News flash: American Protestant ministers overwhelmingly reject evolution, are split on Earth’s age

January 20, 2012 • 12:40 pm

A survey conducted by the Christian polling organization LifeWay Research, and released on January 9, shows that Protestant pastors as a group are not only antievolution, but pretty much split on how old the Earth is. 1,000 pastors were polled, randomly selected from a list of all Protestant churches. This means that there is a mixture of liberal and conservative faiths here.

And here are the depressing data (you can download a pdf or Powerpoint presentation of the results here):

  • In response to the question “I believe God used evolution to create people,” here are the responses:

Only 12% strongly agree.

  • Re Adam and Eve, the survey says

In response to the statement, “I believe Adam and Eve were literal people,” 74 percent strongly agree and 8 percent somewhat agree. Six percent somewhat disagree, 11 percent strongly disagree and 1 percent are not sure.

“Recently discussions have pointed to doubts about a literal Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and other origin issues,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “But Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly Creationists and believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”

  • “In the LifeWay Research survey, about one in five pastors agree that most of their congregation believes in evolution. That includes 10 percent who strongly agree and 9 percent who somewhat agree. A majority (62 percent) strongly disagree and 13 percent somewhat disagree.”

As for the so-called “liberal” Protestants, check this out:

  • “Pastors who consider themselves Mainline are more likely than Evangelicals to believe in evolution. Among those identifying themselves as Mainline, 25 percent strongly agree that God used evolution to create humans. Only 8 percent of Evangelicals strongly agree.”

Since none of these pastors probably see evolution as a non-God-driven process, that means that just one quarter of “mainline” pastors strongly accept the evolution of humans per se.  So much for the assertion that creationism is an aberrancy, a sign of “incorrect” or fundamentalist faith.

And the saddest fact of all:

  • “In response to the statement, ‘I believe the earth is approximately 6,000 years old,’ 34 percent of pastors strongly disagree. However, 30 percent strongly agree. Nine percent somewhat disagree, and 16 percent somewhat agree.”

That means 46% are in general on the young-earth side, and 43% on the old-earth side.  Now we know the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6,000 years old, and the evidence, which is not hard to grasp, is readily available to anyone.  This shows the extraordinary ability of religious people to ignore the plain facts to adhere to an implausible faith.  Remember that a 2006 poll by Time Magazine showed that 64% of Americans would continue to accept a tenet of their church that was contradicted by scientific facts.

This underscores a conclusion that is as plain as it is unpalatable to accommodationists: among the things that religion poisons is acceptance of science.  If we didn’t have religion, we wouldn’t have opposition to evolution.  It also shows the futility of trying to convince Protestant pastors that their faith does not conflict with evolution.  Asking that is equivalent to asking them to give up their faith.

87 thoughts on “News flash: American Protestant ministers overwhelmingly reject evolution, are split on Earth’s age

      1. There have been attempts — BioLogos being the main one and our host’s favorite — and they’ve all met with failure. That was tongue in cheek. The blog ate my snarky attempt at faux-markup tag.

              1. Unless you’re using Linux when you can re-map the keyboard just about however you damn well want. I do that just to make my machine unusable for anyone else!

  1. If one wants any hope for the rest of the US population there are two options: either somehow part ors get educated, or have people stop listening to them.

    Which one is less improbable?

    1. Bit of a false dichotomy there… I think both are necessary. Lots of pastors are already educated and doubting their scriptures, but they need encouragement to leave their profession behind.

      A lot of the younger generation have already stopped listening to pastors.

  2. LifeWay is a fundamentalist website. If progressive Christian clergy don’t speak out against this silliness they deserve to be dismissed as anti-science.

    One effort to counter the anti-science of fundamentalists is The Clergy Letter Project with over 12,000 signers and endorsed by several major Christian groups.

    1. That is a silly proposal in the context, seeing that the post conclude that it isn’t working and predicts why it isn’t going to work.

  3. With this survey being funded by the Southern Baptists, I can’t help but wonder if the “all Protestant” pastors they refer to are “all Baptist” and didn’t include any Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. Notice that they don’t list the Protestant denominations that they chose from, and the definition of “Protestant” is debated even amongst Southern Baptists, with some rejecting the title.

    1. I don’t think they limited their survey to Baptists, as suggested by the Powerpoint presentation.

  4. I don’t really like the wording on the question regarding evolution.

    I also would “strongly disagree” that “god used evolution to create people”, though that would be because of my atheism.

    That said, somehow I doubt that 64% of the pastors interviewed strongly disagreed for the reasons I would’ve…

    1. The key point is that there’s no way to know from this survey how many of those 64% are actually evolution-deniers, and how many accept the idea of unguided, naturalistic evolution. The question is fatally flawed because it lumps two diametrically opposed viewpoints together in one bucket.

      We can guess at what the breakdown might be, but then we’re not doing science; we’re just reinforcing our own preconceptions. This survey isn’t just about bad science; it is itself an example of bad science, and for that reason we ought to be skeptical of its findings.

      1. Yes, to take one example of a bad survey question:

        “I believe Adam and Eve were literal people”, with which one is to declare how much one agrees. But there are 2 clauses in the statement; do you, as a respondent, consider to what degree you “believe…”? Or are you responding to the proposition that “Adam and Eve were literal people”?

        To which clause are the interviewees responding? We can not know. An undergraduate psephologist would spot the error before the survey was done.

        1. And when I looked at the question, I briefly wondered if they were asking if I thought that Adam and Eve were the type of people to take everything literally.

  5. Maybe it’s not that bad – I strongly disagree with the statement “God used evolution to create people”!
    Ok maybe that’s for a different reason…

  6. Its funny when you consider how Bart Ehrman talks a lot about how people enter into textural criticism and biblical archaeology classes and come out crying upon learning that the Bible contradicts itself. Perhaps they then forget that there are two different nativities, 4 last words of Jesus, and a lot of funky editing after they get into a church?

    But it is a nice illustration of why science education is so messed up by religion. These people get years and years of being a constant and honored presence in the lives of young children before they even go to school, where they get a different science teacher every year of variable quality and respectability. When I was a kid, I always imagined God to look like my pastor. So its no wonder that their lack of education filters down to their parishioners. And how much you want to bet the clergy that *do* accept even theistic evolution still don’t go out of their way to talk about it? Its not just that they deny evolution, its that the ones that do believe in it don’t bother to talk about it.

  7. this highlights the problem that is only going to get worser — moral and personal leaders in communities denying and fighting against the basic tenets of biology, medicine/physiology and scientific knowledge….scary….

  8. Down to 46% young earth (bravo Reasons to Believe!) I’d estimate 30-40 years ago with Phd Henry Morris and his ‘Genesis Flood’ the number was closer to 80%. Of course Morris/ICRs/Answers in Genesis ugly influence still affects the faithful with lousy science and bad theological convulutions.

  9. Why is this problem so much more pronounced among clergy in some particular places (the southern and rural US, Northern Ireland, the western islands of Scotland) than elsewhere? I think we need to know this in order to formulate a useful diagnosis and strategy.

    1. What an interesting question, and worth 5 years of research. I’m sure there must be reviews on the theological links between the Wee Frees and the ‘No Surrenderites’ of Norn Irn.

      Wheteher any research exists linking those to the Southern Baptists, I don’t know, but would like to find out; sounds like the stuff of epic historical novels.

      1. Much of the southeastern US was settled by people from Scotland and people of Scottish ancestry from northern Ireland (American history textbooks call them “Scots Irish”). I’m sure that’s part of it.

        1. In what epoch, truthspeaker? Any links with slave-holding, that you know of? Do you know what their attitude was to the state? Did they end up as land-holders or as, in a broad sense, disenfranchised? Any references for further reading?

          1. Data point: One of my great-grandfathers was Scots-Irish. Born in 1838, he immigrated to the US with his family as an infant in arms in December of that year, ending up in piedmont South Carolina.

            (Note that this was a few years before the great potato famine drove millions of Irish to emigrate. I presume the Protestants of northern Ireland will equally affected.)

            One of his half-brothers ran a slave breeding operation.

            My impression, admittedly not based on much in the way of hard facts, was that some of the Scots-Irish ended up as prosperous farmers, but others ended up as white trash.

              1. The NI Protestants (mainly Presbyterians) were as, or nearly as much, affected by the potato famine as the Catholics. However, Ulster (almost synonymous with NI) Protestants tended to be either the aristocracy of the working class to the Catholics’ yeomanry, or to be the landlord class.
                I have seen little evidence for these Scottish, then Irish, Protestants fleeing to America as a result of the famine; it was the impoverished Irish Catholics who emigrated to America, England and Scotland.
                Indeed, some in the richer Protestant counties of the north-east of the island viewed the fact that the famine struck more viciously in the ‘Popish’ districts as divine judgement; accordingly, they offered relief to the starving Romanists, on condition that they convert . This left a deep trauma in the island, but no lasting alteration to the proportion of Protestants to Catholics.

          2. There is one big difference between most Baptists and groups like the Scottish Presbyterians. The latter are Calvinists, God had predestined each individual either for salvation or for hell and there is absolutely nothing the individual can do to change that destiny. Baptists traditionally hold the belief that God offers salvation and the individual has free will to accept or reject it (though some modern Southern Baptists have become Calvinist and it is causing splits in the denomination).

  10. When people outright admit that they’ll hold on to their faith in spite of scientific evidence that flatly contradicts it, what more is there to say? They’re not merely ignorant; they’re proud of their ignorance. Add to that, they’re hypocrites for taking advantage of the fruits of science’s labors at every opportunity when it suits them… What a sad state of affairs.

    1. I have often wondered why those people go to doctors. Maybe we should start asking them why they don’t just stay home and pray to Jeebus when they’re sick. L

      1. Some (a small minority) do exactly that – stay home and pray instead of going to a doctor. It becomes less of a laughing matter when when of their children dies of a preventable illness – which has been known to happen.

        1. But I bet they still call an auto mechanic when their car won’t start, or a plumber when their toilet backs up. Seems they’re happy to trust science on the routine stuff — just not on the life-or-death stuff.

      2. Being logical and consistent just isn’t very important to many people. When confronted with their contradictory views, they just shrug and seem to comfort themselves by labeling the person who has pointed out the contradiction as “argumentative”.

  11. “I also would “strongly disagree” that “god used evolution to create people”, though that would be because of my atheism.”

    I thought one would strongly disagree with this because guided evolution ceases to be the coherent scientific theory of evolution, not because of atheism…why is no one mentioning this important fact, that even guided evolution people spout nonsense?

    Why are you pretending that is more reasonable position?

    1. Atheists by definition can’t believe god does anything, so the rest of the “god used ___” phrase is irrelevant.

      1. What is irrelevant is whether you have a belief in god or not, guided evolution would be completely different evolution which would differ in many ways from the evolution we know as the scientific one.

        So lets stop pretending that people who believe in guided evolution believe in evolution.

      2. So, uh, where exactly was I making apologies for guided evolution?

        The point of my comment was that the wording of the evolution question was so vague that the “disagree” category accomodated two diametrically opposed veiwpoints. Namely, people who flat out rejected evolution vs. those who believe evolution is a natural unguided process.

        I identified as the latter. One reason for this is because I lack a belief in god and thus disagree that he could be involved in anything all.

        Yes, I suppose I could have drawn out my post further in explaining how the inclusion of god in the evolutionary process is pointless theistic window dressing that doesn’t fit with any of the available evidence. But jebus, I was just trying to make a funny.

          1. Happens to the best of us. 😉 I agree with you 100%. Mettyx will probably catch your reply if s/he is paying attention.

        1. Saying God used evolution doesn’t mean God guided evolution: He just set up the parameters of the universe in exactly the right way to ensure that people would ineluctably arise through natural processes… (In at least one of the many worlds he created.)


          1. The trouble is that it is even more unlikely than creationism guiding. Try “impossible” because while creative agents have to be rejected by parsimony, non-contingency breaks both the stochastic and contingency on phylogenetic trees branching parts of evolution.

            Here post-selection on worlds wouldn’t help, because that breaks physics of the worlds. I.e. you can’t affect parameters after the fact, to be ensured of the outcome event being in the observed (here potentially infinite) set.

            Theologically you could perhaps claim pre-calculation, that stochasticity can be broken by deterministic calculation making sure that the outcome is an event in the set, i.e. an “all powerful god”. But again, it breaks that physics.

            The remaining possibility would be to run trials. But you can’t exhaust an infinite set by discrete trials.

            I could easily be wrong, but right now I don’t think there is an accommodation in there.

            1. I am quite sure I messed up the “post-selection” idea though, that is more like the third option. I plead lack of coffee.

  12. So these are the same leaders who now drive political action in the Republican party. Now there is no evidence for theri bleiefs but they get political power by pandering to the fearful emotions and irrationality of theri “flocks.” Standard demagogue and power getting tactic.

    However, when power getting lies effect public policy — everyone suffers.

  13. At least for the age of the earth and things astronomical, and a considerable role model to boot, we have Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    The money quote’s @ 2:11 –

  14. What strikes me as of note and ironic in all of this, is the contrast you would find if you asked the Catholic priesthood the same questions.

    The doctrine of Catholicism is that it accepts evolution, albeit in a deist way; that the Creator started it off, but that it works in a naturalist, non-directed way, except, of course in the case of Homo sapiens, to which all this natural selection was leading – I know…me neither.

    Yet, the Protestant reformation was partially responsible for breaking down the magical thought of medieval Catholicism and promoting early scientific research…Bacon, Newton, Priestley, Darwin himself (from a non-Conformist background).

    But nowadays, to take up the comment of Paul Braterman, Protestantism finds itself deeply ossified and, to an even greater extent than its Catholic confrères, anti-science; I suppose the Augustinian dogma of Faith, which Luther revived, is stronger, at least in its American version, than the appeal to reason of some founding elements of Protestantism.

  15. I just read this:

    “An Indonesian man who said that God did not exist in a posting on a Facebook page for atheists could face jail.

    Civil servant Alexander Aan, 31, is now in protective police custody after he was attacked by an angry mob earlier this week.

    He may also lose his job over his posting on the social networking site.

    Atheism is a violation of Indonesian law under the founding principles of the country.”*

    And now that. A bad day for science and atheism both, even if accommodationist ideas are rejected by facts once again.

    * Ironically, “according to Indonesian criminal law, anyone who tried to stop others believing in a faith could face up to five years in prison”. I guess atheism isn’t a faith then, because it isn’t protected by that very law or both police and mob would be criminals. Accommodationists pwnd again.

    Or at least atheism is not one of the 5 allowed practicing religions, see the link. Indonesia may be democratic [Wikipedia], but apparently very weakly so.

      1. Here is an e-mail I sent to the London embassy of Indonesia. Copy/alter it as you wish.

        Dear Sir/Madame,

        I note with concern that civil servant Alexander Aan, 31, is now in protective police custody, after he was attacked by an angry mob earlier this week for allegedly writing that God does not exist.
        He may also lose his job over his assumed posting on a social networking site.

        I understand that Indonesia is democratic; two of the pillars of democracy are the recognition of citizens peaceably to demonstrate their point of view, and the right to freedom of speech.

        In threatening Mr. Aan with imprisonment for his alleged point of view, your polity could condemn itself in the eyes of the world and demonstrate its intolerance, penchant for superstition, and willingness to prefer the backward to the forward-looking.

        I, and many others, urge you to stand up for decency, modernity and the best of humanity, against the forces of ignorance. I urge you to free and protect Mr. Aan; and to restore to him his livelihood, as it was before this terrible incident.

        Yours faithfully,

        Dermot C.

  16. Asking Pastors what their congregations think can be misleading. A pastor with 100 church members might count as much as a pastor with 1,000 church members. This might skew the totals. Pastors would never admit their congregations don’t believe as they do. Nevertheless, the percentages are scary. It is an all out war between superstition and science. The way to win it is by making small inroads of common sense science rather than frontal attacks. You can’t convince someone against his/her will. Slow, persistent appeal to science works better than insults and ridicule.

    1. The question was what the pastors believed.

      Some of the questions seemed ill-designed and it is entirely possible that some of the more educated liberal pastors might have recognized that the surveying group was highly conservative and refused to participate thereby skewing the results. We also don’t have the full data tables just bits and pieces.

      I will note the United Methodist Church in 2008 approved three petitions that were pro-science/anti-creationist|ID. The UMC is the largest mainline Protestant church in the US (and third largest denomination overall). The following article is interesting as it shows some of the splits within the UMC

  17. Please correct my biology if I’m wrong, but doesn’t an argument against Adam and Eve run something like this:

    Because Eve was made from Adam’s body, they would both have had the same DNA. If they had the same DNA, they must have had the same sex chromosomes. Because the rib came from a human male, the sex chromosomes must have been male. Therefore, Eve was in fact…….Edward!

    This means that you could re-write that portion of the Old Testament as follows:

    Two gay guys had sex, and one of them had a baby!

    Do you think this might piss off the pastors even more?

      1. Nah, god just duplicated one of Adam’s X chromosomes and magiced, sorry miracled, away the Y chromosome. He’s god, he can do anything. So, Adam wasn’t having gay sex, just some sort of bizarre incestous thing with his mutant self…..

    1. You underestimate the power of Almighty God. Of course he could tweak the chromosomes and any other details as needed.

      You might ask, why do that rather than just create a new being? Obviously, to make the point that women are secondary and subordinate to men. She should think herself lucky it was a rib, rather than something more icky.

  18. I’d be a little dubious of that poll.

    Lifeway is a Southern Baptist organization and not to be completely trusted. I wouldn’t accept their findings without corroboration.

    The question is also loaded to bias the findings and this is deliberate.

    Nevertheless, the results are appalling. A fair number of those science denier pastors have to be from mainline churches. Religions and sects evolve quite rapidly and it looks like the mainliners are evolving towards the fundies.

  19. Just for the record…

    The article focuses mostly on fundamentalist Christian views. I’d like to raise the point that Catholic teaching differs strongly in this regard. If you regard Wikipedia as an unbiased source:

    As in other countries, Catholic schools in the United States teach evolution as part of their science curriculum. They teach the fact that evolution occurs and the modern evolutionary synthesis, which is the scientific theory that explains why evolution occurs. This is the same evolution curriculum that secular schools teach. Bishop DiLorenzo of Richmond, chair of the Committee on Science and Human Values in a December 2004 letter sent to all U.S. bishops: “… Catholic schools should continue teaching evolution as a scientific theory backed by convincing evidence. At the same time, Catholic parents whose children are in public schools should ensure that their children are also receiving appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator. Students should be able to leave their biology classes, and their courses in religious instruction, with an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are.” (

    One might not agree with the religious integration part, but there’s not the same disregard for science from the perspective of Catholic teaching.

    1. I went to a Catholic elementary school. They paid lip service to evolution but didn’t teach it accurately. We were told that Darwin was embarrassed by his idea and only published On The Origin of Species posthumously. We also weren’t told that there had been any more evidence for it found since On the Origin was published. And during bible studies, at no point did they teach that any part of the Bible was anything other than literally true.

      And I know plenty of Catholics who don’t believe in evolution at all and do hold to a literal view of the bible and an Earth that was poofed into existence in 6 days just like it says in Genesis 1.

  20. Why ask a pastor about anything, surely your just massaging their over inflated egos by showing any concern at all.Deny them a stage to play out their dramatics and publish their dogmas, focus on real news and science,try to educate people out of religion.Religion in America has far to much acess to the media.

  21. As an active disbeliever in any kind of supernatural entity or event I am generally out in the cold. It is rare to hear any one challenge supernaturalism in general conversation. Polite society still buys in to the ‘never question a person’s faith’ ideal. This means that issues of belief, ethics and morality can when raised cause embarrassment. There are a great number of people who just believe in belief. In other words they don’t really believe in religion but they think it is important for belief to prevail in others. Absurd I know, yet that is the power that religion has. If you don’t believe just keep it to yourself, as belief helps build good societies. I don’t think so.

  22. “I believe God used evolution to create people”

    “Only 12% strongly agree.”

    Of course everyone here strongly disagrees. Supernatural magic is not one of the mechanisms of evolution.

    Unless one of these worthless preachers accepts evolution as pure science (a god had nothing to do with it) they’re all science deniers. Sticking magic into evolution is not any less insane than denying the whole thing.

  23. Perhaps some were (wrongly) thinking, “God used evolution not to create humans, but to create all of Earth’s creatures & humans are just part of the big picture”. Some maybe were, but unfortunately most are probably out of their heads on creation myths… it must be like living a surreal sort of perverted, schizophrenic, holy vs. evil game for those people.

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