Feb 11, 2014

Considering creationist belief

There may be fewer creationists in America than people think.

Jonathan Hill, a sociology professor at Calvin College, has looked at the most commonly cited survey, which says nearly half of Americans believe God "created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." He finds reasons to question that number.

In Christianity Today, he writes:
As a social scientist, I am skeptical about these findings for two reasons. First, the way in which these questions about human origins are written restricts complex or conflicted responses. Surveys like the Gallup poll tend to represent the various views we might label Atheistic Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young Earth Creationism with position statements that force respondents to select the one that comes closest to their beliefs.

The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.

Second, these polls give us no description of the manner in which people hold to these beliefs. Are respondents confident that their position is correct? Is it important to them personally to have the right beliefs about human origins? If large segments of the public are uncertain about their position, or if their beliefs are unimportant to them, then the idea of an intensely polarized public is misleading.
The second point connects to some of my thinking about the problem of "belief." In most public conversations, belief is taken to be something quite simple and straightforward. It's assumed, for the most part, that there's a common, clear understanding of what it means to say "I believe."

But what does it mean to believe in creationism?

In actual practice, it means a whole variety of things.

The social practice of this belief for the director of a creationist museum is quite different than it is for a 16-year-old in a fundamentalist home, for whom the belief in creationism religiously legitimates an interest in science. Those practices of belief are quite different than that of an evangelical auto mechanic, for whom it mainly means a distrust of secular elites. That, in turn, is quite different from the belief of a Wal-Mart employee who only thinks about the origins of the universe while stoned but then has the sense that the universe has a purpose and design.

"Belief," in theory, is quite flat. In culture, there's much more nuance in the terrain.

William Saletan, a science and technology reporter at Slate, picked up on this point while watching the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate. For some, at least, Saletan pointed out, creationism is harmless. Because it's compartmentalized, a belief kept differently than other beliefs.

He writes:
What matters in daily life isn't whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you'll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance ...

You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life. That doesn't mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it's a scientific theory. But it does mean we can live with it as a compartmentalized fetish. Believe whatever you want to about monkeys, Noah, and the Garden of Eden. Just don't let it mess with your day job.
There's reason to think that there are fewer creationists than is commonly supposed. Hill's research, sponsored by BioLogos, suggests that 10 to 14 percent of Americans can rightly be considered creationists. There are also reasons, I think, to question not just the number, but what the number purports to represent.

Even when a survey is correct about the percentage of believers, it should raise this question, what does it mean to believe?