32-year study: Australian students become less creationist and more accepting of evolution, almost certainly because of growing secularism

August 22, 2018 • 10:15 am

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:

  1. God created people (Homo sapiens) pretty much in their present form at sometime within the last 10,000 years.
  2. People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided the whole process, including our development.
  3. People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
  4. 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.

(From paper) a Percentage of each year’s students choosing each of four options in relation to human evolution: (1) creation by god within the last 10,000 years (green); (2) evolution over millions of years with the whole process guided by god (blue); (3) evolution over millions of years but god had no part in this process (red); (4) no idea or no opinion (yellow). Figures include lines of best fit from linear and quadratic regressions with 95% confidence intervals. The level of statistical significance (p) and the explained variance (R2) are listed below in parentheses. Options 1 and 2 show a statistically significant decrease over this period (1: p < 0.001, R2 = 0.48; 2: p < 0.001, R2 = 0.86). Option 3 shows a statistically significant increase (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.83). There was no significant change in the percentage of students choosing Option 4 (p = 0.3). b The percentage of the wider Australian public declaring in the national census between the years 1986 and 2011 that they had no religion. This percentage is increasing in time (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.96). This percentage also significantly predicts the percentage of First Year Biology students at UNSW that chose Option 3 (non-theist evolution) in our survey over the same time period (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.91). Published data obtained from Anon (Anon 2013)

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):

Males and females who claim no religion on the census from 1971 to 2011

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.


27 thoughts on “32-year study: Australian students become less creationist and more accepting of evolution, almost certainly because of growing secularism

  1. I just Googled Canada’s stats on the subject and they appear to be almost identical to Australia’s. 61% of Canadians believe in evolution. It’s even higher in Quebec where 71% believe. The Catholic church there seems to be taking a s… kicking.

  2. I wonder if the timing of this change also correlates with the advent 🙂 of the Internet. People would have been more exposed to these topics than otherwise.

    I remember when I went through my own personal de-conversion back in the early 80s it was a long and isolating affair. If the Internet were around (in the commercialized form that we have it today) I would imagine that it would have been a much quicker process.

    1. I agree with you. I think the Internet is a significant reason for increasing levels of atheism. Those with questions they aren’t getting answers to in their own communities can search out the information they want elsewhere without anyone knowing they’re doing it.

  3. These are really interesting data.

    Like Jerry, I wonder about the Aussies considering the connection with their convict past and greater irreligiosity. NZ and Aus have more cultural similarities than either of us likes to admit, but our beginnings were different. We didn’t have convict settlers – our colonial immigrants chose to come here and they included a number of missionaries who had some success. However, nowadays we are significantly more atheist than Australia and much more in line with northern European levels. Maori, despite a stereotype, have higher levels of atheism than those of European descent.

    1. I was wondering about the Maori. Is religiosity a big thing among other Pacific Islanders? From my limited experience (I lived for a time in Hawaii) they seemed less inclined to the numinous, at least they were not so many of the deer-in-the-headlights kind so common in the US.

      1. In NZ, the Pacific Islander irreligious rate is 17.5%, well below the national irreligious rate of c.40%. Presumably, this high level of belief in NZ reflects belief levels in their countries of origin, but might also reflect the role of PI churches in providing various forms of social support.

        1. Yes, the social factor is very marked indeed. Pacific Island society (at least those I’m familiar with, primarily Cook Islands) is oriented around the church and the family, and the Islanders in New Zealand tend to form social groups based on their islands of origin, and often centred on their church. I think this tendency is much weaker with second or third-generation New Zealand/Islanders.

          This does not mean they isolate themselves from outside influences, or form any sort of closed society. Just for example, of the 13 (!) siblings in Mrs ii’s family, I think two have married other Cook Islanders, the rest have all married other Pacific islanders or other New Zealanders.

          Also, even in their home islands, religion has been… radically adapted to suit their culture and lifestyle. In a contest between family and religion, family wins every time. You have only to watch a traditional dance group (invariably sponsored by their local church) to notice that the puritanical ideas of the early missionaries – who tried to ban dancing – have sunk without trace.


      2. Yes, Pacific Islanders are very religious. However, like everyone else, it’s slightly less amongst the young.

        1. As I noted above, though, ‘religious’ in a Pacific Islander context just means they say an awful lot of prayers. It would be an error to assume that all island cultures are the same, but in a Cook Islands context it pretty well means ‘say a prayer, then do what you were going to do anyway’.

          It absolutely does not mean that they share the puritanical joyless dictatorial religion prevalent in some other countries. No Cook Island girl ever got thrown out of her family home or shotgunned into an early wedding just because she got pregnant.


          1. Traditional religion is one thing; if they are Christianized, it might be worse.

            Then again, seeing Inuit traditions and Christianity together was an interesting experience I’ve seen a few times. (A lot of Canadian Inuit are Anglican.)

    2. Maori (i think) have more interest in their ancestors and gravitate to the superstitious practices of appeasing and guidance, than straight out religiosity in a god head.

      1. We’ve got into the habit of doing karakia (translated as prayer) for everything, and since Europeans came, that’s been hijacked to mean prayer to Christian God (and, more recently, Muslim too). However, before Europeans arrived, the karakia was more a respect for the ancestors thing. God doesn’t have to come into it to respect Maori culture.

  4. smirk/ That first graph looks like a cross that has fallen. /smirk

    So US will take another generation or two? The frequency of fact-before-belief will have to increase 4 times, which is several decades.

    It would be interesting to see the youth data. The Pew data puts the “unaffiliated” of the “90s” (birth decade) at 36 %, which is 4 times that of the “30s”. As a comparison the youngest generation is practically non-religious in Europe, if I remember correctly.

  5. I’m currently doing a little, informal teaching experiment among my freshman this semester using this very data. I’m trying to improve some learning outcomes by confronting some things we know about views of evolution vs comprehension of evolutionary theory.

    I teach at a small, rural public college in the American southeast (i.e. the “Bible Belt). Class sizes are small, capped at 24 students. I’m teaching two sections of an introductory communication course. Among our learning objectives are basic research strategies, applied critical thinking, and information processing. During the first week of classes, I asked each class to voluntarily take a two-part survey. The 1st part asked for their view of human evolution, just like the Gallup poll. The second part was a 10 question, ungraded quiz over the basic concepts of evolutionary theory.

    Forty-six (of 48) students took the survey. Surprisingly (at least to me) the results of the opinion poll were nearly identical to those of Gallup. There was no meaningful statistical difference between the national survey results and my small sample of student responses regarding their views of theistic, non-theistic, and YEC (yes, over 1/3 of my sample do not accept evolution and believe the earth to be >10k yrs old).

    Predictably, on the multiple-choice, content knowledge portion of the survey, they all bombed. The average score was 3.5 correct (no better than guessing). Only two students passed the quiz.

    After reviewing these results with the students, including the Gallup poll, I led a discussion of the implications of what we’d learned from the experience; chiefly, that it appeared students had formed and expressed an opinion about a topic they knew little or nothing about. They all agreed (or at least did not object) that this was a “kinda dumb” thing to do. I made it especially clear that everybody who took the survey was guilty of this, even those who hold the non-theistic, scientific view (they scored no better than the others, which is also true of non-scientists nationally). I directed the discussion away from evolution/natural selection and focused on the process of developing informed opinion. They were able to easily draw the conclusion that we should study topics first, and only after that should they express a view on it. In the meantime, they agreed that their view of evolution should be, “I don’t know” because that is the truth revealed by the quiz.

    We began walking through the research process today, using natural selection as the topic. I have not offered my view, leaving questions about it open (although I’m sure they know). I want their cognitive dissonance to emerge from their coming into contact with data, not another authority figure’s opinion (which is how they got their current view). I don’t want to change their minds. I want to change their approach to knowledge. If I can do that, they’ll change their views on human evolution themselves.

    1. Out of curiosity, what is your own scholarly background? This sounds like a permutation of a “scientific reasoning” type course some philosophy departments (e.g., UBC) teach.

  6. As an Australian I’ve observed that highly religious people are generally regarded as belonging to the ‘lunatic fringe’ of society.
    Healthy attitude, that.


      1. Abbott’s a rusted-on Catholic. Not even the sex-abuse scandals can dislodge some of them.

        In general, Australians just aren’t as fervent about religious or nationalistic convictions as Americans.

  7. Those survey questions are deceptive. Belief in the evolutionary process, including as it pertains to humans, is *not* incompatible with belief in God the Creator.

    1. Read my book and you’ll see that it is. Acceptance of evolution is based on data and facts, belief in God is based on NO evidence save authority, dogma, and fictitious scripture. Yes, someone can be religious and accept evolution, but they’re being absolutely inconsistent in how they accept evidence.

  8. One good answer to Creationism is to point out that there are two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. If you take them literally, they contradict.

    The first story has the world created in 6 days; the second story has the world created in a day. There is also a different order of creation in the two stories.

    People have known about this for over a thousand years.

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