Last Friday I made some remarks about polling and evolution and atheism that got some knickers in twists. To summarize: Kevin Padian was asked to comment on a stupid stunt by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, who are passing out copies of the Origin of Species along with a foreword that alleges Darwin caused the Holocaust. Padian was appropriately dismissive, and noted that “The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn?t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.” Jerry Coyne called this “an anti-atheist crack.”
I responded that I didn’t see the crack, and I didn’t really see a factual problem.
Padian’s statement likened those of us who think there is a conflict between science and relgion to our hated enemies the religious fundamentalists. Among the smart set, fundamentalists are just about the lowest form of life there is. It is also generally considered a bad thing to be described as extreme. Given that, I’d say ?crack? was a polite way of describing Padian’s statement.
This (like Larry Moran’s roughly equivalent line of argument and Coyne’s original complaint) strikes me as tendentious, but I’m not going to dictate what other people do or don’t find offensive. Whether something is or isn’t “a crack” is subjective and probably not productive to debate. But is it “an anti-atheist crack”? No. If it’s a crack at all, it’s a crack against a certain group of atheists, a group which, on the axis of belief Padian is clearly describing, is at an extreme. And it isn’t like Padian was inventing criteria by which to compare this group of atheists with a group of fundamentalists, it’s a natural comparison once the conversation turns to the compatibility of science and religion. If people are uncomfortable with the parallel, the solution isn’t to mau-mau anyone who points it out, but to make the parallel less inescapable. As for Ophelia Benson’s complaint that this is all part of “the relentless othering of atheism,” it would help for the comment to have been about atheism, rather than about the views of a fraction of atheists.
Jason spends most of his time on a less subjective topic, the question of whether “a majority” finds evolution and religion incompatible. I had noted that the claim of a majority (a claim which People added to the quote) is problematic, but that the gist is not unreasonable:
There are also a bunch of people in the middle of the spectrum of belief who do not think that. Whether these represent a majority of Americans depends how you ask the question and what you do with undecided responses, but it is absolutely the case that most Americans belong to religious groups whose governing bodies have asserted the compatibility of science (including evolution) and their brand of religion.
Even before turning to the facts of the issue, we should note that Josh pretty blatantly moved the goalposts. Since atheists and religious fundamentalists together represent a small percentage of the population (even without the nebulous adjective ?extreme? in front of them), Padian’s statement amounts to saying that there is an extreme fringe who thinks science and religion are incompatible, while ?everyone else? disagrees. In context that ?everyone else? is clearly meant to imply ?just about everyone.? He does, at least, try to soften things with his final sentence (though as I will show the public opinion polls do not provide clear support even for that), but the fact remains it does not follow from what came before.
The first problem here is that Jason is ignoring the possibility that lots of people might have no opinion (or no firm opinion) on the matter of evolution/religion compatibility. This is a problem that plagues his entire treatment of the polls, but it’s a reading of Padian’s statement that strikes me as utterly unfair, interpreting Padian in a maximally ungenerous light.
As for “moving the goalposts,” I plead guilty. I’m not trying to defend the quote, I’m first problematizing it and then advancing a different claim that’s surely correct. I’m happy to argue about whether most Americans adhere to their church’s doctrines, but that’s a debate that cuts both ways. A central claim of the anti-religion atheists is that religious dogma is dangerous people people blindly follow it. If people do not in fact follow their denomination’s dogma, what does that do to these arguments against religion? Maybe nothing, but it’s a fact often ignored as people try to parse this or that Papal statement and attribute the Pope’s beliefs to all Catholics.
So I have no problem with this statement of Jason’s:
Padian said nothing about the governing bodies of American religions. Such bodies can say whatever they want, but it is simply absurd to think they are necessarily speaking on behalf even of a majority of their members. ? Padian also did not say that ?a bunch? of people in the middle don’t see a problem. As noted, he was saying far more than that.
Or actually, I have one objection. We don’t really know that he said “a majority,” or whether he said “a bunch,” or something else entirely. The reporter introduced the idea of “a majority” into the quotation, perhaps erroneously. My confidence in People‘s ability to accurately describe complex social issues is decidedly limited.
Rosenhouse inaccurately reframes Padian’s claim, asking “Is it true that everyone, save for a fringe of atheists and fundamentalists, think that religion and evolution get along swimmingly?” Again, this ignores the possibility that some people are undecided, and if they are, how we should count them.
He cites Gallup polls to show that belief/acceptance of evolution is quite low. Which is true and unfortunate, but doesn’t speak to why people reject evolution. They may have been misled by creationist propaganda into thinking that evidence for evolution is weak, for instance. Or they may be unsure whether they can be pro-evolution and religious, and err on the side of caution. Maybe they’d change their mind if they spent more time talking about the issue.
To provide further evidence, Rosenhouse cites a Pew poll from February, rather than looking at the more recent one conducted this summer. In the earlier poll, Pew asked whether people thought evolution was “the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth.” Polls consistently show that questions about human evolution score lower than the same question in terms of the evolution of all life (which logically includes humans). Clearly people are not responding with carefully thought-through analysis, but with off-the-cuff gut reactions. The more recent Pew poll found that 61% of the public agrees that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” Roughly a third attribute that evolution solely to natural processes, while 22% attribute it to some sort of divine guidance (a position which might cover ID, but also the broad category of theistic evolution). Slightly less than a third said humans always existed in their present form.
In that survey, people who attend church once or more a week were more likely to reject any form of evolution (49%, with 14% backing natural evolution and 21% favoring divine guidance), while people who attend monthly or yearly had a plurality (36%) favoring evolution by natural causes, a quarter backing theistic evolution, and another quarter rejecting evolution. A majority of those who rarely or never attend church back evolution by natural causes alone (51%), with 19% favoring theistic evolution and 17% rejecting evolution.
This is not the portrait of a society in which people firmly oppose evolution on religious grounds. By my math, about 38% of people who attend services with some regularity reject evolution. Why they do so isn’t clear. Whether they think it’s incompatible with religion per se, or think that it’s incompatible with certain specific beliefs that they hold (but not with belief in god more generally), or if they don’t know what evolution is, or think the evidence for it is weak, we simply don’t know.
To get a baseline, we can look at a poll from 2004. The Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes asked half the sample whether “human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” a standard question from the National Science Board’s measures of scientific literacy. The other half were asked whether “according to the scientific theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The first statement got 44% support, while 74% supported the second. This suggests two interesting things. First, about 30% of the public knows what evolution is and rejects it. Second up to 25% of the public does not know what evolution is.
This explains how Gallup could consistently show roughly a third of the public backing evolution while Pew gets nearly twice the support. Opinions are ill-formed and people are making up their minds on the spot based on cues embedded in the question. Gallup’s questions explicitly pit “belief” in evolution against belief in God: this treats evolution and god as competitors, and invites respondents to answer what they believe rather than what they know.
Pew asked people “which comes closer to your view,” and doesn’t ask about God, only about how the human race originated. This still conflates personal belief with evidence, but doesn’t bring religious belief into the matter.
As George Bishop notes in an essay on his website (currently defunct) and reprinted in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education 27:5-6:
All of this goes to show how easily what Americans appear to believe about human origins can be readily manipulated by how the question is asked. As we have seen, depending on the wording of the question the percentage of apparent biblical creationists can vary from as little as 42 percent to as high as 64 percent; the percentage of theistic evolutionists or believers in ?intelligent design? from as much as 41 percent to as little as 10-18 percent; and the percentage of Darwinist or naturalistic evolutionists, from as low as 10-13 percent to as high as 33-46 percent.
What are we to conclude from these messy results about something as supposedly fundamental as Americans? religious beliefs about the role of God in creating human life? Are Americans poles apart on this perennial ?culture war? question, as some would have us believe, or merely polls apart? American public opinion on this matter would seem to be a lot more malleable than we have heretofore suspected.
From all of this, I don’t believe any clear statement about what a majority of Americans think of a complex issue like the relationship of science and religion can be clearly adduced. Indeed, even if one asks explicitly, it’s hard to know what those results mean.
But that would at least be better than nothing. The recent Pew poll asked three relevant questions:
More than half of the public (55%) says that science and religion are ?often in conflict.? Close to four-in-ten (38%) take the opposite view that science and religion are ?mostly compatible.? Yet the balance is reversed when people are asked about science?s compatibility with their own religious beliefs. Only 36% say science sometimes conflicts with their own religious beliefs and six-in-ten (61%) say it does not.
When those who say science conflicts with their own beliefs are asked to describe the ways in which these conflicts arise, 41% refer specifically to evolution, creationism, Darwinism and debates about the origin of life. Another 15% cite differences over the beginning of life, primarily concerns about abortion (12%) but also cloning and birth control.
So evolution is the topic most likely to make people feel a conflict between science and religion, but a majority of respondents who think there is a conflict between science and religion did not list evolution among the three topics which might cause of that conflict. And in any event, most people see no conflict for themselves (though they seem to think it conflicts for others).
Even among those who identify as creationists, equal numbers say that they find science to conflict with their religious view or not to conflict. A quarter of those who think natural processes alone can explain evolution find science to conflict with their religious views, though not necessarily about evolution.
So, to the extent we have clear data on the question, a majority of Americans do not see a conflict between science (including evolution) and their own religion (but thinks that conflicts exist in general), and the public is generally divided into three parts: a third who support evolution, a third to a quarter who reject it absolutely, and a group in the middle who are not sure. These people are inclined to favor evolution if it is presented as a scientific idea, and not presented as conflicting with religious belief. They haven’t thought much about the issue, and if reached in the right venue through the right means, they can be brought into the pro-evolution fold.
Larry Moran, responding to my earlier post, objects that these polling questions are irrelevant. Critiquing me and Padian, he says:
He uses the argument of popularity to support his position. Imagine that he lived in a country where a majority of citizens were atheists and believed that religion was incompatible with science. Would that change his opinion? Why should non-Americans, like Richard Dawkins for example, form an opinion based on whether or not it agrees with a majority of Americans? It’s a silly argument. Either religion and science are compatible or they aren’t. Since when did the opinion of the average American become relevant in debates like that?
This would be a fair point if we were just looking at polls of whether people accept evolution. Whether 1% or 99% support evolution, it’s still the best available scientific theory, and it would be foolish to practice science any differently because of polls.
But religion isn’t science. It’s a social activity. By changing people’s minds, we change how religion operates in society, and how people define these boundaries. If 1% of Americans think science and religion are incompatible, then they are incompatible. If 99% think they are compatible, then they are compatible. America falls right in the middle, with a slight majority favoring personal compatibility while recognizing that conflict exists in society. And that belief is malleable in various ways and for various reasons.
Religion is not some monolithic and unchanging entity. It’s different now than it was a century ago, and it’ll be different in another century. Cognitive research strongly suggests that we will never eliminate religion (or other, related, faith-based notions). Religion as a social institution will shift as society shifts. Europeans (and Canadians) have shifted away from organized religion, but have taken on New Age beliefs, toxic nationalisms, and other faiths. Those beliefs are generally friendly toward evolution, but set themselves against scientific advances in genetically modified crops, to choose one example. A similar shift in America is possible, and the question is whether it is desirable and, if so, how to do it.