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Evolution and Religion: Why Religion Pollsters Should Go to Seminary First

The options given in the poll about evolution, science, and the Bible are unwittingly set up to send the entire discussion down a tedious and dead-end path. No one should be surprised by the results when questions are asked that way.
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Recently, Jerry Coyne posted his comments on the results of a telephone poll commissioned by the Center for Public Policy of Virginia Commonwealth University and published in May of this year. The study polled 1001 American adults on matters of science, and one line of questioning pertained to matters of faith. This is the portion of the poll Coyne seems most interested in, and I share that interest.

The poll reveals that one's thoughts on evolution depend on "the nature and extent of religious belief," as Coyne laments. I agree, the two are most definitely connected. Coyne also argues against "the accommodationist technique ... to accept that people are religious but to convince them that evolution really doesn't violate their faith." I agree that simply tacking evolution onto Christian faith minimizes the theological challenges. For many Christians, that theological challenge has involved a thoughtful re-examination of assumptions about the Bible.

Many Christians have been actively doing just that ever since Darwin. As I read the poll and Coyne's comments, however, I am struck by how the pollsters themselves, and likely those answering, seem wholly oblivious to that fact. At the end of his comments, Coyne complains of scientific ignorance and the importance of educating "people about what evolution is and how much evidence supports it." I agree that this is important, but theological ignorance is as much a problem as anything in the evolution/Christianity debate.

Let me give two illustrations.

On the question of how biological life originated, 43 percent said, "God directly created life," and 24 percent said, "Life developed over time, God guided the process." Coyne laments that 67 percent are "either creationists or believe that God directed evolution." Coyne lumps the two together, which is very unfortunate, but given how the poll is worded, I don't blame him. The phrase "God guided the process" suggests that God is pushing the buttons behind the scenes to "guide" evolution every step of the way.

Those two options don't reflect current discussions among theologically aware Christians. The pollsters should have given another option, something like: "Life developed over time, and that is God's chosen mechanism." This won't satisfy Coyne, I'm sure, but it describes what many Christians think. The third option is just as bad as the second: "Life developed over time, God didn't guide it" (18 percent). The problem is that "not guiding" implies that "guiding" is the only way that God and evolution can be reconciled, which is simplistic and fails to reflect what many thoughtful Christians actually think.

There are other problems with the poll, some of which Coyne addresses. What concerned me most is their question about the Bible. The choices offered are indicative of the fundamentally flawed notions about the Bible that contribute to the polarized discussion over evolution and Christianity:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

  • Actual Word of God: 40 percent
  • Not everything to be taken literally: 34 percent
  • Bible written by men: 21 percent
  • Don't know/refused to answer: 6 percent

Here is my beef: the first three options are not mutually exclusive. To present them as such is, to put it gently, misguided -- and I dare say any first-year seminarian could point out the problem. Yes, there are people who think like this, but they are as wrong as are people who believe in a flat, 6,000-year-old earth that sits in the middle of the solar system. Faulty notions of the Bible may reign in some fundamentalist circles, but what this poll presents is not even a remotely accurate description of what Christians across the spectrum have believed about the Bible for two millennia.

For the Bible to be the "actual Word of God," that means that "not everything is to be taken literally" and that it is "written by men." These are not separate options. All three belong in one positive statement of what the Bible is. Coming to grips with this historic Christian conviction about the Bible will not end the debate, but it will surely help insure that the discussion won't be hijacked by extreme voices on either side.

The options given in the poll about evolution, science, and the Bible are unwittingly set up to give the very results that neither Coyne nor I are terribly excited about. Coyne feels the poll gives clear reasons why the entire discussion is fruitless. I am more miffed at how these superficial poll questions set the entire discussion down a tedious and dead-end path. No one should be surprised by the results when questions are asked that way.

Only something slightly less than a mass theological education is needed in order for all sides to move beyond a superficial, either/or grasp of the issues. That sounds harsh, but we are dealing with matters that require a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and neither extreme in this debate seems to be aware of it -- and neither are the pollsters.