What’s Driving America’s Evolution Divide?

Despite the existence of nuanced religious positions on evolution, polls show Americans—including many former believers—have come to believe there’s an unbridgeable gulf between faith and science.

Gallop’s latest poll on evolution, taken in May, shows younger Americans rejecting creationism and embracing the idea that evolution is a purely naturalistic process—bad news for evangelical Christianity. The poll has asked the same questions since 1982, providing a provocative look at where America has been and may be heading.

Every two years, respondents have been asked: “[W]hich of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?” The three responses are:

—“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms 
of life, but God guided this process.”

—“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

—“God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

The numbers fluctuate, of course, but some trends can be discerned. The latest poll shows a significant jump from 15 to 19 percent of the population who believe that God plays no role in human origins. This coincides with—and is certainly related to—other polls showing that the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) are the fastest growing “religion” in the United States. Growth of the nones is a hot topic among American evangelicals. It is their pews that are emptying out and their positions on things like gay marriage, abortion, the role of women, and evolution that are being blamed for young people abandoning their churches. Thirty percent of college students now identify as nones. This coincides with greater acceptance of evolution among the younger demographic.

The “God plays no role” category is the only one on the Gallup poll with a consistent trajectory, rising steadily from nine percent in 1982 and reaching 19 percent this year, with only two one-percent regressions along the way. In contrast, the creationist position—God created humans 10,000 years ago—has held steady around 44 percent, with only minor fluctuations.

The God-guided-human-evolution category came in at its lowest point ever, however, which is the most curious feature of the new poll. Two consecutive declines have taken it from 38 percent in 2010—where it has hovered for decades—to 31 percent today.

In the origins debate, as in Washington politics, moderates are slowly going extinct.

The trajectories of these numbers are suggestive and correlate with other things we know. For example, young people who abandon organized religion often blame the “anti-science” culture of their church for their disenchantment. Religiosity, naturally, is highly correlated with rejection of evolution, so we should expect to see the “God plays no role” demographic increase unless something reverses the exodus of young people from the church. This seems unlikely, however, as the more significant issue of gay marriage has created an unbridgeable gap between most religious traditions and their young people. I talk to college students for a living, and somewhere near 100 percent of them reject their church’s position on gay marriage. And that number that is steadily hardening.

What is of greater interest to me, however, is the failure of the “middle ground” to capture more support. Believing that God guides evolution in some unspecified way is a “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” position, and I would have expected movement into this category. You can accept the science you learned in high school and simply affirm that, in some undefined sense, evolution is “God’s way of creating.” This is known as theistic evolution or evolutionary creation and has been championed vigorously by people like Francis Collins, Ken Miller (although he rejects the label) Sir John Polkinghorne, myself, and others. The BioLogos organization that Collins and I launched a few years ago, and the more recently formed Colossian Forum promote this view.  And it is also the view that has been consistently—if quietly—promoted at most of America’s evangelical colleges for decades. So why is it moving backwards rather than forwards?

This is an important question for the future of both American science and American Christianity. It matters to science because religiously generated suspicion of established science by well-funded right-wing groups like Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute undermines our ability to deal with practical problems, like climate change and vaccinations, as well as educate the next generation of scientists. (And this is in addition to the science denialism on the left. It also matters to religion because young American Christians, by the thousands, are rejecting a religion that tells them to reject science. Many respondents to the Gallup survey apparently perceive the choice to be between evolution and God, rather than between evolution-without-God and evolution-with-God.

My flag has been planted in this failing middle ground since before Gallup started asking people to choose sides. But, over those several decades I have been disappointed in how little progress we have made in articulating what it means to say that “God Guides Evolution.”  When the Intelligent Design movement got started, many of us were hopeful that it might move the conversation forward, but it remains mired in the same anti-evolutionary quicksand that gobbled up its predecessor, scientific creationism. It can do little more than say that God—or, they would insist, “an unknown intelligence”—is the explanation for this or that evolutionary puzzle.

Evolutionary creation/theistic evolution doesn’t fare much better, however. We can’t explain the difference between our position—“God guides evolution”—and that of the atheists—“evolution runs by itself.” Even such a basic question as the historicity of Adam and Eve is so divisive among evolutionary creationists that many propose a roster of mutually exclusive possibilities rather than address the question directly.

The latest poll suggests that the most robust positions on human origins in America are at the extremes, with an uneasy middle ground. In origins, as in Washington politics, moderates are slowly going extinct.