Once More Evolution

I admit I have a bit of a fascination with evolution and theology. Not just in terms of trying to figure out how to reconcile them but also people’s stances towards the theology and science. I’ve long been dissatisfied with many polls on the subject since they tend to frame the questions in terms of Protestant (typically more “literalist” Evangelical) views. Those questions for various reasons never quite fit Mormon approaches. Usually I could even figure out clearly how I’d answer the poll beyond trying to guess what they were after. Today there’s a fascinating paper on the question that seems to get at the details in a much better way. More interestingly it’s a longitudinal study showing how views have changed.

The paper is “A Longitudinal Study of Attitudes Toward Evolution Among Undergraduates Who Are Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Now this is a study of college students and thus quite biased and not a reflection of Mormons in general. However non-college students often have confused notions of what evolution even is. This study just deals with students taking introductory biology who aren’t biological majors. Most of these students were freshmen and thus very young and reasonably ignorant. This is a fantastic little paper and also has references to most of the other studies. That includes Pew’s study that 52% of Mormons rejected evolution in 2014. Again due to odd nuances of Mormon beliefs on creation I don’t think those broad multi-state or multi-religion studies get at what we actually believe. On the other hand it is undeniable that many people have opposed evolution including prominent general authorities. I was at BYU in the early 90’s when this was a big battle there with most religion professors opposing evolution. This was eventually settled somewhat with the “Evolution Packet” that undergraduates receive.

To me what’s most interesting in this new paper is the graph listing views of evolution in 1987-1997 (roughly the time I was at BYU) and 2014-2016.

You’ll note how high acceptance is compared to when I was at BYU. Reading through the full list of questions I found a few particularly interesting bits.

The question asking about it’s scientific acceptance went from about 66.9% in the 80’s to 84.5%. That’s very good. If you include those who put it a little too strongly (“evolution is a law, an absolute principle whose mechanisms and consequences are completely defined”) that goes to around 90%. Regarding the age of the earth 74.1% said the earth is billions of years old. That was only 46.2% in the 80’s. Those who said the earth was only a few thousand years old due to scripture went from 25.1% to 9.9%. Those who thought the same but assumed science taught this went from 4.2% to 2.9%. Those might still seem bad, but having taught and TAed introductory physical science classes to freshmen it’s worth noting just how ignorant people are when they come to college.

Knowledge of the Church’s neutrality towards evolution went from 62.2% in the 80’s to 76.5% – which is quite high. In 1988 though that figure was only 35%. So people have become quite knowledgeable about the Church’s position.

A second set of questions regarding knowledge about well known writings on evolution surprised me. Only 9.5% had heard about the BYU Packet on Evolution. So this isn’t directly due to that packet but presumably just reflects broader trends in how evolution gets taught at Church, in seminary and at BYU.

It’s good to know that views are changing in all this. I know that for some people the assumption that the Church opposes evolution is a big barrier. My own son has struggled with this at times, despite my telling him this isn’t a Church position. (He’s only 14 though) I think reconciling teachings on this matter is a little tricker than some assume, mind you. But the Church simply doesn’t reject the science. It’s interesting though that in recent years the Church seems to be becoming much more careful about what is a clearly revealed doctrine and what is just prominent GAs giving their interpretation of scripture. That in turn is reshaping how the body of the Church thinks about many issues.

Read the paper. I’m still thinking on it and seeing things I missed. I just wish we had a similar study for people graduating from BYU rather than so biased towards teens just starting college.

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