National Study of Religion and Human Origins

Jonathan P. Hill
On December 02, 2014

The National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO) is the first survey to investigate the public’s beliefs about human origins in depth. The project has two primary purposes. The first is to develop a better map of the public’s beliefs by disaggregating the components of the most common survey questions on human origins and focusing on each in detail. The second is to gauge the influence of social context on these beliefs. To accomplish this, survey questions were developed that focused on family, friends, church, schooling, as well as beliefs about the relationship between science and religion more generally.

These dual purposes are reflected in the division of the report. The first part uses the disaggregated survey items on human origins to reconstruct various positions. Using the broadest definitions of creationist, theistic evolutionist, and atheistic evolutionist, the NSRHO finds that substantially smaller proportions of the population should be classified in each than the frequently cited Gallup findings suggest. In the NSRHO, thirty-seven percent are creationists, 16 percent are theistic evolutionists, and nine percent are atheistic evolutionists. If we consider only those that are very or absolutely certain of their views this falls to 29 percent, eight percent, and six percent. This tells us that well over half the population are at least somewhat uncertain about what they believe. When additional measurements are used to narrow these definitions, even smaller percentages of the population belong in each camp. The difference between Gallup and the NSRHO is almost certainly due to Gallup respondents being forced to choose from limited options, even when many are unsure of what they believe or maintain beliefs that do not fit into the options available.

The first part of the report concludes with an examination of why some of the public believes it is important to have the correct beliefs about human origins. Thirty themes were found in 947 open-ended responses. The most popular response for creationists invoked the authority of the Bible. In fact, all of the most popular responses for creationists involved protecting and defending the Christian faith. For theistic evolutionists the most popular responses referenced how human origins help us understand ourselves as humans or the future of humanity more generally. Other popular responses emphasized the importance of having true beliefs in all areas of knowledge, the importance of understanding and believing scripture, and having a relationship to God. Overall, theistic evolutionists were the most diverse in their responses. Atheistic evolutionists, on the hand, were the least diverse. The single most popular response referred to the superiority of science as factual and the inferiority of religion as superstitious or irrational. Another common response referred to the negative social and/or environmental consequences of not having the right beliefs about human origins (presumably because this means one has a low regard for science in general). All together, these responses help to make sense of what people believe to be at stake in public controversies over evolution and human origins.

The second part of this report shifts the focus to the social context of belief. It is divided into several sections. The first sections examine how various demographic indicators and social contexts differ for creationists, theistic evolutionists, and atheistic evolutionists. Although there are differences in education, political identification, age, and region of the country, these are mostly due to differences in religious beliefs between the groups. In other words, once religion is controlled for, these differences become much smaller and many are no longer statistically significant. When we track the beliefs of close friends and family, creationists are substantially more likely to belong to networks who agree with them about human origins. They are also more likely to expect increased disagreements with family and friends if they were to change their beliefs. Likewise, creationists are more likely to belong to congregations who have settled positions that reject human evolution and to perceive disagreements with religious leaders and other congregants if they were to change their beliefs. Moreover, creationists are more likely to spend their schooling in science classrooms that did not endorse evolution. Even if this is restricted to public high schools and universities, their science classroom experience is different from others. Put simply, creationists are embedded in networks and institutions that are more effective than the other groups in reinforcing the content and importance of their beliefs.

This is followed up by a section that situates these various beliefs about human origins in a broader intellectual context. The results tell us that the patterns are complex. Creationists are split in their thinking about evolution and the scientists who study it. While some think evolution is scientifically deficient and that scientists are biased in their beliefs, nearly equal numbers do not think these things. This suggests that there is a divide in some of the reasons why creationists reject evolution. Atheistic evolutionists, on the other hand, overwhelmingly believe that evolution is empirically factual and the same as any other form of scientific knowledge.

In one way, both creationists and atheistic evolutionists are the same. Majorities of both groups say that science and religion are ultimately incompatible. When science and religion conflict, one group favors religious ways of knowing (primarily a literal reading of scripture) and the other group favors scientific way of knowing (trusting the mainstream scientific establishment to provide accurate information). Only theistic evolutionists oppose this conflict model in any substantial number.

The remainder of the second part focuses on statistical models that predict who ends up being classified as a “confident” member of each group. These models, especially for creationists, demonstrate the power of social context combined with individual belief. In fact, every reliable pathway to creationism involves beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible as well belonging to congregations who have settled anti-evolution positions. Confident theistic evolutionists are harder to predict overall, suggesting there are numerous, idiosyncratic pathways not well captured by the types of measurements available in the NSRHO. Atheistic evolutionists are most likely to be found outside of institutionalized religion, have low regard for the authority of the Bible, do not regularly pray, and are predominately white. These various combinations of factors tend to lead to confident atheistic evolutionist views a disproportionately high percentage of the time. Lastly, the final section examines the factors that lead to a recent change in belief about human origins. Social context matters for this group as well, but in some ways that are different from creationists (families believe differently than them), and in some ways that are the same (they anticipate negative repercussions from family members for changing beliefs).

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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.