What do Christians really believe about evolution?

Most people in the UK think that religious people believe in six-day creationism. Fortunately, they are wrong.

Less than one in six UK believers prefer separate creation to evolution

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 035

The Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530)). Note scenes including the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion

A new YouGov poll conducted in Canada and the UK shows two contrasting facts. Among those who call themselves “believers or spiritual”, only 16%, under one in six, rejected evolution in favour of separate creation. A much larger group (39%) thught that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as potential allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which was actually Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography (here, pp 92-3), when he wrote Origin of Species. (Caveat: the options offered were

  1. Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form
  2. Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God
  3. Humans and other living things evolved over time as a result of natural selection, in which God played no part
  4. I have another view of the origin of species and development of life on Earth which isn’t included in this list
  5. I don’t know / I do not have a view on the origin of species and the development of life on Earth

and in all categories surveyed, around 1/4 of respondents selected either (4) or (5). A fuller analysis is of course available at the survey link.)

Dinosauria montage 2

A diversity of dinosaurs

There were further refinements, some of which suggest that the respondents were more sophisticated than the researchers. For example, the report expresses surprise that ‘when we look at atheists as a subset of the non-religious or non-spiritual group we find that over 1 in 3 of Canadian atheists, and nearly 1 in 5 UK atheists somewhat agree, agree or strongly agree with the statement: “Evolutionary process cannot explain the existence of human consciousness”.’ Include me among those who “somewhat agree”, since we have no good account of how the world of conscious experience relates to the world of external reality. Again, ‘over 1 in 10 of UK atheists somewhat agree, agree or strongly agree with the statement: “Animals evolve over time but evolutionary science cannot explain the origins of human beings”.’ Again, mark me down as somewhat agreeing. We tend to see ourselves as the inevitable pinnacles of the evolutonary process, but I side with authors ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Stephen J. Gould who thought that there was nothing inevitable about it, and that our origins depend on chance, which of its nature cannot be explained. Indeed, I recently posted on the utterly remarkable chance that eliminated the non-avian dinosaurs, without which the radiation of mammals in the holocene would not have boon possible.

One point of interpretation clearly separates my own view from that of Coel (see comments) and Jerry Coyne and that is how to react to the largest single group of believers; those who think that “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God.” As far as I am concerned, the reference to God is so broad and vague that it need not in any way interfere with scientific and educational collaboration, despite philosophical disagreement. I know that many of my friends think otherwise.

Does it matter that science-denying creationism is a minority view even among believers? Yes, I think it matters very much. Creationists within all three Abrahamic religions repeatedly refer to their own position, and to a literalist interpretation of their sacred texts, as if that were the only authentic form of their faith. I can say from personal experience, and this survey would seem to confirm, that this is not true.

Creationists do not speak for their faiths

Jonah and the Whale, Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles)

Jonah and the Whale, ca. 1400, Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles)

Until my late teens, I was an observant Jew and regarded the Bible (the Old Testament anyway) as the word of God. But it never occurred to me to imagine that it was a literal narrative; that Jonah really was swallowed by a big fish, or Ezekiel saw actual dead human bones coming back to life, or that day and night were created before Sun and Moon. Like all my contemporaries in the synagogue, I accepted the evolutionary account. The Rabbi, it is true, would mumble something about “the missing link”, but we regarded him as a bit of a fuddy-duddy, who had formed his ideas on the subject before the discovery of the Taung child, first-found of the Australopithecines. The Torah, the Divine Teaching, had after all being given to specific people in a specific time and place, and was of necessity expressed in terms that made sense to the people of that time. Here we were echoing the teaching of Maimonides, some eight centuries earlier, and indeed discussion of literal versus allegorical interpretation of texts can be traced back within rabbinical Judaism to its origins. Later, I was to discover similar debates within Christianity, dating back at least to St. Augustine. I have read a little of similar debates within Islam, but do not know enough to comment on this (perhaps some readers can?). And for an up-to-date list of religious bodies, escpecially in the US, making statements in support of evolution, see https://ncse.com/media/voices/religion

Australopithecus africanus - Cast of taung child

Taung child (Australopithecus afticanus), image Didier Descouens

We have creationists to thank for Trump

Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981

Reagan: Evolution is a theory only…  the biblical story of creation should also be taught

The creationists’ claim to own their religion poisons debate. It enables them, with false authority, to infiltrate schools, Sunday schools, yeshivahs and madrassas. It is used shamelessly to equate acceptance of science (at least geological and evolutionary science) with rejection of religion, a shabby manoeuvre of which both ends of the spectrum are guilty. Look at any online forum and you will see how quickly discussions of this or that scientific discovery, modifying or deepening our understanding of evolution, degenerate into slanging matches about God. It harms religion by reducing it, in the minds of many, to a cardboard caricature. In the US in particular, it is part of the pernicious process, dating back to Reagan, of reducing complex and diverse issues to a single identity package. A package that bundles together belief in God, rejection of evolution, climate change denial, American exceptionalism, and an utterly irrational belief in free-market economics. We have the creationists to thank for Trump.

Franklin Graham 2016

“I could sense going across the country that God was going to do something this year. And I believe that at this election, God showed up.” [Franklin Graham to Washington Post]

 

 

The claims of biblical creationism to speak for faith are baseless and blasphemous, and we should denounce them as such.

This is a rewrite of an earlier post, based on a newspaper account that on comparison with the Yougov report I found unsatisfactory.

 

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on September 17, 2017, in Creationism, Darwin autobiography, Education, Evolution, Fossil record, Global warming, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Paul,

    I think you are right (and Coyne is mistaken) about the believers who agree with “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God ” . For most of these believers, this means “guide in some mysterious providential way, akin to the non-miraculous providence in all the rest of life”, not “God reached in and did miracles with genetic DNA every few million years to help evolution along”.

    I appreciate your approach of looking for as much common grounds for cooperation as reasonably possible, rather than demonizing those you don’t agree with on everything. .

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  2. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Another useful blog on creationists by Paul

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  3. Some updates: it turns out that the survey questions on which Catherine Pepinster’s article were mainly based were not part of the original press release (which is why I thought that she had totally misprepresented the survey).

    After I asked on Twitter, the additional survey data have now been added to the press release. However, they still don’t properly support Ms Pepinster’s claims. I’ve written a blog article discussing this: What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists.

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  4. I think a more accurate questioning would include 1) do you believe in a god and 2) do you accept evolutionary explanations for life on earth. A contingency table would make more sense than the mess Pepinster made of it and the poll data. I also note that the survey was in part funded by Templeton and we know the result they want.

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  5. Fascinating and a great analysis of all the different outlooks. I’m reminded of Dylan ‘ The Times they are a Changing’ we are all children of our age and it behooves us to judge those in the past with that truth in mind . Dogmatism is dangerous but it is important to accept the evidence as uncovered by scientific investigation. Along with what we accept are our opinions and notions which we all have,but we must be prepared to change them. Religious people are not stupid and many have sensibly adjusted to modern conditions.

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  6. On Googling further, it seems that that article was written by a certain Catherine Pepinster, who seems to be a religious advocate. That would explain why she has deliberately twisted the survey’s findings to malign atheists, and why she tries to deny the “war between science and faith”.

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  7. Hi Paul,
    After a quick skim the Observer/Guardian article seems to be a complete travesty that totally misrepresents the poll findings. In saying that I’m presuming that this is the press release about the findings and that this is the actual report.

    Quoting the Observer: “According to the research, nearly two-thirds of Britons – as well as nearly three-quarters of atheists – think Christians have to accept the assertion in Genesis that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh”.

    Really? Which bit of the report asked that question and obtained those findings?

    “… that 72% of atheists polled believe that someone who is religious would not accept evolutionary science. In fact, only 19% of religious respondents in the poll rejected Darwinian thinking in favour of a literal reading of the Book of Genesis”

    The Observer article presents the issue as a dichotomy between “accepting evolutionary science” and “favouring a literal reading of Genesis”. But the questions were not worded that way!

    The most popular response by the religious was: “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. That is *theistic* evolution, not “evolutionary science” (though also not a literal interpretation of Genesis).

    Overall the Observer article grossly and unfairly maligns atheists. They are well aware that only a minority of religious people in the UK are Biblical literalists!

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    • Thanks. You are right; the article is seriously misleading in many ways and my post will need extensive rewriting.

      The survey does not talk about Genesis, but about believing that “Humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form”. The article correctly reflects this.

      There is a larger group, about a third of those who call themselves “reigious or spiritual”, who believe “Humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God”. As an advocate of evolution science, I regard such people as allies. “Guided by God” is so vague an expression that it could be taken to include God having set up the laws of nature, which you may recall was Darwin’s own position, according to his autobiography, when he wrote Origin of Species.

      Thanks to all who have commented or expressed opinions. I have further edited the main text to make my position on this clear.

      Liked by 1 person

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