Fewer than 10% of Americans are convinced Young Earth creationists, new study shows

Fewer than 10% of Americans are convinced Young Earth creationists, new study shows December 17, 2014

Mike edits Jesus & Dawkins, a blog that looks at the intersection of Christianity, science, and atheism. We asked him to highlight the biggest insights from the recent National Study of Religion & Human Origins (NSRHO). The study, funded by The BioLogos Foundation and conducted by Calvin College sociology professor Jonathan P. Hill, has created waves. All citations from the NSRHO report are parenthetical in the text below.

Photo: AMY WATTS/FLICKR (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo: AMY WATTS/FLICKR (CC BY-SA 2.0)

1. Many people are less certain about their view of human origins than you might think — less than 10 percent of Americans are convinced Young Earth creationists.

For decades, Gallup and other polling organizations have given folks three views of human origins to choose from: God guided evolution, God had no part in evolution, and God created humans in their current form 10,000 years ago.

According to the most recent Gallup poll on this issue, 31 percent think God used evolution, 19 percent think God was absent from evolution, and a whopping 42 percent think God created humans in the past 10,000 years. This seems pretty clear, right?

Wrong. The National Study of Religion & Human Origins (NSRHO) offers a strong retort to these numbers, pulling a Dikembe Mutumbo: “No, no, no … not in my house!”

In the NSRHO, over 3,000 American adults were asked numerous questions about human origins and if they’re unsure about their views. The study defined a creationist as someone who denies evolution and believes God created humans, and it found that many people are uncertain about their views:

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 (such as believing humans did not evolve from earlier species while simultaneously believing that God had nothing to do with the emergence of humans). If we adopt more restrictive definitions, these numbers begin to shrink further (10, emphasis added).

Adopting more restrictive definitions yields surprising data about Young Earth creationism. Only 8 percent of respondents affirmed YEC views with certainty (8)! These views are that God created Adam and Eve “directly and miraculously,” the days of creation are literal, and that all humans descended from Adam and Eve.

This kind of sophisticated polling is needed since many misread the simplistic Gallup information. It’s easy to see that around 40 percent of Americans believe God created humans in the past 10,000 years, and then wrongly assume that all of these people also believe the earth is young. Watch Richard Dawkins, for example, make this mistake. Many people are unsure of their views, and some Old Earth creationists believe God created humans 10,000 years ago.

2. Addressing creationist social networks, not science education, is the key to popularizing evolution.

91 percent of creationists didn’t change their views after learning about evolution, 61 percent think scientists agree that evolution “is the best explanation for human origins,” and almost half of creationists think evolution is factual (29). (Virtually all scientists accept evolution.)

Why do so many creationists consider evolution factual and the scientific community united on the issue, but still reject it? In the words of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises“They know, they just don’t care.” For creationists, staunch commitment to a particular interpretation of the Bible and Christianity trumps scientific consensus: “[Creationists] view acceptance of evolution as having dire religious consequences” (13). The NSRHO report explains that social networks affect creationists more than theistic and atheistic evolutionists:

Creationists are more likely to be in congregations with a settled anti-evolution position, more likely to hear about this from the pulpit (although not more likely to informally talk about this with congregants), and more likely to experience social pressure from other members and religious leaders to keep their current beliefs (25).

For many creationists, this social context provides an effective counterargument to scientific consensus.The NSRHO report concludes with advice for spreading the idea that God and evolution aren’t mutually exclusive:

For those invested in the position that human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, the findings from the NSRHO tell us that persuasion needs to move beyond a purely intellectual level. Ideas are important, but ideas only persuade when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them. … a two-pronged strategy — one that attends simultaneously to sociological and theological factors — will make the most inroads in the end (40).

A great example of this approach is The BioLogos Foundation’s Southern Baptist Voices series. BioLogos, a Christian organization that advocates the harmony of biblical faith and modern science, engaged creationist Southern Baptist leaders in a thoughtful dialogue. In addition to exploring theological concerns about evolution and Christianity, this kind of cordial exchange introduces creationists to pastors, leaders, and friends who accept evolution. The way forward is expanding creationist social networks to include people who love Jesus and accept evolution.

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