What Americans Think and Feel about Evolution

on June 13, 2014

Earlier this week Gallup released the results of its latest survey of Americans’ views on human evolution. The survey is interesting because it has been asking the same questions since 1982, so it tracks how views have changed over more than three decades. It looks like they haven’t changed much.

Lest you think that these numbers are colored by the question’s emphasis on human evolution (rather than the evolution of life in general), note that a Pew survey last winter found that Americans give very similar answers for animal evolution (63% accept it) and human evolution (60% accept it).

The Gallup survey shows that the young-earth creationist position (light green) has remained around 43% for decades, while the atheistic evolution position (medium green) has risen a bit and the “God guiding evolution” position (dark green) has dipped a bit in recent years. This and other surveys show that approval of young-earth creationism is strongly correlated with church attendance (the Pew survey breaks this down even further by faith affiliation). These results highlight the challenge that BioLogos is seeking to address, and we have a long way to go. But a single Gallup question does not tell the whole story.

A perennial challenge of these surveys is the complexity of issues around God and evolution, in which people hold many variations on the major viewpoints. For simplicity, the Gallup survey question forces respondents into one of the three camps, which masks important distinctions. For example, a commentator on the Gallup poll in The Atlantic saw the modest decline in the middle position—“Humans evolved, with God guiding”—as evidence that Intelligent Design is falling out of favor. But we’d need a much more nuanced survey to separate out those who believe there are gaps in the natural order of things that need constant intervention from a divine agent (the typical Intelligent Design position), and those who affirm that God set up a natural process and actively sustains it without needing to intervene miraculously to bring about his desired goals (the typical evolutionary creation position).

The standard survey question bundles together several ideas. Sociologist Jonathan Hill (Calvin College, supported by a BioLogos ECF grant) recently reported the results of his survey in a Christianity Today article. He broke down the creationist position into three simpler statements, all of which are typically understood to be part of it:

  • Humans did not evolve from other species.
  • God was involved in the creation of humans.
  • Humans were created within the last 10,000 years.

But when Americans are asked about each of these separately, only 14% agreed with all three—a far cry from the 42% in the Gallup poll that are lumped into the position.

Also, viewpoints are only part of the story. Another critical factor is attitudes. The standard Gallup question doesn’t ask how strongly people hold their positions. Some commentators forget this and write as if Americans are divided into extreme camps. When Hill gave respondents the option to say they were “unsure” rather than simply “agree/disagree,” many people openly said they are unsure. When he went further and asked people if it is personally important to them to hold the right view, only 25% of Americans agreed! In the end, he found that only 8% of Americans were convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and only 4% were convinced atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them. The vast majority of Americans are not sure of their position and are open to a conversation.

Another stereotype is that the human evolution question reflects the entire science-religion dialogue. One of the largest surveys to date (nearly 10,000 respondents) was released last February by sociologist Elaine Ecklund (Rice University, supported by the John Templeton Foundation) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ecklund asked respondents whether:

  • Science and religion can work in collaboration;
  • Science and religion are in conflict; or
  • Science and religion refer to different aspects of reality.

Although about 30% of people selected the conflict response, Evangelicals were actually more likely than the general public (48% to 38%) to see science and religion working in collaboration rather than referring to separate aspects of reality.

For us at BioLogos, the Gallup findings show in broad strokes the challenge we face. The young earth creationist position has persisted for decades and the atheistic evolution position has been increasing in recent years. Yet we are encouraged by hopeful signs: the vast majority of Americans are actually open to discussion about their views on evolution, and nearly half of Evangelicals see science as working in collaboration with religion. More and more people are interested in what BioLogos has to say—the number of unique visitors to the BioLogos website has doubled over the last year. We hear frequently from individuals whose lives have been changed as they discover another choice (#anotherchoice) besides young earth creationism and atheistic evolution (read Your Stories). Help us spread the word about the harmony between evolutionary creation and biblical faith.