Acceptance of evolution vs. religiosity in the U.S.

April 7, 2013 • 9:44 am

This Thursday I’m giving a talk at Oakland University in Michigan on the evidence for evolution and the reason why Americans reject it. Drop by if you live in the area, and I’ll be glad to sign copies of WEIT (books will be on sale there).  There will also be a secret word, announced later, that will get you a cat drawn in your book.

In my talk I’ll show the following slide, which reveals a negative correlation between belief in God and acceptance of evolution among 30 European countries, Japan, and the U.S. The correlation is highly significant and, as you see, the U.S. is second lowest in accepting evolution, with only Turkey below us.  I’ve shown this figure here before, and won’t dilate on it again. You can find the relevant data, statistics, and discussion in my Evolution paper from last year about the relationship between evolution, science and society (free download).


Here’s a plot of the data on acceptance of human evolution by country; the figure is from Miller et al. (2006; reference below).  The arrow shows the U.S. at the bottom, deeply shamed by our position relative to Japan and the countries of Northern Europe.


This got me wondering whether there was a similar correlation between religiosity and acceptance of evolution among the states in the U.S. I felt that there must be, simply because religiosity (as is well known) is higher in the southern U.S. than in the north, and the south also contains more people who reject evolution. Doing a bit of Googling, I found data on acceptance of evolution by state at Subnormal Numbers. Whoever writes that site took raw data from a 2010 Pew Forum survey and converted them into a bar graph similar to the one above for countries. (I haven’t dug up the original data yet.) Here it is:

Evolution and religion by state

Just to check my intuition, I found a “State of the States” Gallup Poll  from 2009 that broke down American religiosity by state, and also listed the ten most and ten least religious states. The survey assessed “religiosity” by asking the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Of course states vary widely: at the top for non-religiosity are states like Vermont (only 42% “yes”) and New Hampshire (45% “yes”), while southern states like Mississippi and Alabama are highly religious (85% and 82% “yes,” respectively).  I then put colored arrows representing the ten most religious states (red) and ten least religious states (blue) on the “acceptance of evolution” bar graph.

You can see the results above: there’s no overlap between the arrows. The least religious states show the highest acceptance of evolution, while most religious states show the most denial of evolution.  This is, of course, statistically significant just by a ranking test: the chances that the arrows would separate into two such non-overlapping groups by chance is minuscule.  I’ll eventually do a full correlation when I get my hands on the raw evolution data.

The figures among states clearly aren’t independent, for there is geographic correlation of religiosity (and evolution denial, which comes from religion), so each state does not represent an independent test of the question “Is there a correlation between religiosity and acceptance of evolution among American states?” Nevertheless, these data do support a “yes” answer to that question, and that answer in the expected direction: the more religious a state, the higher the proportion of its inhabitants that reject evolution.

The correlation is no surprise, of course because all opposition to evolution stems from religion.  But it was still surprising to me how strong these data are.  (The correlation for the 32 countries at the top is correlation is −0.608, and the probability that this could arise by chance less than 0.0001).

Along with everything else that religion poisons, we can include acceptance of evolution.  That holds not just across the globe, but also within the U.S.


Miller, J. D., E. C. Scott, and S. Okamoto. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313:765-766.

42 thoughts on “Acceptance of evolution vs. religiosity in the U.S.

    1. What time are you speaking, and in what building. Is there an address I can put in my GPS? Thanks. Looking forward to the speech.

      1. I don’t know the details, but I’ve asked for them. The talk is from noon to 1 pm on Thursday, followed by book signing. I’ll put up details when I get ’em.

        1. Heeey, I am at Oakland! I will definitely look for you there. Long time fan. I teach the Evolution class in the Bio department, and have used WEIT for my section of our senior capstone class.
          I am thrilled to hear this news.

          1. How is it that the university is hosting a talk by a prominent evolutionary biologist, and the person in the biology department that teaches evolution doesn’t know about it?

          2. I was puzzled too, but I checked and saw no announcements. I can post information when I learn of it.

    1. I noticed that Alaska is surprisingly irreligious, I had assumed that Sarah Palin’s home state must be pretty bad.

  1. From the last graph. It seems most probable that a correlation also exists between acceptance of evolution, whether they have enjoyed intimate relations with a close family member.

  2. I find it very puzzling when people try to insist that religion itself is not really a problem when it comes to rejecting science — it’s only a problem when religion is combined with other cultural and political forces and thus on its own the effect is negligible or non-existent.

    Religious people believe in the supernatural. They believe in a universe where underlying magical, spiritual, mental and moral powers and forces twist and shape reality in order to make it the way it is. How the hell could this NOT have an effect on how people understand and apply science? How could this not change what they will or will not accept as reasonable and true?

  3. The book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms by Berkman and Plutzer contains a graph of the “conservatism” by state (using an index based on percent of population that is Baptist and othe criteria) and acceptance of evolution, and the correlation between the conservatism index and acceptance of evolution is strongly negative (states in New England have low conservatism and high acceptances, those in the deep south the opposite) (r is about -0.72 if I remember correctly). This is the book that also reports that 1 in 8 biology teachers has creationist beliefs, which is quite scary.

  4. Read your blog and wondered if you could correlate for income and degree of religious involvement. Also if you could find ways to measure if religion and acceptance of science go hand in hand. Acceptance of evolution vs living a religious life may not be measured by the same standard in all countries (and in all religions). Here in Denmark most people are still member of the church, but measured by people attending service on any given sunday the numbers don’t match 100% involvement.

  5. I have taught evolution since 1967–and retired in 2010. My class in evolution for non-majors in biology at Cornell attracted almost 450 students when the Ag School required three courses in biology. In 1986, it was 66% who advocated purpose in evolution. When the Ag School went only to two courses, the class changed. Instead of having business majors I got more students from History. Purpose went from 66% to 23%. I thought the business majors got a had heel. I gave them something to think about for the rest of their lives and have heard from hundreds that they changed their minds after the class was over for years. The only way to persuade them was always be open their comments in class. I never wrote them off. Many became more religious. They also keep in tough. Teaching evolution was the most fun of any class I ever taught.

  6. Apparently, the results for Canada are so obvious they didn’t bother to include them on the first bar chart.

    Also, I am surprised (and sort of not since I live there) that Minnesota is a bit below the 50% mark on the second bar chart. We pride ourselves on being all educated and worldly here in MN. However, I know lots of bible thumpers who’ll argue evolution is nonsense but will deny up and down that it’s their religious beliefs making them say it.

    1. As per a previous graph presented by Prof coyne Canada was 61% belief in evolution, about the middle of the pack. We could do better.

  7. I am surprised at the low ranking of the Czech Republic, supposedly a very atheistic society.

  8. I am surprised by how high Ireland is. I used to think of it as very benighted. Let’s see if we (go USA!) can do as well.

  9. How is Utah not designated as one of the most religious states? I think the polls that I’ve seen place it in the top two (with Mississippi).

    1. My son lives in Utah and his in-laws are all relatively active LDS. He tells me that for the first time ever (in our history, anyway) Mormons are no longer the majority of the state population. Perhaps they will continue to look for the ‘light’.

  10. Please note that there are religions and religious people (such as Wiccans like myself) who have no problem at all with evolution. It is mainly (?) the Abrahamic faiths that have the problem. Of course, since their adherents make up the vast majority of religious persons in this country, it is understandable that you correlate religiosity to lack of belief in evolution.

    That said, it would be more correct to call the correlation “Acceptance of evolution vs. Abrhamic Faiths religiosity in the U.S.”

    1. Well, in the US, there are few religious adherents who aren’t from an Abrahamaic faith.

      However, fundamentalist Hindi also reject evolution.

      I don’t know about Sikhs, Jains, or any other religion.

      The problem is that any system that espouses belief in magic is contrary to what we KNOW about the workings of the universe.

  11. Regarding the top graph, how can it be sub-titled (32 European Countries) when one of the 32 points shown is labeled the United States?

  12. It appears there is at least one lurking variable in the data correlation. My guess would be general level of education in each state.

  13. One minor quibble:

    “all opposition to evolution stems from religion.”

    Most opposition, to be sure but not ALL. I know some non-religious people who didn’t accept evolution. Reason: it didn’t make sense to them. Many people have the attitude: “if it doesn’t make sense to them, it must be BS” (Dunning-Kruger effect).

    Remember that “not evolution” doesn’t mean “religious creationism”; when it comes to the theory of evolution they think that we don’t know but that scientists are just making stuff up, just like the religious people.

    1. Yes, you’re right–opponents include Tom Nagel and Jerry Fodor: secular philoosphers. But I still maintain that 97%+ of people who oppose evolution do so for religious reasons.

  14. For my part, I want to know more about the very strong positive correlation between mean temperature and religiosity. Does the heat bake peoples’ brains?

  15. I just notified my daughter about the Oakland talk. She is a professor of Medical Lab Science at Oakland, and I hope she attends. I wish I could too. You’re the best, Jerry!

  16. At the college where I am an adjunct, I have a colleague in the Anthropology Department who is a practicing Jew. He accepts evolution and even teaches Human Evolution in his physical anthro course. However, he will not admit that religion is the problem when it comes to acceptance of evolution. I’ve shown him your negative regression in the top figure and he dismisses it as an “obvious correlation” and not necessarily indicative of causation.

    He is such an apologist for religion it’s frustrating.

  17. I just have a hard time believing that so many Americans do not accept evolution. I have read several poles and seen a lot of statistics, but statistics can always be arranged to say what the user wants them to say (a lot like the bible and Satan’s quoting) Statistics are just mathematical prestidigitation. I have always lived in the South and I have a REALLY BIG family with a very diverse religious affiliations (from Southern Baptist fundamentalists to Wiccan, Mormons to New Atheists), and I know a whole lot of people that do now and almost always have lived in the South; rural, metropolitan, small towns and suburban dwellers, all ages, socioeconomic classes and levels of education, and NOT ONE of them doesn’t believe in evolution. I had twelve years of Catholic education, as did my many siblings, my kids and all of theirs, and now our grandkids. I and they were taught Darwinian evolution and as the years go by the deviations spawned by better science tools. Creationism was never brought up. (a lot of grammar, but no bible studies out of theology class.) Even the origin of life on Earth were/are debated without bringing religion into the mix. The only discord is over who lit the fuse for the Big Bang. But even that never came up at school. So where are all these sad deluded people?

      1. Could be. But I don’t think there very many people around here that are not related to me. Not that all those that are are exactly anyone most would want to claim. Thanksgiving and Christmas get to be a mess. Or at the least very crowded. But even the fundamentalist bible thumpers happily sit and eat with my brother and his wife, mistress (actually hand-fasted,and they all live together) and his ex-wife. And the atheist sit (not lay down, thank goodness) with Southern Baptists and the papists. Religion is fine, but we don’t ever bring up politics!

  18. I find it hard to believe that some people still believe evolution does not exist. Especially those who always bring religion when discussing this topic. What is hard to understand about the fact that somethings just cannot be supported by verses from holy books? Some people are confused about the theory and like to refer to their holy book to have a better understanding of the issue, which is completely understandable; but one cannot rely on it a 100% because not all things are written in the quraan, bible or torah. Not everything is spoon-fed to us, somethings we have to research and work hard to find out.. and it is of no doubt that Charles Darwin was one of those people who worked really hard to find out such things that changed our understanding of life forever.

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