02/7/17

No Contest; No Victory

photo of the Scopes Trial; Clarence Darrow and the defense team.

A few years ago Rachael Gross wrote an article for Slate entitled: “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” She noted how few issues have divided Americans as bitterly as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. She thought it was “woeful” that “the majority of people in Europe and in many other parts of the world accept evolution,” while 4 in 10 adult Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Evolutionary theory does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is supported by findings in geology, paleontology, biomedicine, and other fields. “If we want to be a nation of politically and scientifically literate and informed people, then we have to teach good science—and that starts with evolution.”

But we need to ask what kind of evolution and what kind of creationism she means. Is it evolution that occurred entirely through natural processes or did a supreme being use evolution to bring about and develop nature? There also should be a consistent distinction between individuals who hold that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning (PFB) from those who believe in evolution guided by a supreme being (ESB), and those who affirm humans evolved by natural processes (ENP). Gross also cited two polls in her discussion. Although each poll used a different construct to describe what they meant by “creationism,” she did not point out the differences between them.

One poll was by Gallup and one was by the Pew Research Center. When Gross discussed changes since 2009 in the Pew surveys, the 2009 data can be found here. The Pew 2014 poll looking at evolution did not break down all the age groups by the three categories on origins. But it did report that US adults overall were as follows: 31% said humans existed in their present form from the beginning (PFB); 24% believed their evolution was guided by a supreme being (ESB); and 35% believed evolution occurred from a natural process (ENP). When looking at individuals between the ages of 18-29 in 2009 and 2014 from the Pew polls, on their views of human origins, we get the following data.

So there is evidence suggesting younger American adults are adjusting their position on human origins to the secular evolution position. But when Gross said that 73% of US adults under 30 believe in some kind of evolution, she combined believers in evolution through natural processes, or secular evolution, with those who believed in evolution through a supreme being. There is a significant philosophical gap between the action of a supreme being creating human beings, either through evolution or as fully formed individuals, and humans evolving through an entirely natural process without the action of a supreme being. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” on this website for more on this difference.

Within the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 73% of individuals between the ages of 18-29 were fairly certain or absolutely certain there was a God; another 8% believed in God, but were not too certain of that belief; and 19% did not believe in God or did not know if they believed in God. So there would seem to be a large portion of 18 to 29 year old individuals (perhaps 32%) who believed in God and who also believed in natural evolution. I don’t think they should be referred to as necessarily gravitating towards secular evolution. If their belief in God holds, a category like deistic evolution would seem to better describe them.  The category of individuals who believe God created through evolution, ESB, also has the potential to grow larger as views on human origins shift. It is not an inevitable transition to an entirely secular sense of evolution as the older group of people believing humans existed in their present form from the beginning die off.

The Gallup poll Rachel Gross mentioned added a further distinction to the humans created in their present form by adding that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This position on human origins would be consistent with a group of Christian believers known as young earth creationists (YEC), which hold that all things were created within the 10,000-year timeframe. However, there is a necessary distinction between YEC and PFB—humans existed in their present form since the beginning—if the beginning of the heavens and earth was billions of years ago, and the creation of beginning of humans was significantly longer than 10,000 years ago. This position is what Denis Lamoureux and others have referred to as progressive creationism. See his web lectures in “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate,” particularly “Views on the Origin of Universe & Life.”

But an option consistent with a progressive creationist position of human origins was not offered in the Gallup poll—or in any other poll on human origins that I am aware of. The Gallup poll has been asking the same three-part question about human origins, given as follows, since 1982:

Which of the following statements comes closest to you views on the origin and development of human beings? 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided this process. 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God has no part in this process. 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

The Gallup and the Pew polls implicitly include the evolution—creation dichotomy in the structure of their questions. In both surveys there are two evolutionary positions and one creationist position. The Pew questions more accurately focused on the flash point issue of human evolution, while the Gallup poll collapses the age of the earth variable—held only by young earth creationists—into their creationist position. Not surprisingly, the percentages between the two polls show some differences. The following Gallup chart illustrates the results on the issue dating back to 1982.

As a result, a creation-evolution dichotomy is perpetuated. Arguing that Christians need to choose between science and religion has become entrenched in the dispute since the Scopes Trial. And “fundamentalists” are as much to blame as those holding to a secular or godless sense of evolution. Ironically, William Jennings Bryan held and publicly affirmed a human origins position consistent with what I’ve identified here as progressive creation. He saw Darwinism as a dangerous idea because he thought people would lose their consciousness of God’s presence in their daily lives.

In a speech he first gave in 1904, “Prince of Peace,” Bryan said he had a right to assume a Creator back of the creation. “And no matter how long you draw out the process of creation, so long as God stands back of it you cannot shake my faith in Jehovah.” In Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson commented how this allowed for an extended geologic history and even for a kind of theistic evolution. But Bryan “dug in his heels” regarding the supernatural creation of humans. He saw it as “one of the test questions of the Christian.”

I do not carry the doctrine of evolution as far as some do; I am not yet convinced that man is a lineal descendent of the lower animals. I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory; all I mean to say is that while you may trace your ancestry back to the monkey if you find pleasure or pride in doing so, you shall not connect me with your family tree without more evidence than has yet been produced.

He concluded his speech by saying that one of the reasons he objected to the theory of evolution was because if man was linked to the monkey, it became an important question whether humanity was going towards the monkey or coming away from him. “I do not know of any argument that may be used to prove man is an improved monkey that may not be used just as well to prove that the monkey is a degenerate man, and the latter theory is more plausible than the former.” You can listen to a vocal dramatization of his speech here on YouTube; there is a text only copy here. There are content differences between the two because Bryan gave the speech repeatedly over the years. The given quotes are from the text of the oral YouTube version of “Prince of Peace.”

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate in 2014 had neither the historical significance nor the drama of the Scopes Trial. But it does illustrate how times have changed and how, rightly or wrongly, the young earth creationist position on human origins, represented by Ken Ham, has become identified as the default view of biblical Christians. You can watch a video on the debate here.

An NPR article, “Who ‘Won’ the Creation vs. Evolution Debate?,” noted the live online debate drew 500,000 viewers at one point. By the middle of November in 2016, the YouTube video had over 5,700,000 views. Britain’s Christian Today website took a poll on who “won” the debate and had 42,567 responses. Ninety two percent thought Bill Nye won, while only 8 percent thought Ken Ham won. Michael Schulson, writing for The Daily Beast, thought Nye’s willingness to engage Ham in a debate threatened to reduce substantive issues to mere spectacle.

The televangelist Pat Robertson thought Ken Ham made a mockery out of Christians. Quoted in The Christian Post, Robertson said he was able to find his faith in the evolutionary process itself. “I don’t believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic. I believe that God started it all and he’s in charge of all of it. The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control. That doesn’t hurt my faith at all.” You can watch a short video of Robertson’s views on The Christian Post link. Robertson further said: “Let’s be real; let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

A little over a month after the Scopes Trial concluded, Clarence Darrow wrote to H. L. Mencken, one of the reporters who covered the Scopes Trial: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he [Bryan] was and I succeeded.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Christians believing in creation are still seen and portrayed as ignoramuses. The Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal made the following comment about the infamous exchange between Darrow and Bryan in the Scopes Trial:

It was not a contest. Consequently there was no victory. Darrow succeeded in showing that Bryan knows little about the science of the world. Bryan succeeded in bearing witness bravely to the faith which he believes transcends all the learning of men.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

10/14/16

Diluted Evangelicalism

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© MiroNovak | stockfresh.com

The last twelve months have brought home to me the incredibly diluted sense that the term “evangelical” now holds. The political Twilight Zone of our current presidential race played a central role in that realization. The confluence of presidential politics and evangelicalism led me to see that many so-called American evangelicals are what a CNN Religion Editor, Daniel Burke, labeled as “cultural evangelicals.”

Burke described seven types of evangelicals that ranged from the “old guard” of James Dobson, Tony Perkins and John Hagee, to the “entrepreneurial evangelicals” of Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and Jerry Falwell Jr; and of course the cultural evangelicals (CEs). This last category consists, according to Burke, of individuals raised as Christian, but who don’t attend church or consider religion to be important in their lives. Yet when pollsters ask about their faith, they say they are evangelical. Tellingly, Burke commented how CEs don’t seem dismayed with Trump referring to communion as “his little cracker” or when he could not name a favorite Scripture verse.

During a speech he made at Liberty University in January of 2016, Trump said “2 Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” He made his biblical ignorance worse by blaming his misstep on Tony Perkins. “Tony Perkins wrote that out for me — he actually wrote out 2, he wrote out the number 2 Corinthians. . . . I took exactly what Tony said, and I said, ‘Well Tony has to know better than anybody.’” Perkins admitted he did exactly as Trump said. Then he remarked how this showed Trump was not familiar with the Bible.

Not surprisingly, in a Pew Research poll on Faith and the 2016 Campaign done in January of 2016, Trump was seen as the least religious of all the candidates. Although conventional wisdom says someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States, both Clinton and Trump were among the three presidential candidates seen as the least religious in the Pew poll. Bernie Sanders was the third least religious candidate. The number of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person is sharply higher than when she was seeking the nomination in 2007.

The new survey confirms that being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have, with 51% of adults saying they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Indeed, in the eyes of the public, being a nonbeliever remains a bigger drawback than having had an extramarital affair (37% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had been unfaithful), having had personal financial troubles (41% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had had financial struggles), or having used marijuana in the past (20% would be less likely to support a former pot smoker).

Another Pew Research poll (Evangelicals Rally to Trump) published in July of 2016, as Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate, indicated that 78% of white evangelicals would vote for Trump, including almost a third who strongly backed his campaign. And yet, many evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore, Max Lucado, and Erick Erickson, have said that supporting Trump for president in incompatible with evangelical principles and beliefs. Erickson said he would not vote for Trump. Ever. “Donald Trump has had no ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. He only wants to date the preachers’ daughter.”

There were no differences between evangelicals who say they attend religious services regularly (weekly or more) and those who attend less often. “Fully three-quarters of both groups say they would vote for Trump over Clinton.”

In his article for The Washington Post, Thomas Kidd suggested that what is going on is “a watering-down and politicization of the term ‘evangelical.’” He said that in American pop culture, evangelical now means “whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.” Historically, early evangelical leaders like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards were fighting against the idea that Christianity was mostly cultural or political. “Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening of the 18th century preached against the idea of an in-name-only affiliation, declaring you must be born again.”

He proposed three factors that have helped accelerate the corruption of the term evangelical since the 1980s. First was the success of the evangelical movement. In the 1800s, evangelicalism became the de facto religion in many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid 1900s many Americans grew up supposing they were evangelicals, because the term seemed equivalent to that of Protestant and even “American.” This cultural environment meant people “were now born an evangelical, not born-again as one.”

Second, in the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicals began drifting away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, like Jimmy Carter. This came to a head with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues such as school prayer and abortion.” From that time on, self-identified white evangelicals seemed satisfied with candidates who learned the lingo and promised good Supreme Court appointments. “This meant that the public could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.”

The third issue and the most serious one in understanding “evangelical” political behavior is in letting respondents define their own religious affiliation. One example he pointed to was the evidence suggesting that evangelicals who did not attend church were likely to support Trump. “For those who have a deeper understanding of the term’s historic meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical.” African American, Hispanic and other evangelicals of color are often excluded because of how the term evangelical has been associated with being white and Republican.

These vague associations have turned “evangelical” into a term that luminaries like Edwards and Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.

Cultural evangelicals are not true evangelicals. But then what is an evangelical? The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College observed how the term “evangelicalism” is a wide canopy that covers a diverse number of mostly Protestant traditions. Originally adapted by Martin Luther as the name of his movement, in the English-speaking world, it describes the religious movements that were associated with a series of revivals in America and England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

By the 1820s, evangelical Protestantism was the dominant expression of Christianity in the U.S. Historian Martin Marty referred to a largely-evangelical “Benevolent Empire” that attempted the reshape American society in the decades before the Civil War. Cultural hegemony began to diminish after the war as American society changed from urbanization, industrialization and immigration. Millions of non-Protestant immigrants also came to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Nonetheless, evangelical Protestantism remained a powerful presence within American culture (as evidenced by the success of evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday). Going into the 20th century evangelicalism still held the status of a pervasive American “folk religion” in many sectors of the United States, particularly the South and certain areas of the Midwest.

Today, there are three ways in which the term evangelical is used. The first is to see evangelicals as all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practices. British historian David Bebbington identified four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: 1) conversionism, 2) activism, 3) Biblicism and 4) crucicentrism. Conversionism means there has to be a change in how the person lives. Activism means effort is made to express the gospel. Biblicism has to do with a particular regard for the Bible. And crucicentrism means you stress the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Criticisms of Bebbington’s approach see his categories as too broad and inclusive. Yet it has become the baseline used by most scholars. Refer also to the work of the Barna Group or my discussion of it within “What is an Evangelical?

A second sense is to see evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Here, evangelical denotes both a style and a set of beliefs; an attitude which insiders “know” and “feel” when they encounter it.

A third sense came from a coalition of individuals and organizations that arose during the Second World War. Individuals like Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga; and organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals played “a pivotal role in giving the aider movement a sense of cohesion” to the movement as a reaction against the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) also reviewed Bebbington’s summary of evangelical distinctives. They indicated evangelicals were a diverse group that cut across denominations, churches and nations. “Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.” There is a link to the NAE Statement of Faith on their website linked above.

The NAE commented how evangelicals are often the target of research. But the outcomes vary because of the differences in how evangelicals are identified by the researchers. Along with LifeWay Research, the NAE developed a tool as a consistent standard for evangelical belief.  Respondents must strongly agree with the following four statements to be categorized as an evangelical:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

When evangelicals are self-described, then someone who would refer to Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians as “2 Corinthians” could easily say he was an evangelical, and have his responses in the research codified as “evangelical.”  A true evangelical is something more than just a person who is considered to be an evangelical just because he or she says they are. Evangelicals need to self-consciously work against the watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical.” We have to remember that the term comes originally from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” When we dilute the meaning of evangelicalism, aren’t we in danger of diluting the gospel itself? Remember that a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization does not save.

07/10/15

American Christianity is Evolving

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© ribah | stockfresh.com

The Pew Research Center recently released its new Religious Landscape study and it seems to have stimulated differing opinions on the status of Christianity in America. CNN reported that Millennials are leaving the church in droves. Ryan Bell, the former Seventh Day Adventist minister who took a year off (and counting) from belief in God, titled his article: “American Christians Scramble for Silver Lining in Pew Religion Poll.” But evangelicals like Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition and Ed Stetzer, a contributing editor for Christianity Today had a different take on the Pew Religious Landscape study.

Daniel Burke, the CNN Religion Editor highlighted the finding that the percentage of the Americans saying they were Christian dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.4% in 2014. This was attributed by the Pew Research Center to the fact that more millennials are saying they are not affiliated with any faith. Thirty-six percent of younger millennials (18-24) identified as unaffiliated as 34% of older millennials (25-33). Twenty-three percent of Gen Xers (34-49), 17% of Baby Boomers (50-68) and 11% of the Silent Generation (69-86) were reportedly unaffiliated.

Burke pointed to how almost every major branch of Christianity lost a significant number of members. Greg Smith, from Pew Research, was quoted as saying: “We’ve known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades . . . But the pace at which they’ve continued to grow is really astounding.” The declines were deepest among Catholics and mainline Protestants. Burke’s conclusion was that the older generations were not as effective in passing along their faith as their forebears were.

Ryan Bell simply concluded: “Americans are losing their religion.” He noted the surprising increase among nones (religiously unaffiliated) to 22.8% of the population. He cautioned that atheists who celebrated these results as a victory were being too enthusiastic. Of the 22.8%, 4.0% said they were agnostic (a 1.6% increase since 2007), 3.1% said they were atheist  (a 1.5% increase since 2007) and 15.8% said they were “nothing in particulars” (a 3.7% increase since 2007).

Several analyses of the Pew study have focused on the dramatic increase in the “unaffiliated” or “religious nones.” But look at what Pew Research means by “nones.” They are generally less religiously observant, but all nones are not nonbelievers. “In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.” A better statement would seem to be that “Americans are losing their religious affiliation.” But this doesn’t appear to be happening with evangelicals. The Pew Research Center said:

The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition—including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations—now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

Bell didn’t seem to think much of the fact that there was only a minor decrease (-.9%) in the percentage of individuals saying they were evangelical, from 26.3% in 2007 to 25.4% in 2014.  He pointed to how 35% of childhood evangelicals left their faith as adults. But Bell neglected to say that 41% of evangelicals were converts from other faith groups. This meant evangelicals were the only Christian faith group that gained, rather than lost members as their children grew to adulthood. However, he was correct to say that most of the Catholics or mainline Protestants leaving their faith group are becoming unaffiliated and not evangelicals. Among adults with no religious affiliation, 28% are former Catholics and 21% are former mainline Protestants.

The unaffiliated religious group was the most fluid over time, with only 21% of individuals currently identifying as such being raised within that tradition, while 90% of Catholics were raised as Catholics. Mainline Protestants and evangelicals were in-between with 42% and 39% respectively having been raised in religious groups other than their current identification.

Joe Carter concentrated his response on what he saw as the important “takeaways” related to evangelicalism. He said claims that conservative forms of evangelicalism are rapidly declining because of pernicious sexism, religious intolerance and conservative politics don’t seem to be true. He wondered whether this new information would be enough to lead critics of evangelicalism to alter their conclusions. Among the important takeaways he pointed to were a few we’ve already touched on, namely: evangelical Protestants have increased slightly or remained essentially unchanged while mainline Protestants declined significantly. He also noted that 65% of adults raised as evangelicals still identify as evangelicals. But there were a couple of additional interesting facts about evangelicals to look at as well.

One of these was how racial and ethnic minorities now make up 24% of evangelicals. This was an increase of 5% since 2007, with most of that increase (4%) coming from Hispanics. Another finding is that more Americans who self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual say they are evangelical (13%) than mainline (11%), atheist (8%), or agnostic (9%). Only Catholics had more individuals (17%) who self-indentified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Among non-Christians, the four primary faith groups had very few individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual: Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%), Buddhist (2%), Hindu (1%).

As a quick aside, among individuals who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, 41% said they were religiously unaffiliated—8% said they were atheist; 9% were agnostic; and 24% were nothing in particular.

Ed Stezer has written several articles about the Pew Research Center data, for Christianity Today and other media outlets, including USA Today, CNN and The Washington Post.  The link here for “Nominals to Nones” gives you access his other articles. Stezer made a distinction between three categories of Christians: cultural, congregational and convictional. He said the first two were nominal Christians who said they were Christian, but did not attend church services regularly or shape their lives around their faith convictions, as convictional Christians did. Cultural Christians were the least connected, calling themselves “Christian” because of heritage or culture. Congregational Christians had a connection to a local church, but rarely attended.

He said we see cultural and some congregational Christians now identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” or “nones.” Stezer supported this conclusion with a quote by Conrad Hackett, from Pew Research, “People with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to indentify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have indentified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.” In his CNN article, he looked at data from the General Social Survey (GSS) that suggested what we are seeing the death of is cultural and congregational Christians.

So, the big story is this: convictional Christians are remaining relatively steady with a slight decline. The nominals (cultural and congregational Christians) are often becoming the nones; and the sky is just not falling (unless you are a mainline Protestant).

His 3 key takeaways from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey were: convictional Christianity is rather steady; there have been significant shifts in American Christianity; and mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage. He said Christianity isn’t dying, but it is evolving. It’s becoming less nominal, more defined and more outside mainstream American culture. So we don’t need to run around saying, “The sky is falling!”

Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.

06/30/14

Is Legalizing Reefer Madness?

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image credit: iStock

The Pew Research Center found that for the first time since 1969, more Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana (52%) than those who oppose it (45%). The change started after 1991, when 78% of Americans opposed legalization and merely 17% supported it. The greatest support for legalization was found within youngest age group, individuals born since 1980. Sixty-Five percent of these Millennials favor legalizing marijuana.

The past three years have seen a rapid shift in support of legalization. In 2010 only 41% were in support of legalization. “Since then, support for legalization has increased among all demographic and political groups.” Boomers, born between 1947 and 1964, have seen their support for legalizing marijuana increase from 24% in 1994 to 50% in 2013.

Along with the increased support for marijuana legalization, there has been a corresponding decline in negative attitudes about marijuana. Currently, 32% believe that smoking marijuana is morally wrong, an 18 point decline since 2006 (50%). Over that same period, the percentage of people who said that smoking marijuana was not a moral issue rose 15 points from 35% in 2006 to 50% in 2013.

Over the past three decades, attitudes on whether or not marijuana was a gateway drug have shifted as well. A 1977 Gallup survey found that 60% of people believed that marijuana was a gateway drug. In 2013, only 38% believed so. Most of this shift is the result of generational change. Gen X and Millennials were far less likely to say that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs (36% of Gen X and 31% of Millennials).

The efforts of organizations like NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project seems to be paying off. They have been working to “legalize the responsible use of marijuana,” so that marijuana is “legally regulated similarly to alcohol.”

But I wonder if the momentum towards legalization is moving in right direction. NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project cited various studies on the safety profile of cannabis, the therapeutic potential of cannabis and how long-term cannabis use does not cause permanent cognitive impairment. But there seems to be an opposing consensus on the potential harmful effects of marijuana use.  Just a few of these concerns are noted below.

  • The potency of marijuana has doubled since 1998; tripled in the past 20 years.
  • In 2010, marijuana was involved in more than 461,000 ER visits nationwide.
  • In 2011 around 872,000 individuals received treatment for marijuana use.
  • In 2012 4.3 million individuals could be diagnosed as dependent upon or abusing marijuana.

There is also clear evidence of an association between marijuana use and psychosis. NORML gave a summary of the 1995 Lancet study that said smoking cannabis, even long-term use, was not harmful. Yet they ignored the Lancet’s retraction of that support published in the July 2007 edition of the Lancet:

In 1995, we began a Lancet editorial with the since much-quoted words: “The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health.” Research published since 1995, including Moore’s systematic review in this issue, leads us now to conclude that cannabis use could increase the risk of psychotic illness. Further research is needed on the effects of cannabis on affective disorders. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will have plenty to consider. But whatever their eventual recommendation, governments would do well to invest in sustained and effective education campaigns on the risks to health of taking cannabis.

A web site, Cannabis & Psychosis, was recently launched to “increase awareness and understanding of the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis from the perspective of youth.”

Public support for the legalization of marijuana is growing. The potency of marijuana is increasing. And the evidence for the harmful effects, especially psychosis and other mental health issues is becoming clearer. Marijuana will likely surpass alcohol and tobacco as a public health concern once it is legalized. For more information on the health concerns with marijuana go to “Marijuana Research Findings” on this website.

Do you think marijuana should be legalized despite its potential harmful consequences?