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July 1, 2009

Evolution Theory and Religious Beliefs: Not Necessarily in Conflict

The latest survey to take the pulse of the public debate on evolution suggests that a majority of people see nothing wrong with believing in a god and accepting Charles Darwin's work.

The survey, presented yesterday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London by the British Council as part of its international program Darwin Now, asked more than 10,000 adults across Argentina, China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States about their knowledge and acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution. Across all countries, 70% of the adults surveyed felt somewhat familiar with Darwin and his work, with the highest levels of awareness being found in the United States and the United Kingdom (71% in both), Mexico (68%), and Argentina (65%). Seventy-three percent of the adults surveyed in South Africa and 62% in Egypt had never heard of Charles Darwin or of his theory of evolution, however.

Overall, knowing meant believing in evolution. Fifty-six percent of the people in all 10 countries who had heard of Darwin believed there is sufficient scientific evidence in support of Darwin's theory of evolution. A more detailed analysis, however, revealed a complex picture. Although the majority of adults surveyed in India (77%), China (72%), Mexico (65%), the United Kingdom (62%), Spain (61%), and Argentina (57%) accepted the theory of evolution as scientifically founded, only 48% did so in Russia, 42% in South Africa, 41% in the United States, and 25% in Egypt.

Acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution didn't necessarily correlate with a rejection of creationism. The three countries with the greatest proportion of people (43%) believing that life on Earth was created by a god and has always existed in its current form were the United States, South Africa, and India.

The country that showed greatest support for the idea that evolution without a God guided the development of all life was China (67%), followed by Mexico (42%), the United Kingdom and Spain (38%), Argentina (37%), and Russia (32%). In Egypt, however, half of the adults surveyed believed in the evolution of human life in a process guided by a god.

"Most encouraging was a diversity in perspectives internationally," said Fern Elsdon-Baker, head of the British Council Darwin Now program, at yesterday's press conference.

"We need to look into these cultural differences. It gives an indication of how to target our efforts in public engagement across countries" when it comes to talking about Darwin and evolution, added Peter Kjaergaard, a historian at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, U.K.

In spite of the cultural differences, what could be found in all of the 10 countries was acceptance of evolution and religion. In India, 85% of the adults surveyed saw nothing wrong with both believing in a god and accepting Darwin's theory of evolution. The same pattern was found in Mexico (65%), Argentina (62%), the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Russia (54%), the United States (53%), Spain (46%), Egypt (45%), and China (39%).

These were "quite surprising results," Elsdon-Baker said. There is "not necessarily a dichotomy." This contrasts with previous studies and media reports in which a conflict between religious beliefs and evolution views is assumed from the start, Kjaergaard added. The representation of the debate in newspapers "doesn't fit the general picture of the population throughout the world," he said.

—Elisabeth Pain


People who believe in both a god and evolution have not examined the natural world very closely. If they had, their belief in a benevolent god would be destroyed. That is what happened to Charles Darwin, who began his journeys and studies as a devout Christian.

"In India, 85% of the adults surveyed saw nothing wrong with both believing in a god and accepting Darwin's theory of evolution." As Hindus it is not strange for us to do so.

Our civilisation has differing perspectives on God, such as benefactor/punisher, as an entity sans attributes, as a tool to raise one's perceptions to experience Reality, as non-existent, as Nothingness, as concrete, as abstract, and we are free to relate to any of these concepts as per our stage of mental and spiritual growth.

Our relationship with God could be any of the following, indifference, academic, mechanical, fearful, loving, seeking, curious...just about anything.

If we were to love God, we are free to do it as a friend, son, father, daughter, mother, lover, husband, wife, anything. And form? Just about anything from animate objects to irregular pieces of stone.

Six members in a family may have their own take on God, no bother. This is because, we have, thousands of years ago, gone beyond metaphysical rigidities. We have been bequeathed with the learning and technology to raise our perceptions and evolve beyond all that.

Naturally we have not made a fetish of Reason and Logic. We use both (maybe Sanskrit, the flagship language of our civilisation, is the only language, to learn which you have to learn Logic as a subject!), but we know when to keep Logic out of our lives. It is, for us, just one of the many tools for perceiving and knowing.

In higher stages of evolution, we treat Logic as grossly inadequate, for anything it bestows is not a matter of experience, just conclusions. We seek experiential access to Reality. So marrying Drawinism and our civilisational perspectives comes naturally to us.
Footnote: The population of Hindus in India is 85%

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