Field of Science

European Christians more likely to accept evolution

According to a new survey, conducted over the internet, Christians in Europe are more likely than Christians in other parts of the world to accept evolution. What's more, Christians the world over were much more likely than atheists to say that they were absolutely certain in their beliefs about evolution and how the universe came to be.

The survey was run by David Wilson at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Over 4,300 people took part, recruited basically by word of mouth as well as some adverts. The survey was very quick - just one question about acceptance of evolution, then a few questions on faith and why they hold the beliefs they do.

The figure summarizes the key findings (you'll need to click on it for a larger version). Basically, the bar charts show how the percentage of different groups who say they are absolutely certain of their beliefs in evolution (atheist, black; Christian, red; agnostic, cyan; other, grey). The pie charts show the beliefs of Christians - dark blue is creationist, light blue evolution, and yellow is "theistic" evolution.

Most Christians surveyed were creationist - except in Europe. Although Christians there were just as convinced of the correctness of their beliefs!

Wilson reckons that European Christians might be educated differently, or have a different cultural background. He also suggests that European Institutions which have come out firmly against creationism, like the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, may have had some influence.

I dunno. Looking at the survey, it picked up loads more atheists in Europe. Maybe the survey just circulated in different circles in Europe.

Anyway, another interesting finding of this survey is that it asked Christians why they didn't believe in evolution. The most popular reason was that Genesis should be interpreted literally. The next was that it undermines the belief that humans were created in God's image.

Only then,in third and fourth place do we get to the two 'evidence-based options' - that there is no evidence of evolution of one species into another (50% of responses) and there is no evidence for natural selection (40%).

So the primary objection these Christians had to evolution is not evidential, but dogmatic.

In contrast, when atheists were asked why they didn't believe in God, their overwhelming response (given by 85%) was that there is no evidence!

Wilson, D. (2010). European Christians are at the forefront in accepting evolution: results from an internet-based survey Evolution & Development, 12 (6), 537-540 DOI: 10.1111/j.1525-142X.2010.00439.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. It's interesting to see the same pattern repeating in every continent. Christians are the most certain, then atheist, and finally agnostic.
    It is also interesting that although in Europe there are more christians that accept evolution, the mayority still accept "theistic evolution". I wonder if it has some relation with the paper on compenastion theory you blogged about.

  2. "So the primary objection these Christians had to evolution is not evidential, but dogmatic."

    Honestly, I don't think we needed a study to tell us that. Those evidence-based "reasons" aren't anyone's actual reason for denying evolution.

  3. Just from my anecdotal experience personally and from reading a lot of Christian apologetics and propaganda I can tell that many Christians have a low tolerance for ambiguity. In fact you can hear it in the common "objection" that Christians bring up about science (almost always in regard to biology or cosmology) that it is always "changing" but the "Word of God" is always and forever.

    In fact haven't you written about that before Tom - how intolerance for uncertainty is often a personality trait of the religious?

  4. What's more, Christians the world over were much more likely than atheists to say that they were absolutely certain in their beliefs about evolution.

    When I read this opening line of yours, I was very excited. "Wow," I thought, "Christians who believe in evolution [and there are many], believe it with more certainty than atheists. This just shows the over-exuberance of the religious mind."

    But I was wrong and misinterpreted the sentence. I thought we had evidence that Christians just grab anything they believe with more certainty than consistently skeptical atheists. Boy, too bad, that would have been interesting.

    But, back to your post:

    I think your conclusion is telling:
    Believers base their decisions on protecting what they see as valuable social values, whereas skeptics are more willing to sacrifice treasured values if they trust the evidence.

    Oooops, maybe I misreported your conclusion. :-)

  5. PS -- I love T.A.Lewis' comment and agree.

  6. Daneel, TA Lewis, yes I think you're right. They are probably all connected. The religious resist abandoning the idea of God interfering with evolution, possibly because the implication is that life is out of control.

    Europe has a strong welfare state, which means less drive to believe in a controlling God, and that might be a factor here. Aaron Kay has a new paper out on this topic, as it happens, which will be the subject of the next post (it'll have to wait till Saturday, sadly - tied up with doing real work!)

  7. In Europe, for the most, Christianity is subsidized by the states. This means that incumbent churches do not have to worry about resources and/or competition from other/similar cults. This, in turn, takes away the need to give to "extremist instances" (such as plain creationism) for fear to be outcompeted. The result is that European christians are more balanced than ones from other continents.

    Another interesting survey would be the acceptance of AGW (anthropogenic global warming) between Christians (and atheists) of various continents.

  8. Sabio, tsk! You are playing Devil's advocate :) One way of looking at it is that the truth or otherwise of evolution has little real-world meaning to most people.

    (Like Sherlock Holmes announcing that he doesn't care whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa, as it has no impact on the case under consideration!)

    If you have a motivation to reject some evidence (your value system), and the consequences of ignorance are minimal, then many people will find a way to disregard inconvenient truths.

  9. Anon - that's an interesting point. Less competition in the religious marketplace as a result of state-sponsorship could result in a religion more tailored towards educated 'elites'.

  10. I think the biggest impediment to accepting evolution is the belief that one's salvation depends upon NOT accepting it.

  11. @ Tom
    Yes, that is exactly what I meant -- albeit it a little mischievously!

  12. While this study tells interesting things of Christians and creationists, I was most surprised by the last line:

    In contrast, when atheists were asked why they didn't believe in God, their overwhelming response (given by 85%) was that there is no evidence!

    There are, then, two ways this can play out. Either these 85% of atheists (when pressed on it - 'cause I trust many have not given it thought) would accept some kind of evidence for God, or they are atheists even though they cannot imagine any kind of evidence that would ever persuade them that (some) God exists. In the latter case, if they think that nothing at all could even in principle convince them that God was real, then I wonder if they realize how vacuous their positive non-belief is.

    I mention this because of the recent flurry about the hypothetical existence of evidence for deities (notably by PZ and Coyne, but many others have chimed in).

  13. To provide an example of what I am talking about, we need go no further than Ken Ham's blog. A few days ago he ranted about accurate scientific language when scientists qualified their statements with "possibly" and "likely".

    And today here he comes out and directly says it: "God’s Word desn’t change, but evolutionary ideas and beliefs continually change."

    It seems a criterion for belief to some Christians (especially fundamentalists) is that something never change.

    Besides being a personality characteristic of intolerance for uncertainty, I cannot help but think this also stems from ignorance of a scientifically inclined epistemology. Instead, folk notions of truth and falsity are utilized where lies are associated with a "changing story".

  14. Bjørn Østman: It all depends on what sort of god you are thinking of - and since you used the name God, you're wrong. That's the name of the Christian god, a logical impossibility of a god that could only exist in a world where there was no meaningful way to distinguish between reality and imagination. If it exists, then the concept of "evidence" is meaningless - we may as well live in the Matrix.

  15. Anne Marie, suppose *God* came a long one day and told us that many things in the Bible are true, but of course not those that make his existence a logical impossibility (say, omnipotence and omniscience). Do you, like so many others, think that we humans must define exactly the nature of God before we can even think of what kind of evidence would be adequate?


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