Balancing Act with Human Origins

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A recent Gallup poll found the percentage of U.S. adults who believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, what Gallup called the strict creationist view, has reached a new low. They are now tied with those who believe God guided humans development over millions of years at 38%. “This is the first time since 1982 — when Gallup began asking this question using this wording — that belief in God’s direct creation of man has not been the outright most-common response.” The “secular” view—that humans evolved from lower life forms without any divine intervention—has doubled since 1982, from 9% to 19%.

Reflecting on the Gallup poll results, Deborah Haarsma said that while polls are not infallible, BioLogos was encouraged to see these trends took place during the years in which BioLogos has been at work. “Anecdotally, we are seeing more openness to discussing the scientific evidence for human origins in the context of biblical faith . . . While loud voices continue to push extreme positions on origins, either anti-science or anti-God, this study shows that many everyday Americans are open to a conversation that brings science and God together.” These results are illustrated in the following graph found in the Gallup poll, which was conducted at the beginning of May in 2017. The results suggested to her that those who changed their views from a strict creationist position adopted the “God guided” position on evolution.

Gallup concluded that higher education levels effected creation/evolution belief in a strict (young earth) creationist position. Among those with postgraduate education, 21% said they believed in a strict creationist view versus 48% among individuals with no more than a high school education. “Agreement with evolution without God’s involvement is 31% among postgrads versus 12% among Americans with a high school education or less.” See the Gallup poll link for a table containing these results.

Nevertheless, among individuals with a college degree or above, more believed God had a role in evolution than who said evolution occurred without God. Haarsma pointed out that sociologist Jonathan Hill concluded from his research (the National Study of Religion & Human Origins, NSRHO) that education level was not the primary influence on views of human origins. Rather than education, differences in positions on human origins are better attributed to the religious beliefs of groups the individual belongs to.

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.

The bottom line for the Gallup poll was that most Americans believe God had a role in creating human beings. “But fewer Americans today hold strict creationist views of the origins of humans than at any point in Gallup’s trend on the question, and it is no longer the single most popular of the three explanations.” However, strict (young earth) creationism is still tied for the leading view at 38% of the population.

But Jonathan Hill found when you tease out individual beliefs for strict creationists, only 8% affirm all six beliefs, namely: (a) humans did not evolve from other species, (b) that God was involved in the creation of humans, (c) that God created directly and miraculously, (d) that Adam and Eve were historical figures, (e) that the days of creation were literal twenty-four hour days, and (f) that humans came into existence within the last 10,000 years.

Additionally, when deconstructing respondents who hold to a theistic evolution perspective in the Gallup poll (38% said humans developed over millions of years with God guiding the process), Hill found that only 16% of respondents (a) believed in human evolution and (b) God or an intelligent force were somehow involved. Only half of this group was very or absolutely confident of both of these beliefs. When applying a stricter definition to this group, only 5% of the population (a) believed God was involved in human evolution, (b) the days of creation were not literal, and (c) humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago. Requiring certainty dropped the percentage to 2%. “It is clear that the theistic evolution position does not come with a high degree of confidence for much of the population.”

When asking how social factors influence beliefs in young earth or evolutionary creation beliefs, certain factors become important in predicting firm, certain belief. The factors having the largest influence on predicting who is a certain (young earth) creationist included: (a) belonging to an evangelical denomination, (b) reporting faith is important in day-to-day life, (c) frequent prayer, (d) believing the Bible is literal (with no symbolism) or the inspired Word of God (symbolism but no errors), (e) family members with the same belief about origins, (f) friends have the same beliefs about origins, (g) changing beliefs would cause disagreement with other congregants and religious leaders, (h) their congregation has a settled position that rejects evolution.

Important factors predicting confident, certain evolutionary creation beliefs included: (a) belonging to a mainline (versus an evangelical) Protestant church, (b) being Catholic versus evangelical Protestant), and (c) not believing the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God without errors.

Hill concluded that the social context of these beliefs is just as important as individual factors such as religious identity, practice and belief. “Social networks of family and friends, congregations, and schools all play a role.” Most important for strict creationists is the combination of certain religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about the Bible, and social contexts such as those related to a religious congregation. For individuals who believe human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, persuasion has to move beyond a purely intellectual level. Ideas consistent with evolutionary creation are only persuasive “when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them.”

There has been a tendency in evangelical Christian circles to see only two views with regards to human origins—creation or evolution. Data from the latest Gallup poll and the earlier NSRHO survey by Jonathan Hill suggests this rigid, and false dichotomy of views is changing. Consistent with these views on origins has been a parallel conflict thesis between science and religion, which also seems to be weakening.

In another article on a Pew study into religion and science, Hill pointed out the difficulty of holding onto a belief in the ultimate compatibility between science and faith, when you are not exactly sure how that compatibility should be realized. For now, it’s like balancing on a tightrope. But the decline in evangelicals who see an inherent conflict between their faith and science is an encouraging trend. But there is still a ways to go. See the NSRHO or “Did God Make You?” for more information and discussion on this topic. Also see the links for “Genesis & Creation” and “Religion & Science” on this website.


Did God Make You?

© : Cosmin-Constantin Sava 123RF.com

© : Cosmin-Constantin Sava 123RF.com

At the beginning of December in 2014, a BioLogos-funded study of the beliefs in human origins was publically released.  Jonathan Hill, a sociology professor at Calvin College, conducted the study: The National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO). The survey had two primary purposes. The first was to “disaggregate” (separate into component parts) the typical survey questions used in the past to assess beliefs on human origins. The second purpose was to look at the influence of social context on these beliefs. The result may surprise you.

Gallup polls on evolution have been asking Americans which of three statements come closest to their beliefs on the origin and development of human beings for a number of years. Those positions and the percentages of Americans identified within the 2014 Gallup poll are as follows. First, human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process (31%). Second, human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process (19%). And third, God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so (42%).

As Jonathan Hill pointed out, if we categorize these results into “pro” and “anti” evolution camps, “it appears that nearly half the nation affirms evolution and nearly half denies it.” These statistics have then been used by a variety of sources for commentaries on evolution and creationism. But if such a large percentage of Americans continue to deny evolution, “then why do Americans score near the top on international comparisons of science literacy?”

He suggested that a better picture of beliefs about evolution was needed. So the NSRHO included separate questions on human evolution, God’s involvement, the way God created, the existence of a historical Adam and Eve, belief in literal 24-hour days of creation, and the geological timeframe for the emergence or creation of humans. Respondents could also say they were not sure about any particular question. And after each question they were asked to rate their level of certainty.

When a position affirming the main points of young earth creationism is assessed, namely that: a) that humans did not evolve from other species, b) that God was involved in the creation of humans, c) that God created directly and miraculously, d) that Adam and Eve were historical figures, e) that the days of creation were literal twenty-four hour day, and f) that humans came into existence within the last 10,000 years, only 8% of respondents agreed with all the main points of young earth creationism. Note how this contrasts with the Gallup “young earth” creationist category claiming 42% of Americans held that belief.

Taking a broad sense of theistic evolution, namely that respondents believed in human evolution and that God (or an intelligent force) was somehow involved in the creation of humans, only 16% of the population could be placed in that category. Additionally, only half of that group (8%) was very or absolutely certain of both of these beliefs. When a stricter definition is used, only 5% of the population claimed that a) humans evolved, b) God was involved, c) the days of creation were not literal, and d) humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago.  If certainty on all these points was required, the percentage dropped to only 2% of the population. The Gallup poll category suggested 31% of Americans were “theistic evolutionists.”

Atheistic evolutionists, respondents who believed that humans evolved and God was not involved in the process, were around 9% of the population. Like theistic evolutionists, this group was about half the size of the comparable category from the Gallup poll. If a measure of certainty is included, only 6% of the population said they were very or absolutely certain that humans evolved and God was not involved in the process. The way that the NSRHO defined “atheistic evolutionist,” meant that someone could believe in God or an Intelligent force in the universe, but still hold to the two core beliefs of atheistic evolution.

By separating the beliefs in this way, much smaller proportions of the population were found to hold to the dominant positions on human origins. Many others were uncertain about what they believed or held uncommon beliefs (i.e., humans did not evolve from earlier species, and God had nothing to do with the emergence of humans).

Using the most generous definitions, the NSRHO finds that 37 percent of the population can be considered creationists, 16 percent can be considered theistic evolutionists, and nine percent can be considered atheistic evolutionists. This leaves 39 percent of the population as unsure or holding uncommon views . . . . If we adopt more restrictive definitions, these numbers begin to shrink further.

These results gave a more nuanced sense to the typical polls on American beliefs in evolution. In “The Recipe for Creationism,” a BioLogos article introducing the NSRHO study, Jonathan Hill described some of the factors that seemed be important for influencing a convinced creationist. These factors were: a) belonging to an evangelical Protestant denomination, b) believing that the Bible contained no errors, c) praying frequently and d) saying that faith was very or extremely important in day-to-day life. Some factors of social context were also important for convinced creationists. They were: a) belonging to a congregation that rejected human evolution and b) anticipating that changing beliefs about human origins could cause tension with religious leaders and other church members.

You can review the NSRHO for more information on the influence of social context on the various positions. But the most important takeaway, according to Hill, is that individual 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.” They are not mashed together from the free-floating ideas put together 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).”

I had an opportunity about twenty years ago to see a play put on by a local theater company in Dayton Tennessee, where the Scopes Monkey Trail was held. They performed it in the very same courtroom where the original trial was held. They also used several artifacts from the original trial as props for the play. The dialogue in the script for the play was overwhelmingly taken from the transcript from the trial. It was a special experience, feeling a bit like being able to be present at an important time in history.

It saddens me to see the perpetuation of fanaticism on both extremes of the evolution-creation debate. Particularly when Christians who are trying to honor their faith get caught up in spewing vitriol about positions that disagree with theirs. So I’d like to end this look at the BioLogos survey with a quotation of Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the defense attorney for Scopes at the trial.

Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind. (Clarence Darrow, July 13, 1925)