Jonathan Hill, an assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College, recently released the results of a National Study of Religion & Human Origins. This study was funded by the Evolution and Christian Faith grants program at BioLogos and you can find a link to the full report with a summary of the major findings in Jonathan’s post The Recipe For Creationism on the BioLogos Forum.
Most surveys that probe questions of science and faith, including beliefs about creation and human origins, use a small set of frustratingly limited questions. Well, frustrating for those of us who want to nuance all of the possibilities, finding none of them useful without qualification. A recent Gallup poll on views of the bible illustrates the impact that limiting choices can have on the results. The limitation is frustrating for sociologists as well. Jonathan Hill’s study aims to better understand the beliefs of Americans concerning human origins through a much more detailed survey that can parse out positions with more accuracy and explore the importance of social context on these positions. From the results Hill develops four categories – Creationists, Theistic Evolutionists, Atheistic Evolutionists, and Unsure and uses these categories to explore the variety of views, the confidence with which they are held, and the importance of social context.
In one way, both creationists and atheistic evolutionists are the same. Majorities of both groups say that science and religion are ultimately incompatible. When science and religion conflict, one group favors religious ways of knowing (primarily a literal reading of scripture) and the other group favors scientific way of knowing (trusting the mainstream scientific establishment to provide accurate information). Only theistic evolutionists oppose this conflict model in any substantial number. (p. 2)
There is much to dig into in this report, and I’ll probably come back to it again in a later post – but here I want to concentrate on two points.
First, Americans often have relatively muddied and not entirely consistent views. A corollary to this is the fact that many Americans appear to have relatively little understanding of science. Approximately 39% of creationists, 25% of theistic evolutionists, 22% of atheistic evolutionists and 16% of the unsure believe in recent creation/emergence of humans (within last 10,000 years). The percentage for creationists seems rather low, but the percentage for atheistic evolutionists seems amazingly high, only 64% were sure that humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago. As Hill puts it “many people, both creationists and evolutionists, are simply uncertain about the timeframe.” (p. 12) This is somewhat surprising to the atheistic evolutionists – who generally base their view on science and trust of the scientific establishment. But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising – trust in an authority, whether religious or scientific, does not require an understanding of the details. But the importance that trust of an authority plays leads into the second point.
We are social creatures. More significant is the importance of social context when it comes to the beliefs that people hold concerning creation, evolution, and human origins. Hill introduces part two of his report mapping the social context:
Studies in the sociology of knowledge emphasize how our particular social location – the bundle of social identities and group memberships that give us our unique place in broader society – shapes even our most “common sense” interpretations of the world around us. What seems natural and normal to us cannot be assumed to be so for others. We all belong to communities of belief that shape how we see our world. Consequently, we will work hard to maintain certain interpretations of the world against threats because our very identity and social relationships are at stake.(p. 18)
This is interesting in light of the view of Simon Blackburn in the post Tuesday What is Religion Anyway?. According to Blackburn the function of religion is to unite adherents into a moral community. The religious rites, rituals, and mysteries only exist to unite the tribe or congregation. Religion is a kind of “social glue.” Blackburn makes an important point, and one we do well to bear in mind.
The social context in which people develop and hold their beliefs concerning human origins and a myriad of other things mean means that better education alone will have little success in persuading the majority to give up these deeply held beliefs.
While quality science education is a worthy goal in any society, there is little indication that it makes a substantial difference in convincing individuals that their views on human origins are wrong. At a psychological level, the science education model assumes humans are fundamentally rational actors that simply need more and better information. But this does not fit with the evidence. (p. 18-19)
Social context matters. Hill reports that 68% of those who are categorized as creationists report that all or most of their immediate family share their belief on origins, and 56% report that all or most of their closets friends share the same belief. 66% belong to a congregation that rejects human evolution. About 46% feel that changing their beliefs would cause increased disagreements with fellow church members and with religious leaders. All of these percentages are consistently higher than those reported by evolutionists. Both theistic evolutionists and atheistic evolutionists report that ca. 45% of their immediate family and 48% of their closest friends share the same view of human origins. Only 22 to 25% of theistic evolutionists feel that a change in their views would cause increased disagreements in church – the social pressure here is less, although there may be other social pressures playing a role.
Hill concludes this section:
The results are consistent. Creationists are more likely to be in congregations with a settled anti-evolution position, more likely to hear about this from the pulpit (although not more likely to informally talk about this with congregants), and more likely to experience social pressure from other members and religious leaders to keep their current beliefs. (p. 25)
Although individual stories vary, in general schools alone do not provide a community that undermines the social context of family, friends, and church. Humans are not rational actors making decisions based on factual information. The social cohesion of community is a powerful force, and information is not enough.
There is much more to be learned from this study, but this is enough for now.
From my perspective as a scientist, a professor, a Christian, a theistic evolutionist, who rejects the conflict model between science and Christian faith, and would like to help the church develop a healthier approach to science, many areas of this report raise important questions.
Simon Blackburn sees the function of religion as social glue. Absent in his appraisal is the possibility that any religion can be true. As Christians we certainly believe that the Christian faith is true – and that there are sound reasons for this faith. A genuine reality behind Christian faith, however, does not negate the truth of his assessment of the power of religion in forming a social context – a social glue to form a cohesive community.
How do we know when a belief is true and when it is an “artifact” of a social context?
Is the approach to the Bible that leads to a young earth creationist position an “artifact” of a social context?
I’m not sure that artifact is the right word to use here – and welcome better suggestions. It seems clear that there are aspects of Christian belief and practice that are more localized in time and space alongside aspects that are universal. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” is a universal. The literalism of modern evangelical Protestantism is not necessarily a universal. Or is it?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]