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Rethinking the Origins Debate

In 2012, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of U.S. adults believed "God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Thirty-two percent believed humans evolved with God's guidance, and 15 percent believed humans evolved with no divine guidance at all. The responses to this question, which Gallup has included 11 times on polls since 1982, have been remarkably stable over a 30-year period of time. The findings, showing a public evenly split over the issue of human evolution, have been corroborated in several other national surveys.

These surveys portray a deeply divided and polarized public. Even among the majority who believe that God created humans, the chasm separating creationist and evolutionist views appears to be gargantuan. Are Americans really this divided over human origins?

As a social scientist, I am skeptical about these findings for two reasons. First, the way in which these questions about human origins are written restricts complex or conflicted responses. Surveys like the Gallup poll tend to represent the various views we might label Atheistic Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young Earth Creationism with position statements that force respondents to select the one that comes closest to their beliefs.

The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.

Second, these polls give us no description of the manner in which people hold to these beliefs. Are respondents confident that their position is correct? Is it important to them personally to have the right beliefs about human origins? If large segments of the public are uncertain about their position, or if their beliefs are unimportant to them, then the idea of an intensely polarized public is misleading.

As part of a recent project funded by the BioLogos Foundation, I have fielded a new, nationally representative survey of the American public: The National Study of Religion and Human Origins (NSRHO).

Unlike existing surveys, this one includes extensive questions about human origins that allow us to develop a more accurate portrait of what the general public—and, in particular, Christians—actually believe. The survey includes questions on belief in human evolution, divine involvement, the existence of Adam and Eve, historical timeframe, original sin, and more. For each of these questions, participants are allowed to respond with "not at all sure" about what they believe. If they claim a position, they are also asked to rate how confident they are that their belief is correct. Lastly, they are asked to report how important having the right beliefs about human origins is to them personally.

Let's look at the creationist position. It contains, at a minimum, the following beliefs:

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

The most recent Gallup poll found that 46 percent of adults claimed creationism best reflected their views of human origins. But Gallup didn't ask participants about each of the above beliefs.

Our survey, however, asks about each individual belief, allowing respondents to report that they are unsure about what they believe. Only 14 percent affirmed each of these beliefs, and only 10 percent were certain of their beliefs. Furthermore, only 8 percent claimed it was important to them to have the right beliefs about human origins.

Numbers continued to drop as we asked about a historical Adam and Eve, the miraculous creation of humans, and a literal six-day creation.

What about evolutionists?

Nine percent believed humans evolved and that God played no part in the process, six percent held these beliefs with certainty, and less than four percent said their beliefs were important to them personally.

If only eight percent of respondents are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty. Most Americans do not fall neatly into any of the existing camps, and only a quarter claimed their beliefs were important to them personally.

So what does this mean for the church? I think it shows that most people, even regular church-going evangelicals, are not deeply entrenched on one side of a supposed two-sided battle. Certainly, the issue divides Christians. But Christian beliefs about human origins are complex. There's no major single chasm after all.

Advocates of various positions have often perpetuated the idea of a battle precisely because drawing clear lines is an effective way to mobilize one view against the other. Perhaps it is time to recognize the complexity of beliefs and worship together despite our differences. This doesn't mean that hard questions and honest conversations about human origins should be ignored. There are lots of important questions that need to be wrestled with. But as we wrestle, we should recognize that our shared identity in Christ puts us all on the same team.

Jonathan Hill is assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College.

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Rethinking the Origins Debate