Simplistic surveys can be very frustrating. For instance:
Of all the colors of the rainbow, which is your favorite, Blue or Yellow?
If your favorite color is green, and that is not an option in the survey, then there is no way for the survey to accurately assess your opinion. Nor does this simple survey assess how strongly you feel about the color green, or how consistently you would answer. On most days I might answer “green,” but it is not something I feel rather strongly about, and it really isn’t all that important to me.
The same goes for many polls we see in the media: Are you for or against gay rights? Obamacare? Evolution? For many of us, the answer is not as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down.
Christianity Today has a brief summary of a survey taken regarding origins that goes beyond a simple “Do you believe God created humans or that they evolved?”
Here are a few excerpts from Rethinking the Origins Debate: Most Americans—and most Christians—do not fall neatly into creationist or evolutionist camps, by Jonathan Hill.
In 2012, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of U.S. adults believed “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Thirty-two percent believed humans evolved with God’s guidance, and 15 percent believed humans evolved with no divine guidance at all.
These surveys portray a deeply divided and polarized public. Even among the majority who believe that God created humans, the chasm separating creationist and evolutionist views appears to be gargantuan. Are Americans really this divided over human origins?
As a social scientist, I am skeptical about these findings for two reasons. First, the way in which these questions about human origins are written restricts complex or conflicted responses. Surveys like the Gallup poll tend to represent the various views we might label Atheistic Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young Earth Creationism with position statements that force respondents to select the one that comes closest to their beliefs.
The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.
Second, these polls give us no description of the manner in which people hold to these beliefs. Are respondents confident that their position is correct? Is it important to them personally to have the right beliefs about human origins? If large segments of the public are uncertain about their position, or if their beliefs are unimportant to them, then the idea of an intensely polarized public is misleading.
Let’s look at the creationist position. It contains, at a minimum, the following beliefs:
- Humans did not evolve from other species.
- God was involved in the creation of humans.
- Humans were created within the last 10,000 years.
The most recent Gallup poll found that 46 percent of adults claimed creationism best reflected their views of human origins. But Gallup didn’t ask participants about each of the above beliefs.
Our survey, however, asks about each individual belief, allowing respondents to report that they are unsure about what they believe. Only 14 percent affirmed each of these beliefs, and only 10 percent were certain of their beliefs. Furthermore, only 8 percent claimed it was important to them to have the right beliefs about human origins.
If only eight percent of respondents are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty. Most Americans do not fall neatly into any of the existing camps, and only a quarter claimed their beliefs were important to them personally.
So what does this mean for the church? I think it shows that most people, even regular church-going evangelicals, are not deeply entrenched on one side of a supposed two-sided battle. Certainly, the issue divides Christians. But Christian beliefs about human origins are complex. There’s no major single chasm after all.
Advocates of various positions have often perpetuated the idea of a battle precisely because drawing clear lines is an effective way to mobilize one view against the other. Perhaps it is time to recognize the complexity of beliefs and worship together despite our differences. This doesn’t mean that hard questions and honest conversations about human origins should be ignored. There are lots of important questions that need to be wrestled with. But as we wrestle, we should recognize that our shared identity in Christ puts us all on the same team.
Grace and Peace