Asking the Right Questions about Creationism

Is America a “creation nation?” Or have polls tended to inflate the numbers of creationists out there? In an effort to give a more nuanced answer to these questions, BioLogos has published Jonathan Hill’s survey results. Hill offers some powerful insights into central questions:

  • How many Americans really believe in creationism, evolution, or some mix?
  • Who cares the most about it?
  • Who cares at all?
  • And, most important, what factors go into making someone a creationist or an evolution supporter?

You may have seen this report referred to in Emma Green’s recent Atlantic article. Until now, however, you wouldn’t have been able to read the report for yourself. Green’s article had the provocative title “You Can’t Educate People into Believing in Evolution.” True enough, but that’s not news to readers and contributors to ILYBYGTH. Those who take time to read what’s out there about creationism know that creationism is not simply a lack of knowledge about evolution. Rather, creationism is better understood as part of a religious identity.

Professor Hill was funded by a BioLogos grant to conduct a large representative survey in the USA. He found that the typical Gallup polls seem to distort the numbers. In those repeated Gallup polls, respondents have three options: (1) humans evolved guided by God, (2) humans evolved on their own, and (3) humans were created within about 10,000 years. In those polls, since the 1980s about 40-45% of respondents have chosen the “young-earth creationist” answer (3). Somewhere between 9-19% have selected the “atheistic evolution” answer (2), and the rest chose number one, the theistic evolution model.

Gallup Questions and Answers

Gallup Questions and Answers

As even the Gallup folks would likely agree, these positions are not very subtle. They don’t allow respondents to explain or describe their own beliefs. Rather, they push people to pick one of three limited options. Professor Hill’s survey allowed people to say they were unsure. It also asked respondents to address different aspects of these beliefs separately. Finally, Hill asked Americans to say how certain they were about their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, those questions yielded very different results. When people can respond to different aspects of creationism differently, they tend to be more nuanced in their responses. For example, in Professor Hill’s survey, only eight percent of people affirmed their belief in both six literal days of creation and the recent creation of humanity.

When taken together, Hill found that 37% of respondents were “creationists,” 16% were “theistic evolutionists,” and 9% were “atheistic evolutionists.” The rest held mixed beliefs or were unsure. When you limit these numbers to those who said they were “very” or “absolutely certain” of their views, then only 29% of respondents were creationists, 8% were theistic evolutionists, and only 6% were atheistic evolutionists.

Also intriguing, only those who hold creationist or atheistic evolutionist beliefs tend to be sure they are correct. They also tend to think it matters to be correct. About three-quarters of creationists said they were sure about their beliefs, and about two-thirds of them said that it mattered a great deal. Among atheistic evolutionists, about 70% were sure of their beliefs, and about half thought it mattered a good deal. In contrast, among those who were unsure about humanity’s origins, only about one quarter thought it mattered a great deal.

In our continuing sniping at one another over the issues of creation and evolution, these numbers themselves matter a great deal. Since large numbers of Americans don’t know about these issues and don’t really care, the debates quickly become dominated by those on either end who feel confident about their own beliefs and who feel sure that it is important to be correct on these questions. We might see a debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and creationist impresario Ken Ham, but we won’t be as likely to see a round-table discussion between people in the middle.

Professor Hill’s survey also buttresses another conclusion popular here at ILYBYGTH: creationism and evolution are not mainly about what you know. Rather, they are questions about who you are. People do not simply pick creationism or evolution out of a neutral grab-bag of ideas. Creationists do not tend to abandon creationism in large numbers when they learn the ideas of evolution. Rather, creationism and atheistic evolution both seem most prevalent among people with recognizable clusters of identity markers. As Professor Hill concluded,

The most important takeaway here is that individual theological beliefs, practices, and identities are important, but they only become a reliable pathway to creationism or atheistic evolutionism when paired with certain contexts or certain other social identities. These positions are not free-floating ideas that individuals snatch from the air after considering all the alternatives; rather, they are found in certain social locations, and they become most plausible when shared with others (especially for creationists).

Read the results for yourself. There’s far more in the report than we can discuss here. For example, the survey raises a host of questions that we want to know more about:

  • Why are atheistic evolutionists so white?
  • Is certainty more important than knowledge?
  • How can we motivate those who don’t really care about creationism to get more involved in public policy debates?
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