Evolution Is Not a Matter of 'Belief'

HOUSTON  - AUGUST 28:  A sculptor's rendering of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis is displayed as part of an exhibition
HOUSTON - AUGUST 28: A sculptor's rendering of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis is displayed as part of an exhibition that includes the 3.2 million year old fossilized remains of 'Lucy', the most complete example of the species, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, August 28, 2007 in Houston, Texas. The exhibition is the first for the fossil outside of Ethiopia and has generated criticism among the museum community and others that believe the fossil is too fragile to be moved from it's home country. (Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

Do you "believe" in evolution? A new survey reveals that your answer can be predicted in large part by your political loyalties. The Pew Research Center finds that two thirds of Democrats accept the validity of evolution, in contrast with the 43 percent of Republicans who accept it. The latter figure, remarkably, has shrunk by 11 percentage points since 2009, when Pew performed a similar survey.

In a time of great divides over religion and politics, it's not surprising that we treat evolution the way we do political issues. But here's the problem: As settled science, evolution is not a matter of opinion or something one chooses to believe in or not, like a religious proposition. And by often framing the matter this way, we who are involved in the news media, Internet debates and everyday conversation do a disservice to science, religion and our prospects for having a scientifically literate country.

As a progressive, I'm tempted to blame willful ignorance by those on the "other side" when I see the sharp rise in Republicans rejecting evolution, and the always-high percentage of white evangelical Protestants (64 percent in the Pew poll) who believe that humans were created by God in their present form (that is, with no evolution involved).

But partisan politics isn't the end of the story. More than a quarter of Democrats reject evolution, as do half of Protestant blacks. Women are 10 percentage points more likely to reject evolution than men.

Willful ignorance plays a part in this dynamic, but so does the poor job done by the field of science in engaging the public. And the way the evolution-vs.-creation standoff is framed in the popular conversation, you can understand why many are led to believe we have an either/or decision to make: evolution or God?

Consider the headlines and social media chatter surrounding the Pew survey release. "Surprising Number Of Americans Don't Believe In Evolution," announced The Huffington Post. As CBSNews.com put it, "Republicans' belief in evolution plummets." Facebook sports a page titled "I don't believe in evolution." As its owner elaborates, "I don't believe that we evolved from monkeys; I believe that God created us."

For starters, "belief" means something different in a religious conversation than it means when we're talking about science. In the case of faith, it usually means accepting the moral and spiritual truth of something and giving it your trust and devotion. In talking about evolution, it is more precise to call it "scientifically valid" or "an accurate account of what we observe." No leaps of faith or life-altering commitments are required.

Second, despite the way it's often discussed by creationists and anti-religion zealots, evolution says nothing about the existence of God. A scientific concept backed by an overwhelming amount of supporting evidence, evolution describes a process by which species change over time. It hazards no speculations about the origins of that process.

Third, as a good number of Christians in this country understand, it is more than possible to accept the validity of evolution and believe in God's role in creation at the same time. Even among theologically conservative Christians, we see an "evolution" in the understanding of faith and science. "Divine evolution," anyone? It's a concept that is catching on as more evangelicals come to see evolution as God's way of orchestrating an ongoing process of creation.

In sum, we are not faced with a stark choice between God and science. Unless we read the Bible as a collection of facts as we would a textbook (which, admittedly, some 30 percent of Americans do), people can place their trust in God the creator and accept the scientific validity of evolution.

What's sad about this misunderstanding over evolution and faith is the effect it has on the ability of religious conservatives to participate in science, either as a career track or in the informed-citizen sense. Largely because of the evolution standoff, pastors and parents in the evangelical sphere often steer young people away from science-related careers. And this general mistrust of science in our country -- due in part to evolution rejection -- hamstrings our ability to make thoughtful decisions informed by facts and evidence in addition to loyalties, beliefs and emotions.

You don't believe in evolution? No problem. It does not ask that of you.

This blog post originally appeared in USA Today on Jan. 10, 2014.