Cross-cultural variation in creationism

There is substantial cultural variation in the prevalence of creationism, i.e., the view that the Bible (or other religious writings) provides a historically accurate account of how living things came into being. In some countries, like Iceland or Japan, the view that species arose through a gradual process that is characterized by random variation, selective retention and modification through descent, is almost universally accepted. By contrast, and to the chagrin of scientists and philosophers of science in the USA, only 40 – 50 % of US citizens accept evolutionary theory. In this respect, the USA only does slightly better than Turkey, which ranks lowest on the list of Miller et al.'s study in Science (2006, vol. 313). Where does this variability come from?

public acceptance of evolution

Evolutionary theory is incompatible with literal biblical or other explicit creationist ideas, but it is not altogether incompatible with theism (the view that God intervenes through his actions in the world). For example, theistic evolution is a widely accepted position by devout evolutionary biologists like Kenneth Miller. Some churches, such as the Church of England, endorse theistic evolution and openly reject both creationism and intelligent design. So the intuitively compelling view that religiosity – as for example measured in attendance of church, temple or mosque – is predictive of the acceptance of evolution does not seem that compelling to me (this view, for example, would account for the fact that Iceland is at the top of the list and it has one of the lowest church attence figures in the world, whereas the US is at the bottom).

Another problem with the view that religiosity predicts the public acceptance of evolution is that it cannot specify a mechanism why this would be so. Consider the graph from data gathered from a recent poll by the pew forum. In this graph, one can see that judaism has one of the highest percentages of people accepting evolutionary theory. Islam does significantly worse, yet there is no creation myth in the Qu'ran, whereas Judaism, of course, has two accounts of creation, just like christianity. Therefore, one should expect that muslims, given that their religion does not give any explicit account of creation, would be less creationist than jews and christians, whereas the opposite pattern is true. Perhaps there is some more indirect way in which religious conviction influences acceptance of evolutionary theory?



  • comment-avatar
    Frank Bellamy 5 May 2009 (04:15)

    The views of church leaders do not always correspond to the views of church members. For example, the catholic church is firmly opposed to abortion and marriage equality, but, at least in the United States, catholics themselves are far from unified on those questions. So the fact that the leaders of some churches endorse evolution doesn’t seem at all incompatible with the idea that religiosity influences acceptance of evolution. As far as Islam, I don’t know a whole lot about that religion, but I do know that they have a significantly larger body of texts than just the Qu’ran, and in the Qu’ran itself there are many references both to adam and to the six day creation. So I don’t think Islam is as lacking in an account of creation as De Cruz suggests.

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    Tom Rees 5 May 2009 (16:20)

    The path analysis in Miller’s paper suggests that religion is the cause of rejecting evolution in Europe and the USA. Tania Lombrozo has also studied this in US students, and found that religion does not reduce understanding of science, but does lead people to reject evolution. Regarding the causes, there was an [url=]interesting study earlier this year[/url] on how orthodox Judaism increases essentialist beliefs in Children. You might expect essentialism to be a barrier to accepting evolution.

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    Helen De Cruz 5 May 2009 (17:00)

    Thank you Tom, the paper you point out (on how religious belief leads one to accept essentialism), can indeed highlight a mechanism by which religious belief indirectly impedes acceptance of evolution. A recent [URL=] study by Shtulman and Schulz [/URL] shows that people who think more essentialist are more prone to downplay within-species variation, and as a result are less likely to accept evolutionary theory.

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    Markus Urbanitz 5 May 2009 (19:52)

    You say that Judaism has one of the highest percentages of people accepting evolutionary theory. You should also say that Judaism has one of the lowest percentages (41%) of people believing in God or a universal spirit. But 82% of the Muslims believe in God. (Pew Religious Landscape Survey) So the view that religiosity is predictive of the acceptance of evolution does seem very compelling to me! And by the way: what’s the difference between theistic evolution and intelligent design?

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    Davis Nelson 6 May 2009 (22:42)

    It seems that one could just as easily say that it’s the lack of a fuller understanding of the theological underpinnings of one’s religious faith that can lead to the false issues and confused controversies. For example, Thomas Aquinas would not have had the slightest difficulty accepting most current views on evolution. However, he would have been equally scandalized by the careless use of language and philosophical incompetence of scientists and the religious literalism of so many laymen. If scientists are, in part, to blame for the low level of acceptance of evolution, it could be due mainly to their tendency to make claims that their data cannot possibly support — thereby making precisely the same intellectual error as the intelligent design crowd. The layman’s common sense recognizes that something is amiss, but can’t pin down the nature of the error. Even if one found that “religiosity is predictive of the acceptance of evolution,” that might be true only at the layman’s level. At some point, a reversal of the trend might occur. There seems to be nothing in the world’s three major religions that would not permit that result. All have tried to draw bright lines between knowledge of the phenomenal order, the noumenal order, and revealed truth.

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    Donald Strong 7 May 2009 (17:55)

    Would Davis Nelson please give three examples, with attribution, of the tendency of scientists to make claims that their data cannot possibly support? It would also be instructive to learn more about the common sense of laymen to recognize that something is amiss.

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    Tage Rai 9 May 2009 (20:39)

    One potential indirect link between religion and belief in evolution that I haven’t seen discussed might be dualist beliefs about humans and animals. If one thinks that there is a strong distinction between man and ‘beast’, then it would be difficult to accept a theory that puts everyone on the same field as it were.

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    Josh Weisberg 9 May 2009 (22:08)

    Is there any indication that political considerations are at work here? In the US, denying evolution is something of a political statement, perhaps independent of the details of one’s religion. The same may be true in Muslim countries: a denial of evolution may be seen as a denial of a Western or modernist idea, rather than something specifically mandated by the religion.