Is creationism on the wane in America?

May 24, 2017 • 11:00 am

Every year or two since 1982, the Gallup Poll has surveyed Americans for their attitudes toward human evolution. (Note: it’s not evolution in general that’s surveyed by the question below, but human evolution. It’s entirely possible that more Americans would accept evolution in general if it’s construed as applying to all species except humans—in fact, that’s exactly the position of the Catholic Church.)

For 35 years the results have held pretty constant, as the graph shows below, 40-50% of all Americans have over time been young-Earth creationists when it comes to human evolution, 30-40% are “theistic evolutionists” who accept some form of teleological, god-guided change, and the “natural evolutionists”—those who accept human evolution as a purely natural and unguided process, as scientists think it is—have hovered around an abysmal 10%.

The latest survey, however, gives us some hope, as the graph below shows

Young-Earth “human creationsts” have dropped to their lowest level yet—38%—a figure identical to “theistic human evolutionists”, which is pretty much in line with the past. The big news to me is the steady rise of those accepting naturalistic evolution as an explanation of humans: it’s gone from 9% in 1982 to 19% in 2014 and 2016: more than a doubling. One in five Americans now thinks we got here in the way science tells us! Yes, compared to Europe that’s dreadful, but it’s still an increase. . .

Do remember, though, that of all those people who do accept a role for evolution in human origins, only 33% (19/[19 + 38]) think it’s natural evolution. 67% of evolution-accepters still see a hand of god on our origins, which makes them quasi-creationists. We have a long way to go.

Although the data aren’t decisive, I will predict that this is part of a longer-term trend of Americans beginning to accept the truth of evolution.  Why do I think that? Because America, like Europe before us, is becoming more secular, and with increasing secularity comes an acceptance of evolution. As I’ve always said, I know of only one evolution-denier who isn’t motivated by religion. (That’s David Berlinski, and I have my doubts about him.) But why is America becoming less religious? Well, read my Evolution paper to see my hypothesis.

Gallup also shows. as it has before, that acceptance of evolution rises with level of education, is lower among those who are believers than those who have no religious preference, and is negatively correlated with church attendance:

As Gallup notes in a sort of wishy-washy summary:

Most Americans believe that God had a role in creating human beings, whether in their present form or as part of an evolutionary process over millions of years. But fewer Americans today hold strict creationist views of the origins of humans than at any point in Gallup’s trend on the question, and it is no longer the single most popular of the three explanations. Creationism still ties for the leading view, along with the view that evolution was guided by a divine hand. Fewer than one in five Americans hold a secular view of evolution, but that proportion has doubled since the start of this millennium.

. . .There has been an increase in the percentage of those holding the secularist viewpoint in recent years, which aligns with the scientific belief that has been prevalent in public school teaching since the Scopes Monkey Trial. This push and pull with creationism will undoubtedly continue, as this debate about where humans came from rages on.



42 thoughts on “Is creationism on the wane in America?

  1. Is it just me or are the questions formulated in a tendentious way? Even the most ‘atheist’ option says ‘God had no part in the process’, leaving entirely open the possibility that a god exists. There is no option that states “humans evolved and there is no god”, which is what most sensible people in the rest of the world would believe…

    1. That would be conflating issues. If you’re trying to understand if people accept evolution, you don’t combine that with a separate question of whether or not they’re an atheist.

  2. “…as this debate about where humans came from rages on.”

    No debate on this end, and all the rage seems to be coming from the theist camp.

    1. I agree a true debate would imply that both sides had evidence, since there cannot (by definition) be any for a supernatural origin there is only the evidence which science has gathered strongly indicating a natural process.
      Incidentally, I see that recent research on the orgin of life has resurrected(?) Darwins preference for its origin in a warm pond with some busy weather livening things up.

      1. There can indeed be evidence in favor of supernatural processes. If something occurred that was ruled out by natural processes, then it would have been the result of something supernatural.

        On the other hand, contrary to the view of many Skeptics, there can be evidence for a lack of supernatural processes. If a hypothesis about the supernatural predicts that something should be observable, and it isn’t, then that is evidence against the supernatural process. This, in fact, is a popular atheist argument (or set of arguments) against God. If there were a God we would not have an appendix, or that long convoluted nerve (whatever it’s called), or vestigial structures that appear then disappear during embryonic development.

        1. Would it?
          Please suggest how we could possibly define it as supernatural since the supernatural has no known Laws or effects
          it could only be considered as cause unknown at best.
          For tens of thousands of years people have delved deeply into the what is considered the occult and found only natural Laws

  3. Maybe if the terminology could be changed to allow those in this group to fully understand their standing. For the VP Pence’s of the world, Stone Age Theocracy has a nice ring to it. Dressing it up with phrases like intelligent design just does not do it justice.

  4. My theory, which is mine, is that some significant portion of the “Humans evolved, God guided the process” cohort are rather soft on the God part. Many of us are heavily conditioned to make passing references to God; we in the U.S. are soaked in Godiness from childhood – so when confronted with the choice, some opt for the God one almost as matter of reflex. I suspect those who are open and secure in their secular viewpoints have no difficulty choosing the “God had no part in it” option, but that may not be true of many others.

    My meaning is I think acceptance of Evolution is higher than the data suggest and that the reason for this is described in Dr. Coyne’s linked 2012 paper – religion is slipping away, even here. Not nearly as quickly as I’d like, but it is losing its grip on our collective throats.

  5. “Gallup also shows, as it has before, that acceptance of evolution rises with level of education, is higher among those who are believers than those who have no religious preference, and rises inversely with church attendance:”

    I think you mean is higher among those with no religious preference.

  6. I’ve said this before, but I’m hardly surprised at all over the number of people who choose the ‘with God guiding’ option. I mean, around 3/4 of Americans are Christians, and Christianity is a theistic religion where they believe God guides everything. Any question asked, if given one option with ‘with God guiding’, and one with ‘but God had no part in process’, is going to go heavily towards the ‘with God guiding’ version – the weather, coin tosses, the Super Bowl, lottery winners, causes of diseases, etc. Some theists may think God operates with a light touch, even so light as to be imperceptible (such as Ken Miller’s belief in tweaking at the quantum level), but nearly all theists believe that touch is still there. And these results are nearly perfectly in line with that – 76% seeing God as having some part in the process of the origins of humanity.

    I’ve made this point before, too, but the difference between theistic evolution and creationism/intelligent design, is that the theistic evolutionists only see God as a guiding the process to get preferred results. Take away that guidance, and evolution would still proceed – it just might have produced slightly different results. Per Gould’s analogy, if the tape of life were replayed*, a theistic evolutionist would more than likely say that God would guide it to create all the same organisms that exist now.

    *I remember PCC(E)’s discussion of this from a little while ago and the problems from a determinist perspective. Maybe a better analogy would be starting with two planets practically indistinguishable from a observer’s perspective, both with the same types of nascent life forms, and subjected to the same outside cosmic forces and same tectonic activities over their histories, and seeing how life evolved on each independently.

  7. Well, I have no problem with people believing in god guiding man as long as they believe in evolution. You’ll never get rid of god, but as long as these people don’t believe in creationism, I’m ok with it.

  8. Thanks for posting this. I hope it tempers the “BioLogos is having no impact” claim you make from time to time!

    I also agree with commenters who think the wording of the questions needs some help (though it is nice they’ve been asking the same thing for 35 years). Lots of ID people would select the God-guided option, but they mean something very different than what most of the BioLogos crowd would mean by that. We don’t think God had to reach into the scientific process and put a flagellum on the back of bacteria. Nor do many of us even mean that God caused certain mutations to occur. We just think there is more to the story than science can tell on its own.

    1. If by “evidence” you mean “scientific evidence” then we pretty quickly run out of things to say to each other. Science itself can’t determine whether its methods exhaust reality any more than a guy with a 2-inch net can determine whether there are things smaller than 2 inches in the sea. Please don’t take that as a knock on what science can do. BioLogos is in the business of trying to persuade the Christians of this country that science ought to be trusted in its sphere of expertise (the > 2-inch stuff!). Included in that is how Homo sapiens developed. Not included in that is ethics and art and theology (though I happen to think even those need to be informed by science so they don’t make pronouncements outside their areas of expertise). If all that stuff is ultimately reducible to the kinds of entities science is equipped to handle, then you guys win; scientism would be the correct philosophical position. I don’t see the evidence for that.

      1. “…that science ought to be trusted in its sphere of expertise (the > 2-inch stuff!).”

        And the potential existence of <2 in. stuff is left to people with… no net at all?

        1. No other nets?? So try this one: Slavery is wrong. I claim that is a truth not caught by the scientific net. Your options in response seem to be: 1) That IS a scientific truth, in which case you have some explaining to do about what science is. Or 2) That it isn’t a truth at all; it is just a statement of opinion on par with “Vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream”, in which case you’ve eliminated right and wrong (but even then, you’ve claimed to know there is no right and wrong by something other than the scientific method).

          If you accept that slavery is wrong, and admit its truth is not discovered through the scientific method, then you’re admitting there must be other kinds of nets.

          1. Do unto others as I would be done by. I don’t think I need a net to reach that position.

            1. You can just “see” that it is correct? I agree! That’s called being a moral realist–the claim that there are moral truths that exist independently of us, and that when we describe them correctly we are saying true things (and when we mis-describe them we are wrong). That is a different way of knowing things (a moral sense), and amounts to another “net” on the metaphor.

              1. Had I been brought up in a different culture / environmenct I might very well have adopted a different view of matters. Would I still be a “moral realist”? Such positions seem to me more of a relativist nature.

                Also, I should point out that I have not said that I consider slavery “wrong” in any absolute sense. I accept that imprisonment is a practical and appropriate sanction for certain types of criminal behaviour. I take the view also that it is entirely appropriate that prisoners should be gainfully employed whenever possible. Furthermore, if there is a market for goods produced by them, then the proceeds should go to compensating the victim of their crimes. If I have been defrauded then it would seem appropriate that any money earned by the prisoner be mandated directly to me. Surely, this deprivation of liberty allied with working for no reward with all profit going to another shares the major features of slavery. I would not object were that the law and would accept its application to me as to others.

              2. Don’t confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology. Perhaps (as I say sometimes) Veroxitatis is seeing the cumulative evidence about what it takes for us to live together – that’s technology, which is not science, but is also not antiscience, like religious inspiration or the like.

          2. Option number 2. It’s not objectively true. It’s an opinion shared by the vast majority of people, so we accept it as a socially agreed upon principle.

            But I do appreciate your analogy with nets. If it’s a question with an objectively true answer, then science is the best tool to examine it. If it’s a subjective question, use a different tool.

            As far as the origin of life and species, that’s pretty clearly in the objective truth arena, so science is the best tool. What other ‘net’ would you propose for objective questions?

      2. The scientific method (meta-method) can be used to investigate limitations of instruments (including human senses), look for limiting principles (conservation laws and computability, to name two, the latter more contentiously), find regulative ideals that work well (e.g., lawfulness and non-magic) etc. What else could one want?

        (Note that this rules all traditional theism: the universe is eternal.)

  9. Almost a doubling for non-theistic evolution in the last decade or so, it goes to show you that all these “New Atheists” are pushing people away from accepting evolution… oh wait, that’s actually the opposite.

    Then in 2014, the new Cosmos was released and theistic evolution goes from a nosedive to a nose-bleed. Or maybe it was Obama’s fault, damned correlations.

  10. Why is it always god v evolution?. God needs to be defined before asking any questions about it, (I don’t think it can be defined), and evolunary biology is the scientific study of the origin of life, simple.
    Why do so many people have a problem with that.

  11. According to recent polls, 23% of Americans identify their religion as “none.” I assume this 23% overlaps largely with the 19% who believe in naturalistic evolution. But that extra 4% (assuming it’s not sampling error) — just who or what do they think is intervening in human evolution?

  12. For me the truly scary stat is the 21% of those educated to postgraduate level who,despite all the evidence to the contrary can believe that modern man was created 10,000 years ago. Just imagine conferences of doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors and try to comprehend the possibility that every 5th person might sincerely believe such junk! ,

    1. Hell, we had a brain surgeon running for president who believe that nonsense. He is now in Trumps cabinet.

    2. There are universities that cater to the religiously electroshocked and lobotomized. They recruit candidates from religious high schools or home schooling so they never have to consider alternatives to myth and superstition for their entire educational careers. Even so, I agree that 21% seems shockingly high. I guess we will just have to adjust our threshold of disbelief to match reality. Sigh.

  13. That is an interesting finding,I’ll add the Gallup data to my #TIP dataset. Unfortunately the creationist/ID set are entrenched in state houses and the Federal government, making decisions for people as we speak, so the decline in the demographic is more of a long term uptick.

  14. I’m confounded why creationism hasn’t been thrown into the dustbin of history’s lost beliefs along with Zeus and Odin and all the axis mundi explanations of creation. hmpf! Seriously confounded, because the proof is so overwhelming. And the proof for the existence and intervening of a god or gods is overwhelmingly absent. Especially since we’re talking an omnipotent omni-being- ALL. Pretty pathetic reality you purported faitheists.

  15. Coyne, your militant atheism causes some real blind spots in you. You wrote:

    “One in five Americans now thinks we got here in the way science tells us!”

    Actually, it could be better than three in five, because theistic evolutionists accept what science tells us: it is that there is a vast “genealogical tree” of species extending through billions of years, with each species the “daughter species” arising through biological reproduction.

    That is all science tells us. Your quasi-religious faith that there was nothing supernatural to guide the process anywhere is you stepping outside the bounds of science.
    It even had a famous agnostic skeptic, whose one book that I cite below probably has had more readers than all your books put together:

    “Perhaps there also, among rotting fish
    heads and blue, night-burning bog lights,
    moved the eternal mystery, the careful
    finger of God. The increase was not much.
    It was two bubbles, two thin-walled little
    balloons at the end of the Snout’s small
    brain. The cerebral hemispheres had appeared.
    –Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey 1957, Random House, p. 52

    1. Evolutionary theory tells us that natural process are sufficient to account for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. When theists argue for a supernatural component they most often claim evolution could not have done it all. Introducing God as a necessary component is illogical.

  16. By the way, Coyne, don’t be so sure that the 33% who think that God has had no hand in the process of evolution are safely in your atheistic camp or are even agnostics.

    Starting at the age of 7, I was what you might call a “Neo-deistic evolutionist” until, about thirteen years later, Loren Eiseley woke me up from my dogmatic slumbers with the passage I quoted to you just now.

    That is, I believed that God had created the universe but had no influence on events on earth (or the formation of the solar system) until about the time of Abraham. [Adam, Eve, and Noah were mythical personages as far as I was concerned.] At the same time, I fervently believed in the Lordship of Jesus as presented in the New Testament, and in the existence of heaven and hell.

    If you are curious, I can tell you what has happened to my religious beliefs since then, but that’s another story.

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