How many Christians believe in evolution? Depends on how you ask

A woman walks beside an exhibit displaying the evolution of humans, at the Darwin's Evolution Exhibition in the Calouste Gulbenkina Foundation in Lisbon February 12, 2009. |

If you ask white evangelical Protestants whether they believe “humans have evolved over time,” 32 percent agree that they have, according to the Pew Research Center

But that’s only the case when the question is split into two parts. After the first question (of whether humans have evolved or existed in their present form since the beginning), those who agree are then asked if they believe evolution occurred due to natural selection or if God had a role in it.

When posed with only one question (rather than a two-step approach), white evangelical Protestants are more likely to say evolution occurred and less likely to hold a creationist stance. In fact, the percentage jumps from 32 percent to 62 percent who agree that humans evolved over time.

In the single question approach, respondents are asked:

Which statement comes closest to your view?

  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a high power had no role in this process. OR
  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power. OR
  • Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
pew evolution

A similar pattern is seen among black Protestants and Catholics.

When given the two-step question, 41 percent of black Protestants believe humans have evolved over time as opposed to having existed in their present form since the beginning of time. But that percentage increases to 71 when given the single question.

Among Catholics, 71 percent believe humans evolved over time when asked in two questions, and 87 percent believe the same when asked in a single question.

Pew noted that for the past decade-and-a-half, it has been asking Americans about their views on the origins of humankind mostly in a two-step process.

But last spring, the research center decided to ask the question in two different ways. Half of the respondents were asked in a two-step process while the other half were asked a single question.

When respondents are “immediately given the opportunity to say God played a role in human evolution,” the percentage of those who reject evolution “drops considerably.”

Essentially, those who respond differently “are those who primarily believe that God or a higher power had a role in human evolution,” Pew noted.

“Religious people who believe both that evolution has occurred and that God played a role in it might nevertheless — when asked cold — choose the creationist option simply as a way of registering their belief that God exists, and not because they truly reject evolution. Without having first been given the chance to stipulate that they believe God exists and played a role in the creation of life on Earth, some respondents may have seen it as socially undesirable to say they believe humans have evolved over time.”

Moving forward, Pew said it plans to ask about evolution using the single question approach, maintaining that it allows for more nuance in the views of respondents.

The only Christians who were consistent in their responses to both question formats were white mainline Protestants, many of whom believe in evolution due to natural selection. In response to both approaches, a majority (at least 83 percent) agree with evolution.

Overall, among U.S. adults, 68 percent agree that humans evolved when responding to the two-step question, while 81 percent agree when posed with the single question.

The survey was conducted April 23–May 6, 2018, among 2,537 respondents. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Gallup has documented a decline in Americans who believe God created man in present form. While 44 percent held that view in 1981, 38 percent (a new low) supported that view in 2017. Meanwhile, the share of those who believe human beings developed and that God had no part in the process increased from 9 percent to 19 percent over the past three decades. 

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