Pete Enns has a new article up at the Huffington Post: Evolution and Religion: Why Religion Pollsters Should Go to Seminary First. Ignore the forum (especially the ads on the sidebar) and read the article – this is an interesting question. Just a paragraph here, condensed, to get a taste. Commenting on a poll commissioned by the Center for Public Policy of Virginia Commonwealth University (complete poll report here), Pete notes (also quoting Jerry Coyne):
The poll reveals that one’s thoughts on evolution depend on “the nature and extent of religious belief,” … 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
The problem, Dr. Enns suggests, is the form of the boilerplate questions. They simply don’t cover the options well. They don’t contain enough nuance. Consider the options on the question of evolution:
Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process.
Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God did not guide this process.
God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time.
Which of these best describes your view? Do the questions represent the right set of options or would you phrase it differently?
In response to this poll (VCU Survey p. 53) sampling 1001 adults in the US:
Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process. (27% of men, 21% of women)
Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God did not guide this process. (20% of men, 16% of women)
God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time. (39% of men, 47% of women)
But do the options God guided the process or God did not guide the process really cover the options adequately? Evolutionary creation is not really a dichotomy between guided or not guided. And of course, this leaves little room for those who hold a view of progressive creation or some forms of ID. The options on the survey are limiting – and when the results are publicized can give the impression that these options span the available views.
Now I realize that the questions are phrased in a consistent way across many surveys over many years to allow comparison of the results. If a poll changes the questions it may give insight – but it will confuse comparison. Nonetheless the questions can be frustrating in their limitations.
I always find the questions on the Bible more troubling and more limiting.
VCU Survey p. 26:
Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible
The Bible is the actual Word of God.
The Bible is the Word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally.
Bible is a book written by men and is not the Word of God.
Ecklund used a slightly differently phrasing (Science vs Religion p. 169):
Which one of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible
The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally word for word.
The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.
The Bible is an ancient book of fables recorded by men.
In the VCU survey 40% chose “Actual Word of God” and 34% “Not Everything Taken Literally.” The numbers for these first two have been relatively constant over the last decade. On the other hand the last option “Written by Men” has grown from 14% in 2001 to 21% in 2010, a significant increase perhaps. If Christians answered honestly everyone would chose a variant of the
middle options below. None of us take the poetry in the Psalms literally
- and few of us hold to an Ancient Near East cosmology. Most of us also tend to view it as both written by men and the Word of God. These questions
probe for “correct” answers – where correct is determined by community
more than reality of use and thought about the options.
Which of these best describes your view? Do the questions span the options with a reasonable completeness or would you phrase it differently?
Added from Scot’s first comment directing the conversation better:
I’d like to see the scientists frame five options to the question about origins.
And let’s have the theologians frame five options to the question about how to describe what to believe about the Bible.
What do you think?
If you wish you may contact me at rjs4mail[at]att.net.