How Many Americans REALLY Believe in a Young Earth?

The new numbers are out. And they are, well, new. But before we leap to any conclusions about the numbers of Americans who believe in a recent divine creation of our species, we need to look at the full story.

Here’s what we know: The new Gallup poll about creationism shows a dip in numbers of respondents who think humanity was created in “pretty much its present form” within the past 10,000 years or so. Since the 1980s, the number has hovered at about 44-47% of respondents. This year, it dropped to only 38%.

gallup data 2017

Are we getting better at science? Or only getting better at answering poll questions?

We might want to say that the radical form of young-earth creationism is losing steam. And it might really be. But there’s a more nuanced conclusion we can draw if we scratch a little deeper at the numbers.

Before we begin, though, we need to lodge a complaint about terminology. Gallup calls people “creationists” only if they believe that humanity was created in its current form within the last 10,000 years. Sure, those folks are creationists, but so are the many people who believe God created humanity over a longer stretch of time. Calling only young-earth types “creationists” means taking sides in a family feud between branches of the evangelical/creationist family, as I’m arguing in my current book about evangelical higher education. I don’t think the Gallup folks really mean to do that and they should take a hard look at their terminology.

But let’s put those gripes to one side for now. Gallup gives us some demographic info about the YEC respondents. Not surprisingly, a large majority of people who go to church every week (65%) opted for a recent direct creation of humanity. And exactly half of non-Catholic Christian respondents did.

This demographic info helps us see a more likely real portrait of Americans’ beliefs about the origins of our species. When we ask more targeted questions about people’s beliefs, we get a far more complicated picture. Political scientist George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati crunched some different polling data from Harris. Of those who picked Gallup’s recent-creation option, Bishop found, over half (56%) also believed that dinosaurs had gone extinct over 65 million years ago. Over half (54%) also believed that all non-human animals share common ancestors.

In other words, among the people who picked Gallup’s recent-creation-of-humans option, lots of them also believe in evolution and an ancient earth.

Other poll questions have come up with similarly confounding results. The 2009 Harris poll, for example, found that only 29% of respondents agreed that “Human beings evolved from earlier species.” But a much larger 53% of respondents said they “believe Charles Darwin’s theory which states that plants animals and humans have evolved over time.” With such drastic differences, it’s hard to know what Americans truly believe.

So what can we make of all these higgledy-piggledy poll results? Here’s what I think: If we want to know how many people want to identify politically as young-earth creationists, then Gallup’s numbers are trustworthy. Lots of active evangelicals know that they are supposed to think that our species has been created recently.

But if we want to know what people really think about evolution and creation, the Gallup numbers are not very helpful. In most cases, as I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, people don’t really have clear, coherent ideas about evolution and creation. Most of us hold in our heads a grab bag of ideas and beliefs, facts and falsehoods.

We don’t find it difficult, for some reason, to believe in both Adam & Eve and evolution. We don’t find it challenging to accept the notion of an ancient earth while still holding on to our belief in a recent creation. In short, what Americans believe about creationism and evolution is far more jumbled than what we tell pollsters we believe.

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  1. That’s true of any poll results and opinion groups — people Responses that have to do with identity politics orthodoxies. Only a few will be ardent and articulate about their ideology. Does that make them “not real” creationists, republicans, or what have you? Maybe it makes them fence sitters or more moveable than they’d like to admit, as they are influenced primarily by a perception of group-acceptable ideas rather than thinking about the merits of those ideas for themselves.

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