You Can't Educate People Into Believing in Evolution

Groups often fight over what gets taught in schools, but new research suggests people's religious community might have a greater effect on their beliefs about the origins of life.

If, as a great philosopher once said, "life's a bitch and then you die," what's the point of debating about the existence of evolution?

According to a new report by Calvin College assistant professor Jonathan Hill, many Americans do not think it's that important to have the "correct beliefs" on the origins of human life. His research was funded by the BioLogos Foundation, a pro-evolution, Christian organization founded by National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins.

"It’s important to know that a large portion of the population is unsure about their beliefs, and there is a large portion of the population that doesn’t care," Hill said in an interview.

In a nationally representative survey of more than 3000 people, Hill divided respondents in the survey into "creationists," "atheistic evolutionists," "theistic evolutionists," and "unsure," but even creating four categories is tricky. Under his definition, all "creationists believe that God created humans as part of a single, miraculous act," but some think that happened within the last 10,000 years (often called "young-earth creationists,"). Others believe the earth has been around much longer ("old-earth creationists"). That group accounts for about 37 percent of the population; another 16 percent accept the scientific evidence for evolution while still believing God was involved in creation in some way (or "theistic evolutionists"); 9 percent embrace evolution and reject God (or "atheistic evolutionists").

This leaves 39 percent who are unsure, or whose views don't fit into the categories typically used to frame this issue.

And that matters. For a long time, Gallup's survey on evolution and creationism has been the standard for opinion data on this topic; the organization's 2014 "Beliefs and Values" survey suggested that 42 percent of Americans are creationists, 31 percent are theistic evolutionists, and 19 percent are atheistic evolutionists. In his report, Hill argued that Gallup's numbers are wildly misleading. "The difference between Gallup and [this survey] is almost certainly due to Gallup respondents being forced to choose from limited options, even when many are unsure of what they believe or maintain beliefs that do not fit into the options available," he wrote.

Plus, a lot of people just don't care that much. Hill found that 58 percent of respondents said this topic is only "somewhat, not very, or not at all important" to them. People who held creationist views were the most emphatic about their beliefs; 64 percent of that group said they care about being "right," presumably in the metaphysical sense of rightness. But that still means roughly a third of that group doesn't care that much about cosmic correctness; and among people with other views on evolution and creation, the apathy was much stronger.

Percentage of People Who Feel It's Important to Be "Right" About the Origins of Human Life

In this chart, "raw percent" represents the percentage of people in the survey who answered a certain way; the "adjusted percent" represents "the best guess of the true population value after certain potential spurious factors are statistically adjusted for." (Jonathan Hill/The BioLogos Foundation)

Even if people don't personally care about being right, they do seem to care a lot about what's taught in science classrooms, particularly in public schools. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, there has been somewhat less controversy over teachers teaching creationism, said Josh Rosenau, the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education. In that case, the justices ruled that "the First Amendment doesn’t allow schools to present one particular view over another. If you explicitly talk about creationism, then someone can come after you," he said. "But there’s a longstanding aspect of creationist rhetoric that is a two-model view of the world." Teachers might present creationism and evolution as different explanations for the diversity of life on earth, for example, along with arguments for and against both ways of thinking. "If you weaken one [side], it's ipso facto an argument for the other," Rosenau said.

Even with the legal restrictions placed on teaching creationism in the classroom, many teachers still mention it in their lessons: A 2011 survey by Penn State professors Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that 13 percent of high-school biology teachers across the country spend at least an hour on creationism each school year, while another 5 percent endorse it in passing. An estimated 28 percent teach evolutionary biology according to the recommendations of the National Research Council; the rest don't advocate either view, "[disassociating] themselves from the very material they're expected to teach."

Often, this is because teachers want to avoid "controversy," the authors write. But all the anxiety around the origins of human life may partially be a matter of framing, Rosenau said.

"No creationist wakes up in the morning and says, 'I have really strong opinions about whether Archaeopteryx is the ancestor of modern birds,'" he said.* "Who are we as people? That’s the question that they think evolution is answering. What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be an animal?"

In other words, the cliche of pitting science against religion is a category error, to a certain extent: Evolutionary biology provides certain insights into the mechanisms of how human life has formed and changed over time, but it can't provide insight into the meaning behind those changes. Yet the meaning part is often what matters in vitriolic "debates" about the origins of life.

“The psychological need to see purpose, that is really interesting," said Jeffrey Hardin, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin, at the Faith Angle Forum in Miami on Tuesday. “Many Christians consider Neo-Darwinian theory to be dysteleological, or lacking in purpose." Hardin is himself an evangelical Christian; he often speaks with church communities about evolution in his work with the BioLogos Foundation. In these conversations, he said, many evangelicals point to statements like that of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, who wrote in his 1967 book, The Meaning of Evolution, "Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned." When this is echoed by outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Hardin said, "Evangelicals look at it and go, ‘I can’t accept that, and therefore I cannot accept thinking at all about evolutionary biology.'"

But ultimately, this may be what matters most for influencing Americans' opinions on the origins of life. In his report, Hill found that religious belief was the strongest determinant of people's views on evolution—much more so than education, socioeconomic status, age, political views, or region of the country. More importantly, being part of a community where people had stated opinions on evolution or creation, like a church, had a big impact on people's views. "Creationists are substantially more likely to belong to networks who agree with them about human origins," he wrote. "Likewise, creationists are more likely to belong to congregations who have settled positions that reject human evolution."

What that means is that "debates" about evolution and creationism actually might not be that effective. "For those invested in the position that human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, the findings from
[this survey] tell us that persuasion needs to move beyond a purely intellectual level," Hill wrote. "Ideas are important, but ideas only persuade when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them." For those who value the widespread acceptance of evolution, this is an important insight: There may be more effective ways to persuade people to consider principles of biology without trying to debunk the existence of God.

"This is the century of biology, and evolution is the foundation of biology," Rosenau said. "Being open to those conversations is really important for scientists."

As for those who are concerned with being cosmically correct, like the hardcore creationists or the Richard Dawkinses of the world, there may not be many options available by way of persuasion. Classroom discussions aren't the most important factor in shaping people's views, and many people are either unsure or don't care about being right.

It seems that most people simply believe what they're going to believe about the metaphysical nature of the universe.

* An earlier version of this piece quoted Josh Rosenau as stating, "No creationist wakes up in the morning and says, 'I have really strong opinions about whether Archaeopteryx is the ancestor of the modern world,'" rather than "modern birds." We regret the error.