Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Yesterday, thousands of people marked the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, celebrating “Darwin Day” in a wide variety of ways. The International Darwin Day Foundation declares that the day “expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.”
Some of the quirkier tributes to Darwin included a “Phylum Feast” at a restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland, where diners could enjoy an “evolutionary menu featuring over 50 flora and fauna species.” [The American Museum of Natural History unveiled a new digital exhibit of Darwin’s papers, including the original pages of The Origin of Species – featuring some bonus drawings by Darwin’s son, including “a soldier on a carrot battling a cavalier on an eggplant.”
It’s worth noting that Americans are divided on the veracity of Darwin’s most famous theory. Last fall, a PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey investigated Americans’ views about evolution, and found that while a majority embrace the basic notion of evolution, many Americans leave room for an unearthly influence in the process.
A majority (57%) of Americans believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 38% who say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since creation. However, among those who believe that humans evolved over time, nearly 4-in-10 agree that “a supreme being guided the evolution,”while 53% believe that humans evolved due to natural processes.
The survey also found large differences between religious groups. For example:
- Among white evangelical Protestants roughly one-third (32%) believe in some type of evolution, compared to 61% of Catholics, nearly two-thirds (66%) of white mainline Protestants and nearly 8-in-10 (77%) of the religiously unaffiliated.
- However, the religiously unaffiliated represent the only group among whom a majority (56%) believe that humans evolved due to natural processes. Only 35% of white mainline Protestants, 27% of Catholics and 10% of white evangelicals affirm this belief.
Despite the disagreement about the particulars of evolutionary theory among many religious groups, some churches participated in celebrations of Darwin’s life, pointing to the fact that many Americans simultaneously believe in evolution and a supreme being. Indeed, according to the Rev. Betsey Monnot, an Episcopal pastor who studied physics in college, “Belief in one enhances the other.”