Yesterday I wrote a brief post about a story published in the Guardian (really The Observer, but they post on the same site) called “Would you Adam and Eve it? Why creation story is at the heart of a new spiritual divide”. It also bore the invidious subtitle, “Major survey reveals that it’s atheists who perpetuate the conflict between religious belief and science.” The YouGov survey and its analysis was funded by the Templeton Religious Trust and
distorted written up in the Observer by Catherine Pepinster, a diehard Catholic. The point the article tried to make was that British atheists have an abysmal knowledge of what British Christians believe, thinking wrongly that the vast majority of the religionists are Biblical creationists. In that way, claimed the piece, atheists are largely responsible for promulgating the fiction that there’s a conflict between religion and science.
But the very data of the article—showing that many Christians, but few unaffiliated people or atheists, accept a form of God-driven “theistic evolution”—shows that the conflict is alive and well. (There were also data that I didn’t mention, showing that a lot more believers than nonbelievers think that human consciousness and “the origin of human beings” cannot be explained by “evolutionary science” or “evolutionary processes”: 54% and 37% of religious people, respectively, see these phenomena as defying evolution). The lesson: many British Christians, but not nearly as many unaffiliated people or atheists, accept a watered-down form of evolution that not only invokes God’s action, but also claim that phenomena like human consciousness can’t be explained by evolution.
Theistic evolution, explained in the survey as “a process guided by God,” means that God somehow designed the process to go a certain way or, if you interpret the words explicitly, tweaked it from time to time to attain a given end. Thus the statement of ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams below is simply false:
“Christians need to be clearer about what the doctrine of creation does and doesn’t mean,” he said. “To say that all things depend unilaterally on the eternal action of God is not the same as saying that specific steps in the universe’s history must be the direct result of divine intervention.”
Williams also said this:
According to the British Attitudes Survey, religious belief is continuing to decline in Britain, but the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams, says the YouGov survey confirms that a presumed incompatibility between science and religion is “a phoney war”.
“The number of mainstream Christians – certainly in this country – who have qualms about evolutionary theory is very small indeed,” said Williams. “But perceptions are different, and the presence of US-style fundamentalism in the popular imagination means that a growing number who know nothing of the actual history of intellectual discussion of these questions assume that all religious believers must be committed to combating scientific accounts of the universe’s beginnings.”
But the large proportion of religious Brits who accept a role for God in evolution (68% of “religious/spiritual people” compared to 18% of “not religious/spiritual” folk and only 7% of atheists) does indeed show that there is a real divergence among these groups, and that believers are not, as Williams implies, completely down with naturalistic science.
But I want to refer you to an article by a reader here, “coel”, who’s analyzed the YouGov survey—and what believers say about it—in much greater detail. In a post on his/her website, coelsblog, “What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists“, coel makes the following points (I’ll be brief because you need to read that not-too-long piece):
- The article’s author, Catholic Catherine Pepinster, claimed that “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.” This is a gross distortion. As coel shows, the real statistic is that 72% of British atheists and 60% of all Brits think that “a member of the public who is religious would have some degree of difficulty in accepting evolutionary science.” And they’re right! Even more than half of British Christians agreed with that statement, too! It’s simply a fact that far more religious Brits see God (or some other non-naturalistic process) as having had a hand in evolution (68%) than accept naturalistic evolution (24%). Nearly 7 out of ten British religionists, then, have a problem with naturalistic evolution, compared to people who are “not religious/spiritual” (18%) and atheists (only 7%).
Pepinster, then, pretends that these dumb atheists see British religionists as young-earth creationists, but the real data reveal the indisputable fact that religionists have a problem accepting naturalistic evolution. These claims are not the same thing, and Pepinster either knows that and distorted it, or simply didn’t understand the results of the survey. This gives the lie to Rowan William’s claim, “The number of mainstream Christians – certainly in this country – who have qualms about evolutionary theory is very small indeed.” No, it’s not small: it’s 68%.
- Having caught Pepinster in a misstatement (coel had to tweet her before they actually added the data to the survey’s results) concludes this:
But Catherine Pepinster’s article overlooks this fudged compromise. As she reports it there are only two options, fully accept evolutionary science or be a Biblical literalist creationist:
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.
That is not what people said: they didn’t say that to be a Christian one would have to accept Genesis literally; they merely said that Christians would have some level of difficulty in fully accepting evolution. And that’s true, that’s what religious people say about themselves! Just over half of self-described religious people in the survey said that they themselves had difficulty accepting that humans had evolved and that human and apes had a common ancestor.
Yes, only 16% are full-blown creationists, but many more religious people are distinctly reluctant to accept the full findings of evolutionary science. Thus Catherine Pepinster completely misrepresents what atheists believe about religious people, because she totally ignores all the middle ground between fully accepting science and Biblical literalism.
Coel adds this:
The article then quotes Guy Hayward, research fellow at the Scientific and Medical Network, saying:
“It is clear from this survey by Newman University that non-believers have very little idea about what believers believe”.
Well no, not at all. The non-believers seem to be pretty accurate in assessing what religious people believe. When interpreted properly the survey results reveal a great deal of fudge and hesitancy in what religious people believe about evolution, and also show that non-believers are fairly perceptive in recognising that.
- Finally, coel analyzes why religious people, at least in this case, are so eager to portray atheists as naive about religion. I’ll let you read the conclusions yourself. All I can add is that surveys show consistently that atheists know more about religious scripture and beliefs than do religious people themselves. That’s partly because many atheists were former believers, and left because they couldn’t deal with the palpable falsities of scripture and exegesis.
Let me close with some statements that we need to embrace (I’ll put this all in caps because I’m peeved):
ACCEPTING “THEISTIC EVOLUTION” IS NOT THE SAME THING AS BEING IN STRONG AGREEMENT WITH WHAT SCIENTISTS ACCEPT. “THEISTIC EVOLUTION” IS A BASTARD HYBRID OF THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE, AND ACCEPTS THE PRESENCE OF THE SUPERNATURAL AS PART OF BIOLOGY’S MOST IMPORTANT THEORY. WE SHOULD NOT SEE THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS AS BIG FANS OF SCIENCE. WE SHOULD SEE THEM AS PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE SEEN AS SCIENCE-FRIENDLY, BUT CAN’T LET GO OF THEIR COMFORTING SUPERSTITIONS.
THEISTIC EVOLUTION IS NO MORE SCIENTIFIC THAN IS THE IDEA OF “THEISTIC PHYSICS”, IN WHICH THE DECAY OF EACH ATOM IN A RADIOACTIVE ELEMENT WAS PRODUCED BY GOD, OR “THEISTIC CHEMISTRY”, IN WHICH GOD HAS A HAND IN WHICH CHEMICAL BONDS FORM DURING A REACTION.
As Laplace is supposed to have said, “We have no need of that hypothesis.” But many British Christians apparently do.
h/t; Stephen Law