Science on Religion

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Education not the key to increasing evolution’s acceptance

Light bulb evolutionDespite strong concensus from the scientific community, the American public’s acceptance of evolution has not significantly changed in over 50 years. In that time, many new discoveries and popular books have furthered the case for evolution, yet an unignorable number of people remain unconvinced. Scientists often say that education will solve the problem. While education may have convinced them to accept evolution, sociologist Joseph Baker (East Tennessee State University) has statistical evidence that education will not solve the problem—Americans who disagree with evolution don't disagree with it because they're uneducated, but because of how they interpret the Bible.

Baker freely acknowledges that the label “biblical literalism” represents a variety of positions on how to interpret the Bible. Rather than go through all of them, he simply notes that creationist arguments depend on a slippery slope argument: accept evolution, and soon you’ll disbelieve the Bible, and eventually reject the faith. Effectively, a literalist approach sees evolution as contrary to the Bible.

With this loose definition of “literalism” at hand, Baker proposes two hypotheses. The first states that in general, an increase in education will increase the chances of someone accepting evolution, but biblical literalism will reduce or even negate this effect. His second hypothesis concerns teaching creationism in public schools: in general, an increase in education will decrease the chances of someone favoring creationism taught in the public school system, but, again, biblical literalism will reduce or negate this general trend.

To test his two hypotheses, Baker used data from Wave II of the Baylor Religion Survey (BRS). The BRS survey randomly sampled Americans in 2007, and asked questions about religion, science, evolution, and creationism. Religiously, participants could identify themselves as black Protestant, evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, no religion, or “other.” They also indicated the frequency of their attendance at religious services, and how they interpreted the Bible (possible answers were: “The Bible is an ancient book of history and legends,” “The Bible contains some human error,” “The Bible is perfectly true, but it should not be taken literally, word-for-word. We must interpret its meaning,” and “The Bible means exactly what it says. It should be taken literally, word-for-word, on all subjects”).

Without factoring in education, 42% of the respondents accepted evolution, 44% agreed with teaching creationism in public schools, 12% supported both, and 27% supported neither. In general, having a college degree correlated with accepting evolution (no other educational variable, such as a high school diploma, had a statistically significant effect). Also interesting, women, those living in rural parts of the country, and evangelicals were, in general, less likely to accept evolution while political liberals, Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, and religious “nones” (those without religion) were more likely to accept evolution.

Factoring in biblical interpretation, Baker’s first hypothesis finds strong support: for nonliteralists, education correlated with believing in evolution (only 53% of those with less than a high school education believed in evolution compared to 87% for those with a bachelor’s degree or more education), but this relationship completely reverses if the person interprets the Bible literally. For biblical literalists, 42% of those with less than a high school diploma believe in evolution, and this number drops to 18% for college graduates.

Support for creationism followed a different pattern. Unlike the acceptance of evolution, education had no statistically significant general effect on advocating for creationism, the only exceptions being having a vocational degree or “some college” education. In these cases, surprisingly enough, people tended to favor rather than oppose teaching creationism. However, when combined with how one interprets the Bible, education had a much bigger impact. For those who agreed with the statement “The Bible contains some human error,” earning a high school diploma significantly decreased support for creationism (from 69% to 41%). On the other hand, for literalists, earning a high school diploma increased support for creationism (from 50% to 75%).

Baker concludes that “Whether education results in greater public acceptance of evolution and antipathy toward creationism is more a question of the internalization of perspectives critical of exclusivist religious schema than one of science education per se.” In other words, education in and of itself does not move people from creationism to evolution or vice-versa. Instead, as Baker puts it, “higher education pushes individuals toward a firmer stance on evolution and creationism.” Education makes the situation more extreme rather than leading to resolution. Although scientists overwhelmingly think that education is the answer to convincing the public of the truth of evolution, this confidence simply shows that they have not checked the scientific evidence.

For more, see “Acceptance of Evolution and Support for Teaching Creationism in Public Schools: The Conditional Impact of Educational Attainment” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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