Evolution, religion and psychology

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As some of you might know, Intelligent Design and evolution are becoming issues in Utah. Before we move on, this from Ron Numbers The Creationists might be instructive:

…in 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormons’ Brigham Young University denied that human beings have been “created in a process of evolution from lower life forms.” By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81 percent….

What’s going on here? First, you have to know that the Mormon Church has taken different views in regards to evolution and there isn’t a strict stance on the issue. This article in Deseret News makes the diversity clear. For one prominent Mormon perspective, see Orscon Scott Card’s recent essay (I won’t try to rebut and respond to his meanderings). But in light of the recent Vactican restatement supporting1 evolutionary theory what’s going on in regards in this tango between Darwin and God?

In regards to the Mormon numbers one hypothesis that I think is plausible is that the shift in BYU students’ perceptions of the theory of evolution is a function of Mormons tracking the conservative Christian subculture in the United States. Though Mormons lay outside conventional Christianity in terms of theological orthodoxy, their mores and non-theological beliefs have tended to be aligned with the conservative end of the sociocultural spectrum, and so they have absorbed a concomitant dose of Creationism from the zeitgeist.2

Recently I read several entries of interest from The Oxford Companion to the Bible and I noted that only a faction of Protestants adhere to a literalist stance in regards to the text of scripture. This is reflected in the historical literature where Roman Catholic apologists argued against Reformation literalists during the debates the 16th century. But the the variance in belief is rather high in Protestantism, so just as there are fundamentalists, there are also groups like Congregationalists (in the United States) who are apt to take an even more allegorical tack on the scripture than Roman Catholics. In any case, the key point is that defenders of the viability of evolutionary theory are empirically correct when they commonly assert that most Christian denominations have no problem with accommodating descent with modification and an old earth. And yet half of the American public has rejected evolutionary theory in all its forms for decades, and there is often a tacit assumption that “genuine” Christianity necessarily rejects evolutionary theory.

Even though Roman Catholics tend to be far cooler to Creationist and quasi-Creationist narratives than Protestants in the United States, a substantial minority still adhere to a Creationist model.3 As a young adult I actually entered in conversations with many individuals who professed Roman Catholicism and Creationism, and here are the flavors I encountered:

  • A subset asserted that Creationism was a necessary implication of their religious beliefs, and some averred that it was Church teaching.
  • A subset didn’t know what the Church taught about evolution (if it taught anything at all) and simply expressed their intuition that “Creation made sense.”

The first position was easy to rebut in light of the statements on evolution going back to the 1950s by the Pope. Even in the pre-internet era they weren’t hard for me to reference and point too. If the individuals in question did do the follow up reference check they were discomfited but would usually reluctantly switch their position, and least assume a more agnostic stance. This suggests to me that a proportion of the deviation from the American norm by Roman Catholics in regards to belief in evolution is a function of Church teaching, and perhaps even the imprimatur of religious respectibility given to it when it is taught in parochial schools. But where did these individuals get the idea that the Church taught something it didn’t? I think the answer likes in the interface between psychology and culture. In Searching for Memory psychologist Daniel Schacter recounts how people often do not model the past appropriately in regards to the beliefs they claim to have held, e.g. southerners whose views on racial issues were surveyed in both 1970 and 1984 had changed a great deal. But, when asked what their views were in 1970 in 1984, the individuals simply asserted that they’d held the same views as they had in 1984 even though the researchers could see that they hadn’t (they’d recorded their answers). This isn’t a function of pathological deception, memory reshapes itself. Similarly, in hindsight I am now no longer sure that the Roman Catholics who claimed they Church taught that Creationism was valid were stupid or lying to me. The town I grew up in was very conservative and there were many evangelical and fundamentalist churches. My hunch is that these individuals somehow encountered literature and tracts from these churches and conflated them in their minds with Roman Catholic doctrine as it was normative in that small town for religious people to reject evolutionary theory.

As for the second subset, they rarely, if ever, followed up my references because these beliefs weren’t a major part of their worldview, and they weren’t even very religious people. Just as the first group absorbed particular biases and assumptions from their milieu I believe something similar happened here too. But at this point, we have to move beyond culture, as many of these individuals weren’t the types to need to conform to the conservative religious subculture. Why were they Creationists, or at least tepid ones? I suspect the answer lay in psychology, the default model of the world that our brains come preloaded with tends to be strongly biased toward Creationism of a sort. Creationism just “makes sense,” just like astrology and holistic medicine, it is not embedded in an arcane social model and a esoteric system of abstraction which is removed from human experience and common sense.

Which brings me back to the Mormons. Often people have a perception that culture is an all-powerful force in reshaping how you view the world, but I think that this is fallacious, the mind has biases and structural impediments to paradigm perception. Sometimes, as in the God concepts, people simply square the circle of contradiction between culture and psychology by operating on two levels, the conscious-verbal-reflective and the reflexive subconscious level of intuitive mental representation. Certainly the tendency of Mormons to sympathize with the social priorities of conservative Protestants, and their free exchange with that subculture (at least from their perspective, for example they lionize conservative Anglican C.S. Lewis), is a plausible explanation for why they would be biased toward accepting Creationist accounts even if their Church never made an explicit push in this direction. But I think the psychology is important as well, not only were the cultural variables aligned, the psychological system was already loaded and ready to go. A given psychology may not be a sufficient condition for a particular set of beliefs, but they are often a necessary condition.

This of course moves me to to question of why are there international variations in acceptance of evolutionary theory if Creationist accounts are intuitive? Let me remind you that children raised in non-Creationist households still tend to prefer Creationist explanations when young, so something happens later in life. Culture obviously does matter in this regard, but, I think it matters in the way that many form explicit “beliefs” about God. The vast majority of the world’s Christians accept the Athanasian Creed, and can express a relatively cogent belief in a Trinitarian God, but they can not truly conceive of intuitively in a Trintarian God, it is a verbal token and affirmation. And so I think a similar process is at work in evolutionary theory, the vast majority of people, and this even includes most biologists I suspect, are making a verbal affirmation of a concept that they don’t intuitively understand. The fact is, even if you have reasonable fluency with The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, which at least offers a precise and analytic theoretical framework, I am skeptical that you (and I of course) truly conceive of the timescales required for much of evolution to work its “magic” in the same way we can imagine last year, last decade, or even last century. We have to have faith in the scientific system, and trust the theories and data which are one or many removes from our intuitional preconceptions.

Of course, most people have a weak grasp of Newtonian physics, and they don’t go around rejecting it. So cultural dynamics are important, my overall point is simply that neglect of psychological substrate allows you to miss the totality of the system. It isn’t that many Americans accept a model because they are stupid, it is that they refuse to move beyond their default assumptions or at least give a tacit nod to elite-specialist knowledge.

1 – Or at least the perception, again, I think that these releases need to be understood in the context of a Thomistic worldview, but that gets left out.

2 – Though the academic expositers of Intelligent Design disavow Creationism in its crass form, my impression from conversation and the literature is that the populist support for Intelligent Design is actually just a proxy support for Creationism. This was on display in the Dover case.

3 – This is not heresy obviously, as in many ways evolutionary theory is orthogonal to Roman Catholic points of faith and doctrine.


  1. You make several good points, Razib. Also, you utilize some framing elements that have potential usefulness well beyond the specific issue. In particular, the notions of default models and (empty) verbal tokens caught my eye. I have encountered many a believer who believed in something that they didn’t actually know what it was. I also think we have a default model, which is anthropomorphic on account of us being social creatures and the anthropomorphic model applies to mom, dad, sis, the kids at school, the teachers, etc., etc. Works okay for the dog too, up to a point. So why not try the angry daddy in the sky theory for lightning? 
    However, I don’t agree that evolution is counter-intuitive. I think there’s actually an alternative default model, impersonal/mechanistic. Maybe you have a better term for it. Both genetic and culture in the wide sense influence the span of each default, and of course there is disputed border.

  2. can you elaborate on point #2? also, i have to give props to john derbyshire for this use of the term ‘default model.’ 
    re: familial analogy, i think there is something to this, but i think it is more important that we seen agency in the world around us. it is natural then to imbue that agency with some of our social concepts.

  3. Kudos for a thoughtful and insightful post. As a former Catholic, one insight that I can add is that instruction in Catholic parochial schools varies widely on many issues, including evolution. My high school biology class (circa 1968) was taught by an elderly nun in a conservative parish that was an outpost of French Canadian immigrants in New Hampshire. As best I can remember, evolution was either omitted entirely or very much downplayed (resulting in a tedious boring class with lots of rote memorization). However, in the same school we were sometimes taught by younger priests and lay teachers, and they often promoted views that were much more progressive.  
    The idea that there was considerably flexibility in viewpoints allowed by the Roman Catholic church is also tied up with the issue of “ex cathedra” pronouncements. I was led to believe that unless the Pope specifically said he was speaking “ex cathedra”, one could still dissent and remain a faithful Catholic. If the Pope did speak “ex cathedra” on some topic, he was supposedly invoking the authority conferred by Jesus to St. Peter (and to all successive Popes) to issue morally infallible pronouncements. It’s my understanding (and I’m no expert) that the Pope seldom speaks “ex cathedra”, and has never done so with respect to evolution.

  4. Often people have a perception that culture is an all-powerful force in reshaping how you view the world 
    I don’t think this. But I do think that culture shapes our view of the world in ways that are often unknown to us, i.e. that the world might be different in surprising ways from what our culture leads us, without our knowledge, to assume.

  5. I suspect that the biggest psychological influence that favors creationism in the USA is the desire to fit in. 
    Being a non-conformist in a small religious community would have a certain cost I suspect.  
    Take some of those religious Americans to secular Europe and their beliefs may well change after a few years. 
    I wonder if anyone’s tested this? 
    Do expatriate Americans living in Europe eventually become more like Europeans with respect to Darwinism?

  6. I’m not positive what you take as point #2 in my comment, but it’s probably the thing about believers not knowing what they believe. 
    Most recently, I got into a discussion about the nature of existence in heaven with some average guy type believers. Their “belief” in heaven turned out to be an empty box when I opened it up with a question about whether they still expected to have an ass hole. 
    On a somewhat different note, none of these people was really ready to fully buy into biblical literalism. Rejecting biology is one thing, rejecting geology and astronomy too, that was more than they could quite bring themselves to. The most ignorant and fundamentalist of the bunch allowed as to how the world and the wider universe appear as if they are old. From there, we came to an agreement that science offers the simpler and generally more useful way to explain evidence and make predictions; but as a philosophical matter the possibility that the whole thing is a putup job from ten thousand years ago remains open. From that point, when the ignorant fundy attacked evolution as science with the usual lame stuff, I could point out that he must think God is more stupid than he is, making everything look old except for that thin spot he thought he put his thumb through. 
    Broadly speaking, I don’t think Creationism can be rejected as a possibility. Do we know for sure that space aliens or the Archangel Gabriel didn’t nudge an asteroid of a cosmic ray somewhere along the line? No. Do we know that the universe isn’t a dream in God’s mind that started 10 kya? No. Shrug. 
    This was all before I heard about the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster.

  7. Atypically, it seems to me that Razib is glossing over human variation in what “makes sense”. In general I agree with the post, but evolution always “made sense” to me, and I suspect to him, prior to learning any quantitative models of it. Also, I think that at least some people do have a sense of what very large numbers mean. I will say that it seems to me that I *do* grok what 100,000,000 years means, though probably not what 1,000,000,000,000 years means. I know at least one person who I believe does grok what 1,000,000,000,000 years means too.

  8. In general I agree with the post, but evolution always “made sense” to me, and I suspect to him, prior to learning any quantitative models of it. 
    there is variation and there is abberation.

  9. I’m not surprised that Mormonism is changing under the influence of non-Mormon Protestants. The boundary lines are very porous between different religious faiths in North America.  
    In theory, there are significant doctrinal differences among the branches of Protestantism. Presbyterians, for instance, believe in salvation by an elite, whereas Congregationalists believe in salvation by the grassroots. Anglicans, in theory, aren’t even Protestants at all, having broken away from Catholicism before the Reformation. 
    In reality, however, the average Protestant is at best dimly aware of these differences. I know of many who have converted from one Protestant denomination to another simply to save driving time on Sunday. And ideas circulate even more freely. 
    At present, the most dynamic idea-creators within Protestantism are the fundamentalists. And their ideas are percolating throughout the entire population that claims to be Christian. Even non-Christians (charismatic Catholics, certain Jewish groups, and even Muslims) are being influenced by memes from the Christian fundamentalist subculture. The Black Muslims, for instance, were originally a deviant Christian sect that had no real linkage to the Islamic community. They then progressively “returned” to Islam, and in the process made a substantial contribution to the formation of modern radical Islam.

  10. “Even non-Christians (charismatic Catholics, certain Jewish groups, and even Muslims)” 
    That should be “non-Protestants” (my apologies to charismatic Catholics).

  11. Good point, Peter. 
    Christianity is peculiar in it’s attachment to doctrine about matters that are both beyond proof and disconnected from direct, perceived self interest; matters such as salvation, the nature of the trinity, etc. Why this should be is hard to understand from the POV of the psychology of most people or from the POV of a philosopher. It’s best understood from the POV of an epidemiologist looking at Christianity as a family of commensal/parasitic organisms. 
    Razib, I think the agency framing and the narrower anthropomorph framing are both useful. A high rez picture of the underlying processes would probably fall somewhere in between. That is to say, our default framing of agency has some specifically anthropomorphic coloring.

    Christianity is peculiar in it’s attachment to doctrine about matters that are both beyond proof and disconnected from direct, perceived self interest; matters such as salvation, the nature of the trinity, etc. Why this should be is hard to understand from the POV of the psychology of most people or from the POV of a philosopher. It’s best understood from the POV of an epidemiologist looking at Christianity as a family of commensal/parasitic organisms.
    we need to be fully aware of the diversity of dynamics within “christendom” though. the free market metastable american denominational religious market has not been the norm throughout the history of christian cultures, which has been characterized by the church universal. as for christian emphasis on doctrine, there is something to this, but my hunch is that these distinctions are overplayed (theology, from what i gather, is rather well developed in shia islam for example).

  13. There’s a taxonomy to this doctrine thing. It’s not disconnected from Greek and Jewish roots, and of course Islam flatters both Judeism and Christianity with imitation. However, both Islam and Judeism put more of their doctrinal chips on behavior rather than on the nuances of theology. With religious identity securely anchored in behavior, it’s mooring doesn’t interfer with the realm of perception. Catholicism has evolved in this direction (by intelligent design) after the bad experience with Galileo. 
    I think we agree far more than we disagree, just a matter of getting our terminology aligned and some matters of emphasis.

  14. “Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,”  
    Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory 
    From The Onion of course.