Creationism in America, and what we can know about “Most Christians”

EDIT: Peter has pointed out that I’ve wrongly assumed Dr. McGrath was referring to the United States as the population in question. Regardless, I hope others will find this post interesting.

Dr. James McGrath over at Exploring our Matrix has two new, related posts. The first makes the claim that “Most Christians” do not deny science (i.e. evolution); while the second post acknowledges

“that it is almost impossible to figure out what with precision what “most Christians” think, believe, and practice, without actually asking most Christians…We can take surveys, but do “most Christians” respond to surveys?”.

As it is, both points are at best not entirely correct; the latter is certainly false, and the former doesn’t quite tell the entire story. As someone who studies religion from the social sciences, and who has devoted a good chunk of time to studying creationism as social phenomenon in general, I thought I would take this opportunity to share some basic statistics about creationism in the United States and the use of survey data in the study of religion.

In regards to Dr. McGrath’s first point, the majority of American Christians do not reject evolution, so he is technically correct. However, technical correctness doesn’t even begin to give an accurate picture of how popular creationism is in America today: the following pie chart, hastily constructed this afternoon, shows data from the Baylor Religion Survey’s 2007 wave:

 

Data:  Baylor Religion Survey Wave II from the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.thearda.com); N=1,214

 

A (razor-slim) majority of American Christians do not reject evolution- BUT, we can see, a plurality of American Christians DO reject evolution. The latest data from the Pew Research Group suggests that 46% of the American population (not just Christians) are creationists- so as an American phenomenon, creationism is certainly alive and well. A more nuanced picture emerges if we break down these percentages by the Religious Tradition measure used by sociologists of religion:

 

Data:  Baylor Religion Survey Wave II from the Association of Religion Data Archives (www.thearda.com); N=1,214

 

Clearly, a different story comes to light when we break down creationist beliefs by the major U.S. Christian traditions. Evangelicals and Black Protestants seem to be driving the popularity of creationism; Mainline Protestants and Catholics are more ambivalent, although not-insignificant percentages of these two groups also reject evolution. This suggests that speaking about what “most Christians” believe is sociologically unhelpful; Christianity in America in its major strands show distinct patterns of belief and behavior, and identifying these traditions is probably the first step to take if one submits to the temptation to generalize.

But how far can we generalize? This is the claim from Dr. McGrath’s second blog post, referenced earlier. Basically, what does survey data tell us? Can we really rely on it to give an accurate picture of populations in the hundreds of millions, like the United States? The observant reader may see that the number of respondents used for the Baylor Religion Survey data that I turned into graphs is 1,214. Surely a miniscule proportion of the population can’t tell us anything about the entire country!

Well….we can. I suppose I can ask you to take my word for it, since survey research is the kind of research I most often engage in. A long post regarding statistical theory would be unhelpful, but here are the very basics:

1. Surveys should be (generally) random, representative samples of the population in question

2. Surveys need to be sufficiently large for the sample to be analyzed with any degree of confidence.

It turns out that as long as (1) is fulfilled, (2) is not difficult to fulfill. A random, representative sample of 1,000 is terrific for most survey research- it’s about the sample size that’s used for public opinion polls that you might see on CNN.  In fact, while we enjoy having large samples to work with, anything over a few thousand or so is not necessary for a lot of sociological research. So a sample of 1300 American Christians, assuming a random, representative sample, can absolutely tell us what all Christians in the country believe within a confidence range of a few percentage points- very precise, in other words. That’s the beauty of survey statistics: we don’t have to ask “most Christians” to discover things about “most Christians”- and we don’t have to worry about whether “most Christians” answer surveys, because we don’t ask “most Christians” anyway!

Most quantitative sociological research on religion is done with some type of survey data analysis. The website where I obtained the data for this post, the Association of Religious Data Archives (www.theARDA.com) has a wealth of sociological data on religion free to use and explore, and includes many tools to make it accessible to those who do not have a statistical background. The data in this post took all of five minutes to collect and gather for graphing, for example.

In sum: Creationism can not be marginalized by appeal to majority rules- at least not in the United States. It is the single most common position among American Christians, distressing as this fact may be to some (myself included). And discovering what “most Christians” believe is, thanks to social statistics, quite reliable and accessible.

 

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10 thoughts on “Creationism in America, and what we can know about “Most Christians”

  1. Josh, do you understand that not all the world’s Christians are in the USA? James McGrath, at least in his latter post, makes it very clear that he was thinking of “most Christians” in a worldwide perspective. Are you? You are certainly misrepresenting him when you say that he claimed that “the majority of American Christians do not reject evolution” (my emphasis), as he never mentioned “American”.

    Very likely we can only guess at the comparable figures for Christians in many other countries, especially in places like China. But I can assure you that in Europe the proportion of professing Christians who reject evolution is much lower than in the USA.

    • Good point Peter, I was assuming he was referring to a particular frame of reference, but its clear to me now that was not the case. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Expanding our population of interest to Christianity worldwide is not impossible to do; there are some good large-scale surveys out there. I know in Europe creationism is not as popular, although there is a decline in religious behavior and belief there that would probably account for this gap.

  2. “assuming a random, representative sample,”… Big assumption. Based on that, Obama wins based upon last weeks polls. Romney wins on this weeks polls. Pollsters want to sell their BS, but ignore their own “assumption”. Pollsters make money on polls. Never trust a salesman.

    • Not so bad an assumption, you just have to look at the source. A FOX News poll where people answer online? Probably not a good survey. But if it’s something like a Gallup poll its probably done pretty well.

  3. So not all polls are created equal. Bet the Baylor poll had students asking the questions. Wonder how many subjects originally selected rejected participation, because they were eating a pizza in 2007. Wonder …too many questions to take polls seriously, let alone bias on the part of the questioners. Random representative sample is still subjective based upon who and how they are selected and how questions are asked.

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