A survey was conducted to explore some of the reasons why Christians have particular attitudes toward evolutionary theory and Christian theology. The following report is based on 359 responses collected during 2000. Solicitation for respondees, was done in three ways: Personal email that was forwarded widely, and email to the ‘Meta’ list on science and religion (192 responses), elicitation from the Counterbalance web-site (91 responses), and participation of students from Seattle Pacific University (40 responses). As there was no formal sampling strategy, inferences of results can not be made to various demographic groups. Indeed, we saw that the methods of elicitation had significant filtering effects on people relative to their opinions. As a further indication of the selection bias in the sampling process relative to the general population, only 71 people indicated that they were women compared to 235 who indicated that they were men.

The focal question of the survey asks for people's opinions regarding the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology. A series of related questions are used to examine possible underlying causes of people's attitudes. While additional studies aimed at examining the progression of people's beliefs over time may be needed to more fully understand causative relationships, we find evidence for a couple general hypotheses concerning these mechanisms: people's needs influence their stated beliefs; people grant different levels of credibility to various sources of information and when faced with incoherence, are likely to either reinterpret information from the less credible sources so as to resolve the conflicts or else to dismiss the lesser source if resolution is not available.


Context for Conclusions

What conclusions can we reach about the population of respondees? We can make inferences that certain correlations between answers to certain questions are significantly different from zero. We can try to elucidate the causal relationships underlying the correlations. We have at least five possible scenarios: A and B are independent; A causes B; B causes A, (A causes B) and (B causes A) which is a feedback scenario; or (C causes A) and (C causes B) where C is a possibly hidden variable. With each of these scenarios, we have a range of degrees of strength of causality.

Focusing on the causes of responses to the question of compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology, we can take a look at the questions that have significant correlations (positive or negative).


One way to break down these questions even further is to define sets that are of interest and then consider the relationships between them. Sets: science, Christian theology, evolution, Bible, God, nature, goodness. We will assume that the set of evolutionary issues is a subset of the set of scientific issues. And given the context of this survey, we will consider issues concerning the Bible to be a subset of Christian theology. We will consider three types of relationships between the sets:  intersection (to what extent do the sets contain the same issues?); coherence (to what extent do the sets contain contradictory assertions on the same issues?); and dominance (given contradictory assertions from various sets, to what extent are the positions for each of the sets trusted).

While this setup simplifies things (it assumes coherence within sets, which is certainly not true), it is thought that such an analysis is useful in elucidating some of the underlying causes to the attitudes that some Christians take toward evolution.

A thorough mapping of the logical structures in the survey is beyond the scope of this section. For the sake of illustration, we will consider some of the questions most relevant  to elucidating some of the causes for attitudes toward evolution. This consideration will expose a couple of types of obstacles to understanding. Firstly, we do not know exactly how questions were interpreted by each respondee. Secondly, even when we have support for a hypothesis about the underlying causes of peoples attitudes toward Evolutionary theory and Christian theology, this study was not set up to conclusively demonstrate causal relationships.

See the limitations section.

Considering the question of compatibility between evolutionary theory and Christian theology, a positive answer may indicate at least two things - a belief that the two sets have little or no overlap or a belief that the two sets are coherent. A belief in the coherence of the two sets could be produced by several scenarios. First, one could view Christian theology as a subset of what might be called natural theology. That is, one learns about God from nature as well as from Christian documents. Any apparent conflicts between observations of nature and the Christian documents may be resolved in a number of ways. Such a belief could also arise due to a misunderstanding of the claims of contemporary evolutionary theory or of the implications of one's own understanding of Christian theology.

Results: Graphs

Figure 1; Scatterplots of responses to several key questions. Note, for example, the positive relationship between responses to question 9 (acceptance of evolutionary theory as a complete and satisfying explanation of human origins) and responses to question Q11a which asks if a hypothetical reality to such an evolutionary explanation would be good for society.

Figure 2. Counts of responses to various questions. Responses are not limited to integer values, but are limited to the range 1 to 5 when such a range is prescribed. Note the preponderance of extreme values for quite a few of the questions, such as questions 7 and 10 to which there was significant disagreement that naturalistic explanations of all historical events would be problematic for Christian theology and also disagreement that the Bible must be historically accurate (including Genesis 1) in order to be viewed as valuable and reliable.

Figure 3. Conditional responses to question 8 (compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology). A low response indicates a 1 or a 2; medium - a 3; high - a 4 or a 5. To illustrate how to interpret the graphs, consider the graph entitled High Q11e. This graph gives a probability density function for the responses to question 8 from the pool of people who gave a high response to question 11e. We see that conditional on a high response to question 11e (the dependence of biblical morality and ethics on the historical accuracy of the Biblical creation account), the probability of having a low belief in the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology is about three fourths (the sum of the values to responses of 1 and 2).

Expectations and Results

Ignoring hermeneutical issues as most likely of secondary import, we have several expectations; a few of these are as follows. Christians who trust science will be more likely to accept evolutionary theory as compatible with Christian theology (question 12a). Christians who accept natural theology (natural events are part of the workings of God) as an intrinsic aspect (and dominant aspect) of Christian theology will be more likely to accept evolutionary theory (Q4 and 11l). Thus, we would predict positive correlations between question 8 and the questions 4,11l, and 12a and negative correlations between question 8 and the inverse questions Q1, Q5, Q11d, and 11k.

The results bear out these expectations. These results support the notion that people use the more credible sources of information in their lives to help interpret the less credible ones or, if no harmonious interpretation can be found, to dismiss the less credible ones, where the notion of credibility is not necessarily based on logic nor even on experience, but may also depend upon desires. One particularly strong suggestion of this causal mechanism is the very high correlation between the question concerning the impact upon society given that humans evolved solely through natural processes, (Q11a)R, and the question concerning belief in the evolutionary origins of humans (Q9).

On the other side, we expect that Christians who believe that the value of the Bible depends upon its historical accuracy in regards to creation (Q10) will not be able to accept the evolutionary account of human origins (Q9). Our data strongly support this expectation. This result suggests that the rejection of the evolutionary theory of human origins by some Christians may be caused by desire to protect dogmas affirming biblical historicity.

Design Issues

When conducting a statistical survey, one is hoping to make inferences of some sort. That nature of the inferences one would like to make helps to guide the process of designing a study. There are several aspects of inferential objectives that commonly occur: a specific population is defined; degrees of similarity or distinctness between sub-populations are inferred; certain traits of individuals or environments can be used to predict other traits of interest.

In addition, there are several scientific objectives of such studies. An intelligently designed study can be used to make inferences about correlations or even about causal relationships between variables. Even a small study that does not provide the sort of data necessary to make desirable inferences can be used in several ways to assist in the design of larger studies: relationships suggested by a small study can be investigated in a larger study by making the proper observations and measurements; estimates of variance and other relevant parameters obtained in a smaller study can be used to help determine the size of a larger study needed to achieve the desired level of confidence about one's inferences.

Beyond determining what inferential objectives are of interest, one must have some understanding of the nature of the stochastic processes underlying one's observations. In the case of parametric models, one must have some sort of evidence that the distributions in one's model are reasonable approximations of what one is observing. This can include  issues of independence and of stationarity of random variables. (Stationary random variables have distributions that do not depend on location in time or space.) 

In order to understand a stochastic process, one must have some insight into the process by which one is observing the underlying process of interest. In the case of a population survey, one wants to know what sort of biases may be caused by the process of observing. For example, say that a coin (that is not necessarily fair) has been tossed 1000 times, and that you have observed 100 of the outcomes. If the selection process by which observations are recorded is independent of the actual state of the observations then the likelihood of heads or tails can be estimated without bias from the sample of 100. But, if heads outcomes are twice as likely to end up in the observed sample as are tails outcomes, then  estimates, of the likelihood of heads or tails, made under the assumption of independence will be very biased.


Do we know the direction of causality? Perhaps a belief in evolutionary theory has lead some Christians to accept naturalistic underpinnings to their theology rather than the other way around. Perhaps there is some sort of feedback between the two sets. I find the positive correlations between the question of compatibility, (Q8),  and the question of the completeness of evolutionary theory, (Q9),  and the negative correlations between questions 8 and the question concerning biblical historicity, (Q10), as suggestive of the following explanation: Respondees who find evolutionary theory and Christian theology incompatible view Christian documents as being dominant over other sources of information such as science. Respondees who find evolutionary theory and Christian theology to be compatible view science as dominant over some common traditional interpretations of Christian documents.

Furthermore, given the correlation between beliefs on evolutionary theory, (Q9), and beliefs in the impact on society of evolutionary theory, (11a), we think that it is reasonable to say that the desire to protect society is driving the stated beliefs about evolution.

Sampling Issues

What population is the survey investigating? While several restrictions were placed on the demographics of the respondees, i.e. only Christian, the voluntary nature of the eliciting process, along with the undefined nature of the group to which the survey was advertised, makes delineation of a larger population of interest intractable. As with the previous coin example, to be able to make inferences about a larger group, we must understand the relationship between the likelihood of making an observation and the nature of the observation itself.

For example, if we wish to make inferences about the opinions of students attending SPU, we need to come up with a sampling strategy through which we can understand the relationship between sampling likelihood and sample outcome. To avoid making extra work, one often would like a sampling scheme such that  the parameter estimates from the samples will be an unbiased estimate of the population parameters. One such simple strategy is that of simple random sampling. In this situation, there is an equal likelihood of sampling from any given student at SPU. There are, of course, a range of sampling strategies for a variety of situations.

Obtaining a representative sample may be difficult; if one were to go to an institution and collect surveys from volunteers, one could run into a problem in which people who volunteer and complete a survey do not have opinions which are representative of the larger population. And one suspects that such could be the case for the topics of Christian faith and evolution. (For example, people with strong opinions may be more likely to volunteer to take a survey than those with weak or conflicted opinions.) If, however, one could, with uniform randomness, select a pool of students at an institution and elicit their opinions, with a very low rate of refusal, then, one would be in a position to make inferences about the larger group.

Hermeneutical Issues

The issue of how respondees interpret the question may give us pause in trying to analyze their responses. It is tempting to assume that respondees (self-identified as Christians) will understand the term "Christian theology" to be the religious system to which they subscribe. However, some Christians may view their own beliefs as being unorthodox. Evidence in this direction is given by an examination of the responses to the question concerning the compatibility of Christian theology and evolutionary theory and the responses to the question concerning one's belief in the completeness of evolutionary theory in explaining human origins. While there is a high correlation between answers to these two questions (0.41), they do not trace each other. However, even here, we run into hermeneutical issues; a person could accept that the basic evolutionary mechanisms underlie human origins, but may hold that the details of that process are largely unknown and hence that the theory (developed into a historical account) is not complete.


Due to the voluntary nature of the elicitation process and to the lack of definition of the group from which volunteers were selected, the results from this survey can not be used to conduct power analysis in preparation for larger surveys. Also, inferences concerning larger groups and sub-populations can not be supported. For example, within the population of respondees, we have designations for denominational affiliation; for example, Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. It might be tempting to think that we can say something significant about people's attitudes toward evolution and Christianity from these groups based on the results of this survey. This is not warranted, however. To illustrate this point, say that we want to run some t tests to look for significant differences in the means between sub-populations designated by religious denomination, age, or education level. We can run t-tests on the entire data set or on a fraction of the data set restricted to one or two modes of collection. Data for the survey was collected in four different manners: direct elicitation from some SPU students; email to associates; email to science-religion interest groups; and elicitation from the counterbalance web-site. Looking at t-tests run on the entire data set as opposed to a partial data set which removes most responses from the counterbalance web-site shows so much variability that it appears that the methods of collecting data are biasing our observations in ways that we are not in a position to understand relative to the categories of interest.

alpha values from t tests

Q Part. Full Method
Q5 0.1166 0.7703 0.039**
Q8 0.0099* 0.0052* 0.230
Q9 0.6415 0.1845 0.028**
Q11a 0.3222 0.1384 0.140
Q11b 0.3603 0.5547 0.330
Q11e 0.1438 0.1333 0.360
Q11i 0.6462 0.5377 0.300
Q11l 0.4089 0.9423 0.990**

* significant for test of inequality for alpha = .05

** significant for test of inequality for alpha = .1.

Column 1 gives the question from the survey which is being considered. Columns 2 and 3 test for significant differences in means between responses, to various questions, from Catholics or Presbyterians. Column 2 is based on data primarily from email and SPU sources, while column 3 also includes data from the Counterbalance web-site. Column 4 gives significance results from Catholics who participated via Counterbalance versus Catholics who participated through one of the other elicitation channels.

For what it is worth, within the population of respondees, there is a significant difference in the means of people's attitudes toward the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian theology depending on whether they identify as Roman Catholic or as Presbyterian.

Future Directions

To reach more deeply into the causes of attitudes that Christians take toward evolutionary theory and Christian theology, questions must be asked that elicit information about attitudes and beliefs over the period of time over which the beliefs developed. Thus, one might look at the beliefs of people's parents, churches, schools, and friends. One might also ask questions about people's beliefs as children relative to their beliefs as adults. My guess would be that Christians who see current evolutionary theory as compatible with Christian theology are more likely to have authority figures in their lives who espoused evolutionary theory and vise versa.

Even within the realm of this current study, there remain many questions. The logical relationships between only a few of the questions were examined. Also, there are other hermeneutical issues which could be raised.

Survey Questions

1 I expect that scientific investigation of the natural world will provide evidence that traditional Christian theology is true: Never 1__2__3__4__5 Always.

2 The scientific description of the natural world is irrelevant to Christian theology: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

3 How many of the purposes of ‘the church’ can be achieved with no regard whatsoever to science and technology? None 1__2__3__4__5 All.

4 I expect that new scientific discoveries will require revisions to Christian theology. Never 1__2__3__4__5 Always.

5 ‘Divine activity or design’ in the world necessarily includes potential 'intervention' in nature which is distinct from 'natural' processes. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

6 I expect examples of divine intervention (or design) to be uncovered by scientific study: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

7 If it were shown that all events in history may have natural explanations, this would be a problem for Christian theology. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

8 How compatible is current evolutionary theory (as you understand it) with Christian theology? Not at all 1__2__3__4__5 Completely.

9 Current evolutionary theory provides a complete and satisfying explanation of human origins. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

10 The value and reliability of The Bible are dependent on it serving as (amongst other things) an accurate source of historical information, including the Creation account in Genesis 1: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

11. If it were proven beyond all doubt that humans evolved entirely through natural processes with *no evidence whatsoever* for divine involvement or design...

a) Would this be good, bad or neutral for society overall? Bad 1__2__3__4__5 Good.

b) Would this imply that life has less meaning, or more meaning? Less 1__2__3__4__5 More.

c) This would imply that humans have (only) the rights of animals. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

d) This would cause me to think again about the reliability of scripture. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

e) If the Bible's creation account is not historically accurate, we can no longer place as much trust in the Bible's teaching on ethics and morals. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

f) This would cause me to think again about the reality of God’s activity in the world today. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

g) The competition and adaptation to fitness described by evolutionary theory would be inconsistent with a Christian understanding of God: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

h) This lack of evidence of special divine activity in the past would mean there is less hope for the future: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

i) This would mean a central Christian doctrine is flawed: The resurrection of Jesus parallels 'the fall' of Adam which occurred in the Garden of Eden. If there was no historical Adam or Eden in which animals did not compete for food, this is a problem for Christian theology. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

j) Christian theology would need to be revised as a result of this discovery: Not at all 1__2__3__4__5 Significantly.

k) It is more important for Christian theology to remain consistent with established traditional ideas than to change in reaction to new science data. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

l) It would be acceptable to describe 'God's activity in the world' in terms of natural processes such as gravity and evolution. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

m) It would be more important for the Christian community to remain united even if this required avoiding the more controversial aspects of the evolution/creation debate which can cause division. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

12 I trust the following sources of information about what is ‘real.’...

A ...The scientific community: Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

B ...The religious community. Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

C ...The news media (TV/Web/Newspaper etc.). Disagree 1__2__3__4__5 Agree.

13 My educational background: (optional) Other: 1, Post-Graduate: 2, Graduate: 3, Undergraduate: 4, High School: 5.

14 My age/age-range is: RESPONSE:

15 Gender: RESPONSE:F=1, M=2

16 My religious/denominational background is: