The Gallup organization has put out the results of another survey of American public opinion on human origins. The question allowed those surveyed to choose from the same three options that Gallup has offered since 1982:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?: 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.
The survey results were as follows: God-guided evolution 38%; Godless evolution 19%; recent special creation of man, 38%; other/no opinion, 5%.
The numbers in 1982 (the first time this survey was run) were: God-guided evolution 38%; Godless evolution 9%; recent special creation of man, 44%; other/no opinion, 9%.
Now, I’m not one to read a lot of significance into a poll of a thousand citizens out of a population of over three hundred million, but supposing for the sake of argument that these numbers have something to teach us, what is it that they teach?
Point 1. The “God-guided” position (more on that exact choice of words later) has not gained support over 35 years, but sits at 38%; and this is to be read in the face of the following facts: (1) For the past 20 years many of leading lights of the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation, a group of Christian — mostly evangelical Protestant — scientists) have been pushing “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” very hard, both in Christian circles and in the public sphere; (2) For the past 7 or 8 years BioLogos, backed by millions of dollars of Templeton Foundation money, has been pushing TE/EC on its well-visited website, at conferences, etc.; (3) Leading TE/ECs have put out a number of big-selling books, including Collins’s The Language of God, Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and others; (4) Many of the leading publishers of Christian books and magazines, such as IVP and Christianity Today, have been steadily abandoning ID and creationism and endorsing TE/EC; (5) Many biologists teaching in Christian colleges (including Calvin College) have embraced Darwin. So the question arises why, with all this institutional, financial, and cultural armament behind it, the TE/EC position has not risen above 38%.
To be sure, TE/EC folks could point out that “their” position (again, we need to qualify that below) has in fact risen by 7% since the last survey in 2014, and that this could be plausibly represented as picking up the 7% dropped by the creationist and “other/no opinion” answers since that time. But since that gain only brought the God-guided position back up from its all-time low of 31% in 2014 to the 38% it had back in 1982, the gain was merely a “break-even” gain, not a net gain over the initial position. Thus, the question still arises: why has the sustained and aggressive public relations effort of America’s leading evangelical, evolution-believing scientists over the past 20 years brought the “God-guided” option only back to where it was in 1982? Why hasn’t the position cracked the 40% support level?
Point 2. The support for the creationist answer has dropped. The drop is not huge, but is significant. The all-time high for that position was 47%; the 2014 figure was only 44%; the current figure is 38%. That is still a large fraction of the population, but there has been a drop. So where has the drop come from?
If we look only at the past three years, one could argue that the drop came mostly from the movement from the creationist camp to the God-guided evolution camp. But if we look at the overall trends since 1982 (and a handy table comparing past results with current ones is provided in the pdf of the full survey results, downloadable from the Gallup page cited above), it seems that something else is happening. The “atheistic” position (number 2) has grown from 9% in 1982 to 19% in 2017; i.e., it has more than doubled. During that time, the “God-guided” position has remained in roughly the same place. So in the longer perspective, atheism has gained 10%; i.e., it has picked up exactly the percentage that creationism and “no opinion/other” have dropped since 1982.
It seems, then, that as time has gone on, Americans are (a) neither more nor less attracted to God-guided evolution; (b) less attracted to creationism; (c) more attracted to atheism. And this has happened despite the largest historical outlay (in terms of both hard cash and multimedia publicity) of support for “evolutionary creation” since Charles Darwin first penned his historic book. The “God-guided” position, despite its greatest organized effort to date, has not been able to take advantage of soft support for creationism to get beyond 38%.
In light of these cold facts, the “spin” put on the survey results by BioLogos President Deb Haarsma is strained at best. In one of her rare columns on BioLogos, she argues that the survey is good news for the TE/EC folks. Speaking of the atheist numbers, she writes: “Meanwhile, the “God had no part” position plateaued since the last survey in 2014, stalling at 19% rather than continuing its climb.” Astoundingly, she makes no mention of the fact that this position since 1982 has enjoyed a doubling of support — as if the only metric to be concerned about is atheism’s performance over the past 3 years, rather than its huge and apparently irreversible gains over the past 35. She is trying to put the best face, it seems, on what should be for Christians a cultural disaster, i.e., that nearly one-fifth of Americans, in two consecutive polls, are convinced that God had nothing to do with human origins. But this fits in with the general attitude at BioLogos; the organization has always seemed (if we judge by its actions more than its words) far more worried about the amount of public support for creationism than about the amount of public support for atheism.
Indeed, the only good news in this survey, from a BioLogos point of view, is that the support for traditional creationism is down. But if we look at the 35-year trend rather than the 3-year change, that hasn’t led to any net gain for the God-guided option. Certainly individuals have moved from creationism to TE/EC, and BioLogos very loudly promotes their stories; but since the “God-guided” option is only just holding its own (at the 1982 level), it follows that virtually every defection from the creationist to the “God-guided” side over the past 35 years has been balanced by losses from the “God-guided” position to some other position. So some TE/ECs are moving either back to creationism, or over to atheism. How does Dr. Haarsma explain that? Why has “God-guided evolution” over the past 35 years lost, on average, as much as it has gained?
I come back now to a point I alluded to earlier, i.e., that the survey’s notion of “God-guided” evolution is ambiguous. Deb Haarsma writes: “Option 1, the “God guided” version, is similar to BioLogos views in that it affirms the scientific evidence for human origins and affirms God as our Creator.” Ahem. Hold on for a moment, Dr. Haarsma. I agree that of the three options presented by the survey, the “God-guided” option is the closest to the BioLogos position. But note how Dr. Haarsma fudges a key difference. Even if you combine “we believe in the scientific evidence for evolution” plus “we believe that God is our Creator”, you don’t arrive at “evolution was guided by God” — not unless you add another claim about how God is related to the evolutionary process. And to be sure, Dr. Haarsma is careful to use the word “similar” rather than “the same”; she is aware that the BioLogos claim stops well short of affirming that God “guides” evolution. Yet by not exploring the crucial difference between the position apparently endorsed by the overwhelming majority of BioLogos writers (going by their expressions on BioLogos) and the position set down in the Gallup survey, she fails to pinpoint something essential to any productive analysis of the survey results.
Most of the Americans responding to the survey are not internet geeks who live, eat, and sleep origins issues. They aren’t up on all the fine points, scientific and theological, of creation-evolution-design debates. They are not going to interpret “God-guided evolution” in some tricky way (e.g., God doesn’t actually “guide” evolution but mysteriously “ordains” the outcomes of a chance process to have determinate results). They are going to interpret it in a common-sense way, i.e., God has his finger on evolution, and is directing where it goes, determining its outcomes. He makes use of natural processes and trends, to be sure, but if he is “guiding” it, he is not simply leaving nature to do its own thing; he’s personally involved and in a special way, not merely “sustaining the laws of nature” but making sure what those laws will produce. To the average American on the street, “guided” evolution means that God is a hands-on manager. That may not be how BioLogos wants to see God’s role in evolution (indeed, it clearly isn’t how most of the BioLogos leaders see God’s role in evolution), but it’s how most people who answer the survey will understand it. So when they vote for “God guided the process”, most of them are thinking in terms of the sort of “interfering” God that most BioLogos leaders actively deplore. But Dr. Haarsma doesn’t discuss this crucial point.
If the “God-guided evolution” option were divided into two variant options, the meaning of the survey results would be much clearer. Then people could choose between, “God influences natural processes in direct personal ways to guide evolution to produce human beings” and “God, who loves the freedom of his creatures, lets nature do its own thing, exerting no special influence to alter the outcomes of chance or natural laws, but by a divine mystery we cannot understand, without actually guiding evolution, guarantees that human beings will appear.” If the survey question were split up thus, I predict that the first version would get three times as many votes as the second; and that would not give any comfort to BioLogos (where most of the leaders, I am convinced, would vote for the second version).
The problem with any group today (ID, TE/EC, etc.) making use of the results of the survey is as follows. This survey was designed in 1982, before the current landscape in origins discussions even existed. Back in 1982, the options in the evolution debate were (a) anti-evolutionist creationism; (b) atheistic evolution; (c) a compromise in which God literally directs evolution to pre-arranged ends. But since then, the arrival of ID and of a strong anti-ID reaction by American evangelical scientists has changed the landscape. We now have atheism, creationism, guided evolution, and two new positions, ID and and BioLogos/ASA-style TE/EC. But there aren’t five choices on the survey. So when someone selects “God-guided evolution” there is no way of telling whether that person is supporting the position of Ken Miller or Dennis Venema on the one hand, or Michael Behe or Michael Denton on the other. So neither the ID nor the TE/EC camp can make any hay out of that choice.
Indeed, in the survey as currently constituted, most ID supporters and most BioLogos leaders could not select “God-guided evolution” with intellectual honesty, because “God-guided evolution” is a minority position among ID folks (most of whom like don’t like the “evolution” part), and is also a minority opinion among the BioLogos leaders (most of whom don’t like the “guided” part).
Dr. Haarsma chooses not to go into this depth of analysis in her discussion of the Gallup survey. Her analysis is the “keep up the group morale” sort of analysis we expect Presidents of organizations to make. But it’s a shallow analysis. It glosses over two points of huge importance — the fact that since 1982 atheism has grown tremendously, while EC/TE has not grown by even one percentage point, and the fact that the “God-guided evolution” option which Haarsma sees as close to the BioLogos position is not really the BioLogos position, or the position of any considerable number of its leaders.