We're in the End Times. The signs are unmistakable. Any day now, real soon...
The End-times for religious fundamentalism in America, that is. There are now clear and unmistakable signs that the battle in the USA between scientific evolution and biblical creationism is being won by science, and, if Europe is anything to go by, religion in the USA is standing on the brink and staring into the abyss.
Firstly, there was the Pew Research Centre survey into Americans, Politics and Science Issues published on 1st July 2015 from which the chart on the right is taken. This shows how acceptance of evolution has recently shown significant upswing in a year, having been almost static for the previous five. The movement is not large in absolute terms, from about 61 to 65% but this is far larger than anything recorded over the previous five years. There is also a corresponding downward swing in the proportion of people who believe in creationism.
The 'evolved over time' group includes those who believe this evolution was somehow guided or directed, of course, but it includes rejection of the literal special creation from a literal interpretation of the Bible and represents an acceptance of the basic scientific evidence of change over time on an old Earth'.
This statistic alone isn't proof of any major shift in public opinion of course, but when one looks below the surface, a much more clear picture emerges, so the question then is what precisely is leading to this change in American public opinion? It's there that we find a stark inevitability about the processes driving this change and confirmation that this is more than just a statistical blip.
The reason for this appear to be that young people are overwhelmingly rejecting religion and moving over to a secular, evidence-based, sceptical view of the Universe in which things are rational and amenable to reason, requiring neither magic nor 'faith' to be understood. This is the only realistic conclusion that can be drawn from a couple of Pew Centre surveys published this year.
This can be seen in the findings of the second Pew Research Centre survey, Religion and Science, published 22nd October 2015. On the left we see the distribution of the above beliefs by age group. The younger the age group the more the split moves away from Bible literalism towards scientific evolution.
Clearly, there is a widening generation gap here with children born between 1980 and 1996 being far more sceptical and less inclined to accept the 'authority' of the Bible as an account of how the world came to be the way we see it and how life developed and diversified and this gap has been widening steadily over the last 50 years or so.
There are no crumbs of comfort here for those with a vested interest in maintaining the religious status quo in the USA who might be tempted to assume this scepticism merely represents youthful nihilism with people expected to become more conservative and more religious over time. The evidence is that there is no significant movement in religious beliefs over time. If anything the reverse is true with signs of a shift away from religious affiliation and Bible literalism over time across all age cohorts cohorts.
More than a third of adults in the Millennial generation (35%) now say they have no religion, up 10 points from 2007. Millennials have become more unaffiliated, both because large numbers of younger Millennials are entering adulthood with high levels of religious disaffiliation – 36% of those currently ages 18-24 are unaffiliated – and because older Millennials increasingly identify as religious “nones.” Roughly a third (34%) of older Millennials (now ages 25-33) identify as unaffiliated, up from 25% among this same cohort in 2007 (when they were 18-26). Just 56% of Millennial adults identify themselves as Christians, including 21% who identify with evangelical Protestantism, 16% with Catholicism and 11% with mainline Protestantism. By comparison, people in older generations are far more likely than Millennials to describe themselves as Christians and less likely to identify as religious “nones.”
But even older generations are growing less Christian over time. The share of people in Generation X who describe themselves as Christians, for instance, has dropped from 76% in 2007 to 70% today, while the unaffiliated share of Generation X has grown from 19% to 23%. The share of Christians among Baby Boomers and the Silent generation also ticked down slightly but noticeably in recent years, while the share of “nones” in these cohorts grew slightly.
The largest group which accepts scientific evolution and rejects Bible literaism is, as might be expectes, the 'Unaffilated' group or 'Nones'. This is the group which includes Atheist but also includes those people who, whilst believing in some form of deity or guiding spirit do not self-identify with any established church or religion.
Amongst this group, the October 2015 survey found that only 12% believe life was created as is and has not changed since. An overwhelming majority, 86%, believe in evolutionary change over time; by far the largest majority for science in any demographic group.
To make matters worse for religious vested interests in the USA, the evidence of a recent Pew Research Centre survey shows that the 'Nones' are becoming increasingly Atheist, suggesting that disaffiliation is a stage on the way to full rejection of religious superstition. Between 2007 and 2014 the proportion of 'Nones' who self-identify as Atheists has increased by 50% from 22% to 33% while the proportion of those stating that they believe in a god or universal spirit has decreased from 60% to 71% over the same period.
Given that group affiliation is one of the major factors in maintaining ingroup cohesion and that a major reason for many people to remain religious is not so much a logically thought-out position based on the evidence but more the fact that attendance at church and participation in church activities is filling affiliative needs, it's not surprising that when a person disaffiliates they are free to question and reassess their basic beliefs. Clearly, as the statistics show, many of these will realise they had no basis for their 'faith' after all. Churches know this of course, which is why collective activities such as church services play a central role in most religions.
So, the last piece in the jigsaw accounting for the increasing rejection of creationism and acceptance of scientific evolution on an old Earth as the best explanation for the origins of humans and biological diversity, is how this increasing chort of 'Nones' views the scientific consensus on questions such as evolution, Big Bang, etc. Clearly, if this group perceives science as divided on the issue, their acceptance of science would be weakened, as would the significance of their apparent acceptance of it. If science is divided, then acceptance of which scientific 'view'?
Here we see again the 'Nones', and by extension the younger groups, are increasingly inclined to accept that science is by and large, in agreement over the major questions. Fully 78% of 'Nones' believe scientists are in agreement over evolution while only 18% believe they are divided on the issue.
To be fair, this is a difficult statistic to understand fully. There are some scientists who take an idiosyncratic view of evolution, so science is not fully in agreement over the issue. There are also disagreements over the precise details of evolution and issues such as group selection vs genetic selection are still debated. However, these few mavericks are generally not biologists and consistently fail to publish contrarian views supported by reproducible experiments and validated data, but would a lay person be aware of this?
Possibly, this confusion accounts for what might seem a surprising 18% who believe science is divided on the issue of evolution. However, with such a large majority, it is unlikely that this group has been swayed unduly by the presentation of Intelligent Design as a valid scientific alternative. That argument appears to have been well and truly lost on the 'Nones', despite a furious and well-financed campaign of disinformation about science and the promotion of ID as a science.
However, this statistic needs to be seen in the context of this group's view of the scientific consensus about the creation of the Universe. Here we see 37% of the 'Nones' believing science is divided on the issue; by far the smallest proportion of any group, but still a considerable proportion.
But, this is an increasingly scientifically literate and aware group, so what we could be seeing here is not a perception a division between those who accept the Big Bang was a causeless event not requiring a deity and those who think it required magic, but a reflection of awareness of the fact that this is an active area of research where there is not yet a scientific consensus about the precise details.
The conclusion then, from these unmistakable trends in public opinion in the USA, is that the argument is being won by the scientific view of evolution on an old Earth, and that biblical creationism, especially the fundamentalist extreme of Young Earth Creationism, is losing. Young people in America are becoming increasingly secular, increasingly sceptical, increasingly non-religious and increasingly willing to embrace scientific materialist rationalism. Just as with much of Europe over the last 50 years, the USA is moving inexorably away from religious superstition and increasingly towards secularism and scientific Humanism.
This is the generation who will be producing the next generation of Americans. The evidence shows that by far the most significant factor in determining a person's religion views or lack thereof are the beliefs of their parents. Any movement away from the views of parents is normally strongly away from religion and into 'Nones' and eventually to disbelief. There is very little reciprocal movement away from disbelief into religion, so we can expect to see what we saw in Europe over the last 50 years: an exponential growth in non-belief and a collapse of mainstream religions to the extent that many are now questioning the viability of maintaining a full-time clergy, let alone the buildings they used to preach to full congregations in.
The current descent of the Republican Party into competing Christian fundamentalist extremes will only accelerate the process and can be seen as the death cries of a dying superstition.
Creationism has had its day. Time to bury it along with the other primitive Bronze Age perversions such as the Flat Earth, blood sacrifices, misogyny, slavery and witchcraft.
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