Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Evangelicals, evolution and atheism: the 2011 Pew Foundation survey

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Evangelicals, evolution and atheism: the 2011 Pew Foundation survey

This is a guest piece by reader Sigmund, who read the entire 100-odd page Pew survey. My thanks for his written take on it.

Compared to most developed nations, the proportion of evangelical Christians in the USA is far higher. In 2004 they comprised 26.3% of the population. At the same time, the level of acceptance of the theory of evolution is significantly lower. The question of whether there is a direct connection between evangelicals and the rejection of evolution has been difficult to quantify, however, since most surveys to date have not separated specific religious subgroups.

This issue has now been addressed in a new survey released by the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life, who polled the opinions of evangelical leaders attending last year’s Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization.

A quick background on the Lausanne Congress is in order. The number of evangelical Christians has risen worldwide from about 80 million in 1910, 90% of whom lived in the US or Europe, to over 260 million today—the majority of whom live outside Europe or the USA. The first international congress of worldwide evangelical leaders was organized by Billy Graham in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, followed by the second in 1989 in Manila.

The current survey involved attendees of the third convention, which took place in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2010. This congress brought together over 4000 evangelical leaders from across the globe in numbers representative of the proportion of evangelical Christians in each region. Viewing this as the perfect opportunity to gauge what the leaders of the worldwide evangelical community feel about a wide variety of contentious issues, the Pew Research Center devised a questionnaire that was sent to all attendees, the majority of whom completed it.

The full survey summarizes evangelical opinions on a wide variety of topics, and is available from this link. Here I’ll concentrate on the results of a subset of questions of special relevance to the readers of this site.

Evangelicals and Evolution

First, and probably of no surprise to anyone, is the result of the question regarding acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution. The survey posed the question:

“Which statement comes closest to your own views?” - the options being:

Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes such as natural selection.
A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.
Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
In other words the choices are evolution, intelligent design of the Michael Behe variety, and standard creationism. It is important to note that the Pew foundation used a wording for the evolution option that, unlike some previous surveys, doesn’t specifically exclude a role for God: for instance, someone who believes that God set up the laws of nature and that biological evolution is just one of the consequences of these laws should answer option A.

What proportion of evangelicals accept the scientific theory of evolution?

The answer is 3%

Almost half (47%) of respondents opted for traditional creationism, while 41% chose intelligent design. Not exactly testament (ahem) to the success of BioLogos in convincing evangelicals to accept biological evolution. Bearing in mind that surveys of this type usually have a margin of error of several percentage points (surveys of atheists occasionally show a similar percentage answering that they believe in God!), one can read this result as a unanimous rejection by this community of the scientific consensus on biological evolution.

To put the 3% figure in perspective, it is the same as the percentage of evangelicals who answered that it is not “essential to follow the teachings of Christ in one’s personal and family life”: pretty much the defining feature of evangelical Christianity. Furthermore, the 3% figure for support of evolution by evangelicals was consistent across all geographic regions.

BioLogos, in trying to convince evangelical Christians to accept evolution while keeping their religion, may be tacking an almost insurmountable problem. Rejection of evolution is not simply a theological side issue in evangelical Christianity, but appears to be a defining feature.

The Problem of Atheism

Evangelical Christianity, as a whole, tends to more prevalent in countries with higher levels of religiosity. Regions such as the USA, South America and sub-Saharan Africa have large numbers of Evangelical Christians in contrast to Northern Europe. Most evangelicals attending this congress, then, will have come from countries with a low percentage of atheists in their population.

This makes it all the more surprising that the number one issue seen as a threat to Evangelicism was “The influence of secularism” (secularism and atheism/non belief in God is frequently used within the survey as meaning the same thing). 71% of evangelicals saw this as a major threat while 20% viewed it as a minor threat. In comparison, the influence of Islam is seen as a major threat by 47% of evangelicals and government restrictions on religion by 22%.

Taking these figures into account, we can perhaps see why atheists figure prominently in another survey result—the views of other religious traditions.

Atheists are the number one most hated group by evangelicals, 70% of whom say they have an unfavorable opinion of atheists, although Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (65%, 65% and 67% unfavorable, respectively) are close behind.

Curiously, though, when asked about how they perceive the friendliness of other religious groups towards evangelicals, only a minority of evangelicals (45%) view atheists as unfriendly, with most perceiving atheists as either neutral (49%) or friendly (8%). The figures for the perceived friendliness of atheists are very similar to those of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus—Muslims were the exception, with 69% of evangelicals perceiving them as unfriendly towards evangelicals.

So, compared to other non Christian groups, atheists are not perceived as particularly unfriendly towards evangelicals, yet we are by far the most hated group. Perhaps it’s our inherent tendency towards violence that is the problem (remember Stalin!)

Apparently not. The survey asked whether some religions were more prone to violence than others. Despite atheism being one of the possible answers in this question, not a single evangelical answered that atheism was prone to violence. Considering that some of the evangelicals at the conference will have come from countries in Northern Europe with atheist majorities, they would have been aware if the gradual drop in Northern European religiosity resulted in believers getting carted off to the killing fjords.

So, on to the final mention of atheists in the survey.

Guess who evangelicals see as the top priority for evangelization?

Yes! It’s us again!

73% of evangelicals view the non-religious as the top target for evangelization.

This compares to 59% voting for Muslims and 27% for Jews.

Unfortunately, the survey only hints at how this evangelization process might proceed. When asked about their missionary position evangelicals were firm: the vast majority (86%) viewed using local missionaries, rather than sending in outsiders, to try to convert people of a different belief.

In terms of converting atheists, though, this seems problematic.

Evangelicals trying to convert atheists would need a missionary who is an atheist yet agrees with them on many core issues. This missionary would need to have an almost irrational hatred for outspoken atheism, a love of religious belief and an almost uncanny ability to get up atheists’ noses. Where on earth will they find someone like that?

OK, now that we’ve covered the serious stuff in the survey, we can look at the answers to the set of humorous questions that some comedian on the staff of the Pew foundation slipped in for a laugh.

First, remember how everyone agreed that Harold Camping was a lunatic for telling everyone who would listen that Jesus was about to return to Earth to rapture up to heaven a subset of believers, leaving the rest of us to suffer a seven year period of tribulation? Well apparently ‘everyone’ did not include the evangelical community, an overall majority of whom answered that Jesus will return during their lifetimes (44% say probably and 8% say he will definitely return) and that the rapture and tribulation will occur (61% agree).

There also appears to be a curious hatred for “Yoga as a spiritual practice” amongst evangelicals, with 92% saying that it is incompatible with evangelical Christianity. One suspects that an intervention by Chris Mooney and Elaine Howard Ecklund is required (these evangelicals are clearly interpreting the word “spiritual” the wrong way, aren’t they?)

Of particular interest in this survey is the direct connection many of the leadership of the evangelical community appear to have with God Himself.

“Nearly all the evangelical leaders surveyed (94%) say they have received a direct answer to a specific prayer request at some point in the past.”

Is God Confused?

Despite this direct line to the top, there seems to be a curious variation in what God is telling different leaders, especially when you ask evangelicals who come from North America and Europe (Global North) compared to evangelicals from the Middle East and Africa (Global South). For instance God seems very confused about alcohol.

“A majority (73%) of the leaders from the Global North consider alcohol consumption to be compatible with being a good evangelical Christian. By contrast, a similarly large majority of the leaders from the Global South (75%) say alcohol consumption is not compatible with being a good evangelical.”

And that’s not all.

Despite 84% of worldwide evangelical leaders saying that homosexuality should be discouraged, a majority of evangelical leaders (51%) from South and Central America answered that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

What’s more, there appears to be a marked difference in views on how women should be treated.

“Among U.S. leaders, 44% agree women should stay at home, while 53% disagree. Leaders in Europe, however, reject the idea of women staying at home by a more than two-to-one margin, 69% to 28%.”


“European leaders (62%) and North American leaders (54%) are especially likely to reject the idea that a wife must always obey her husband. On the other hand, upwards of 60% of leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East-North Africa and the Asia-Pacific region agree that a wife must always obey her.

The secularist might suspect that major differences in fundamental beliefs (acceptance of homosexuality, treatment of women, whether it is acceptable to drink alcohol) might be due, not to revelatory instructions from on high (after all, all of these folks purport to believe in the same Scripture), but to underlying social conditions such as the level of education of the population, whether there is an adequate social welfare and healthcare system in place, and the value placed on knowledge, equality and freedom of expression.


In conclusion, we can look at this report as an important and informative study of a group we need to take seriously due to their numbers and influence. Harold Camping gets mocked by TV networks and ignored by those in power, while Rick Warren gets a slot on the Presidential podium.

While evangelicals’ opinions on social matters vary depending on the social norms of their locality, we find that rejection of evolution by evangelicals is universal. Finally, we note that the greatest perceived threat to evangelical Christianity is the effect of the non-religious.

Well, at least they got that one right!

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