Evolution skeptical: not just fundamentalists

By Razib Khan | October 30, 2011 11:36 am


In the comments below Christopher Mims states:

But evolution? It seems as if denial of evolution comes from a place so basic — religious fundamentalism — that I wonder whether something like this could ever have even the slightest impact.

It’s hard to deny the relationship of religious fundamentalism and evolution denial and skepticism. But, I think it’s important to remember that in the United States the large critical mass of evolution-denying religious fundamentalists has resulted in a “bleed over” of the stance to people who aren’t religious fundamentalists. I know this anecdotally from friends who were of Roman Catholic and Mormon backgrounds who presumed that their religious orientation precluded an acceptance of evolution. In fact, my own first awareness that people might actually not believe in evolution came via a conversation with an evolution skeptic friend who was a nominal Roman Catholic. Nominal in that his family actually never went to church.

What Paul Bloom’s research suggests is that humans find the Creationist narrative intuitively plausible. But, the critical issue is that those who aren’t indoctrinated against the idea of evolution can be convinced of its plausibility.

Let’s look at how this distributes across society using the General Social Survey. The variable BIBLE asks if people think that the Bible is the actually word of god, the inspired word of god, or a book of fables, etc. This seems to be a reasonable approximation of whether one is a fundamentalist, a non-fundamentalist who still accepts the revealed nature of the Bible, or someone who denies the supernatural grounding of the Bible in totality. There are two evolution related questions I can cross with BIBLE. EVOLVED, which asks if humans developed from an earlier species of animal with a true/false response, and SCITEST4, which asks the same question but has a more graded set of responses. Please note that EVOLVED was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s, while SCITEST4 was asked in the 1990s.

Bible is…. (BIBLE)
Evolution is…
(EVOLVED) Word of God Inspired Word of God Book of Fables
True 23 58 87
False 77 42 13
Definitely True 6 13 36
Probably True 21 37 44
Probably Not True 17 19 13
Definitely Not True 56 30 7
Evolution is…. (EVOLVED)
Bible is….
(BIBLE) True False
Word of God 15 54
Inspire Word 54 41
Book of Fables 31 5
Evolution is…. (SCITEST4)
(BIBLE) Definitely True Probably True Probably Not True Definitely Not True
Word of God 14 22 33 54
Inspire Word 47 57 55 43
Book of Fables 39 21 12 3

The columns above add up to 100%. So you see that of those who believe that evolution is “Definitely Not True,” 43% are people who think that the Bible is the revealed, but not literal, word of god. I highlighted in red what I think are the “low hanging fruit” when it comes to evolution acceptance. Nearly 50% of Americans doubtful of evolution are not religious fundamentalists!  Any sort of outreach is probably optimally aimed at these people. Consider for example that in the 2000s ~80% of Roman Catholics ages 18-35 accepted evolution, while only 50% of those age 65 and over did.

Now, as for the appropriate strategy to push the issue on the margins, that’s a different issue altogether….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Creationism, Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Creationism, Evolution
  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/ Mustapha Mond

    “Now, as for the appropriate strategy to push the issue on the margins, that’s a different issue altogether….”

    Considering the seemingly ineradicable nature of human belief in the supernatural, selective breeding appears as the only viable long-term solution to arrive at its eradication.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    eradication of what? there’s religious reasons in many traditions to accept geocentrism, but few religionists accept that now.

  • Ivan Berg

    A conclusive argument that evolution is true.

    All Southern California Emergency Rooms include a chest x-ray for admission. The general population is being fried because uncontrolled Mexican influx is poxy wth EDR-TB. To only x-ray the vector is racial profiling. One eagerly anticipates Buruli ulcer coming north, also endemic to Mexico.

    Can Homeland Severity catch an example of Mycobacterium ulcerans evolution?

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    I’ve encountered a few Conservative Jews who have problems with evolution also. (In Judaism the Conservative movement is the moderate movement that is essentially less hardline as Orthodox but more traditional than the Reform). The first time this happened I was a little shocked.

  • S.J. Esposito

    I’ve encountered many evolutionists who seem to believe that those that deny evolution are all, or must be, fundamentalists. And obviously, this is just not true. The fact of the matter is that many people who are deniers or skeptics of evolution choose creationism as an alternative, but do not necessarily live a fundamentalist lifestyle.

    I chalk this up, in my own thinking, to the role religious education plays in the lives of the children of those who aren’t fundamentally religious. There’s a temporal element to it — for example Catholic children usually learn the story of creation before they even encounter evolution. This undoubtedly creates a bias at a very early age, but it doesn’t really lead to fundamentalism, nor does it stem from it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #5, don’t ignore social norms. people without a strong interest in science “go along” with the majority views, and if the local milieu argues that evolution == atheism, then if you aren’t an atheist…. (this seems to be what happened in the case of a few nominally catholic kids who believed their religion dictates that they reject evolution; they weren’t too religious or knowledgeable, but they were told by friends that christianity was not compatible with evolution).

  • bob sykes

    There is another issue buried here. That is the truth or falsity of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. If one polls university faculty, the great majority of which are secular socialists, one finds that nearly everyone believes in evolution. But if you probe further, you will find that a very large majority of the humanities and social scientists deny the Theory of Natural Selection. They are in fact Lamarckians, with a few Spencerians thrown in. A very good example of denialism by a university philosophy professor is David Stove’s “Darwinian Fairytales,” Encounter Books, NY.

    A number of Popes in the 20th Century agreed that evolution is true, but that is not binding Church doctrine; it is papal opinion and guidance. At the same time, much of the Church’s hierarchy is dubious about natural selection.

    I should also point out that socialist doctrine is implicitly anti-natural selection and Larmarckian. Socialists assume both a human blank slate and lack of significant variation among populations (no hbd). How this coheres with a belief of evolution from animal predecessor (universally accepted) is ignored.

    So, denial of the modern biological theory of evolution is in fact very wide spread, and it is not limited to a few fundamentalist or evangelical Christians.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/ Mustapha Mond

    “eradication of what?”

    Why, belief in the supernatural, of course!

  • Robin

    I agree that there are many non-fundamentalists who might be more easily persuaded to accept evolution, but please don’t give up on the fundamentalists, especially the younger ones. As someone who identified as a Christian fundamentalist in my youth, I can tell you that religious convictions are *not* set in stone. My training as a biologist opened my eyes to evidence I’d never encountered as a child, and being a reasonable person, I eventually felt I could no longer hold onto fundamentalism while being intellectually honest. I became agnostic for many years, and only recently joined a faith community that does *not* require blind acceptance of the creation myths in Genesis. I’m so grateful that my biology teachers in college never gave up on me and continued to present information, even when it seemed impossible that I would ever accept it.

    I also have to point out that getting people to accept evolution is only part of the solution. You also have to get them to really understand the history of the Bible and to see it from a more critical perspective. When I took some serious religion classes in college, I learned so much about how the Bible actually came to be that I eventually realized it simply couldn’t be a text that came straight from the mouth of God; rather, I finally understood that it’s a collection of writings put together by many different people over many hundreds of years, each with his own agenda and goals.

    At the same time, I think you have to reassure people that letting go of the creation myths and accepting evolution doesn’t mean they have to give up faith altogether. Just because the Bible isn’t 100% true doesn’t mean that there aren’t truths within the Bible. And just because you believe in evolution doesn’t mean you have to forsake spirituality. People like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris aren’t helping at all, in my opinion, because they keep perpetuating the stereotype that all evolutionists are not only atheists but also anti-religion of any kind. And many people–even if they don’t go to a house of worship regularly–don’t want to think of themselves as anti-religion. You need to have some very visible counter-examples to Dawkins and Harris if you want to reach those people.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    If one polls university faculty, the great majority of which are secular socialists, one finds that nearly everyone believes in evolution.

    so do you have any polls in mind? or do you just posit hypothetical polls to support your impression?

    A very good example of denialism by a university philosophy professor is David Stove’s “Darwinian Fairytales,” Encounter Books, NY.

    that’s just bullshit. i read the stove book, and it was one of the weirdest and most idiosyncratic attacks on evolution out there. don’t mislead anyone by stating that stove is a good example of anything.

    I should also point out that socialist doctrine is implicitly anti-natural selection and Larmarckian. Socialists assume both a human blank slate and lack of significant variation among populations

    i see where your coming from, but your delivery makes you sound like a precocious 7 year old. e.g., jack london and h. g. wells are famous examples, though most people are probably not aware that doyen of biometry, karl pearson, was a socialist.

  • http://sidudoexisto.blogspot.com Jorge Laris

    Religious fundamentalist are minority compered to not fundamentalist religious… that has something to do.

  • Markk

    Yes I can add another anecdote. I bowl with a Lutheran guy. A public grade school teacher who teaches in the city. He was definitely believing that evolution is bunk, and thought I, with a (lapsed, or nominal as you say) Catholic background, must think the same. It is really helpful for people like these to have the Pope’s acknowledgement of evolution – no matter how much other conditions he throws in – it is a powerful force for people. It is in little things like that, where some statements make a huge difference but are not the absolute statements that many pro-evolution people demand.

    There is definitely a – humans aren’t evolving anymore – trope that was even on BBC podcasts a few weeks ago. Underlying the BBC thing was that the rate of evolution was slowing down because effective population sizes for humans are growing so big, but I never could figure out what the rate of evolution meant. The rate of genetic changes sure, but that to me isn’t the whole story. Suppose some small genetic change could have 6 fingered people around relatively quickly and even though it was a small change, wouldn’t people say that was a large evolutionary rate?
    So things like morphology or big behavior changes based on genetics (like drinking milk) are part of what I think of as evolutionary change. These to me are hard to get a rate for that I can relate to anything.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I bowl with a Lutheran guy.

    depends on the type of lutheran in terms of your expectations. the missouri synod is rather theological conservative, while the evangelical lutherans are more liberal.

    no, human evolution is not stopping. i assume you heard steve jones talking about this? no one knows what jones is really talking about….


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #11, broadly construed ~50% of american protestants are ‘fundamentalist’ (i’m not using a narrow technical definition here).

  • S.J. Esposito


    I’m curious; when you said “this seems to be what happened in the case of a *few* nominally catholic kids…” were you implying that only a minority of nominally catholic kids are raised in the manner that I said above? I am under the impression that *most* nominal Catholics raise their children to believe in the story of Genesis as a theory of human origins, or at least a variation of it.

    Bob Sykes, is there data to support the claim that a “great majority” of university faculty are secular socialists, or is this pure speculation?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ” were you implying that only a minority of nominally catholic kids are raised in the manner that I said above? I am under the impression that *most* nominal Catholics raise their children to believe in the story of Genesis as a theory of human origins, or at least a variation of it.

    the catholic church has a complex and not definitive position on this issue. you can start here to follow the details:


    just remember that protestant scriptural literalism has been a minority position in most christian churches outside of protestantism. some of the earliest anti-literalist tracts pointing out the contradictions in such an interpretation come from german catholic apologists in the 16th century.

  • beanfeast

    “Consider for example that in the 2000s ~80% of Roman Catholics ages 18-35 accepted evolution, while only 50% of those age 65 and over did.”

    Do the 50% of Catholics aged over 65 really matter in this debate?

    1) They aren’t going to be producing any more indoctrinated little Catholic babies.
    2) They have obviously failed to successfully indoctrinate their children & grandchildren since only 20% of 18-35 group share their parents view on evolution.
    3) Specifically targeting them is likely to be a waste of time and money since they probably aren’t going to be around that much longer anyway.

  • S.J. Esposito

    Razib, thanks for the link. He states something, rather poignantly, at the end that I think is very relevant:

    “For while the Vatican maintains its silence on the challenge of genomics, Catholics in general are either encouraged to fall back on the denialism of Evangelical leaders like Albert Mohler, or to keep their mouths shut.”

  • Nador

    “The rate of genetic changes sure” [would be lower in bigger populations].
    I am not even sure about that claim. New beneficial mutations should occur at a rate proportional to the population size (~N). The time needed for fixation of an allele with a fitness advantage of s is proportional to ln(2N)/s. So the overall rate of fixation of beneficial mutations should increase with population size (~N/ln(N)). Random drift is neutral to population size, as new mutations occur ~N times and get fixated at ~1/N chance, so the overall rate of fixation of neutral mutations should be independent of population size.

  • Markk

    Nador, yes, that makes some sense. Razib (#13) It could have been. One problem with podcasts is that unless you say otherwise they fall of your computer and then trying to go back and look (hear) something up is too difficult.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #8, i assume you did your part?

  • Joe

    I think the author is misinformed about Roman Catholics or else the ‘nominal Catholic’ he sourced is nominal for a reason. I’m atheist, but was raised Catholic and attended parochial schools through high school. I abandoned by Roman Catholic beliefs as I entered adulthood (age of reason?), but I feel compelled to point out that nothing in current Roman Catholic dogma or teaching precludes a belief in evolution and there are in fact quite a few respected evolutionary experts that wear the collar. While there are clearly some outdated, superstitious beliefs among them, Catholics are not fundamentalists that impose or even encourage a literal interpretation of the bible. That falls more in the camp of Baptists, Pentecostals, Church of Christ, and on a parallel path Islam with it’s insanely rigid treatment of the Qu’ran as the absolute unadulterated word of god.

  • Dave

    Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (The branch of Christianity known as “Mormonism”) I grew up being taught by some in the Church that evolution was a lie. Others in the Church taught that evolution was a work of God. Still others taught that we really don’t know what happened, but that God had a hand it it. As an adult, after much searching, I found the official word on evolution was that there isn’t one. Adam was a real man, everything happened as a part of God’s will and the creation story shouldn’t be taken too literally. Other than than that, the really important part of salvation isn’t your faith in the creation story, it’s your faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. I really find it sad that so many Christians put things like this ahead of what really matters.

  • Micah Burke

    I really appreciate your posts.

  • Anthony

    I think one strategy for pushing this issue at the margins would be to talk to Catholic school teachers – especially those who teach biology, but also the religious study ones – and convince them to talk more about evolution, and about the Church’s official position on evolution.

    Believing that evolution happens but is directed by God doesn’t make one a creationist any more than believing that continents drift, but that God has a hand in stirring up the earth’s mantle makes one a flat-earther.

    Incidentally, my Catholic-high-school biology teacher mentioned God once in the first day of class, then stuck pretty strictly to evolution as an explanation where it was warranted. The administration had no quibble with him, and when he left, it was to make more money in industry.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/ Mustapha Mond

    Razib said:

    “#8, i assume you did your part?”

    While my first born was actually baptized in a New York Yankee Congregationalist church (for mostly traditional social reasons as her grandparents and grand uncles were still alive) she has turned out to be a non church going skeptical terror with ideas somewhat paralleling those of David Hume.

    My second born and un-baptised son is on the other hand, totally indifferent to religion (or any other manifestations of belief in the supernatural) other than to regard it as a sociological phenomenon of possible interest to those scholars who have some affinity for but a dispassionate interest in such matters as a means of understanding the psychology of the mob. He himself is currently more concerned in mastering the art of (and secondarily in learning the statistical odds inherent in) casino poker and is only concerned in metaphysical beliefs in so much as they adversely affect the play of his opponents.

    So, on the whole, I can truthfully say I did my part as any attempts by me to engage them in philosophical conversations disputing the very possibility of the existence of things (or should I say non-things) metaphysical have been met universally with blank stares of boredom by both of them.

    This I take as a mark of success on my part.

  • imnobody

    In Europe, where I am from, the percentage of religious guys who deny evolution is tiny. Something happens in the United States. This “something” could (or could not) be the answer of your question.

  • imnobody

    “eradication of what?”
    Why, belief in the supernatural, of course!

    If you do that with peaceful means (as you did with your children by engaging them in philosophical conversations about supernatural (non-)things), no problem about that. As a believer, I praise you to try to lead your children for what you think it is the truth.

    When you read some New Atheists’ books, you have the impression that want to indoctrinate all children about their worldview and deny parents the right to teach their children (a right that you exercised it very well). Then, you see that they are “fundamentalist” atheist: they are not different than the fanatical religious that want to impose their worldview to the whole society (for example, in Muslim countries)

    IMHO, a true skeptical lives and lets live and it is skeptical about everything, even about his skepticism, because human mind is only the limited mind of a hairless ape. For example, I don’t believe in magic crystals but I won’t devote my life to fight this belief. I have better things to do with my life than to fight non-existent things.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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