Jerry Coyne has a post up reporting on new polling data on science and religion coming out of Virginia Commonwealth University. Jerry notes that the numbers for the evolution questions are broadly consistent with what past surveys have found. I mostly agree, but there was one number that jumped out at me. Here was the question:
Which of these statements comes closest to your views on the origin of biological life: biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process, biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process, God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time?
The option, “biological life developed over time from simple substances but God did not guide this process,” was selected by 18% of the people. That struck me as higher than normal.
Then I remembered the numbers from the long-running Gallup poll on this question. In the Gallup poll the option was phrased, “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”
The percentage of respondents selecting this option has grown slowly but steadily since 1999. It was 9% in 1999, then 12% in 2001, then 13% in 2004 and 2006, then 14% in 2007 and 2008.
Now we have 18% in the VCU survey.
These polls are fraught with peril, since it is very difficult to capture people’s religious beliefs with simple poll questions. For example, the phrasing in the VCU question said simply that God did not guide the process. A person could well believe in God and still select that option. The Gallup phrasing (God had no part in the process) is far more stark. What if you believe God created the initial conditions in which evolution unfolds? Doesn’t that constitute having a part in the process?
So caution is always needed. But with this number growing steadily over all of these polls, to the point of doubling in ten years, it is certainly possible that there is a real trend here.
I do not know the explanation for these numbers, and I have no interest in speculating.
It does seem interesting, though, that while many people are wringing their hands over the supposedly pernicious effect of the New Atheists on evolution acceptance and education, the numbers show not the slightest evidence of a backlash. To the extent that the numbers are moving at all, they seem to be going in the right direction.