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Why It Matters: New Survey Quantifies the Impact of Evolutionary Ideas on Faith and Ethics

David Klinghoffer

Corrosive Idea cover.jpg

I remember driving our kids to school one morning a few years ago when an NPR story came on the radio, “More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why?” A young man name Kyle Simpson, raised as a Christian, explained the relationship between scientific ideas and his lost faith.

I don’t [believe in God] but I really want to. That’s the problem with questions like these is you don’t have anything that clearly states, “Yes, this is fact,” so I’m constantly struggling. But looking right at the facts — evolution and science — they’re saying, no there is none.

darcoridcover.jpg“There is none” — no God, he meant, according to those twin authorities, the moon and sun, “evolution and science.” The radio story, based on a roundtable discussion with earnest young people from a variety of backgrounds — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim — was heartbreaking. As we all listened, I thought of the frightening world my children are growing up in, so full of moral and spiritual challenges, from which their upbringing provides no guarantee of shelter.

Kyle Simpson is quoted in an important new report from Discovery Institute, “Darwin’s Corrosive Idea: The Impact of Evolution on Attitudes about Faith, Ethics, and Human Uniqueness.” The 17-page report quantifies the influence of scientific ideas about biological origins in ways that go to the heart of how human beings picture our place in the universe.

Download the detailed document now, in which Center for Science & Culture associate director John G. West analyzes data from a new survey commissioned by Discovery Institute.

From Dr. West’s Executive Summary:

In his influential book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, philosopher Daniel Dennett praised Darwinian evolution for being a “universal acid” that dissolves traditional religious and moral beliefs. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has similarly praised Darwin for making “it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Although numerous studies have documented the influence of Darwinian theory and other scientific ideas on the views of cultural elites, the impact of Darwin’s theory on the attitudes of the general public has been less clear. While prominent atheists like Dawkins and Dennett have claimed Darwin’s ideas (and science more generally) as a support for atheism and the rejection of traditional ethics, others — such as Christian geneticist Francis Collins — have maintained that Darwinian biology is compatible with both religious faith and religious-based ethics.

Until now, there has been little empirical data to quantify the impact of evolutionary ideas on the religious and ethical beliefs of the general population. While previous surveys have asked about people’s belief in evolution or their beliefs about other scientific ideas, most have not asked questions about how science has shaped a person’s religious beliefs or worldview. Those surveys that have asked about the impact of science on a person’s religious faith typically have not explored the impact of specific scientific ideas such as Darwinian evolution.

It’s surprising but true that no one until now has gone to the trouble of objectively verifying something that, equally surprising, isn’t clear as common sense to many people. Isn’t it obvious that the question of origins — arguably the ultimate question people can ask about the world — must have a profound impact on beliefs about God, and about our most basic moral values? It may be obvious to you or me, but it’s not to a good many otherwise thoughtful adults in education, the media, spiritual leadership, and other fields.

These men and woman are at pains to insist that faith and wholesome beliefs about human uniqueness and dignity are perfectly compatible with any understanding at all of how complex life arose, whether by chance or design. Well, whatever some wishful opinions may say to the contrary, as a practical matter that is clearly not true. Science intersects with values, and here’s how.

The survey included 3,664 respondents, sampled by SurveyMonkey Audience, a platform employed by NBC News, the Los Angeles Times, and other media venues. (See the report for “Survey Methodology and Notes.”) We found, among other significant results:

  • “67 percent of atheists and 35 percent of agnostics believe ‘the findings of science make the existence of God less probable.'”
  • “Nearly 7 in 10 atheists and more than 4 in 10 agnostics say that for them personally, unguided chemical evolution and Darwin’s mutation/natural selection mechanism have made the existence of God ‘less likely.'”
  • “More than 7 in 10 atheists and nearly 4 in 10 agnostics agree with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that ‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.'”
  • “By contrast, 6 in 10 theists and more than 2 in 10 agnostics say the existence in nature of ‘many things that are exquisitely designed and highly complex’ has made the existence of God ‘more likely’ for them personally.”

We care about biological and chemical evolution for two reasons. First because any intellectually curious person must wonder about the origins of life, and any serious, critical person is not going to just passively submit her intellect to the majority viewpoint. But secondly, because we intuitively recognize the corrosive effect of ideas that attribute the wonder of life solely to blind, unguided churning by dumb material forces.

The new report with John West’s careful and lucid analysis confirms the latter intuition, massively. It’s something that I imagine many parents and teachers will welcome, both for the light it sheds and for its usefulness in explaining to others who should understand, but don’t, what is at stake in the evolution debate. Please do download it now and share it widely.

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