Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Faith and Darwin

I'm hoping to get to see the Darwin film in the next couple of weeks, but it seems like a good time to revisit 'Faith and Darwin', a research piece done by Theos earlier this year. They even produced a map based on the results, so that if you want to move in next to a Creationist you know where to look.

They quizzed 2000 people on their ideas about God, science and evolution, and discovered the following:

54% of the sample knew Darwin had written 'Origin of Species'

37% agreed that evolution is proved beyond reasonable doubt (36% said 'not proven', 19% 'no evidence')

75% agreed that science could explain most things, but not everything.

53% believed in God: 8% used to believe in God but now didn't, and the same percentage had made the opposite journey.

Who's Who
The research breaks the sample up into 4 groups, according to what they believe about the origins of life on Earth:

1. Young Earth Creationists (believe earth is less than 10,000 years old) 17%
2. Intelligent Design (evolution, but with specific intervention by God to make certain stuff happen ) 11%
3. Theistic evolution (evolution, but with God as the ultimate agent behind creation) 28%
4. Atheistic evolution (life has evolved full stop, there is no God) 37%
Sorry the picture's a bit faint. The maths-heads among you will have already noted that 10% more people believe God had a hand in the origins of life, than actually believe God exists. The main finding of the survey seemed to be inconsistency: over 40% of the sample gave contradictory answers to questions on the same topic.

Amongst those who consistenly fall into the above categories, there were a few demographic differences.

- 'Young Earth Creationists' more females, economic class DE, older people. Oddly, 8% of them don't have a religion.

- 'Intelligent Design' younger and more educated than average

- 'Atheistic Evolution' generally younger, more in the ABC economic groups, and with degrees. There's suggestions here of the middle class atheism referred to in some recent blog exchanges, and this today by Ariane Sherine.

Some interesting snippets:
- 31% of those in the 'atheistic evolution' category think that Christianity and evolution are incompatible, and 21% that science undermines religion. That leaves a sizeable majority who don't hold to these views, even among folk who don't beleive God had anything to do with creation.

- Only 1/5 of these folk agreed that 'evolution tells us there's no purpose to life'. This gives the lie to the idea that atheists think that life has no meaning or purpose. Most of them clearly do, though whether that's a logically consistent position is another matter. I'm not even sure if 'meaning and purpose' are scientific categories, or unverifiable value statements.

- 18% of the sample believe Genesis is a literal and accurate account of the origins of life. Bizarrely, 22% of the 'theistic evolutionists' believe this, which doesn't really leave much time for evolution to happen!!!

- 85% of the sample believed that science and faith can coexist, though about half of these think that science challenges faith to some degree.

Spiritual beliefs
- 72% 'see a spiritual element in the universe', which is a lot more than the 53% who believe in God.

- Of those who believe in God, 1/5 see him/her/it as an 'impersonal force', and roughly the same amount are pantheists - that God and the universe are the same. Believing in God isn't the same as believing in the orthodox deity of Christianity.

Other spiritual beliefs:
Human soul 70
Heaven 55
Life after death 53
Ghosts 39
Reincarnation 27
Astrology/horoscopes 22
Fortune telling/tarot 15

It highlights that there is an element of confusion, and suggests that many people hold contradictory views. There is also evidence of significant variation in how people form their opinions and how much engagement with the topic they have previously had (p20)

It has been considered by some that Darwin’s theory of evolution has been abused by ‘extremists’ of two very different philosophical positions. From an atheistic position, some suggest that evolutionary belief must disprove belief in God and from a creationist point of view, considering evolution and Christianity to be incompatible has led to suggestions that evolution contradicts a theistic view of God and so theists cannot hold an omnipotent view of God together with evolutionary theory.

This research challenges both the extreme atheists and theists, who frequently join in this debate. In general people do not subscribe to such polarised views, but rather happily hold a spectrum of beliefs reconciling scientific theory and religious belief.

Richard Dawkins gives the impression in his latest book that vicars are to blame for the prevalence of Creationism, and that if we get our act together, it'll all be sorted. Bad news Richard, there are far more Creationists out there than Anglicans.

There is a lot of confused thinking, and with sizeable numbers believing in astrology and horoscopes, we're dealing with a large chunk of the population who don't form their spiritual beliefs on the basis of reason alone (or even reason at all).

The strength of atheism amongst folk with higher education means that the 'new atheism' will continue to be a favourite of the chatterati* for some time to come. Given that the CofE is middle class, the temptation will be to think that this is the only argument we need to engage with. It will probably be the faith/God position which is held most forcefully, and by those most able to articulate it, but that doesn't mean we should stop listening to everyone else. The majority of the population, vague and confused though their beliefs might be, have a sense of the spiritual, and of life being more than just random acts of biology. These are the folk who accost our Street Pastors with questions about God, who want their kids baptised, and who sing along to Robbie Williams.

This creates a problem. The church needs to communicate with both groups. If we talk in spiritual terms to engage with the majority, there'll be talk of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in postgrad chatrooms. If we talk in scientific terms to engage with the rationalists, that will turn everyone else off. And of course postmodernism means that there'll be people who hold to both worldviews, and several others, all at the same time.

*over 1200 blog posts in, I guess that includes me too.

1 comment:

  1. D, Thanks for assembling this, an interesting read with many threads to pull on.

    I’m not sure that the questions or conclusions this organization came up with are helpful to this debate. For example, rather than asking a simple “do you believe in evolution”, they split it up and asked “do you believe in theistic evolution” or “do you believe in atheistic evolution”.

    My question would be, why couple evolution to either atheism or theism? Evolution stands on its own as a scientific fact that has overwhelming evidence for it. Since the term “atheist” has all kinds of irrational and negative connotations in our society, I am suspicious of their motives here. And the conclusion that atheists are to blame for this confusion is simply a false “spin” of the data in my view.

    The teleological argument is probably the most widely used by theists to justify their beliefs, evolution demolishes this argument and hence is often used in debates between atheists and theists (especially YEC’s), and indeed is central to many. The question regarding purpose and meaning is an interesting one and also pertinent to the evolution of our culture as well as our brains; the fact that humans thrive when they have meaning and purpose in their lives is undeniable and a characteristic of human beings, therefore an entirely scientific question in my view.

    I do agree with the educational conclusions coming from this though, what confusion! I can only conclude that our education system is failing to enlighten people about evolution as a general scientific fact; and also it would seem that RE lessons are not tackling the relationship between evolution and religion, nor indeed science and religion with sufficient luminosity to allow people to develop their own informed opinions?

    PS. Love the term “chatterati” it’s accurate but I’m not sure it’s complementary? :)