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.