God, Darwin, Creationism, and UFOs

What do Americans believe?

A new Harris poll suggests that Americans believe all sorts of things.  Folks who think religion is a bad thing might be heartened by recent increases in the numbers of people who claim not to believe in God.  But the same anti-religion types might be depressed by the high numbers of believers and by their descriptions of their belief.

Consider some highlights: the number of respondents (out of 2,250 overall) who claimed not be “not at all religious” was 23%, up from 12% in 2007.  And the numbers of respondents who said they thought the Bible was the “word of God” was down 6% since 2008.

But before the American Humanist Association breaks out the bubbly, consider some countervailing numbers: even though the number of Bible-believers may have declined slightly, it still represents just under half of respondents. That is, almost half of Americans—if we can extrapolate from these responses—will tell you that the Bible is the Word of God.

And though the number of respondents who said they “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution” is up five percent, the new total is still under half, far fewer than the number (58%) who say they believe in the Devil.

How about creationism?  Here are a few numbers to chew on: 29% of respondents say they don’t believe in “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” but 36% of them claim to believe in creationism.

Here’s my hunch: science pundits might fixate on the lead sentence that “36% each believe in creationism and UFOs.”  Some folks who don’t like creationism but don’t know much about it might conclude that belief in these things is somehow similar.  Those who don’t know enough real science, these pundits might assume, are prone to believe in all sorts of kooky non-science.

Such mistaken assumptions misunderstand the nature of creationism.  Belief in UFOs might come from all sorts of backgrounds, from eccentric FBI agents to rural isolation.

But in the USA, creationism represents something more than the lack of knowledge about evolution.  Instead, creationism comes from its own intellectual tradition, one that does more than simply ignore evolution.  You would be hard pressed, for example, to find a network of colleges and universities dedicated to teaching a worldview centered on the existence of UFOs.  But there is indeed a strong network of religious schools that teach creationism.

Certainly, belief that humanity resulted from God’s special creation can have lots of intellectual sources.  But it is a fundamental mistake of outsiders like me to assume that such creationist belief is a lack of something, a deficit of knowledge about evolution.

There are pundits out there who assume that these poll numbers represent a victory for anti-religious activism.  I’m not so sure.  Americans seem to believe all kinds of things.  The wobble in numbers represented by these results may point toward an anti-religious trend.  That is, if the number of respondents who said they did not believe in God increased ten percent in the last ten years, we might conclude that pretty soon large majorities of Americans will join them.

I doubt it.  My hunch is that these increases in atheism and skepticism will not represent a continuing trend.  Large numbers of people believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  Large numbers of people believe in things that mainstream science would pooh-pooh.  And they will continue to do so for a long time to come.


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