3 Takeaways from the Surprising New Survey Results on Human Origins

Pew’s measure of human origins is evolving. In a recent report and online post, the organization describes a new measurement strategy to assess the public’s beliefs about origins. The result is an upwardly adjusted estimate of the percentage of Americans adopting an evolutionary perspective (81 percent compared to 68 percent). The 13-point increase is primarily driven by religious Americans, with Evangelicals and Black Protestants seeing a full 30 percent increase in acceptance of human evolution. With a methodological wave of the wand, it now seems that a majority of conservative Protestants accept evolution.

What exactly did Pew change? In short, respondents are no longer initially presented with a single dichotomous choice to accept or reject human evolution followed by an additional question about God’s role. Instead, they are presented with three initial options, two of which correspond to an evolutionary account (one theistic, one non-theistic) and one that rejects an evolutionary account.

Old methodology — two question format:

Q1 — Which statement comes closer to your views?

  1. Humans have always existed in their present form
  2. Humans evolved

Those who answered “1. Humans evolved” were asked a further question:

Q2 — Which statement comes closer to your views?

  1. God had a role
  2. God had no role

New methodology — one question format:

Q1 — Which statement comes closer to to your views?

  1. Humans have always existed in their present form
  2. Humans evolved; God had a role
  3. Humans evolved; God had no role

This slight adjustment in strategy produces substantially different responses among the most religious respondents. A simple rhetorical shift seems to open up much more space for a belief in God-guided evolution.

These results may be puzzling to some of us. After all, why should it matter how the question is asked if the underlying substance is the same? And, should we really believe these newer results are superior estimates to what was previously found? We might even wonder if these surveys are able to give us any reliable information about public beliefs at all. Let me assure the reader that these results are meaningful and much can be learned from them. Somewhat ironically, we actually learn these things precisely because of the way certain segments of the population change their response. I see three important implications of the new measurement strategy.

#1 — Surveys aren’t perfect tools for measuring complex beliefs

First, the shift we see probably means many Americans do not have well-formed prior beliefs about human origins. There is often an assumption that surveys somehow have direct, unmediated access to people’s beliefs. This simply isn’t true. Every survey respondent must translate the cognitive content of their mind through the categories presented to them in the survey. Much of the time this isn’t a problem. Routine behaviors and beliefs can be recalled with relative accuracy given the right prompts. However, more complex beliefs present a challenge. Many of us have experienced this when filling out surveys. We want to add another response category, or we object to the way the question is worded because it doesn’t align itself with the way we think about the issue.

This is also a problem when someone comes to a survey item without a well-formed belief about the topic in question. This is what is most likely occurring for many when they are queried about human origins. Such a situation presents a cognitively challenging task. We shouldn’t expect these individuals to put down their pencil (or close their browser window), research the topic, weigh the various evidences, and form a belief. Instead of this, most people will engage in what psychologists call satisficing to one degree or another. They will scan the question for cues that correspond to something that is easily retrievable for them. In other words, they are just looking for a “good enough” response that will allow them to move on.

#2 — The assumed association between evolution and atheism has been problematic in past surveys

This brings me to the second implication. Antievolutionist beliefs are probably driven by an automatic association between atheism and evolution. For a variety of complex historical and sociological reasons evolution acts as an atheistic cue, especially for conservative Protestants. Most Americans have little knowledge of how evolutionary processes actually work, or how scientists understand a mechanism like natural selection. Rather, the cultural idea of evolution is what is important. Evolution invokes certain commitments about what is fundamentally true about human nature, God, and where history is headed. Even if people cannot articulate each of these components in detail, they will have a strong affinity for or against the cultural idea of evolution based on their own group identity and commitments. Opening up space for evolution and an active, personal, Creator God requires a deliberate challenging of this automatic association between evolution and atheism.

The new measurement strategy of Pew opens up this space a bit. Instead of first asking a question that many people automatically associate as choosing theism or evolution, they now provide a third option that is essentially theism andevolution. For those who come to the question without prior, settled belief about origins, simply presenting this option opens up new possible configurations.

#3 — We now have a better picture of Americans’ attitudes toward evolution

Finally, if these previous two implications are correct, that means the new measure is almost certainly a more accurate picture of the landscape of beliefs about human origins. The changes in response from the old to new measurement strategy suggests that some of those who opposed human evolution were probably just opposing the idea that God was not involved in the creation of our species. If this is the case, then the new measurement strategy actually better maps the range of possible underlying beliefs that people actually hold. That said, surveys are still crude instruments, and reality is always going to be much more complex than a survey can capture. My own attempt to capture some of this complexity in the 2014 BioLogos funded National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO) found that beliefs about origins were messy, and only small segments of the population had beliefs that were full articulations of the some of the most common positions (e.g., young Earth creationism or nontheistic evolutionism). The new Pew origins measure more closely aligns with the findings from the NSRHO.

For those of us who are dismayed over how entrenched the battles about evolution sometimes seem, the results from the new Pew survey are good news. It shows that not everyone views questions about origins as a mutually exclusive choice between evolution and a Creator God. A third way forward – one that acknowledges the consensus of science and the witness of scripture – may be more popular than we’ve been led to believe.

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Jonathan P. Hill
About the Author

Jonathan P. Hill

Jonathan P. Hill is Associate Professor of sociology at Calvin College. He is author of Emerging Adulthood and Faith (Calvin College Press, 2015) and coauthor of Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (Oxford, 2014) and The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life (SUNY, 2017). He has published articles and book chapters on higher education and religious faith, volunteering, and charitable giving. He also directs the National Study of Religion and Human Origins, a project that explores the social context of beliefs about human origins.