Are Scientists Really Split on Evolution? By Austin Fischer

Evangelicals, Scientists, and the “Evolution Split” (by Austin Fischer)

As a pastor in the heart of the evangelical south, few topics are more difficult and divisive to address than those surrounding evolution. Those of us committed to the idea that there is no fundamental conflict between honest faith and honest science (and how could there be?) finds ourselves tiptoeing through a minefield, staying faithful to Scripture while interacting with a rapidly changing world. And of course the only thing more difficult than tiptoeing through the minefield is leading a whole community of people through the minefield with you.

In my tiptoeing, I’ve come to a realization that might be helpful for others doing their own.

In the minds of many of our people, scientists are, more or less, split over the theory of evolution (by which I mean the general theory that humans have evolved over time and didn’t instantly appear as is 6000 or so years ago). They probably couldn’t assign any percentages to what they think the split is and probably haven’t thought about it that much. Rather, they vaguely perceive that some scientists believe in evolution and some don’t.

There are numerous reasons for that perception, but I won’t examine them here except to note that a benefit of thinking that way is you feel you don’t really have to take evolution seriously because “lots” of scientists don’t.

What I want to briefly focus on is the reality of the situation in regards to what scientists think about evolution. Surveys on such things are notoriously difficult because there is so much nuance surveys simply cannot take into account. For example, which scientists do we survey? All scientists? Do we survey meteorologists? If so, why? That’s not their field and so surveying them in regards to evolution is about as helpful (maybe less) as surveying a Hebrew scholar as to his beliefs on modern ecclesiology.[1]

But setting that aside, most surveys I have seen—no matter which scientists are polled and what the exact question is—put the percentage of scientists who affirm evolution hovering around 90 to 99%. [For example, there was a poll in 1987 in which only 700 out of 480,000 US earth and life scientists gave credence to rejection of evolution.[2] Or there was a 1991 Gallup poll in which 5% of US scientists affirmed creationism.[3] A 2009 Pew poll found that 97% of scientists believe humans evolved over time.[4] The recent Pew poll has 98% of AAAS scientists affirming humans evolved over time.[5]]

But here’s where it gets interesting. According to a recent Pew survey, only about 65% of the general US public understands that.[6] In other words, around 30% of the public thinks scientists are “split” over evolution. There is a popular misconception that scientists are split over evolution. I could not find a place where the survey examined this constituency, but I would venture that a high percentage of these people are evangelical.

This raises a difficult ethical dilemma.

Suspending all judgment on what we should think about evolution, how should we (pastors) handle the widespread misconception among our people that scientists are split on evolution? What is our responsibility? What serves our people best? Do we continue to let them hold to the misconception (or maybe even encourage it) if we feel it bolsters our position? I see that happening a lot.

I can’t help but feel that no matter where we fall on evolution, we are doing a great disservice to our people when we perpetuate the myth that scientists are split on evolution. We are building a house of cards. Scientists are not split on evolution. You can massage the numbers all you want but you can never in good conscience call it a split.

Where do we go from there?

These are delicate matters and much can hang in the balance. But Jesus said he was the truth and so I don’t think perpetuating well-intentioned urban myths in the name of faith is a viable strategy. If you want to go the route of radical scientific skepticism and suggest a conspiracy among scientists to subvert religion with evolution, that’s fine (I’ve heard crazier). If you must, call scientists conspirators and enemies of the faith.

But don’t say they’re split on evolution.

[1] And on this point, most surveys show that support for evolution is higher among those who specialize in fields that would make them “experts” on the issue.

[2] Martz, Larry; McDaniel, Ann (1987). “Keeping God Out of Class (Washington and bureau reports)”. Newsweek (Newsweek Inc.) CIX (26): 22–23.

[3] http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm

[4] http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/

[5] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/chapter-3-attitudes-and-beliefs-on-science-and-technology-topics/

[6] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.