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Jonathan P. Hill
 on December 02, 2014

The Recipe For Creationism

How does social context affect what Americans believe about science and religion, especially in regards to human origins?


Since May 2013, Jonathan Hill, professor of sociology at Calvin College, has been working on a BioLogos-funded study of the beliefs of Americans on issues of human origins. Last February Christianity Today published an article in which he described some of his preliminary results. Last week, The Atlantic published a commentary by Emma Green on his completed research. Today, we are proud to publicly release the results of this important project. We encourage our readers to browse the full report, but in what follows Jonathan has written a summary of the main findings of his project.

Download Full Report (PDF

The public rhetoric about science and faith leads many to believe that America is largely divided between two shrill options. However, Americans are not as divided over the issue of human origins as some of the frequently cited surveys and polls seem to suggest. When we carefully define the various possible positions, and measure the certainty with which they are held, both anti-evolution creationists and atheistic evolutionists turn out to be very small proportions of the total population.

While this is important to know, it does not get us any closer to understanding why some people are drawn to certain positions and others are not. What social factors are associated with identifying as a creationist or an atheistic evolutionist? Some of the answers are fairly intuitive. As we might expect, creationists hold to strong and particular beliefs about the authority of Scripture, and atheistic evolutionists believe in the superiority of science against what they see as superstitious and irrational beliefs that emanate from religion.

These are at least partially correct accounts, but they ignore the social context of these beliefs. All of us, no matter what our beliefs about human origins, are situated in groups of family and friends, organizations (work, school, church, etc.), and collections of various social identities (religious affiliation, racial/ethnic identity, gender, social class, generation, political identification, etc.). Despite this, we commonly draw direct lines from certain theological commitments to positions on human origins. But is this actually a good model for understanding why some people believe what they do?

With support from an Evolution & Christian Faith grant, I conducted a nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults. This study, in addition to trying to parse the various positions on human origins, includes the tools to map the social context of these beliefs. Numerous questions about family, friends, religious congregation, and education were included to try to assess if they had an impact on beliefs about human origins.

Let’s begin with the creationists who are certain of their beliefs. In this case, creationists can be defined as those who reject human evolution and believe God created humans (asked as two separate survey questions). About 29 percent of the population affirms both of these and claims they are certain of their positions. It’s important to note that once we add in additional requirements about how God created, and especially once we try to identify the timeframe to separate out young earth and old earth creationists, this percentage shrinks very quickly.

What predicts landing in this group? Many things, actually. Nearly every measure of religion in the survey matters. Nearly every measure of friends, family, and religious congregation matters. Even political affiliation, the region of the country where one lives, education level, income and marital status are all significant (and many are substantial) predictors. To help us sort through all of these influences we can use a statistical technique that isolates the unique effect of each individual measure while simultaneously controlling for all of the measures. This gives us a short list of just a few factors that seem to directly influence being a convinced creationist. It’s not that other factors are irrelevant, it’s just that they indirectly impact being a creationist by influencing these direct factors.

The following individual religious measures belong to this short list of direct factors:

  • Belonging to an evangelical Protestant denomination
  • A belief that the Bible contains no errors
  • Praying frequently
  • Saying that faith is very or extremely important in day-to-day life

Apart from these, some factors of social context are also important:

  • Saying that faith is very or extremely important in day-to-day life
  • Belonging to a religious congregation that rejects human evolution
  • Anticipating that changing beliefs about human origins would cause tension with religious leaders and other church members

This type of model relies on every predictor competing with other predictors to best account for the outcomes. It is a good way to sort through what is directly associated with being a creationist and what is only indirectly or spuriously related. However, in the real world, characteristics, beliefs, and behaviors never compete like this. Individuals embody multiple factors simultaneously, and it is quite likely that these factors work together in complex ways that lead to beliefs about human origins.

Through yet another technique, we can identify the most dominant “recipes” for identifying as a convinced creationist using the most dominant measures above. When we do this, we find five distinct ones, involving five to six measures in combination, which end up leading to identifying as a convinced creationist between 91 and 96 percent of the time. Because of space constraints, I won’t go through these in detail. Rather, let me emphasize just a few highlights.

The two factors that are part of every pathway are beliefs about the Bible and belonging to a religious congregation that has a settled position rejecting human evolution. In fact, just these two factors together will produce a convinced creationist 81 percent of the time (compared to only 38 percent of the time if someone has the same Bible beliefs but attends a congregation that has no firm position on human evolution). The social pressure from the congregation appears in four out of the five recipes, and having family that believes the same thing about origins is in three out of the five. This goes to show that intersection of certain beliefs with certain contexts is the only sure-fire way to lead to a certain creationist position.

What about the atheistic evolutionists who are certain of their beliefs? It’s important to clarify that these are not necessarily all atheists or agnostics (less than half directly identify as such), this simply means that they accept human evolution and believe God had nothing to do with it. Those who hold these beliefs, and are certain about this, make up about six percent of the population. If we look at the direct factors that matter in the model that simultaneously controls for all variables, the following end up being most important:

  • Not having a religious identity (including those who identify as atheist or agnostic)
  • Praying infrequently
  • Belief that the Bible contains at least some errors
  • Not identifying as a political conservative
  • White ethnicity

When we use the same technique, we essentially find only one pathway to becoming a convinced atheistic evolutionist. This pathway involves all of the previous factors with the exception of the political identity. Although this only results in landing in this category about human origins 38 percent of the time, it is far and away the most reliable pathway (it is important to remember that they make up such a small percentage of the population to begin with). For example, using the first three factors for non-whites produces certain atheistic evolutionists only 17 percent of the time.

What are we to make of all of this? The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

One final note: Those who accept human evolution and believe God is involved in this process (those closest to the evolutionary creationist view that BioLogos endorses), are exceedingly hard to predict using various statistical models. Members of this group who are confident in their beliefs, a mere eight percent of the population, arrive at their position in idiosyncratic ways that aren’t easily captured by the types of measures available in this survey. Still, for those who want to promote ideas of evolutionary creationism this can be instructive. We do know what tends to shut down openness to evolutionary creationism. Ideas promoting evolutionary creationism are not likely to shift the perspective of many without attending to the issues of social context highlighted here. Strategies, for example, that open up space in congregations to have conversations about human origins without endorsing a settled position could go far to allowing Christians to entertain ideas that once seemed implausible. This is not easy work, but the importance of attending to theological issues in their sociological context should not be underestimated.

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.