American belief in evolution is growing: poll


Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

However, the numbers may not mean what we want them to mean, and it’s easy to read your own mindset into them.

People may tell the pollster what they think the pollster wants to hear. It’s part of the human urge to please, to bond, to make contact.When the 2005 poll was published, Lawrence Lerner wrote on CSICOP:

In interpreting such polls, one must be careful about their underlying meaning. What does it mean to “believe” in evolution or creationism (or, for that matter, both at once)? Scientific thinking of any kind plays a very small role in the daily lives of most Americans. Since their beliefs on scientific matters have little or no bearing on anything they do, they feel free to “believe” whatever is convenient and comfortable. Because many persons have come to believe that creationist notions are consistent with other social, political, and religious views they hold, they will respond with creationist opinions when asked by a pollster.

Demographics play a big role in the results, too. The report is summarized in a PR Newswire  release:

Echo Boomers are less likely than their counterparts in all older generations to express belief in God (64% Echo Boomers, 75% Gen Xers, 81% Baby Boomers, 83% Matures), miracles (65%, 74%, 76% and 78%, respectively), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (58%, 67%, 74% and 75%, respectively) and angels (59%, 71%, 73% and 68%, respectively).

On the other end of the generational spectrum, Matures are far less likely than any other generation to express belief in ghosts (44% Echo Boomers, 46% Gen Xers, 46% Baby Boomers, 24% Matures), witches (27%, 29%, 28% and 18%, respectively) and reincarnation (27%, 25%, 23% and 13%, respectively).

Turning to the political spectrum, Democrats and Independents show similar levels of belief in most of the tested concepts, with Republicans consistently more likely than either group to express belief in those concepts aligned with the Judeo-Christian belief system; Republicans are less likely than either group to express belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution (36% Republicans, 52% Democrats, 51% Independents).

Atheist busLooking at the age figures from the poll, my generation – the Baby Boomers – still shows a depressingly low belief in evolution (43%) and high levels for the virgin birth, miracles, angels and the devil. I take small consolation in that this is an American poll, and like to console myself with the hope that Canadians are better educated about science.

The number of Americans who believe in God has dropped from 82 to 74%, an 8% slide since 2009. But look at the number of people who say they absolutely believe in God: fallen from 79% in 2003 to 68% in 2013: 11%! And the number who are equally sure there isn’t a god has risen from 4% to 9% in that time. Overall, the number of people who either don’t believe in any god or are unsure has risen from 9 to 16% of respondents in a decade.

A very compelling inference can be drawn from the results: the number of respondents who admit to being non-religious has significantly increased (a jump in “not at all religious” responses from 12% in 2007 to 23% in 2013). Perhaps the stigma of being a non-believer in the USA is wearing thin (although openly admitting atheism is still culturally difficult – the Harris poll doesn’t actually ask if people are atheist, just whether they are religious). Maybe the USA is moving away from its dark dalliance with Christian fundamentalism in the post-Bush era.

But that’s my own mindset: maybe it just means people were culture-jacking the pollsters and making stuff up just to skew the numbers.

Poll results vary, of course, depending on many things: who was asking, how the questions were phrased and in what order they were asked, when the calls were made, what mood the respondents were in, etc. And how you interpret them can change, too, depending on the set of beliefs you start with.

A 2013 survey on YouGov had different results (because of different questions asked), but similar conclusions, although the number of respondents who answered they believe in evolution was depressingly low. The Daily Mail reported:

Just a fifth of Americans believe that humans evolved naturally over millions of years, while the vast majority believe that God had a hand in the evolution of humans, according to new research.
According to a YouGov poll, 21 per cent of U.S. citizens believe that ‘human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process’.
Meanwhile, 79 per cent of those polled said they either believe God played a part in our existence (the largest sector at 62 per cent) or were not sure (17 per cent).

A quarter of the 1,000 people polled said they believed mankind evolved from more primitive life forms but that ‘God guided the process’.
And a further 37 per cent said they believe that ‘God created human beings in their present form within the last ten thousand years’.
The findings in fact show a trend towards a greater proportion of Americans believing in the theory of evolution, as opposed to the theory of creationism.

The YouGov poll added another question about teaching pseudoscience and quackery in the classroom, with equally depressing results:

The poll found that 40 per cent favour teaching creationism and intelligent design, while 32 per cent opposed such teachings, and 29 per cent were not sure.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority (83 per cent) of those describing themselves as atheist were opposed to the idea, while those who cited a religion were far more likely to support it, particularly Mormons (76 per cent), Protestants (52 per cent) and Roman Catholics (42 per cent).
In the political arena, the survey found that 57 per cent of Republicans favoured teaching creationism and intelligent design in public schools, versus just 30 per cent among Democrats.
Meanwhile, just five per cent of Republicans supported the theory of a natural, Godless, evolution.

CBC News reported on a 2011 poll that came up with different numbers for similar questions:

Angels don’t just sing at Christmastime. For most Americans, they’re a year-round presence. A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 77 percent of adults believe these ethereal beings are real.

Belief is primarily tied to religion, with 88 percent of Christians, 95 percent of evangelical Christians and 94 percent of those who attend weekly religious services of any sort saying they believe in angels.

But belief in angels is fairly widespread even among the less religious. A majority of non-Christians think angels exist, as do more than 4 in 10 of those who never attend religious services.

So according to these results, American belief in imaginary beings seems much stronger.*

The Daily Mail tells us it’s lower in the UK (where traditional religion has seen a large drop in numbers):

In a recent ICM survey, 31 per cent of Britons said they believed in angels and this level is even higher among women at 41 per cent.

A 2013 poll, reported in the Telegraph, came up with similar results:

Overall almost eight out of 10 people polled agreed with the statement that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.”
Six out of 10 non-religious people also agreed with that statement.
A majority of people (59 per cent) said they believed in the existence of some kind of “spiritual being” while three in 10 defined God as a “universal life force”.
Only a quarter said they actively believed in angels, a smaller proportion than said they had faith in the existence of “spirits”.
The research also showed that almost a quarter of those polled had turned to tarot card readings and one in 20 had had their “aura” read or attempted healing with crystals.

The percentage of people who believe in angels in the UK is the same as those who have turned to the tarot cards, it appears. Wish I knew what the overlap of these two was.  Are people who believe in angels more or less likely to have their tarot cards or auras read? With conspiracy theories, belief in one conspiracy tends to encourage belief in others. Wonder if this holds true with religious/”spiritual” views?

Australians are somewhat less religious than Americans, but surprisingly more than what one might expect in a notionally secular nation. A 2009 poll showed some surprising results:

BELIEF IN A GOD: 68 per cent
BELIEF IN HEAVEN: 56 per cent
BELIEF IN HELL: 38 per cent
BELIEF IN THE DEVIL: 37 per cent
BELIEF IN ANGELS: 51 per cent
BELIEF IN WITCHES: 22 per cent
BELIEF IN UFOs: 34 per cent
BELIEF IN PSYCHIC POWERS The Christians in our midst are markedly more likely (52 per cent) to put their faith in telepathy, clairvoyance, psychic healing, etc.
SUCH AS ESP: 49 per cent

Fewer Australians, the poll suggests, accept evolution more than Americans, a remarkably low percentage, and like their American counterparts lower than the belief in angels:

EVOLUTION: 42 per cent
Creation is a slippery topic. Even scientifically committed Christians feel honour-bound sometimes to grant God a role in the origins of life. That was not Mr Darwin’s view. The Nielsen poll untangled this confusion by asking respondents to choose between Darwin, Genesis and Design – the notion that humans developed over millions of years in a process guided by God.
Most Australians believe God played a part in the process. That He created all life at a stroke about 10,000 years ago is believed by 23 per cent of us. That He guided a long process over time is believed by another 32 per cent. The beliefs of Australian Christians are even more dramatic, with 38 per cent supporting Genesis and another 47 per cent favouring the God of Design.

Back to the Harris poll. It starts with a large and very basic bias towards specific Western religion. Way down at the bottom of the page, you’ll find the results of a question, “To what extent do you believe that the following represents the word of God?” The respondents were given a choice among

  • The Old Testament (texts used in the Christian religion),
  • The New Testament (texts used in the Christian religion),
  • The Torah (the texts used in the Jewish religion),
  • The Koran (texts used by Muslims), and
  • The Book of Mormon (texts used by Mormons)

No mention of any Eastern religious texts, no alternative views or texts. The results show belief in the literality of these texts is declining, but of course doesn’t answer why, and doesn’t say if people have drifted to other religious works instead.

It strikes me that if you don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god, you either can’t answer all the questions correctly or your answer will be misconstrued. For example, how can a Buddhist without a supreme being answer all these questions? Or a Hindu who believes in multiple gods? What about Zoroastrians? Wiccans? Taoists? Native Americans? If you want to poll religious beliefs adequately and effectively, you need more inclusivity in the questions.*

I treat the results as interesting, but not definitive.


* And here is another problem with this sort of question. Just what do they mean by an angel? There’s a huge range of beliefs in angels from hallucinations to psychological artifacts to aliens to winged, heavenly beings. The results may be skewed by a misunderstanding of the term. The same goes with words like god, hell, reincarnation, witches… the pollsters begin with an assumption that we all agree on the definition of the words, and that means a bias in the poll. Even the term “religious” is open to wide interpretation.

Deepak Chopra – for whom I have a skeptical disdain – actually makes a valid point when he writes:

For a mystic to see God or feel his presence, for St. Paul to be suddenly converted on the road to Damascus, or for St. Teresa of Avila to have her heart pierced by an angelic arrow, such experiences would have to register in their brains. However, this indisputable fact (so far as present knowledge extends) doesn’t give science the advantage over religion. For it turns out that the brain has definite limitations on what it can experience.

The work of the late Polish-American mathematician Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) is relevant here, because Korzybski worked out the layered processing that goes into the way we perceive everyday reality. Billions of bits of data bombard our sense organs, of which only a fraction enter the nervous system. Of that fraction, more of the raw input is filtered out by the brain, which uses built-in models of reality to discard what doesn’t fit. When people say “You’re not hearing me” or “You only see what you want to see,” they are expressing a truth that Korzybski tried to quantify mathematically.

Sometimes the things a person doesn’t see are simply outside the range of human experience, like our inability to see ultraviolet light. But a great deal more depends on expectations, memories, biases, fears, and simple close-mindedness. If you go to a party, and someone tells you that you are about to meet a Nobel Prize winner, you will see a different person than if you are told he is a reformed Mafia hit man. When all the filtering and processing is complete, there is no doubt that the brain doesn’t actually experience reality but only a confirmation of its model of reality.

So if your brain starts with a model of reality that includes angels, you are more likely to “experience” them – even if that experience is entirely in your head and not external. But Chopra is wrong in other parts of his post. You can make definitive statements about the difference between empirical/objective/reproducible phenomena and subjective/internalized notions. It’s the invisible pink unicorn argument.

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