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Origins Opinion Surveys Evolve from ‘How’ to ‘Who’

Many Christians affirm evolution once researchers leave room for God's role in it.
Origins Opinion Surveys Evolve from ‘How’ to ‘Who’
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Envato / Stedelijk-Museum / CCO

Most Christians today agree that human evolution is real—and that God had a hand in it. The findings are part of a new study released this month by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 2,500 Americans.

Fifty-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants and 66 percent of black Protestants selected “Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God” when asked, “Which statement comes closest to your view?”

Only four percent of white evangelical Protestants and six percent of black Protestants said that natural selection is real but God had no role. The remaining 38 percent of white Protestants and 27 percent of black Protestants said humans have always existed in their present form.

But when asked the same question differently, the results varied. When forced to choose between evolution or creationism, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants select the creationist stance. Fifty-nine percent of black Protestants chose creationism too.

According to Pew, the results show that, perhaps, we have been posing the evolution question all wrong. When given the opportunity to say that God played a role in evolution, many Christians will reject the classic creationist viewpoint. Pew adds that people should not be forced to “choose between science and religion” but encouraged to share their beliefs on both science and God’s role in it.

Similarly, in a 2013 study by Jonathan Hill, a sociology professor at Calvin College, a third of creationists said that being correct about the creationism theory wasn’t important.

“The way you ask someone about human origins will play a substantial role in the type of response you receive,” said Hill in an interview responding to the Pew study. “Querying the public about origins is not the same as asking their opinion on photosynthesis. … It’s safe to assume that much of the American public, religious or not, does not have detailed knowledge about evolution or the mechanisms which drive it. So, when people approach these questions on surveys they are signaling more about their own moral position and group identity, rather than trying to find the view which best fits with established prior beliefs.”

Research in the 2017 book Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Thinkshows similar results. The book is based on extensive surveys and interviews, which divulge the variety of views on how life on Earth began—and how, for many, the line between evolution and creationism is blurred.

Along with Hill’s research, the book—and now the Pew study—give a fuller picture than the Gallup poll numbers released in 2017, which concluded that 50 percent of Protestants and other Christians hold a creationist view of origins, believing that God created humans in their current form less than 10,000 years ago.

In Religion vs. Science, Elaine Ecklund, at Rice University, and Chris Scheitle, at West Virginia University, add to the body of work indicating that the issues of creationism and evolution are far more complex than a single survey question and that the divides on creation aren’t as deep as we once thought.

“Due to the long history, current state, and high profile of the evolution-creation debate in the United States, we are led to believe religious people writ large simply do not accept evolutionary theory,” wrote researchers Ecklund and Scheitle. “But when social scientists dig deeper, we almost always find that positions on an issue are much more varied and nuanced than it might appear from looking at picket signs. Evolution is no exception.”

For their analysis, Ecklund and Scheitle conducted an online survey of more than 10,000 Americans asking, among other questions, what religious Americans think about science and how life on Earth began; more than 7,000 of the participants identified as Protestant, Catholic, or “just a Christian.”

Participants were given six narratives about human origins, ranging from the young-Earth creationism theory—“God created the universe, the Earth, and all of life within the past 10,000 years”—to the concept of natural selection and evolution—“the universe and Earth came into being billions of years ago; all life, including humans, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms due to environmental pressures to adapt; there was no God or Intelligent Force involved in either the creation or evolution of life.”

Participants were asked to select the narrative they thought was true and how confident they were in the theory. If they weren’t certain, they could select more than one explanation.

Many Christians surveyed were uncertain about the beginning of life on Earth; 39 percent of evangelical Protestants were unwilling to say that any of the theories—even Creationism—were absolutely, without a doubt, true. Similarly, 64 percent of mainline Protestants and 60 percent of Catholics also said none of the narratives were “definitely” true.

The sociologists followed up with 200 in-depth interviews with Christians in Houston and Chicago, asking participants questions like: Do you think evolution offers the best explanation for life on Earth? Can evolution be compatible with the teachings of the Bible? Should the Bible be taken literally?

For Ecklund and Scheitle, these conversations revealed that Christians care more about the hand behind evolution or creationism, not exactly on the details behind how Earth began. For example, a Catholic who believed in evolution told them, “For me, it’s ultimately [that] all evolution goes back to God. It’s God’s work. That’s why the world is evolving and people are evolving.”

Another said, “You can think of all different kinds of theories, but they have to have come from somewhere. Something had to happen first. Or something had to be put into motion.”

Speaking of the recent Pew study, Hill said: “Again, this suggests that people do not oppose evolution so much as oppose the idea that God was not actively involved in the creation of our species. To the extent that (respondents) automatically associate evolution with an atheistic viewpoint, they will appear to reject evolution when all they really want is to signal their belief in divine involvement in the process.”

These beliefs fit with a recent survey of National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) leaders, 90 percent of whom said it was okay to have differing views on creation as long as Christians maintain that God is the ultimate creator of Earth. “How God chose to create is important, but it is secondary,” explained Leith Anderson, president of the NAE.

Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America, agreed. “The non-negotiable is that God created the universe ex nihilo [out of nothing].”

As one church leader of an evangelical congregation told Ecklund and Scheitle:

I took a group [of youth] to a science center and they had this great exhibit on the big bang theory, and [the youth] were really upset about it. And I said … well … what if it was a big bang? I’m OK with that. I’m OK with there being a big bang. I think as a believer, though, we know who lit the fuse.

Christians troubled by which theory is right can move forward by trusting not in how but in God.

Nadia Whitehead is a freelance journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in Science, The Washington Post and NPR. Find her on Twitter @NadiaMacias.

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