This new study at Evolution: Education and Outreach (reference below, free access and free pdf here) reports the results of 32 annual surveys of first-year biology students in at The University of New South Wales (UNSW). Unlike the data from the U.S., which I’ll discuss briefly below, the Aussie data show a tremendous and salubrious change over this period: both creationism and “theistic evolution” (evolution tweaked or guided by God) dropped markedly, while purely materialistic evolution—the “theory” I taught in my classes—has more than doubled in acceptance.
The authors asked the students (average number 530 per year) to tick one of four boxes on a piece of paper, and drop it anonymously in a box as they left the classroom. The questions were designed to mimic those used in the U.S. Gallup polls over the last 35 years, and refer specifically not to evolution in general, but to human evolution. This makes the Australian data comparable to the U.S. data. Here are the questions asked of UNSW students:
- God created people (Homo sapiens) pretty much in their present form at sometime within the last 10,000 years.
- People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided the whole process, including our development.
- People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
- I honestly have no opinion about this matter.
Here are the time-course results (with a graph below on the proportion of Aussies professing no religious beliefs), and they’re heartening. As you can see, pure creationism has dropped from about 10% in 1985 to 4% in 2017, theistic evolution has steadily dropped from 50% to 25%, and non-theistic (naturalistic) evolution has risen from 25% to 62%. (“Uncertain” people have fluctuated between 3% and 15%.)
This decrease in the belief of goddy forms of evolution has accompanied a rise in the proportion of Aussies professing no religious belief: the census data show an increase from about 13% in 1985 to 30% in 2017. All of these changes are statistically significant except for the ‘uncertain’ class.
The trend of increasing secularism in Australia has been going on for roughly 5 decades. Here are forty years of data on the proportion of nonreligious Aussies taken from Wikipedia: (as is usual in the West, women are more religious than men):
Here are 35 years of data from the Gallup poll of U.S. adults asking basically the same question. As you can see, the results are very different. Biblical young-Earth creationism and theistic evolutionism now tie with 38% of Americans in each class, with perhaps a slight decrease in the young-earth creation class. Naturalistic evolution is still low—19%—but has increased fairly steadily from 9% in 1982. This may reflect a long-term trend as well, perhaps accompanying the long-term rise in Americans who are “nones”, professing no formal affiliation with a church. (That’s not equivalent to having a lack of religious belief, though.)
In both the U.S. and Australian cases, I don’t think the coincidence of an increase in acceptance of naturalistic evolution with an increase in secularism is a coincidence. As I said in Kent, as elsewhere, there’s not really a good reason to be a creationist if you’re not religion. (As I put it, “You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) Now you can still dislike evolution as a secularist if you’re also a human exceptionalist, but it’s telling that every creationist I’ve met in America, and every creationist organization, is fundamentally religious. That’s because nearly all religions require human exceptionalism.
The authors of the new paper, Michael Archer et al., also attribute the difference between U.S. and Australian data to a difference in religiosity, but somewhat the religion by saying this reflects a “difference in cultural backgrounds of the two countries.” Yes, religion is part of culture, but the authors seem a bit reluctant to explicitly say that, going instead back in history (which may well explain an initial difference in religiosity):
Perhaps part of the reason acceptance of non-theistic evolution is growing more rapidly in Australia than in the USA may be the different cultural backgrounds of the two countries. Europeans who first moved to North America were in the main deeply religious, primarily Protestants. In contrast, most Europeans who moved to Australia, some as ‘guests’ of Her Majesty’s prison system, were far less concerned with religious matters. As Karskens (1997) notes in relation to the late 1700s early 1800s, “Most sources confirm that Sydney’s people did not attend the established church. Orders commanding them to observe the Sabbath by avoiding both work and carousing were routinely ignored, so that clergymen were invariably scandalized by the empty churches and the full taverns on Sundays…Over 40 per cent of the convicts said they had no religious affiliation whatsoever. Compulsory attendance at divine worship…was regarded as part of their punishment.” Making more or less the same point, the first Christian cleric in Australia (Rev. Richard Johnson) who sailed with the First Fleet had an incredibly hard time trying to raise funds to build any form of a church. So much was this the case that he ended up paying for the building out of his own wages. The church was finally built in 1794 and shortly after completion, was deliberately burnt down. After losing his church and much of his own income Rev. Johnson filed for a leave of absence to visit England. He never returned to Australia. In 1805 Johnson appears on a list of officers as “On leave in England, no successor or second clergyman appointed” (Macintosh 1978).
Well, yes, the starting points may have differed between the two countries, but I gather that Australia in general is simply less interested in religion than is the U.S., and not all Australians descend from convicts. Regardless, the American data show how backwards we are compared to other Western countries (we’re the lowest in accepting evolution and among the highest in religiosity). Despite the desperate attempts of Americans—I’m talking about you, Jesuit priest in Kent, Connecticut!—to pretend that religion and acceptance of evolution are compatible, what else but incompatibility can explain the concomitant increase in acceptance of evolution as religion wanes in country after country?
h/t: Woody (and several other readers)
Archer, M., A. G. B. Poore, A. M. Horn, H. Bates, S. Bonser, M. Hunt, J. Russell, N. P. Archer, D. J. Bye, and E. J. Kehoe. 2018. Thirty two years of continuous assessment reveal first year university biology students in Australia are rapidly abandoning beliefs in theistic involvement in human origins. Evolution: Education and Outreach 11:12.