What Americans believe

Pew published the results of a new study this morning that is getting a lot of attention on the web:

Six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. The share of the general public saying that humans have evolved over time is about the same as in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

There’s a good deal of hand wringing over the 33% who reject evolution, but I’m actually kind of happy with the 60% who accept it.  Sure, I wish that 33% were lower, but I also try to be a realist on these things, and in that light, 33% isn’t that bad.

To illustrate where I’m coming from, I’d like to call your attention to another poll that hasn’t received nearly as much attention.  Harris Interactive conducts polls online, with appropriate weighting to counteract any skewing in the online population.

People are much more likely to admit to not believing in something that it is popular to believe (like God), or believing in something that isn’t popular to believe (like witches), if they can admit it anonymously online instead of to another human, even if that other human is an anonymous operator on the phone.

Harris conducts a poll every few years on people’s beliefs.  Reading the report is both heartening and sobering.  When you see some of the things a substantial minority of Americans believe in, you’ll see why I’m not particularly alarmed by the Pew results.

Per Harris:

  • 29% reject evolution, another 25% aren’t sure
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 36% believe in creationism (which roughly matches the evolution number above)
  • 36% believe in UFOs
  • 29% believe in astrology
  • 26% believe in witches

The full report is here.

I certainly wish these numbers were lower, but I suspect that 26-36% represents a floor for these kinds of beliefs.  With that in mind, Pew’s 33% number fits right in.

If you fear that the US is uniquely blighted in this regard, check out this Gallup poll on paranormal beliefs by country.

12 thoughts on “What Americans believe

  1. MIke: Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA, versus, 98.8 percent for modern humans and chimps — and — the majority of humans have some Neanderthal DNA. If anyone is concerned about this, tests are available. This in no way makes for proof that Neanderthals or Chimps are the source of our modern species. In fact the images above are obviously quite distantly related. I do of course know species evolve and that there are splits that may occur. I’m amazed though that 60% now accept evolution. I looked at my sons 7th grade text. Only a few pages cover evolution. He had no opinion. His reply was “I don’t know.”


    1. Good points. I wasn’t trying to make any statement with the picture. I think anyone familiar with evolution knows that we evolved from common ancestors. BTW, I’m 3% Neanderthal myself 🙂

      Unfortunately, evolution does receive short shrift in education. I don’t even remember it being covered in my 70s and early 80s K-12 education. I suspect most educators just don’t want the grief.


  2. I was more alarmed that 26% believe in witches. The last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1684. Yet the last person to be tried and found guilty of witchcraft was in 1944. That is not a typo. Churchill repealed the archaic witch laws as a result.


    1. Wow, didn’t know about the 1944 conviction. You have to wonder what the prosecutors were thinking. Unfortunately, people still get convicted and executed for witchcraft in many developing countries.


  3. Well, thanks to this post I’ve yet to finish the Wegner paper today. I’ve spent the entire day searching phrases like “born to believe”, “programmed to believe”, and “supernatural beliefs” coming up with familiar names like Justin Barrett, Jesse Bering, Bruce Hood, Andrew Newberg, and Lewis Wolpert to name a few.

    Two, however, were new – J. Anderson Thomson and Robert Winston, and both have written books in addition to having videos at a favorite site of mine – topdocumentaryfilms.com:

    ‘Human Instinct'(Winston)

    ‘The Story of God'(Winston)

    ‘Why We Believe in Gods: Andy Thomson (Lecture)’

    … and there’s much more there as well:


    It very much seems as though Matthew Hutson is correct when he titles the introduction to his book ‘The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane’:

    “We’re All Believers”

    If anyone doubts that see Bruce Hood on essentialism. How many of us would accept a serial-killer’s organ transplant or even try on their sweater?

    On the Wegner paper – oh well, there’s always tomorerow 🙂


      1. I watched the ‘Why We Believe …’ Thomson lecture last night and have to say I was a little disappointed. Rather than the neutral presentation advertised he starts off by saying something to the effect of that it’s his hope his presentation will give the audience members ammunition in their debates with believers. That’s not surprising, however, as I discovered at YouTube that Thomson was presenting at the American Atheist 2009 convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

        A larger disappointment was the, in my opinion, scatter-shot nature of his presentation of the material and some important pieces inadequately elaborated. While it may have been my familiarity with the material, I felt that the uninitiated might come away more confused than anything or at least without an integrated picture.

        Anyway, if you’re familiar with cognitive by-product theory it’s easily skippable. I’m hoping the Winston videos are better.


        1. Thanks for the info. You get at the main reason I watch less and less of talk videos these days. If I’m reading a paper, it’s not that hard to scan, looking for things I don’t already know, and be done with it in a few minutes.

          But in a video, unless someone has already figured out key moments for you, you’re usually stuck watching the whole thing. The result is I usually watch the first few minutes of a lot of videos, rarely finishing them. It sounds that’s what would happen with the “Why We Believe…” video.


          1. Something I just came across this morning that you might find of interest:

            ‘So Say We All: Why Battlestar Galactica Was the Best Sci-Fi Series Ever on Television’

            … referring to:


            I have yet to voice my incredulity at this profoundly mistaken assertion.


          2. Interesting viewpoint. I like BSG in its first two seasons, but felt the show got overly preachy and just took itself way too seriously in the later seasons. And I felt the conclusion was just plain lazy writing.

            It’s interesting that the show’s main developer, Ronald Moore, was a writer on Star Trek, who had been frustrated by Gene Roddenberry’s prohibition of religious topics on that show (which was relaxed on Deep Space 9). I think he put it all over the place on BSG to make up for that frustration.


          3. I’m no doubt prejudiced beyond all hope – the original ‘Star Trek’ and ‘ST: TNG'(not to mention DS9 and Voyager) were substantial influences such that ‘BSG’ doesn’t hold a candle …


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