Religious acceptance of evolution due to dogma, not understanding

Lots of religious people accept evolution, but they typically only do so because they’re following religious dogma, not because they understand the subject

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Evolution is one of the most important scientific ideas ever. It helps helps make sense of the entirety of biology. Unfortunately, many still reject this crucial idea. Improving education has been the main strategy to combat this, but it turns out religious dogma can offer an alternate “route” into evolution.

This focus on education is understandable. It turns out there’s a lot that can be done to improve it. Museum displays can cause misunderstandings, whilst ambiguous terminology in science literature can leave people confused.

And a survey of visitors to a museum found that education does help. It was linked with acceptance of Darwin’s theory. However, there was a separate factor that influenced whether somebody accepted evolution: if they belonged to a church that also accepted it.

Religion and other evolutionary things

Pope Francis once caused something of a media storm by announcing to the world he believes in evolution. Quite why this counted as news I’m not sure, given that the Catholic Church has accepted evolution for decades. It’s not even a particularly controversial opinion amongst religious people. Whilst young-earth creationism may be a loud and problematic group they nevertheless represent a minority view (although barely). Most religious people are perfectly fine with evolution as an explanation for our planet’s biodiversity. But why do they agree with the scientific community when such a significant minority don’t?

One popular explanation is that it’s all to do with scientific knowledge. Acceptance of evolution is often correlated with education and scientific understanding. Thus it might be that some religious groups actively teach (or foster learning about) evolution; or at the very least don’t tell people to shy away from it. This leads to increased scientific understanding, which in turn explains the increased acceptance of evolution.

So some researchers decided to test this hypothesis by taking trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum. There they conducted a survey, identifying visitors’ knowledge of evolution, their acceptance of the theory and their religious denomination. The goal being to identify whether or not religious denomination was correlated with knowledge and acceptance of evolution; indicating that some groups were indeed fostering scientific understanding.

And as you might expect they found a link between knowledge and acceptance of evolution. People who knew more about the subject were more likely to believe it. They also found a correlation between religious denomination and acceptance of evolution. Catholics, for example, were about as likely as college graduates to accept the theory of evolution as true. Protestants had a similar rate of acceptance, whilst non-denominational Christians had a very low rate of belief in evolution.

Dogma and education are two different routes to evolution. Left: the acceptance of evolution of various religious denominations. Right: the knowledge of evolution of various religious denominations.

Dogma and education are two different routes to evolution. Left: the acceptance of evolution of various religious denominations. Right: the knowledge of evolution of various religious denominations.

Crucially though they failed to find a link between religious denomination and knowledge of evolution. A Catholic might have been as likely as a college graduate to accept evolution, but they typically knew less about the subject than a high school dropout. In other words, there were two paths people took to accepting evolution: they either knew something about the theory, or they belonged to a religion that said the theory was true.

Using dogma to teach science

The results of this review strongly suggests that the religious people who accept evolution tend to do so because of dogma. Because some authority figure – like the super pope – said its ok. They haven’t understood or evaluated the evidence, they’re just being obedient.

This raises some interesting questions. The most pertinent being: is this ok?

Other research has shown that this “trick” can be used to persuade people evolution is true. If someone doubts the theory, showing them an authority figure from their religion saying evolution is fine makes them reconsider their evolution-denial. One undergraduate class in a Mormon-heavy area was initially skeptical of evolution. However, once they had the Mormon churches’ official, pro-evolution position explained they were much more accepting of the theory.

So there is a tool there that could convince a great many people of evolution. Should it be used? Should there be closer partnership between science education and religious groups, given these possible benefits? Is dogma a good thing?

The answer – like everything in this crazy world of ours – is complicated. But I suspect it’s more often “no” than “yes”.

After all, most of these religious organisations aren’t “pro-evolution”. It might be more accurate to describe them as “tolerating” the idea. Their own religious ideas always take precedence, with the existence of evolution being tolerated within this framework. And if evolution doesn’t quite fit; it’s hammered, squeezed and butchered to make it fall into line.

Returning to Pope Francis, for example. Whilst he does accept evolution he does not view it as sufficient to explain biology.

The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve

His predecessor was even more explicit about this; advocating in favour of a sort of “special creation” of humans.

[T]he theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature.

Meanwhile the Mormon church – whose view is so “pro-religious” it made students accept evolution – has had its view on evolution described as

it is clear that the LDS religion maintains strict belief in God as the creator. However, the church does not specify how the creation was accomplished, nor does it confirm or deny the potential for evolutionary creation (i.e., theistic evolution)

Clearly, many “pro-evolution” religions aren’t exactly what they say on the tin. Now, some are. And I’m all for those which don’t try and butcher evolution contributing to education. But the fact remains that evolution is both a necessary and sufficient cause for humans. Chopping bits off to make it seem insufficient can cause problems.

After all, simply using ambiguous language can leave people with significant misunderstandings about evolution. I can only imagine what sort of misconceptions might develop if religion and its butchered version of evolution got more involved in the process.


Lots of religious people accept evolution, but they typically only do so because they’re follow religious dogma, not because they understand the subject


Barone, L. M., Petto, A. J., & Campbell, B. C. (2014). Predictors of evolution acceptance in a museum population. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 7(1), 23.

Manwaring, K.F., Jensen, J.L., Gill, R.A. and Bybee, S.M., 2015. Influencing highly religious undergraduate perceptions of evolution: Mormons as a case study. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 8(1), pp.1-12.

Photo by freeflight046

14 thoughts on “Religious acceptance of evolution due to dogma, not understanding”

  1. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    Being religious is all about thinking and doing what others tell you (teachers or the Lord himself). Not exactly helpful when it comes to science.

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Isn’t there a Dawkins quote along the lines of, “Evolution is almost universally accepted among those who understand it and almost universally rejected by those who don’t.”

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Clearly then that statement needs revising. Almost everyone who understands evolution accept it, and almost everyone who doesn’t accept it doesn’t understand it. But there are those who don’t understand it yet also accept it.

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        I’ll accept that.

  3. welikehumans says:

    Back in the dark ages (50s and 60s), we learned about evolution in Catholic elementary school science class. We had to memorize the orders of animals and humans were listed as primates. We were also told that Adam and Eve was a metaphore because it was the best explanation people back in the day could come up with. And the Earth goes around the Sun too. I have no idea what they’re teaching kids now.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      From what I here some religious schools (especially catholic schools) offer a really good education. The issue seems to be that religious organisations don’t. Turning up to church isn’t going to lead to you being more informed about evolution

  4. wodaven14 says:

    I presume that intelligent religious believers who accept evolution do so because of the overwhelming evidence presented by science over the last 150 years but they are not convinced that this rules out a creator or some higher intelligence because science hasn’t yet explained the origins of life. Evolution explains the process but not the fundamental question of why we are here. I doubt that science can ever answer this satisfactorily because it is essentially a philosophical question. Why is there something rather than nothing?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Sure, this study simply notes that the majority of religious people who accept evolution don’t do so because they understand it. There’s still the possibility that some of them do understand it.

      And sure, there’s also the fact that evolution doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility of a deity. But it does make one irrelevant. Whilst our understanding of the subject is incomplete, we’ve yet to find anything that would be impossible without divine intervention. So either there was no such intervention, or God is indistinguishable from nothing.

      And I find all this talk of fundamental questions rather curious. After all, we don’t spend all night discussing how gravity explains the process of falling, but not the fundamental question about why we fall. It just doesn’t seem like an issue. So why the double standard?

  5. Leo Rivers says:

    In the late 1800s and early 1900s ‘evolution’ was the reason given to explain why white men were able to reduce the time it got to go from Moscow to Berlin to one day – and reduce the number of gods needed to run the universe to One.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      It’s certainly interesting how people glom onto aspects of ideas to try and vindicate their preconceptions. As another example, Piltdown Man was popularly received by English researchers. It showed England as the home of humanity, after all. Elsewhere in Europe the find was treated with a lot more skepticism.

  6. Steve Staloff says:

    The article assumes as true two concepts that I too believe are true, but which go beyond Darwin’s theory.

    Darwin’s theory has species evolving from existing species. How the first species might have formed is not known, so at this time any projection earlier is based on belief. If you have a hypothesis, please share it, realizing that you will have to describe the ecosystem in which a first species could find advantage by forming.

    The other point is the sort of evolutionary change that might lead toward the formation of civilizations. Clearly the move toward civilization started early in our line, because a group of weak, slow beings without much in the way of teeth, horns, armor or claws came out of the trees where their forebears stayed to avoid being eaten. But Darwin offers nothing toward solving this bit of mystery, apart from the argument that some sort of unique change must of occurred.

    So the initiation of biology remains unknown to science. And the means of initiation of our sub-lineage also remains unknown to science. When Darwinian evolution is generalized or extended sufficiently or is nested within a more general framework, Pope Francis’ claim will be false and we will know “where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from”.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I think you’re missing the point. They aren’t saying that evolution (or some related theory) does not currently explain these phenomena, but that it cannot. That some sort of supernatural intervention is required to explain the planet. That’s a limiting and unsubstantiated claim.

      1. Steve Staloff says:

        You may well be correct about the messengers’ intentions; however, they are noting in each case a point where science has no reasoned hypotheses. Accurately pointing out these locations for future research is better science than is complaining that the motivations of the messengers do not involve scientific advance. Actually, one it is difficult be certain about the messengers’ scientific interests, as opposed to those of their organizations.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Just because one correctly identifies a gap does not make the resulting god of the gaps argument more valid; nor the resulting ignorance such an argument advocates less objectionable.

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