creation and evolution and how strongly do they hold them?   How do origins issues impact their ministries?

These were just a few of the questions that motivated us at BioLogos to commission a survey of pastors on origins.  In 2012, the Barna Group conducted 743 telephone interviews with pastors from across the US, from churches big and small, and from all Christian denominations.  This comprehensive, in-depth survey provides a fascinating analysis of views held by clergy today.   In the coming month, we’ll be digging deeper into the survey results, but for now, here are some key highlights:

#1: Pastors hold a diversity of views on origins.

Overall, while a slight majority of the pastors surveyed fall under the label of Young Earth Creationism (54%), sizeable portions of clergy accept Progressive Creation (15%) and Theistic Evolution (18%).

The numbers varied widely based on a number of factors, however. Pastors of mainline churches were most likely to accept Theistic Evolution, while non-Mainline, Charismatic, and Southern Baptist pastors were overwhelmingly Young Earth Creationists. Pastors of larger churches were also more likely to accept Theistic Evolution.

Regionally, the highest percentage of YEC pastors was found in South, while the highest percentage of pastors accepting TE was in the Midwest. Pastors from the western states were the least likely to accept TE.

#2: Most pastors think science and faith questions are important.

Regardless of their views, the majority of pastors surveyed feel that the Church needs to look at how it handles issues of science. 72% of pastors with YEC views and 73% of pastors with TE views agree with the statement that “the Christian community needs to take a serious look at its understanding of science and human origins in order to maintain its witness in the world.” (The numbers are slightly lower for pastors who hold to Progressive Creation and who are uncertain).

Similarly, 66% of YEC pastors and 61% of both TE and Progressive Creation pastors agree that “younger adults today are more concerned than ever about whether faith and science are compatible.”

#3: Clergy think disagreements on science and faith harm our witness (but for different reasons).

Clergy across all three viewpoints feel that disagreements are harming the Church’s outreach, but they differ in how they view that harm.

YEC pastors overwhelming agreed (85%) that “Christian disagreement on matters of creation and evolution is compromising our witness to the world.” However, a majority of TE pastors disagreed with the statement (63%).

Conversely, a majority of TE pastors (63%) agreed that “The church’s posture toward science prevents many non-Christians from accepting Christianity,” while a majority of YEC and Progressive Creation leaning pastors disagreed (59%).

#4: Pastors aren’t avoiding science.

The majority of pastors think that addressing issues of science for their congregations is an important part of their work. Of those surveyed, 72% felt that addressing science issues in the local community was somewhat (51%) or very (21%) urgent. When asked about science on a national and global level, even more pastors felt that addressing science issues is important (43% somewhat and 46% very). Furthermore, 79% of pastors included scientific themes in at least one sermon in the past year, and 40% had included them in at least ten sermons.

The majority of clergy across all four viewpoints also agreed with the statement “Just as scripture should influence human interpretation of science, science should also inform our understanding of scripture.” The numbers were highest for TE pastors and those who are uncertain (81% and 72%, respectively), though over half of YEC and PC pastors also agreed (52% and 65%, respectively).

Finally, although YEC’s are more reluctant than other pastors to say “science should inform understanding of scripture, they strongly agree (84%) that “The Christian community needs a greater commitment to showing how young earth creationism is consistent with science.”

#5: However, they are concerned about evolution for biblical reasons.

Over half of pastors said they had “major concerns” about the idea that God used evolution. The main reasons for that concern were that the idea “undermines the authority of Scripture” (64%), “views portions of the Bible as non-literal, like Genesis” (62%), “raises doubts about a historical Adam and Eve” (61%), and “raises questions about how and when death and sin entered the world” (59%). However, 26% of pastors saw no concern with the idea that God used evolution.

#6: The majority of clergy accept parts of scripture as symbolic.

60% of the pastors surveyed felt that “some portions of the Bible are symbolic, but all that it teaches is authoritative.” Clergy whose views fall under theistic evolution and progressive creation were more likely to accept this statement (79% and 73% respectively), but a sizeable number of YEC pastors (40% among the core followers and 49% among those leaning towards YEC) also agreed with the statement.

#7: Clergy are concerned that changing their views on origins might compromise their ministry.

Over half of pastors (58%) who fell under the YEC category agreed that “If you publicly admitted your own doubts about human origins, you feel you would have a lot to lose in your ministry.” 41% of pastors in the Progressive Creation group also agreed with the statement. Pastors who were uncertain or who fell under the Theistic Evolution group were less concerned, with only 26% and 17% respectively agreeing with the statement.


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PNG - #79728

May 8th 2013

It would be interesting to have data on the same breakdown of churchgoers to see how the views in the flock compare to the shepherds.

beaglelady - #79731

May 8th 2013

Yes, and I wonder how many pastors wish they could talk about evolution to the parishioners without being run out of town.

glsi - #79738

May 8th 2013

Looks like only about 3% of them.

LMC Mc Devitt Center - #80117

May 15th 2013

You may be interested in the MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins.  We include the link to both the survey results and a summary of the results with a nice interactive graphic:


Jon Garvey - #79749

May 9th 2013

Creationist Tood Wood points out on his blog that the majority overall (70%) are uncertain of their positions, which he sees as a good thing in terms of humility and mutaul respect -  a good point.

These kinds of surveys raise so many more questions: selfishly I’d like to see a similar survey in the UK, for example. But mostly it would be good to know what kinds of doubts people have about their positions - it looks like the “leaning” majorities are not strictly comparable between the three positions.

For example, Progressive Creationists seem more secure in their beliefs than the others, which is interesting as the position requires (a) sitting loose to biblical literalism and (b) denying the mainstream of scientific opinion. Whence their high levels of conviction?

But the broadly similarly sized  TE camp are far less certain: 3% “card-carrying” TEs is by far the smallest group. On the face of it, one would expect more conviction, because once you’ve decided evolution is compatible with faith, you’re adopting the scientific position promoted as “incontrovertible fact” in the society at large.

So it would be helpful to enquire about the nature of the doubts: possibilities, from discussions on BioLogos, might be (a) the perception that TE as a movement (via its literature and websites) seems to demand too many changes to core beliefs like the Fall, human exceptionalism etc (b) linked to that many TEs seem to link it to the necessity to abandon Scriptural Inerrancy and (c) most importantly, current versions of TE seem  to minimise or remove divine teleology and special providence in creation.

The only way to check this out is to ask about it specifically (one way would be to ask why pastors are NOT in other groups).

My own feeling is that a question like “Does God use a natural process like evolution?” is potentially hard to answer in a culture in which “natural” is widely defined as “independent of God”, ie opposed to “supernatural”, meaning “what God does”. Bear in mind that “evolution” is publically claimed to be undirected and purposeless.

What does a pastor who believes that  God guides evolution to specific ends (like Asa Gray or B B Warfield did) reply to that? He might well prefer to self-identify as a progressive creationist “leaner” (because he actually believes in evolution as God’s tool for ongoing creation) rather than as  a TE “leaner” (because he firmly believes God guides it).

Finally, as a cynical non-American, I’d be interested to see how the three categories correlate with political affiliation, position on abortion, position on gun legislation and position on global warming. To outsiders it sometimes seems as if knowing the answer to one predicts them all.

Scott Jorgenson - #79785

May 9th 2013

But the broadly similarly sized  TE camp are far less certain: 3% “card-carrying” TEs is by far the smallest group. On the face of it, one would expect more conviction, because once you’ve decided evolution is compatible with faith, you’re adopting the scientific position promoted as “incontrovertible fact” in the society at large.”

Not necessarily, I think.  Just as a historical and sociological observation (saying nothing about the merits of TE), TE is not the defacto starting point for Christian views on origins.  Any pastor who has TE opinions has most likely gotten there gradually over time, after consideration and reflection and a willingness to change views and/or go against the grain of the Christian community.  This is impossible without intellectual humility, and I think that tentativeness in one’s conclusions is something that falls-out naturally from such a mindset.

Scott Jorgenson - #79787

May 9th 2013

I think the last point #7 was the most interesting:

Over half of pastors (58%) who fell under the YEC category agreed that “If you publicly admitted your own doubts about human origins, you feel you would have a lot to lose in your ministry.” 41% of pastors in the Progressive Creation group also agreed with the statement. Pastors who were uncertain or who fell under the Theistic Evolution group were less concerned, with only 26% and 17% respectively agreeing with the statement.”

What it seems to indicate to me, is that the pastors who hold TE opinions are those who generally feel safe in doing so.  Since TE is not the defacto starting point for Christians and represents an intellectual journey for many, those who feel safe in their communities - not just safe for their own jobs, but comfortable that their communities are ready for their church leadserhip to go there - are also the ones who are more likely to finish the journey.

Jon Garvey - #79794

May 9th 2013


I agree with your caveats - one can only speculate with such raw data. The point is, as I suggested, more questions than answers come from such surveys.

For example, #7 as a question is a bit of a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” one. It doesn’t really cover those who say “I don’t have any doubts about human origins - I know Adam was made in 4004/ I know mankind evolved naturally from apes/ I know God did a special extra act to bring man forth.”

There is little doubt that Creationist peer pressure is a very real issue in the US - but that again shows the national bias of the survey. Whilst I know TEs in Britain who keep their views quiet because their denominations are largely Creationist, it’s not true that one has to take a journey to TE (of some sort). There is a long history of diversity and some of the foremost Evangelical scholars (who influenced my generation of pastors) were openly comfortable to accommodate evolution (my former neighbour Derek Kidner comes to mind).

ID doesn’t get a mention ion these stats, of course, because IDs are also going to be covered by the three main divisions. But as it is a major cultural phenomenon, it would have been interesting to have a question or two covering it the broad issue of “design in nature”, if only to see (a)how bothered pastors are and (b) how it relates to the six groups.

glsi - #79791

May 9th 2013

I’m curious whether this survey is meant to be a baseline before the BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith grant program gets fully under way.  It’s an impressive lot of cash to be paid out  to try and spread the BioLogos ideas around ($23k - $300k per grant!).  They say money can’t buy you love, but maybe it can buy you some evolutionists?


Otherwise these survey results have got to be pretty frustrating.  After the judgement at Dover, the stranglehold on science textbook publishers, the tireless work of Eugenie Scott and the NCSE, and the imposition of  high school science curriculums,  the people still don’t think Darwinism looks right or smells right.

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