SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

How many real creationists are there?

by Donald Prothero, May 28 2014
When you break down the polls and question Americans about their acceptance of specific scientific ideas like continental drift and animal evolution, a much higher percentage are NOT creationists

When you break down the polls and question Americans about their acceptance of specific scientific ideas like continental drift and animal evolution, a much higher percentage are NOT creationists

For decades now, the Gallup Poll has surveyed Americans about their belief in evolution and creation. Year in and year out, the numbers seem to remain constant: about 40-45% of Americans appear to be Young-Earth creationists (YEC). The exact phrasing of the question is as follows:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings: human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life and God guided this process, human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life, but God had no part in this process, or God created human beings in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

For decades about 44% of the respondents agree to the last answer (YEC), another 37% chose the first answer (theistic evolution, ID creationist), and only 12% favor the second answer (non-theistic evolution). Gallup wrote these questions decades ago before there was much understanding of how the framing of a question can bias the answer, and for decades, they have kept the question the same so comparisons remain consistent. But social scientists know that polls can be very misleading, especially in the way the question is framed to force certain responses. For example, the Gallup poll only gives us three possibilities, and load two of the answers with “God”, which is an obvious bias right from the start. In addition, there is good evidence to suggest that human evolution is the real sticking point, and that most people don’t care one way or another if non-human creatures evolve or not. What if we asked people what they thought about specific scientific ideas, independent of emotional issues like “God” and “humans”?

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) pointed out:

In 2009, Pew stripped away the religious issues and explicit reference to the age of the earth by asking people if they agreed that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes” or alternatively “existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Six in ten opted for evolution.

In 2005, when the Harris Poll asked people “Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not,” 38% agreed that humans did develop from early species, but in the same survey, 49% agreed with evolution when asked: “Do you believe all plants and animals have evolved from other species or not?” So explicitly mentioning human evolution led to 11% of people switching from pro-evolution to anti-evolution. In a 2009 survey, Harris asked a Gallup-like question, in which only 29% agreed that “Human beings evolved from earlier species,” but in a separate question from the same poll, 53% said that they “believe Charles Darwin’s theory which states that plants, animals and human beings have evolved over time.” Placing the issue in a scientific context, with no overt religious context, yields higher support for evolution.

The National Science Board’s biennial report on Science and Engineering Indicators includes a survey on science literacy which, since the early 1980s, has asked if people agree that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” About 46% of the American public consistently agree with that option, about the same number who back the middle option in Gallup’s surveys.

Clearly, people respond to these subtle shifts in how the question is framed, taking a harder stance toward human evolution than to the idea that animals and plants evolve, and stepping away from evolution if it is pitched in opposition to religion. Pollster George Bishop surveyed the diversity of survey responses in 2006 and concluded: “All of this goes to show how easily what Americans appear to believe about human origins can be readily manipulated by how the question is asked.”

In 2009, Bishop ran a survey that clarifies how many people really think the earth is only 10,000 years old. In survey results published by Reports of NCSE, Bishop found that 18% agreed that “the earth is less than 10,000 years old.” But he also found that 39% agreed “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000 years.” Again, question wording and context clearly both matter a lot.

For more evidence that the number of true young-earthers is fairly small, consider another question from the survey run by the National Science Board since the early ’80s. In that survey, about 80% consistently agree “The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.” Ten percent say they don’t know, leaving only about 10% rejecting continental drift over millions of years. Though young-earth creationists often latch onto continental drift as a sudden process during Noah’s flood (as a way to explain how animals could get from the Ark to separate continents), they certainly don’t think the continents moved over millions of years. This question puts a cap of about 10% on the number of committed young-earth creationists, lower even than what Bishop found. More people in the NSB science literacy survey didn’t know that the father’s genes determine the sex of a baby, thought all radioactivity came from human activities, or disagreed that the earth goes around the sun.

This is a very different picture than the Gallup polls suggest. Most people don’t regard continental drift as controversial (YECs must deny its existence), don’t have any problem with the evolution of non-human animals and plants, or an earth more than 10,000 years old. On average, this suggests that the true YECs are only about 10% of the American population (31 million people), another 25% prefer creationism but not necessarily a young earth. That’s about 35% creationists total, not 45% as Gallup suggests. About 10% of Americans (another 31 million people) are non-theistic evolutionists, another 33% or so lean toward evolution, giving us about 35% evolutionists, not 12% suggested by Gallup. The remaining third in the middle also seem to accept evolution, but believe God or gods were involved somehow. Thus, about 65% of Americans seem to accept evolution in some form, not the 55% that Gallup suggested. The wording of the poll makes all the difference.

Yet another set of polls seem to confirm that the number of YECs is much smaller than Gallup suggests, and is also declining. A combined CBS/YouGov poll showed that between 2004 and 2013, the number of people accepting the statement “Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process” jumped from 13% to 21%. Meanwhile, the percentage of people agreeing with the statement ”God created human beings in their present form within the last ten thousand years” dropped from 55% to 37% over the same interval (2004-2013). According to the analysis:

The demographics of the respondents is fairly predictable. Fewer women (37%) accept some form of evolution than men (56%) and fewer women (13%) tend to identify themselves as non-religious than men (20%). Older respondents favored creationism, while respondents under the age of 30 favored evolution, whether guided by a deity or not. The largest number of strict evolutionists was among this youngest age group, which tells us that insisting on keeping science in science class is working. Unsurprisingly, only 5% of Republicans agreed that evolution happens without a deity guiding it. The additional 30% of Republicans who agreed evolution is a thing believe that their god directs it. Democrats (28%) are closely followed by political independents (26%) in their acceptance of non-divine evolution, while an additional 25% and 21%, respectively, think God drives the evolution train. This means that more than half of non-Republicans accept evolutionary science. Among Republicans, 55% believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old and a god created human beings in their present form. The respondents most strongly denying evolution were Muslims, with 64% believing young-earth creationism and 36% uncertain. None of the respondents identifying as Muslim would admit that they accepted evolution. Protestant (59%) and the various Orthodox churches (53%) tied for the next largest group of evolution deniers. The strongest supporters of evolution? Believe it or not, it isn’t the religiously unaffiliated. All of the Buddhists polled accepted evolution, although 13% of them said a deity guided it. Agnostics (85%) accept evolution, 17% of whom say God guided it. The remaining 15% aren’t sure. The atheist respondents throw a curve to the poll, though. Two percent of those identifying as atheist also claim to be young earth creationists. Since 48 atheists responded to the survey, that means one person in there somewhere is either very confused or clicked the wrong radio button.

Other demographics spread pretty much as we might expect: the more educated the respondent, the less likely to believe in creationism. The coasts, made up mostly of blue states, are more accepting of evolution than the mostly-red Midwest and Southern states. People identifying as white were more likely than Hispanics to accept evolution, while only 6% of black people participating in the poll did. The percentage of respondents who favor teaching creationism in public schools (40%) followed the same trends among the different groupings of respondents. Younger people opposed teaching creationism in larger numbers (42%), as did Democrats (29%) and Independents (31%). The more educated respondents disapproved of creationism in public schools more strongly than the less educated.

In short, not only are the polls skewed by the way questions are written, but the trends are positive. YECs are nowhere near as numerous as Gallup suggested, their numbers are declining rapidly, and the YECs are older and dying off.  In nearly other developed nation in the world—Canada, northern Europe, Japan, etc.— creationism has no influence on public policy. This is striking contrast to the U.S., where (despite the fact that YECs are a small minority according to these polls), creationists form the majority of the House science committees, and are the majority of GOP presidential candidates in the past two elections. I don’t expect to see the end of the YEC threat in the U.S. in my lifetime, but the times, they are a changin’.

Recommended Reading

26 Responses to “How many real creationists are there?”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    When there are no more Creationists, what will Creationist-fighters like yourself do? Better find a new Emmanuel Goldstein while you can!

  2. Josh Ronsen says:

    I wonder how many of the people responding have multiple and conflicting viewpoints; i.e., when in church or temple they think one thing, but in a science classroom they think another? This would be analogous to linguistic “code switching” where I speak one way around my friends and a different way to my grandmother. The change in question wording activates different parts of their lives.

    • Phil Kabza says:

      Very insightful comment. I observe that many people “believe” what they “believe” in order to identify as a member of a group and obtain that group’s approval. Hence 10 year olds who have “born again” experiences. “Belief Switching.” Important to understand this.

  3. Miles Rind says:

    Surely one implication of Rosenau’s analysis of the results of these surveys is that a lot of people think in such a confused fashion that it is questionable whether one can impute any consistent beliefs to them. For instance:

    In survey results published by Reports of NCSE, Bishop found that 18% agreed that “the earth is less than 10,000 years old.” But he also found that 39% agreed “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000 years.”

    It is as if you were to take a survey in which you solicit people’s opinion of the statements (A) “The earth is flat” and, as a separate question, (B) “The earth is flat and Jesus saves,” and you got the result that twice as many people accept (B) as accept (A). (B) implies (A), so it is incoherent to reject (A) and accept (B). But that is what is happening in these surveys. “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000 years” implies “The earth is less than 10,000 years old,” but twice as many people accept the first statement as accept the second.

    When people’s thinking exhibits this degree of logical incoherence, one cannot with any confidence say what they think.

  4. Greg Smith says:

    So, roughly a third of Americans will just pick the ‘God’ choice when there is one, without bothering to think about whether it makes any sense? This saves a lot of time in decision making processes, of course.

    Hmm, do you think Republican candidates and strategists are aware of this?

  5. Jim Hanson says:

    I believe that these results are all occurring because Bible believing Christians are bombarded with contradictory information claiming that science declares as fact, from a number of different reliable evidences, that the creation is billions of years old. Yet Bible believers read in Genesis 1 of a 6 day creation. So how do they reconcile these 2 powerful claims? IMHO, these conflicting ideas lead to this confusion in the poll results.

    I have had this matter cleared up for me by the scientific theories of Barry & Helen Setterfield (http://setterfield.org) that explain that there is scientific evidence now coming forth that the speed of light was once 10,000,000 times faster than it is today and that it has rapidly decayed down to what it is today. The result of this new scientific data is that it shows that all radiometric dating devices are programmed to make their time calculations by ASSUMING that the speed of light is and always has been a constant of 186,000 miles per second. When their results are adjusted by this huge decay curve, they turn out giving us a young universe that is under 10,000 years old!

    With my current belief in this new scientific data which fully supports a young earth universe, I now fall firmly into the 10% who stick with the Biblical account of creation! When this data gets out to more believers in creation I believe that they too will join me in their beliefs!!!

    • Phil Kabza says:

      It is not the intent of scientific activity to establish a “belief in data.” It is rather to acquire, examine, and analyze data. Transferring the mental activity of “belief” to the realm of science is a misunderstanding that leads to all kinds of pseudoscience development to support preexisting beliefs, no matter how inaccurately those beliefs may describe the universe. It is quite possible to utilize language and appearances to mimic scientific activity. But it is not admirable.

    • There is NO CONNECTION WHATSOEVER between the way the speed of light is measured, and the way radiometric dates are calculated!! Radiometric dates come from directly observed rates of nuclear decay, and they are rigorously scrutinized by the community of geochronologists for both data quality and the assumptions that are behind it. At no time do geochronologists consider physicists’ measures of the speed of light in their calculations. Instead, the proof that they are reliable comes from the fact that multiple independent isotopic systems from the same rock give the same age, even though they have different decay rates and don’t interact in any way. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know the first thing about geochronology (which I have published in).
      Any physicists out there want to weigh in on this garbage that the speed of light was once much higher?

      • As far as Setterfield’s ideas of the speed of light changing, it has not only been rejected by physicists (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/c-decay.html) for LOTS of problems and inconsistencies with the documented evidence, but even by creationists (https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/starlight/does-distant-starlight-prove-the-universe-is-old/; Humphreys, Dr. Russell (1996). Starlight & Time. Master Books. p. 28.). No one except Setterfield takes this idea seriously except Setterfield!
        Instead, Jim Hanson, I recommend that you learn to read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, as I did. If you do, you will find that it is full of all sorts of copying errors, inconsistencies, obvious later insertions, and so many problematic passages that NO ONE would take it literally in the original language–as most Bible scholars do not take it literally today. Some “source” for the origin of the universe!

      • Alan(UK) says:

        “There is NO CONNECTION WHATSOEVER between the way the speed of light is measured, and the way radiometric dates are calculated!!”

        Ah, but in Setterfield’s alternate universe where (as far as I can make out) only the electromagnetic force rules, nuclear decay is directly related to the speed of light.

        The speed of light thing was just plain wrong in a schoolboy like way. The irony is that however you tweak the speed of light it does not solve the creationist’s problem.

        His subsequent research plumbs new depths (words fail me). Again the irony is that however you tweak radioactive decay rates, it does not solve the creationists problem.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      Jim,

      There is a easily obtainable book out called “Nature’s Clocks” by Doug Macdougall. It focuses solely on the history of radiometric dating, plus excellent explanations on many of the different dating techniques from Rubidium/Strontium with a half life of 48.8 billion years, all the way through to Carbon 14 with a half life of 5,730 years. It’s a fascinating read, but I’m afraid to say no mention of the speed of light.

  6. Lhyzz says:

    I am not sure what answer I would pick, as I believe there was perhaps some sort of divine ‘spark’ (not that I claim to know what that might be), but not direct guidance. For instance, if you flick a domino and thousands of dominoes fall, you started it but had no involvement in the rest of the system. (For the record, I am a reform Jewish agnostic theist.)

    • Bill T. says:

      I’m confused:

      You’re an agnostic, hence do not know if a god exists or not.

      You’re a theist, hence you believe a god exists.

      • Ricky Callwood says:

        It is possible to believe that a god exists without being absolutely sure of it. That is what agnostic theist means.

      • Gerry Beggs says:

        The answer to your question is in your question.
        There is a difference between “know” and “believe”.
        A common misconception is that “agnosticism” is a middle-ground between Theism and Atheism. It’s not.

        The question of knowledge is different from the question of belief.

        You can believe something without knowing it… I believe it will rain tomorrow, but I don’t know it will.

        Similarly, most atheists I’ve seen would label themselves as Agnostic Atheist (including myself).

  7. Jason Loxton says:

    I agree with the effects of framing, but the alternate questions run into their own issues. Take this passage:

    “In 2009, Pew stripped away the religious issues and explicit reference to the age of the earth by asking people if they agreed that ‘Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes’ or alternatively ‘existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ Six in ten opted for evolution.

    In 2005, when the Harris Poll asked people ‘Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not,’ 38% agreed that humans did develop from early species, but in the same survey, 49% agreed with evolution when asked: ‘Do you believe all plants and animals have evolved from other species or not?’ So explicitly mentioning human evolution led to 11% of people switching from pro-evolution to anti-evolution. In a 2009 survey, Harris asked a Gallup-like question, in which only 29% agreed that ‘Human beings evolved from earlier species,’ but in a separate question from the same poll, 53% said that they ‘believe Charles Darwin’s theory which states that plants, animals and human beings have evolved over time.’ Placing the issue in a scientific context, with no overt religious context, yields higher support for evolution.”

    The problem is that even the most ardent YECs believe that species have evolved and continue to evolve. Ken Ham’s organization, for example, is very clear on this (http://www.icr.org/article/speciation-animals-ark/), and there is even a whole made up pseudocladistal “science” to figure out the evolved relationships among “created Kinds”: Baraminology. The alternate questions above, in a way, actually provide LESS information about whether people accept evolution in the scientific sense of deep common ancestry, since they allow people who believe in post-Ark evolution to answer in the affirmative.

    Another issue I have is finding solace in the continental drift question: people are perfectly capable of casually holding conflicting points of view. My guess is that when they realize that the tectonic view, which they’ve picked up from TV, museums, etc., presents a challenge to their biblical worldview, i.e., when the question is phrased in a manner that directly involves God, religious respondents retrench. I think that is likely why you get the difference in numbers: when they are forced to make a decision between choosing a consistent biblical world view or an inconsistent mosaic view, they choose a biblical world view. I don’t find that comforting.

  8. Oneyearmuse says:

    Let me summarise your article so that I have it right in my head:

    Polls can be baised to give the result that is required. Every single person on the planet with a modicum of common sense knows this.

    Your worry that there are too many YEC’s in government, I find this to be a somewhat pointless worry. Your perspective is far too small, Government policy is dictated mostly by politicians, how many politicians do you know that have a scientific background? How many are swayed by their belief in God? How many are corrupt? How many believe in God and are scientists too?

    People (non-scientists) are very good at believing, when it comes to knowing that is where it becomes a problem.

  9. markx says:

    Dang! 30 odd percent are young earth creationists! Mindboggling. Some things about the mighty US of A are downright scary.

    Mind you, those 30 odd percent may be correct. If we could get that number up to 97% we would be sure they were.

  10. Tim Hoffnagle says:

    Interesting article, however, I found an error. The article stated, “Most people don’t regard continental drift as controversial (YECs must deny its existence)…” You would think that this would be true but I recently went to a presentation given by Russ Miller (Creation, Evolution and Science ministries) who tried to show how science proves the young Earth Creationist view. He explicitly stated that continental drift happened – it just happened faster than science says it did. In fact, he said that the source of the water for the Noachian Flood is the edges of the tectonic plates. I had so many other questions (it was a very target rich environment) to ask him that I didn’t get around to asking why there have been no historical reports of near constant and huge earthquakes that would have accompanied such rapid continental movement (~1 mile per year int he 4,000 years since Noah’s flood?).

  11. Alan(UK) says:

    Do these polls have any meaning? Is there any point in asking a question about continental drift without establishing that the respondent has some knowledge of the subject. Those that have been through the education system in modern times know that you should never leave a question unanswered, when it is a multiple-choice question – doubly so.

    Asking people what they believe is different from asking people what they know. All that has been achieved is to show that people are strong on belief but weak on knowledge.

  12. James M. Martin says:

    One is one too many. This is the 21st century.