February 10, 2017

For Darwin Day, 6 facts about the evolution debate

Photograph of Charles Darwin by Maull and Polyblank for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club (1855) via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin#mediaviewer/File:Charles_Darwin_by_Maull_and_Polyblank,_1855-1.jpg
Photograph of Charles Darwin by Maull and Polyblank for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club (1855) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday is the 208th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a day now celebrated by some as Darwin Day. Darwin, of course, is best known for his theory of evolution through natural selection. When Darwin’s work was first made public in 1859, it shocked Britain’s religious establishment. And while today it is accepted by virtually all scientists, evolutionary theory still is rejected by many Americans, often because it conflicts with their religious beliefs about divine creation.

While not an official holiday, Darwin Day has been adopted by scientific and humanist groups to promote everything from scientific literacy to secularism. This year, more than 50 events have been planned worldwide, many of them anchored by scientific talks or symposia. Others, such as a children’s scavenger hunt at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., are a little less serious.

To mark the occasion, here are six facts about the public’s views on evolution, as well as other aspects of the debate in the U.S. and elsewhere:

1Only a minority of Americans fully accept evolution through natural selection. Roughly six-in-ten U.S. adults (62%) say humans have evolved over time, according to data from Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. But only a little more than half of them (33% of all Americans) express the belief that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes. A quarter of U.S. adults (25%) say evolution was guided by a supreme being. The same survey found that 34% of Americans reject evolution entirely, saying humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

2Scientists and beliefs about human evolutionWhile 98% of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science say they believe humans evolved over time, only two-thirds (66%) of Americans overall perceive that scientists generally agree about evolution, according to 2014 data from a recent Pew Research Center survey on science and society. Those in the general public who reject evolution are divided on whether there is a scientific consensus on the topic, with 47% saying scientists agree on evolution and 46% saying they do not. 

3A series of court decisions have prohibited the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools. In spite of efforts in many American states and localities to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools or to teach alternatives to evolution, courts in recent decades have consistently rejected public school curricula that veer away from evolutionary theory. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring public school students to learn both evolution and “creation science” violated the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion.

4Belief in evolution by religious traditionOf all the major religious groups in the U.S., evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to reject evolution. According to the Center’s Religious Landscape Study, a solid majority (57%) of evangelicals say humans and other living things have always existed in their present form. (About half of Mormons and roughly three-quarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses also reject evolution.) These views are largely mirrored by the positions of large evangelical churches, as well as, in many cases, by majorities of their members. For instance, majorities of those who affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention (58%) and the Seventh-day Adventist church (67%) reject the idea that human beings evolved over time. By contrast, much smaller minorities of mainline Protestants (30%), Catholics (29%), Jews (16%) and the religiously unaffiliated (15%) share this view.

5More broadly, most Americans (59%) say that science and religion are often in conflict, but those who are more religiously observant are less likely than others to see this clash between faith and science, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center Survey. Among those who attend church at least once a week, half (50%) view religion and science as in conflict, compared with nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who seldom or never attend house of worship. At the same time, most people (68%) say that their own personal religious beliefs do not clash with accepted scientific doctrine.

6Compared with the U.S., even larger percentages of people in many other countries reject evolution. For example, in Latin America, roughly four-in-ten or more residents of several countries – including Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic – say humans and other living things have always existed in their present form. This is true even though the official teachings of Catholicism, which is the majority religion in the region, do not reject evolution. Meanwhile, Muslims in many nations are divided on the topic, although majorities of Muslims in countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia and Iraq reject evolution.

Note: This post was originally published on Feb. 12, 2015, and has been updated. 

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5 facts about evolution and religion

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Evolution, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.