The following is a guest post by Benjamin Knoll, a political science professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He teaches classes on public opinion, voting behavior, political statistics, and other topics in American politics. He currently serves as the Elders Quorum President in his ward.
A recent popular headline suggested that acceptance of biological evolution has dropped nearly 10% over the last four years among Republicans. This has prompted renewed interest in many circles on the topic of American opinions toward evolution and, particularly for the Bloggernacle audience, how American Mormons view the topic.
Analyzing Mormon opinions from a statistical perspective is a difficult endeavor simply because there are not enough Mormons in the American population to show up in sufficient numbers in most standard public opinion surveys to draw meaningful inferences. The 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, however, conducted telephone interviews with over 35,000 Americans and included nearly 600 Mormons in the sample. A sample size of 600 is not ideal, but it is more or less sufficient to reliably measure Mormon attitudes toward a variety of religious and political behaviors included in the survey. (With a sample size of about 600, the margin of error is about +/- 4% for Mormon responses.)
The Religious Landscape Survey included the following question:
“Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth. Do you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or completely disagree?”
This is admittedly a questionable measure of public attitudes toward evolution. It forces a fairly binary response which leaves little room for ambiguity or nuance (see Nathaniel Givens’ comments about the question wording here). Despite these limitations, however, there is a clear advantage to presenting a limited option of answers to survey responses. Specifically, it forces the respondent to make a choice which very often reveals the individual’s “bottom-line” preferences, which can be very useful in analyzing public opinion attitudes.
So what does the survey reveal about Mormon attitudes toward evolution?
Right off the bat, we see a great deal of skepticism toward evolution among American Mormons. Only 6.5% “completely agree” that evolution is the best explanation for human life on earth, with 16.6% reporting “mostly agree,” 22.4% “mostly disagree,” and a majority 54.5% saying “completely disagree.”
How does this compare to members of other religious traditions? Pew Research has previously published such a comparison that combines the “completely” and “mostly” agree options on the question. Their chart is reproduced below and can be found here (figures are slightly different than those displayed above due to sample weighting):
From this chart it certainly seems that Mormons are among the least evolution-friendly religious groups in the United States. But as was recently pointed out, perhaps this is because the evolution question might simply be an “instrumental” indicator for general levels of religiosity. In other words, we already know that more religious people in general, regardless of their faith tradition, are less accepting of evolution. As Mormons tend to display higher levels of religious indicators (church attendance, prayer, scripture reading, personal level of religious importance, etc.) than members of most other religious traditions, it is possible that Mormons are less accepting of evolution simply because they display higher levels of religious beliefs and behaviors.
To test this possibility, I constructed a “religiosity scale” from the Pew Religion survey modeled after the scale described in Putnam and Campbell’s 2012 American Grace book (pgs. 18-21). This scale combines levels of church attendance, frequency of prayer, personal importance of religion, and certainty of belief in God into a single index measure. Using this religiosity scale, we can compare Mormons of varying degrees of religious commitment to their counterparts in other faith traditions.
First, here is the same chart as shown above, limited to those who are in the top 20th percentile of the religiosity index:
Here we see that Mormons are still unusually low in their acceptance of evolution, even compared to other highly-religious members of other American faith traditions (with the exception of Evangelical Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Now here is the same chart, this time limited to those of the lowest 20th percentile on the religiosity scale:
Once again, even amongst the least religious respondents, Mormons are still about 5-15% lower than their counterparts in other American Christian faith traditions to express agreement with evolution as the best explanation of human life on earth. (There were too few Jehovah’s Witnesses of low levels of religiosity to be included in this particular analysis.)
We can now perform one additional test: calculating the difference in evolution opinions between Mormons and non-Mormons, statistically controlling for levels of religiosity. (For statistics nerds, this is calculating the predicted probability difference of a binomial “Mormon” variable included in a logistic regression model along with the religiosity index factor score variable included as a control variable. The “Mormon” variable is statistically significant, p<0.0001.) This test reveals that, controlling for religiosity, the average American Mormon is about 19% less likely than the average non-Mormon to indicate agreement with evolution as the best explanation of human life on earth.
The “bottom line” of all this is that there seems to be clear empirical evidence for the following conclusions:
- Mormonism is one of the least “evolution-friendly” faith traditions in the United States when measured in terms of popular acceptance among its members of evolution as the “best explanation of human life on earth.”
- This finding is not simply due Mormons’ higher-than-average levels of religious belief and behavior. There is something uniquely Mormon about antipathy toward biological evolution that is more intense than in other Christian faith traditions.
Thus, despite the more agnostic approach that the LDS Church has taken on the subject of evolution in recent decades (see here, here, and here, e.g.), as well as the plethora of Mormon intellectuals and academics who frequently argue for the compatibility of Mormon doctrine and evolution (see here and here, e.g.), popular Mormon opinion in the United States is decidedly in the anti-evolution camp.