In a recent survey conducted by Newman University and YouGov, researchers discovered some surprising facts about British and Canadian attitudes toward evolution and religious belief. While many in the science-and-religion field have been saying for years that evolution and Christianity are compatible, this research goes beyond theoretical compatibility to reveal that a majority of religious individuals in some countries (e.g. the UK) have little trouble incorporating evolutionary science into their belief frameworks. Indeed, there are several noteworthy findings that directly challenge the popular American “faith vs. evolution” dichotomy:
1. Of those surveyed, most found it easy to accommodate evolution into their own beliefs.
The vast majority of British and Canadian respondents accept evolutionary science – 71% in the UK and 60% in Canada – and more than this, 64% of British respondents (and 50% of Canadians) not only accept evolutionary science, but find it very easy, easy, or somewhat easy to do so! Perhaps more surprising is that even those identifying as religious or spiritual were far more likely to easily accept evolution than to find it difficult to accept – only 19% of religious or spiritual British respondents and 29% of their Canadian counterparts find it difficult to make evolution fit with their personal beliefs. This is striking, as the dominant narrative surrounding religion and evolution has often involved overt conflict.
If the “religion vs. science” story is to be believed, one would think that being a person of faith is incompatible with the acceptance of evolutionary science. At the very least, one would be forgiven for assuming that it is always extremely difficult to make evolution fit with a religious worldview – that one must do quasi-dishonest “intellectual gymnastics” in order to believe in both evolution and a Creator. And yet, it seems that for many religious individuals, faith and evolution have not been presented as a binary, forcing people to make a choice between two worldviews or sets of facts. On the contrary, an outright majority of religious Britons (53%) actually find it easy to marry evolution with their beliefs. This is significant, if for no other reason than it offers a clear, lived alternative to the more contentious situation in the US, where many Christians find it easy to reject evolutionary science altogether.
2. “Creationism” is a misnomer.
What does it mean to be a creationist? If the term is taken literally to indicate someone who believes that God created the world, then clearly creationism is not incompatible with evolution: 39% of religious or spiritual Britons believe that humans evolved over time in a process guided by God, and a further 24% have no problem accepting evolution without God’s involvement. Of course, “creationism” is generally taken to indicate a version of creation in which God created humans in their current form about 10,000 years ago. According to this survey, however, only 16% of religious or spiritual respondents in the UK (and only 9% of the overall population) believe in this version of creationism. Given these numbers, it is perhaps surprising that creationism retains such a hold on the public imagination – actual religious believers (at least in the UK) are far more likely to accept human evolution than what is typically taken as the “creationist” position.
These numbers also highlight a significant problem with the creationism/evolution dichotomy: there are many, many religious individuals who believe that God created the world (including humans) through evolution. Conflict narratives may sell well, but a more nuanced public awareness of the possibilities for seeing God in evolution is sorely needed.
3. People may doubt evolution, but it’s often not because of their religious beliefs.
This is surprising. It is very rare to hear debates about evolution that don’t ostensibly boil down to religious beliefs. But the data depicts a very different story: 1 in 5 UK atheists (19%) do not think evolution can explain human consciousness (compared to 54% of the religious respondents), and more than 1 in 10 UK atheists doubt that evolution can explain the origin of humans (compared to 37% of religious respondents). This is admittedly surprising, as it has been basically taken for granted that a rejection of evolution is largely due to religious commitments. However, it seems that evolutionary science is touching on something common to all humans: a difficulty in accepting that science can wholly define and explain everything that makes us us. It may be one thing to accept evolution as an explanation for, say, plant and animal development, but another thing entirely to accept that my wildly complex and subjective inner experience is wholly explainable in the terms of brute natural selection.
On one hand, this data surely suggests that scientists have their work cut out for them – not only in providing further explanatory details regarding human evolution, but also in communicating the persuasiveness of evolutionary science to a doubting public who experiences itself as, frankly, exceptional. On the other hand, however, this data further highlights that whether or not one accepts evolution is not always (or even often) merely a question of religious beliefs. Just as being a religious believer does not mean that one will (or should) reject evolutionary science, neither do one’s concerns about evolution always stem from a religious commitment. Religious commitments or scriptural interpretations may amplify doubts about evolution, but are clearly not wholly responsible for them. These doubts could well be honest questions, representing an understandable apprehension about one’s experience of what it means to be human.
4. America’s religious discomfort with evolution may be quantifiably unnecessary.
It is striking to note how different is the science-and-religion ‘scene’ in the UK and Canada than in the US. A 2014 Gallup poll showed that a full 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years. Compare this to the mere 9% of the UK population (and only 16% of religious or spiritual Britons) who believe that humans were created by God and have always existed in their current form – that is, that humans did not evolve. This is a remarkable difference, given the many points of cultural, religious, and historical confluence across these countries. The position of Canada makes this even more fascinating. As a geographical and cultural neighbor of the US, but much more British in politics and culture, Canada exhibits attitudes toward evolution falling somewhere between those of the US and the UK.
The causes of these differences between British and American receptivity toward evolutionary science would be a fascinating research topic. Of immediate interest, though, is the observable fact that one’s religious orientation need not be determinative of one’s acceptance of evolution (or lack thereof). It seems the common US perception that “religion” and “evolution” are in conflict may be a cultural construction rather than an inevitable divide. Religious individuals in the UK and Canada are living proof that not all believers feel the need to choose between God and evolution.
All this data may seem quite clinical or abstract, but it corresponds to the lived realities of actual human beings. I am an American, born in the midwest, and I spent the first part of my life in an extremely conservative evangelical church and community. It would be difficult to overstate just how much I feared evolution when I was growing up. Evolution was discussed only as a pseudo-scientific hypothesis whose advocates were deliberately attempting to destroy my faith. Fast forward to today: I now live in the UK (Scotland, to be precise), and spend my days largely surrounded by people of faith. And the “shocking” thing is that these people of faith, for the most part, have no problem at all with accepting evolutionary science. In fact, it is often not even discussed as a problematic aspect of the relationship between faith and the wider culture (scientific and otherwise). Rather, it is assumed that engagement with science leads to a deeper understanding of reality, of which God is the creator.
This difference between the American and UK science-and-religion climates is continually fascinating to me. We could get into endless debates about the specific sociocultural reasons for these differences, but I will conclude with one observation that may suggest a way forward for the US context. I can’t help but notice that many in the US context are extremely wary of uncertainty, and the need for certainty is built into the very fabric of certain faith communities. On the contrary, the community of faith of which I’m now a part explicitly embraces uncertainty, as well as the spirit of excitement that so often attends scientific discovery and theorizing. In other words, I’ve noticed that it is possible to approach evolutionary science with a spirit of curiosity, wonder, and exploration—and a certain level of trust that the process of seeking knowledge of creation is fundamentally good.