Views about evolution are changing, but a new Gallup poll shows that Americans haven’t given up a belief in divine intervention in science.
The belief in young-Earth creationism – that God created mankind in its present form within the past 10,000 years – has declined to a new low since Gallup began asking people in 1982 about the origin of humanity.
At the same time, most Americans believe God had some role in humanity’s development, whether creation looked like the biblical book of Genesis or evolution over millions of years.
Some see the poll results as positive. Others see them as a sign that religion has been stripped from the classroom, including in a place like Kansas, where supporters and skeptics of evolution have clashed for years.
The Gallup poll, released in May, reported that 38 percent of Americans believe in young-Earth creationist human origins, down from a high of 47 percent in 1999 and 1993.
People who answered the question by saying that man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but with God guiding the process, also were at 38 percent.
Only 19 percent answered that man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life without involvement from God, equal to the response in 2014.
This was the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1982 that belief in God’s creation of man in his current form has not been the most common response. This year it tied with the belief that God guided the process of evolution.
The reason why
It’s not easy to teach an evolution course at a Christian school, said Alan Maccarone, professor of biology at Friends University. For him, the results of the poll are a reason to be excited.
Raised Catholic, Maccarone considers himself an evolutionary biologist and said he sees no conflict between his faith and evolution.
Often, he deals with students rejecting or showing antipathy toward evolution, he said.
“People don’t really understand what evolution is,” Maccarone said. “They just know they don’t like it.”
Perhaps education is making the change, Maccarone said. Another reason could be the amount of public information available in television series, movies, the media and more.
“Maybe people are just reading more and seeing more and coming to accept to a greater extent the idea that evolution is a valid concept,” Maccarone said.
Robert Lattimer also pointed to education as a reason for people becoming more comfortable with evolution, something his organization has fought.
Lattimer is president of Citizens for Objective Public Education, a group that filed a legal complaint in 2013 about Kansas’ science standards, saying they “use incremental, progressive, comprehensive and deceptive methods to establish a non-theistic religious worldview that is materialistic/atheistic and that promotes the core tenets of Religious (“Secular”) Humanism.”
Eventually, the Tenth Circuit Court determined that parents and students were not personally injured by adoption of the standards. The U.S. Supreme Court denied reviewing the petition on Nov. 14.
“Public school science standards in recent years have emphasized unguided evolution, so probably more students are learning about it,” Lattimer wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time, the schools have been downplaying theistic beliefs – resulting in a loss in religious faith in the younger generation.”
Evolution in Kansas
Citizens for Objective Public Education’s 2013 complaint hasn’t been the only challenge to evolutionary teachings in Kansas.
A 2013 article by the Associated Press reported that “Kansas has had six different sets of science standards in the past 15 years, as conservative Republicans skeptical of evolution gained and lost board majorities.”
In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove references to evolution and the age of the Earth from science standards, a decision that was overturned in 2001.
In 2005, the board approved standards critical of evolution – guidelines that were repealed two years later.
In 2013, Kansas adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which teach evolution, the subject of the lawsuit.
As vice president of the Discovery Institute, John West thinks the poll is a positive development.
The Discovery Institute advocates for intelligent design, the belief that life was designed and created by an intelligent entity. In 2005, the Seattle-based group played a critical role in the Kansas evolution hearings.
Intelligent design is a belief not necessarily encompassed by the Gallup poll, and West points out that his own beliefs wouldn’t fit into any of the three categories in the poll. Although he believes the universe is billions of years old, he is “more skeptical” of whether humans evolved.
Yet West notes that the last time the poll was taken in 2014, the people who chose an answer that involved God came to a total of 73 percent. Today, the number is 76 percent.
“What didn’t change … is the percentage of people believing that human beings developed without any guidance is stuck at 19 percent,” said West, previously an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University. “I think that probably the primary thing it says is how high a bar or what a tough challenge it is for people trying to argue that a non-intelligent process can produce us.”
Many religions and denominations view their beliefs as compatible with evolution, including Buddhism, Catholicism, Judaism, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Other groups such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention have rejected the theory of evolution in favor of the literal Genesis account of creation or intelligent design.
When he taught, Harry Gregory, who serves on the board of Kansas Citizens for Science, tried to stay away from arguments about whether a deity was involved in evolution. Gregory describes himself as “nontheistic” but spent about 10 years teaching biology and environmental science – including evolution – at Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School.
Kansas Citizens for Science was founded in 1999, largely in reaction to the state’s anti-evolution science standards. Gregory testified several times as a teacher.
“Since in the last 20 years since this issue became public, more biology teachers are teaching about evolution in the classroom,” Gregory said. “Prior to that and even still a little bit today, biology teachers generally stayed away from evolution because they didn’t want to create controversy.”