Evolution and Christian Belief: How Bad is it?

At a recent symposium I attended, I heard a speaker say that Americans are still ignorant about science and reject evolution. The speaker put a good deal of the blame on Christianity, saying that the majority of the major religion in the US (meaning the majority of Christians) reject evolution.

While this kind of statement is good ammunition for both of the extreme ends of the warfare model between science and faith, it has one problem. It isn’t true.

The data on this issue come from a Pew Research Trust survey that has been ongoing for many years. Here are what the data actually show.

About 62% of all American adults believe that humans and other animals got here through evolution. A little less than half of these people also believe that God is somehow involved in the evolutionary process. That might be bad news for atheists, but since I am in the category that believe God is involved, it doesn’t bother me at all. A substantial majority of mainline white Protestants and white Catholics hold to evolution (65% and 66% respectively. Only 38% of Evangelical Christians  believe that evolution is real. This seems depressing, but in fact the trend is positive, since at the previous survey the figure was only 27%.

So, even with the strongly anti-evolutionary sentiment among evangelicals (many of whom are continually being told that evolution is atheistic), 55% of all Christians  accept evolutionary origins for humans and other animals.

Not great, but not as bad as it could be, considering all of the propaganda poured into anti-evolutionism in so many evangelical churches. Even so, more than one third of evangelicals have come round to reject the anti-science bias of their denominations. It is certainly not true that a majority of Christians reject evolution. We have a lot of work to do, among Evangelicals, and others who reject evolution. But the trend is in the right direction, even as fewer people identify as Christians.

That is the trend that should be worrisome, and I think there is a connection between the two issues. Other surveys have found that many college-age and post-college young adults are leaving their Christian faith behind. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most common is that they see religion as being in conflict with science. (evolution being the most direct case). What we need to do is evangelize and explain to  Christian young people that science is not only NOT in opposition to Christian faith, but is one of the strongest pointers to the truth of the majesty of the creator. As I have said before, science is distilled doxology.

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8 Responses to Evolution and Christian Belief: How Bad is it?

  1. Noah White says:

    Very encouraging words!

    I often lament at the people (even fellow Christians) who rage against evangelicals who don’t accept evolution as if they were dolts. While they can be stubborn and hateful themselves, t’s not entirely evangelicalism’s fault that it’s been told for a couple of hundred years (by both sides!) that evolution is atheistic. Alas, more grace ought to be shown. As someone who’s relatively new to accepting evolution, it is a scary and humbling prospect to have your whole world turned upside down–new challenges to one’s own anthropology, epistemology, and not to mention faith are raised. Evolution, though not inherently or necessarily at all reductionistic, can help reductionism seep even more into life (at least I’ve found it seeping into my life, but a lie is a lie, no matter what its attached too–ultimately, it’s my fault for believing it if I choose to!).

    If we just had the bare facts about evolution, coupled with good scholarship about Genesis, etc., then perhaps it would be an easy thing to accept, but as you mentioned in the beginning of your piece, the warfare model won’t allow such rationality. I am deeply thankful for committed brothers and sisters in Christ who put their foot down to warfare, reductionism, and embrace God’s providence over all of history. Hopefully we arrive soon at the day where young Christians don’t have to feel their faith threatened by science any more than they do another occurrence in life–and may we all have grace towards those who do struggle.

    Have a blessed rest of your Ash Wednesday, my friend!

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    I agree with Noah. We need to remember that Creationism in the US (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent) only spread far beyond Fundamentalism in the early 60s with Morris and Whitcomb. And that didn’t happen in a vacuum – few were presenting a coherent account of theistic evolution then, and popular science was certainly evangelistic in making evolution a substitute for God, or even evidence against him. Nothing has changed there.

    Another factor in the Pew Survey is the way all such polls tend to be worded in a way that irons out nuances and so forces many people to opt into a camp where they’re not really comfortable, expecially given that most people can’t be expected to have a very clear grasp of the alternatives.

    “Science is distilled doxology” – somebody make that the ASA motto, will you?

    • Jon, I had something about the language of the poll in an earlier draft of this. It turns out that in the past, there was a big difference if the word “human” was included or not in the question. Now there is about a 3% increase in evolution acceptance if the question is worded as “Animals….etc”, rather than “Humans, and other….”. Since most of the rest of the data comes from the survey using the “human” question, that’s what I used, but you are right that a lot of the wording could be considered less than idea. We could probably design a questionnaire that would give a 75% agreement rate.

      Glad you liked that phrase. I used it in a tweet, and got a lot of likes and retweets (which I think is a good thing).

  3. SheilaDeeth says:

    I actually had that discussion with one of my sons when he went to college. “Mom, how can anyone be okay with rejecting evolution. Look at all the evidence…” Somehow he imagined that, since I was Christian, I must reject evolution, despite the fact that I’d argued in its favor whenever his friends told him it was wrong. Teachers in church and college had somehow persuaded him to take sides in a war that doesn’t exist. Loved this post, and the question of those college kids is close to my heart.

    • Yes, Sheila. I strongly believe we must do something about this. My son and my stepson (both 22) just laugh at the idea of faith. I know this is normal for that age, but the false war doesnt help.

  4. When I was a kid I asked my mother about this versus the 7 day creation. She quoted a scripture saying, “a day with God is as a thousand years with man”, so evolution was not inconsistent with God’s creation if we look at his clock.

    I’m pretty sure I first heard about the time slow-down for objects traveling at the speed of light on a religious TV program (Moody Bible Institute of Science, I think).

    There was an officer at the Salvation Army Bible Conference doing chemistry object lessons. He told us about his brother investigating the Moses miracle of turning gold into blood who discovered a way to make red dye from gold. He said it was used in the earliest stop lights before a cheaper coloration was found.

    I’m a humanist, so I don’t believe in miracles these days, but I’ve never found the Christianity I grew up with to be hostile to science.

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