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?

Creation? Evolution? Both? Neither?

Those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates bump up against a frustratingly common factoid.  Article after article, both scholarly and popular, cite Gallup polls as proof that nearly half of American adults espouse a young-earth creationist position.  In fact, we might be better off thinking of a much smaller number.

In the pages of Christianity Today, sociologist Jonathan Hill suggested that the real numbers are much more complicated.  The problem with the Gallup polls are that they force people to pick the position on creation that comes closest to their belief.  We do not find out, for example, how much they care about the issue, or how certain they are about their beliefs.  Most tellingly, we do not find out what other views they also find convincing.  As any social scientist can tell us, people tend to say one thing about their beliefs and believe another.

Hill is not the only nerd to question Gallup’s high numbers.  Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education noted recently that poll numbers change as questions change.  Similarly, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer survey the surveys in their must-read Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that the structure of the survey and the wording of the questions can deliver very different perspectives on the numbers of Americans who believe in evolution or various types of creationism.

For example, two polls from 2005 came up with different results on the issue of teaching creationism in public schools.  One poll from Virginia Commonwealth University found that 21% of respondents favored teaching only creationism; one from Harris found 23% support for that position.  Pretty similar.  But the VCU poll concluded that 43% of Americans preferred public schools to teach a combination of evolution and creation in science classes.  The Harris poll put that number at 55%.  That’s a significant difference, one that can’t be explained away by hanging chads.  (For younger readers, “hanging chads” is an hilarious reference to an ancient election conundrum in the USA.)

Furthermore, when pollsters ask Americans different questions, they get—no surprise—different answers.  Gallup pollsters in 1999 asked if people would favor or oppose teaching creationism INSTEAD OF evolution in public schools.  Depending on who did the asking and when (Berkman and Plutzer review a handful of polls from 1999-2005), either a slim majority or a near-majority oppose such teaching.  The numbers vary from 54% opposed to 44% percent opposed.  That’s a big difference.

When Jonathan Hill conducted his BioLogos-funded survey, he found similar complications.  As he explains in the pages of CT, a better survey will allow respondents to separate out their specific beliefs about origins.  A better survey will allow respondents to explain how important each belief is to them.  Hill’s National Study of Religion and Human Origins asked respondents to specify their belief in each of three ideas.  Did humans evolve from other species?  Was God involved?  Were humans created within the last 10,000 years?  The familiar Gallup poll question lumps together all these notions into one young-earth creationist position.

But when Hill separated out these beliefs into three separate questions, he found that only 14% of respondents agreed with all three.  Only 10% called themselves “certain of their beliefs.”  And only 8% said that “it was important to them to have the right beliefs about human origins.”

Hill found similar dwindling numbers on the evolution side.  When pressed, the number of people who firmly and cantankerously cling to a belief that life came from evolution without the interference of any divine entity shrinks considerably.

What does it all mean?  Hill offers a stirring conclusion.  “If only eight percent of respondents,” he suggests,

are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty.

Of course, Hill is not just a neutral observer.  As do I, Hill hopes to find a middle ground, and his surveys find one.  Evangelical Christians, Hill suggests, would do well to put battles and controversies to the side, and focus on their broad shared beliefs.  For the wider society, I wonder if we might be able to do the same.