The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Evolution and Creationism in 2013: The Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 4, 2014

If you know anything about the evolution-creationism battle in the United States, you know that it is a long-running one.  You also know that the issue is heavily influenced by religious outlook (or lack thereof) and politics.  Some recent polling data has provided some very revealing information about trends in the U.S. on these issues: and a deeper analysis yields bad news for the creationists.

First, the poll itself: the Pew Research Center released their poll, titled “Public’s Views on Human Evolution” on Dec. 30th.  And it contains some interesting take-aways:

evolution2013-1

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” …

One of the most interesting things to see in this poll is the breakdown of religious and political affiliation:

… These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap. … [emphasis added]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that evangelical Protestants are the ones who reject evolution the most while the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”) embrace evolution.  The thing that is so surprising about this particular survey is the part I put in bold above: self-identifying Republicans are rejecting evolution in higher and higher numbers.  I think this presents a big problem for the Republican party, and my next discussion point illustrates why.

Following closely on the heels of the Pew poll’s release, Karl Giberson wrote an article for The Daily Beast lamenting evolution’s troubles in 2013…

2013 Was a Terrible Year for Evolution

Never mind the increasing evidence—64 percent of white evangelical Protestants reject the science, and professors at Christian colleges are attacked if word gets out they teach it.

Evolution did not fare well in 2013. The year ended with the anti-evolution bookDarwin’s Doubt as Amazon’s top seller in the “Paleontology” category. The state of Texas spent much of the year trying to keep the country’s most respected high school biology text out of its public schools. And leading anti-evolutionist and Creation Museum curator Ken Ham made his annual announcement that the “final nail” had been pounded into the coffin of poor Darwin’s beleaguered theory of evolution. …

Wow, that paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it?  However, reading further into Giberson’s article reveals that perhaps it wasn’t so much a bad year for evolution as it was a bad year for Christianity

… I [Giberson] am a white evangelical Protestant, or at least I was until persuaded to leave a couple of years ago. Raised in a parsonage, I grew up in that tradition and, after earning a Ph.D. in physics, I taught science, including evolution, at an evangelical college, one of approximately 160 similar—and accredited—institutions in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Most evangelical colleges teach evolution, albeit quietly, carefully, and often tentatively, although there are exceptions. And almost all public schools, of course, are required by law to teach evolution. In an ideal world these efforts should slowly trickle onto Main Street, where they would inform ordinary evangelicals, including those who run for Congress. In time, Darwin’s dangerous idea should become widely accepted, just as Christians gradually gave credence to Galileo’s dangerous idea about the motion of the earth.

But that is not what is happening.

For a quarter century I taught scientific theories of origins—evolution and the Big Bang Theory—under a cloud of suspicion that waxed and waned but never totally disappeared. With few exceptions, my mostly evangelical students accepted these ideas. I took informal polls indicating that most of the 50 percent of my students who rejected evolution at the beginning of my course accepted it by the end. My colleagues at other evangelical colleges report similar experiences. We were hopeful that these evangelical students would become leaders of their faith communities and gradually persuade their fellow evangelicals that evolution was not a lie from hell—which was what many of them had been taught in Sunday school. But instead scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them. …

In other words, in keeping with the broader demographic shifts in the United States, younger people are becoming more secular while the population of evangelicals declines.  One effect of this is that, as Giberson notes, these young people “take their enlightenment with them” as they abandon Christianity and organized religion; what is left behind, especially in evangelical circles, are those people who cater towards more fundamentalist views of Christianity, including the rejection of evolutionary science.

Another result is that, as Giberson notes, science professors at private Christian colleges are in real danger of being “expelled” from their institutions if they dare to question the fundamentalist dogma and openly teach evolutionary theory:

… Those of us teaching evolution at evangelical colleges are made to feel as if we have this subversive secret we must whisper quietly in our students’ ears: “Hey, did you know that Adam and Eve were not the first humans and never even existed? And that you can still be a Christian and believe that?” Such an approach works surprisingly well, at least in persuading young people that evolution is true and compatible with their faith, as long as it occurs in the quiet intellectual confines of the classroom, where the subversive message is delivered by caring and thoughtful Christian professors.

But some professors, alarmed by the persistent gap between the evangelical community and the findings of science—the gap that drives their students out of their churches—have naively presumed to educate their larger faith communities by writing books and articles in support of scientific theories of origins such as evolution and the Big Bang. Their quiet whispers thus become loud proclamations. Influential leaders read their books and are horrified to discover that a faculty member at “their” college is spreading “lies from the pit of hell” and destroying the faith of the students. Campaigns of various sorts are mounted and pressure exerted on the college leadership to remove that dangerous professor. …

And so intellectualism is slowly but surely being eaten by fanatical fundamentalism within evangelical Christianity.  This post at the Why Evolution Is True blog elaborates more on this point:

… Giberson decries the increasing Democrat/Republic polarization with respect to evolution, as the disparity between acceptance of “Darwinism” between the parties increased from 10% in 2009 to 24% in 2013 (Dems of course accept evolution in larger numbers). And, really, I don’t care much about how much the parties accept evolution so long as the U.S.’s overall acceptance of evolution is increasing. Republicans are, by and large, ignorant science-denialists anyway. …

… But, as a pessimistic secular Jew (a redundancy, I suppose), I still see good news about evolution. Creationists lost their final battle in Texas, proving unable to sway the state to adopt biology textbooks that emphasized the “problems” with evolutionary biology. Ball State University canned its science course that forced intelligent design (and Christianity) on captive students. Amarillo College in Texas did the same. Creationists had no victories in 2013, and evolution is slowly but surely insinuating its nose into the American tent.

And one of the reasons it’s doing so is that religion is on the wane, for as religion goes, so goes creationism. (Although there are religions without creationism, there is no creationism without religion.) And so Karl bemoans the fact that Christian youth are leaving the church in droves, and for an excellent reason: they perceive the church as anti-science. … [emphasis added]

Let’s take a look at those two points: increasingly, broader public perceptions of both the Republican party and evangelical Christianity is that they are fundamentally anti-science.  And this is where the Republican party has created a big problem for itself; since white, evangelical Protestants (the group which most strongly rejects evolution) form the core of the party, then Republican politicians must cater to those voters in order to survive party primaries.  And if that means, either implicitly or explicitly, rejecting evolutionary science (and other forms of science such as climate research) then those politicians will do so lest they get the boot during a primary.

That might be a winning strategy in the Republican primaries, but given the overall demographic trends of more people becoming more secular and more accepting of science, it looks to be a losing proposition for both the Republican party and fundamentalism in the long term as people reject their message and abandon both the party and the church.  Basically, the fundamentalists are retreating into a bunker mentality, where they are trying to “keep out” the broader culture (which includes evolution in particular and science in general); but that means they are not successfully promoting their ideas to those who don’t already believe them.  In short, in the broader battle for hearts and minds, they are slowly but surely losing the culture war.  And if religious fundamentalists in the U.S. are losing influence, that’s fine by me!

So, contrary to Giberson’s article which laments 2013 as a bad year for evolution, I think it was a pretty good year for evolution, secularism, and science.   Let’s hope 2014 is even better! :)

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One Response to “Evolution and Creationism in 2013: The Year in Review”

  1. BobH said

    The evidence all suggests that evolution just goes along without any central planning.

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