Saturday, 10 December 2022

Creationism in Crisis - Belief in Creationism Falls to a New Low in Australian University Students

"Adam and Eve,” detail by Giulio Clovio from the Book of Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, 1546

Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City, USA
Fewer Australian university students than ever before believe in creationism

In a stunning refutation of the Creationist claim that the Theory of Evolution (TOE) is being increasingly rejected in favour of the Bronze Age superstion related in the ancient origin myths in the Bible, a 2017 survey of Australian University students, shows exactly the oposit to be true. The survey revealed an accelerating decline in Creationism and a rapidly growing acceptance that the TOE is the best explanation for human existence.

The researchers have surveyed the opinions of first year students at the University of New South Wales concerning their views about evolution and creationism. The results are alost a mirror image of the increasing rejection of religion amognst Australian adults, with a relentless increase in 'nones' over the same period.

The findings were published in the open access journal, Evolution: Education and Outreach and reported in The Conversation by lead author, Professor Mike Archer of the Pangea Research Centre, UNSW, Sydney, Australia. His report is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license, reformatted for stylistic consistency. The original can be read here:

Fewer Australian university students than ever before believe in creationism

The dominant belief among Australian university students now is that God had no hand in creating or developing humans.


Mike Archer, UNSW Sydney

Australian university students appear to give far more credit to the science of human evolution and far less to creationism or divine guidance than the previous generation. This is according to our 32-year-long annual survey of first-year biology students at UNSW in Sydney.

Belief among students that God is the ultimate or contributing cause of human origins has steeply declined. It was a majority view in 1986, and now a minority view in 2017. Conversely, the belief that humans evolved without divine involvement of any kind rose steeply over the same period to become the dominant view.

Reasons for these significant changes over time may include increasing access to the web, increasing scientific evidence for evolution, and/or growing scepticism about claims for supernatural miracles of any kind.

What is creationism?

In most Western countries creationism involves belief the Bible, and in particular the Book of Genesis, is a correct and factual account of how the universe and life came into being. Accordingly, their common view is that God created the universe and all kinds of animals and plants within a single seven day week less than 10,000 years ago.

Adam and Eve were constructed on day six of this creation week. God made Adam from dust and Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Both were placed in the Garden of Eden where they lived alongside, among other things, herbivorous lions (there was no death until Adam sinned, dinosaurs and all other kinds of animals known and unknown, including talking snakes.
Commonly, more than 40% of Americans hold fast to these convictions and refuse to accept that evolution has occurred, let alone that humans evolved over millions of years from other kinds of animals.

In contrast, most people who believe in God but not literal creationism accept that it should be the business of science to research the nature and origin of the natural world, and it should be the business of religion to focus on life’s meaning and purpose.

Most mainstream theists – those who believe in the existence of one or more gods – don’t see a major conflict between their religious beliefs and understanding about the reality of evolution. Accepting that the Genesis account may be an allegory, they see no major problem in accepting the possibility that evolution was God’s method of creation.

The survey

We began a survey of student attitudes in 1986 in order to assess the level of a commitment among incoming students to supernatural explanations for our origins. From 1986 to 2017, every student attending our first-year biology course was invited to complete a one item poll on a strictly anonymous basis.

An average of 530 students a year participated in the survey. The results of the each year’s survey – and those of all previous years – were openly presented to and discussed with that year’s class in the following lecture.

Each student was handed a slip of paper as they walked into the classroom and was asked to circle one of the following four options, the one they agreed with most:

  1. God created people (Homo sapiens) pretty much in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years (literal creationism)
  2. people developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the whole process, including our development (creationism through evolution
  3. people developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process (evolution)
  4. I honestly have no opinion about this matter.
This wording closely adheres to that commonly used for many years in Gallop polls conducted in the US.

The results

We found the percentage of our students who chose the literal creationism option has been consistently small (about four times smaller than the percentage commonly endorsing this option in the US). In 1986, only 10% of the class believed in creationism. This slowly declined by more than 50% to less than 5% in 2017.

More surprising, there was a significant inversion over time in the percentage of students embracing and those rejecting a role for God in the origin of humans. In 1986, the majority (60%) of our students believed God had something to do with the origin of humans. In 2017, this view was embraced by only a small minority (29%) of the class, a decrease of about 50% over the 32 year interval. The percentage of students convinced that God had nothing to do with the origin of humans increased from a small minority (25%) in 1986 to the clear majority view (62%) in 2017.

A broader shift

The Australian public census appears to reflect similar directions of change in the Australian public in general. The percentage of Australians who indicated they had “no religion” on the Census rose from 22.3% in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016.

Percentage of people reporting no religion, 1971 to 2011

From Australian Social Trends, November 2013.
Credit: ABS

In the same time period, the percentage of students selecting “God had no part in the evolution of humans” on our survey rose from 52.1% in 2011 to 62.4% in 2016. This suggests the results from our 32 year survey may reflect at least similar directions of change in the Australian public as a whole.

Australia has a less religious past than some

Reports of long-term trends in views about the origins of humans are rare and, in most cases, limited to surveys of adult populations in the US. More rare are surveys of these beliefs in other countries.

The extent and pace of decline in the Australian students’ commitment to religious views about divine creation contrast with the views held by the American public.

Significant differences between the balance of views in the US and Australia may in part reflect different cultural backgrounds. Most of the early Europeans who travelled to North America were deeply religious Protestants. In contrast, most Europeans who moved to Australia, some as “guests” of Her Majesty’s prison system, were far less concerned with religious matters and far more inclined to spend Sundays at the pub.

The first Christian cleric in Australia, Reverend Richard Johnson who sailed with the First Fleet, had an incredibly hard time trying to raise funds to build any form of church. He ended up paying for the building out of his own wages.

His church was finally built in 1794 but, shortly after completion, was deliberately burned down. After losing the church and much of his own income, Reverend Johnson filed for a leave of absence to visit England. He never returned.

Understanding the broader shift

A key factor cited by many which may be contributing to the long-term shift away from theistic views of human origins include increasing access to a massive amount of web-based and media-presented scientific understanding about the origin of the natural world. Before this was available, cultural, community and parental values may well have been the most influential factors in forming student opinions about supernatural versus natural origins.

But it may also be that people are finding it difficult to maintain faith in miraculous explanations for what are otherwise increasingly found to be natural phenomena. Exposure of claims for contemporary miracles, such as statues of Mary that appear to weep tears of blood, don’t help to stem growth in scepticism about miracles in general.

We will continue to run this survey in UNSW Sydney for as long as practical. But it would be interesting to begin the same type of long-term survey program in the range of secondary schools that contribute most of the students to UNSW Sydney.

Similarly, it would be interesting to see long-term annual surveys of this kind conducted in other tertiary education institutions in Australia, and overseas. It’s always possible (although unlikely) that our students’ opinions are not broadly representative of Australian first-year university students as a whole. Having similar data from other institutions would give us a more nuanced view.

Finally, it would be interesting, if possible, to ask the same question of the same cohort of students in third-year to see if a university education results in a change in opinion among those who arrived with creationist views.

Professor Mike Archer was the lead author of a team of scientists who conducted and interpreted the results reported here. The others are (in order of authorship): Associate Professor Alistair G.B. Poore (UNSW Sydney); Ms Alexis M. Horn (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation); Dr Hayley Bates (UNSW Sydney); Assoc. Prof. Stephen Bonser (UNSW Sydney); Matthew Hunt (Charles Sturt University); Jonathan Russell (UNSW Sydney); Nikkita P. Archer (37a Hannam St, Bardwell Valley); Dylan J. Bye (37a Hannam St, Bardwell Valley); Prof. E. James Kehoe (UNSW Sydney). The Conversation
Mike Archer, Professor, Pangea Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

Published by The Conversation.
Open access. (CC BY 4.0)
More detail and additional charts can be found in the published report in Evolution: Education and Outreach:
Fig 1.
a Percentage of each year’s students choosing each of four options in relation to human evolution: (1) creation by god within the last 10,000 years (green); (2) evolution over millions of years with the whole process guided by god (blue); (3) evolution over millions of years but god had no part in this process (red); (4) no idea or no opinion (yellow). Figures include lines of best fit from linear and quadratic regressions with 95% confidence intervals. The level of statistical significance (p) and the explained variance (R2) are listed below in parentheses. Options 1 and 2 show a statistically significant decrease over this period (1: p < 0.001, R2 = 0.48; 2: p < 0.001, R2 = 0.86). Option 3 shows a statistically significant increase (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.83). There was no significant change in the percentage of students choosing Option 4 (p = 0.3). b The percentage of the wider Australian public declaring in the national census between the years 1986 and 2011 that they had no religion. This percentage is increasing in time (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.96). This percentage also significantly predicts the percentage of First Year Biology students at UNSW that chose Option 3 (non-theist evolution) in our survey over the same time period (p < 0.001, R2 = 0.91).

Published data obtained from Anon (Anon 2013)

For the past 32 years, we have polled first-year biology students annually at the University of New South Wales concerning their views about evolution and creationism. The purposes of the research were to identify the level of commitment among incoming students to creationist beliefs that could interfere with their receptivity to evolutionary science and to assess in retrospect whether these creationist beliefs were changing over time.

The results have demonstrated a downward shift over time from 60% of the class in 1986 believing a god had something to do with the origin of humans, to 29% in 2017. Conversely, the percentage of students convinced that a god had nothing to do with the origin of humans rose from 25% in 1986 to 62% in 2017. The creationist belief that a god created the world de novo within the last 10,000 years declined from 10% in 1986 to 3.6% in 2017. The decline in the Australian students’ commitment to religious views about divine creation, especially creationism, considerably exceeded the corresponding beliefs among American students and their general public, where belief in creationism while slowly declining appears to have remained in the 40% range, four times that seen in our Australian survey.

The very low and declining levels of commitment to the creationist view that god created humans de novo suggests this view is unlikely to be a significant obstruction to accepting the scientific evidence for evolution. The results of the survey of UNSW students correlate with changes documented in the census of the general Australian public suggesting that our survey results of first-year biology students reflect overall changes in the Australian community as a whole.

But it would be wrong to give the impression that the USA is the last bastion of Creationism in the deveoloped world, when the results of Gallop survey in 2017 showed that Creationism is declining there too, although it still has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the developed world, where creationism is regarded as the preserve of oddballs and wackadoodle cults.
Although, sadly, a 2019 Gallop survey showed that this low figure was back up to 40% (within the statistical error of the survey):
But then we are talking about a country where a significant percentage of adults think an incompetent psychopath with a disastrous track record and a narcissistic personality disorder would make a good leader.

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