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Creating creationists: Silencing the middle in the science-religion dialogue

About one in five respondents said it was not possible to accept the theory of evolution and believe in the existence of a creator God, according to a British poll taken last month.

Those who said that, however, were overwhelmingly not religious believers.

Just 7 percent of respondents who believe in God said such views were incompatible. Nearly two thirds of believers said one could accept evolution and believe God also plays a role in creation. Other respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.

The debate about whether science and religion are adversaries often misses the fact that many people are comfortable both with scientific findings on topics such as evolution and the idea God plays a role in the universe.

Public opinion surveys that force people to choose between a Darwinian theory of evolution and their personal faith play a role in that omission, analysts say.

Many also believe the division between faith and evolution counterproductive.

Scholars tackled that issue at a workshop earlier this month at Cambridge University, where Charles Darwin’s room has been restored and portraits and statues are a reminder of one of the university’s most prominent alumni.

“A lot of people who are driving the clash narrative are not religious believers,” said Fern Elsdon-Baker of Coventry University, an historian and philosopher of evolutionary science.

She asked whether researchers may be creating different types of creationism by labeling some individuals as creationists who are actually evolutionists, disregarding the nuances that allow many believers to affirm evolution.

Asking the right questions

How you ask the question matters.

Sociologists Christopher Bader of Chapman University and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University found that forcing a choice between God or evolution was common after examining several survey questions on human origins.

“But in an attempt to find out how many were on each side of the evolution/creation divide, such survey questions created an artificial division and failed to capture the actual positions of respondents,” they reported in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Because many respondents do not view belief in a divine creator and belief in a scientific evolutionary process as mutually exclusive, attempts to force a choice deny respondents an answer that accurately captures their position and leads to results that fluctuate wildly based on the wording and ordering of questions as well as the response options offered.”

Bader and Finke pointed to two U.S. surveys. In the 2004 General Social Survey, 78 percent of respondents who believed in evolution reported God guided the process. In the 2005 Religion and Public Life Survey, 38 percent of respondents believing in evolution said a supreme being played a role.

In the more secular United Kingdom, the YouGov survey of 2,116 people overwhelmingly found few religious believers stating their faith was incompatible with evolution.

And, in contrast to stated fears that creationist views were growing, the survey also revealed a quarter of respondents said they have become more accepting of evolution. Just 5 percent reported being less accepting of evolution.

Individual interviews were part of the larger study, which was reported by Amy Unsworth, a research associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, which sponsored the Cambridge conference.

One respondent said, “In my own mind, I’m perfectly happy with both (creation and evolution), and more than perfectly happy … they integrate without any bother at all.”

Another respondent said, “I’m not the greatest scientist in the world … and so … evolution has been proven … and of that I have no doubt. Underpinning that, there is God, in my opinion.”

Science and religion

A sizeable number of Americans reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. A third of respondents to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey said humans have existed in their present form since the beginning.

There are also wide variations within religious communities. Evangelical Protestants are much more likely to disagree with Darwin, but strong majorities of mainline Protestants and Catholics say humans have evolved over time.

Yet even as they face criticism from those within and outside their faith, many religious individuals draw on aspects of their tradition that emphasize the relation between faith and reason. They are comfortable with both evolution and a belief in God as creator.

The Episcopal Church in 1982 affirmed its belief in “the glorious ability of God to create in any manner,” and expressed its support “of the scientists, educators, and theologians in the search for truth in this creation that God has given and entrusted to us.”

Some involved in the religion-science dialogue call for a bit less dogmatism on all sides.

Researchers such as Unsworth and Elsdon-Baker are concerned that surveys that force people into one of two opposing camps may themselves be unscientific.

“We may be creating more creationists,” Elsdon-Baker said in an interview.

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