Faith in science gaining on faith in faith

As what we now call “science” developed a few centuries ago, Christians—along with other religionists—took arms against facts accumulating due to the new method. (“Taking arms” was not only just figurative, but frequently physical.) Over time fewer natural phenomena were ascribed to divine action, a process that moved the philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell to speak of the shrinking package of phenomena for which God remained, for a time, the explanation. Even non-scientists were coming to understand causes that religion had not contemplated and often opposed. That process continues even now, though persons mentally trapped in religious ideas concocted millennia ago persist with impassioned determination fueled not by reason, but by fact-free passion.

Among its plethora of polls, Gallup since 1982 has asked persons to pick one of three choices in a simple telephone poll about human beginnings. The latest data were gleaned May 3-7 this year by polling 1,011 randomly sampled adults 18 years of age and older in all 50 U.S. states and D.C. The Gallup request for those polled was to choose one of the following propositions that most closely reflected their view:

  • A] “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
  • B] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.”
  • C] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

Comparing the responses to these questions across several years, we see that the percentage of opinions with respect to A and B varied very little, while during the same period C they slightly more than doubled. Gallup opined, “The strict creationist view [the position shown as A above: JC] reached a new low.” Here are those percentages for 1982, a midpoint (2000), then this year 2017 (in each case, the sampling error maximum was +/-4%):

  • A] 44% in 1982, 47% in 2000, 38% now
  • B] 38% in 1982, 40% in 2000, 38% now
  • C] 9% in 1982, 9% in 2000, 19% now

While the hegemony of religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, has suffered an obvious decline, it is important to notice that about three quarters of Americans (+/-4%) this year believe God was involved, though perhaps not exclusively. Notice also that not only atheists might select choice C, but liberal Christians as well. In this post, I have relied mostly on the aforementioned Gallup report. It can be found at the internet site where a breakdown of religious affiliation is shown.

To reach a firmer conclusion about matters such as this, a number of polls should be considered and, even then, smoothed across minor variations over time. Still, it seems apparent that after 1999 (where C, the wholly secular choice) began its climb, something causative was going on. These data cannot explain why, but my first guess would be the impact of a flurry of books as the new century was born, such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 1999, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006, and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.

It would be a mistake to assume that the percentage of persons holding scientifically indefensible views due to their religious beliefs would be reflected in their voting strength. There is, for example, a robust endeavor by religious fundamentalists to have public schools teach as science Biblical creation and faux-speciation stories, along with naïve criticisms of evolution by natural selection.

There is cause for dismay among persons eager for us to get beyond all residual fragments of supernaturalism. But it is heartening to remember successes against long centuries of ignorance and brutality that religious beliefs have fostered. In view of those secular successes, continuing struggle is still required to curb religion’s unending, hegemonic ambitions.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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