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Creationism has looser grip on the faithful than imagined, survey suggests

18 December 2023


THE world is not as polarised over religion and science as the media may represent it to be, a new study from the University of Birmingham suggests. It records, for example, a “widespread misperception that religious individuals would find it difficult to accept evolution”.

A YouGov poll, conducted for the project in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the United States, finds a mismatch between what people think religious people believe and what they do believe. Forty-three per cent of the UK public in the survey were unsure or disagreed that evolution explained human consciousness, and half of them — and one in three religious/spiritual people — thought that religion had more negative societal consequences than positive.

The majority thought that religious people would struggle to accept evolutionary science. A minority in the UK — 12 per cent — endorsed a creationist perspective. While levels in the US were higher, at 24 per cent, this is a lower figure than generally perceived.

Naturalistic evolution is the most common view supported in all seven countries, and three in five of the UK adults found it easy to accept evolutionary science with reference to their personal beliefs.

Twelve per cent of the UK respondents chose the statement: “Humans and other living beings were created by God, and have always existed in their current form.” The view most commonly supported — 46 per cent in the UK sample, and 42 per cent in Canada — is: “Humans and other living beings evolved over time as a result of natural selection in which God played no part.”

There proved to be an age factor at play. Thus, UK 16- to 24-year-olds reported higher knowledge of evolutionary science than those aged 65 and over.

It is suggested in the study that one of the issues with the traditional way of measuring perceptions of evolutionary science — which include Creationist, God-guided Eve, and Naturalistic Eve — is that it is focused on God and is “therefore primed to make people think about monotheistic faith traditions and respondents’ own religious/non-religious identity”.

There are high levels of agreement with the statement: “Evolutionary processes can explain how all organisms, including humans, have developed and continue to develop,” and also with the statement: “Both animals and humans have evolved from other forms of life.”

The survey finds that most people see science as important to their sense of who they are and how they view the world. Seven out of ten people in the Spanish survey were most likely to view it as important; respondents in Germany were the least likely to view science in this way.

The survey suggests: “There is a common perception that the media represents religion and evolution as being in more conflict than people themselves perceive. Public opinion is still split when thinking about whether it would be possible to believe in a God or higher power and still hold the view that life develops due to evolutionary science.”

Three in five people in the UK sample thought that someone who was religious would find it difficult to accept evolutionary science, followed by close to four in ten who said this about someone who was spiritual. Only about one in ten said that someone who was atheist or not religious/spiritual would find this difficult to accept.

The perceived reliability of information sources varied across academic disciplines. While the majority in the seven countries perceived experts in biology, medicine, chemistry, engineering, and evolutionary science to be reliable, experts in political sciences, theology, and philosophy were ranked considerably lower.

People in Germany (12 per cent) were the least likely to view religious leaders or figures as reliable, reflecting their lower perceptions of theology as reliable, and lower likelihood of identifying as religious, the study suggested.

Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker, who led the research, comments: “It shows that there can often be issues that unite rather than divide us across communities that might ordinarily be perceived to be in conflict.

“In times when we might often feel like people and different communities are increasingly opposed on key issues, it is important to remember that this might similarly be linked to popular misconceptions based on a process of projection and stereotyping — much like we have found with debates about evolutionary science, creationism, and religious beliefs.”

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