Thursday, December 23, 2010

Losing My Religion? -
Part 1 – Polls, politics and the power of education

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up


That's me in the cornerThat's me in the spotlight, I'm
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

An interesting poll appeared on the Gallup site last week. Entitled “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism,” the poll queried respondents on three possible alternatives to the common but false dichotomy of “the theory of evolution” v. the dogma of creationism. The pollster asked subjects the following questions:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your view on the origin and development of human beings?

1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided this process;

2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God had not part in this process, or

3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

Gallup described option three as “strict creationism” while describing an understanding of a divinely guided evolutionary process as “theistic evolution” and the non-theistic evolutionary view as “secular evolution.” One hears a hint of the culture wars in these descriptions (Godliness v. secular humanism) which is not terribly surprising given Gallup’s long running career as a spokesperson for evangelical Protestantism. But to his credit, these questions admit to a bit more nuance than his usual.

Gallup breaks down the numbers by a number of covariates. Not surprisingly, church attendance is a fairly strong predictor of one’s willingness to buy into an unnuanced creationist vision. Only one out of three weekly church attendees held theistic or non-theistic evolutionary views.  If one is hearing such ideas regularly, it’s predictable that they would be reflected in responses to surveys on the subject. Conversely, slightly less than one out of four of those who seldom or never attend church held the unnuanced creationist view.

A second covariate which is also hardly surprising is the breakdown of political affiliation on these views. More than half of all Republicans surveyed held an unnuanced creationist view while 60% of both Democrats and Independents held one of the two evolutionary understandings. This is a rather graphic demonstration of the hegemony that evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants along with their magisterial fundamentalist Catholic siblings exert over what was once a Grand Old Party - at least in its own self-description. That hegemony is easily seen in the vote on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell this week with every single Republican vote and four of the five absent/not voting Senators affiliated with the GOP. Sadly, there is very little grand or old about confusing social prejudices with religion but just as sadly, this is often the face of institutional religion in America today.

Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

The covariate which caught my eye, however, was that which compared answers to these questions by level of educational attainment. Gallup’s findings are consistent with just about every other polling data I’ve ever seen here. This survey found that those with a high school diploma or less and those with some college but no degree were most likely to buy into the unnuanced creationist vision. Nearly half, 47%, of those with no college experience found this vision compelling while 44% of those with some college but no degree held to that vision.

This number drops to just over a third, 37%, of those who attain a four year college degree with 59% of that cohort accepting one of the two evolutionary understandings. Among postgraduate degreed professionals, nearly half, 49%, accept a divinely guided evolutionary process, one in four see evolution as unguided by God, while a mere 22% continue to assert that a completed divine creation occurred within the last 10,000 years.

[found at]

It is important to note at this point in my discussion that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Establishing the latter requires a lot more research than what Gallup provides us here. Even so, the implications of this covariate seem fairly apparent: the more education a given individual attains, the less s/he tends to hold unnuanced religious views. This finding is consistent with a plethora of studies of the educational attainment/religious beliefs relationship. 

 In the 1970s Emory professor James Fowler articulated a six stage model of faith development patterned roughly on Kohlberg’s six stage moral reasoning model. Fowler describes Stage 2 Literal/Mythic Faith as follows:

Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stage's imaginative composing of the world… Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. This is the faith stage of the school child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescents and in adults).

Unnuanced creationist views are well described here: literal interpretations, one-dimensional, concrete, conditional for belonging to community. Like Kohlberg’s stages, Fowler notes that changes in life circumstances which cause disequilibrium give rise to movement along this developmental continuum:

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down; new "cognitive conceit" (Elkind) leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced.

From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. Found at

[continued in Part 2]
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA) Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Every whisper

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