Now, at long last, there seems to be hope: National polls show that creationism is beginning to falter, and Americans are finally starting to move in favor of evolution. After decades of legal battles, resistance to science education, and a deeply rooted cultural divide, evolution may be poised to win out once and for all.
The people responsible for this shift are the young. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 73 percent of American adults younger than 30 expressed some sort of belief in evolution, a jump from 61 percent in 2009, the first year in which the question was asked. The number who believed in purely secular evolution (that is, not directed by any divine power) jumped from 40 percent to a majority of 51 percent. In other words, if you ask a younger American how humans arose, you’re likely to get an answer that has nothing to do with God.
It’s not just the young who are moving in favor of secular evolution. The overall proportion of Americans who believe in secular evolution has doubled since 1999, from 9 percent to 19 percent, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. But it’s important to note that the jump in secular evolution does not necessarily correspond to an increase in the total number who believe in evolution. Instead, most of that increase has been drawn from the pool of Americans who previously reported that they believed in evolution guided by God, which simultaneously dropped from 40 percent to 31 percent.
First, America is getting less religious. Today’s younger Americans no longer have the strong ties to organized religion that their parents did. About 56 million people now call themselves “nones” —meaning that they identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular on national surveys—a jump of 19 million since 2007, according to the 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Again, it’s the younger generation who are driving this shift: Fully 36 percent of young adults between 18 and 24 identify as nones, and the number of millennial adults who are religiously unaffiliated is growing fast.
There are many reasons for this shift. One is improving science education (more on that later). But another is that, in some ways, they don’t have a choice, argues Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and co-author of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. He credits the rise of the Internet and the fact that today’s young people are more interconnected than ever before. “What is particularly corrosive to religion isn’t just the newly available information that can be unearthed by the curious,” Dennett wrote in April, in an op-ed entitled “Why the Future of Religion is Bleak” in the Wall Street Journal, “but the ambient knowledge that is shared by the general populace.”
So can we now rescue schools from the tyranny of ignorance and the denial of science to move this country back into the present? Can we now teach evolution in all public schools without pandering to archaic beliefs?
One can hope.