Evolution, religion, and why it’s not just about lack of scientific reasoning ability

Despite overwhelming evidence for evolution, many people still choose to reject it as an explanation for how humans and other organisms evolved and developed. This attitude seems to be especially common amongst religious people. But why is that, and what can we do to reconcile these two opposing worldviews? A new study published in Evolution: Education and Outreach tries to explain.


Why reject evolution?

Humans have long wondered and debated the scientific and theological explanations for our world and the life upon it. Scriptural accounts describe the creation as a series of events by a creator resulting in earth’s current diversity (including humans), whereas, science suggests descent with modification from a common ancestor over long periods of time (evolution), resulting in the vast diversity we see today (again, including humans).

Despite overwhelming evidence for evolution, a large portion of the US (and the world) continues to reject the theory. The question becomes why, in the face of so much convincing evidence, do people still not accept evolution as a process that occurs to shape the existence of life on this planet?

Hypotheses about causes of rejection

The second deficit model based hypothesis is that people reject evolution because they lack scientific reasoning ability. This hypothesis is the basis of our current study.

The research literature demonstrates that religion is a major barrier to the acceptance of the theory of evolution. What is it exactly about ‘religious’ individuals that causes rejection of scientific evidence?

Two prominent hypotheses stem from a ‘deficit model’. The first supports the idea that a deficiency of knowledge is to blame for rejecting evolution and that people reject evolution out of simple ignorance of the facts, the evidence, and the mechanisms. However, the literature demonstrates that in most cases, a simple education in the facts is not enough to change people’s minds.

The second deficit model based hypothesis is that people reject evolution because they lack scientific reasoning ability. This hypothesis is the basis of our current study. If true it presents a pedagogical impediment because the challenge becomes more than just teaching students the facts, but teaching them scientific reasoning skills (a much harder feat, according to research).

Our Study

To test for a relationship between underlying scientific reasoning ability and acceptance of evolution, we specifically targeted religious individuals based on the fact that religion seems to be the underlying deterrent to evolution acceptance. Participants were asked to respond to a survey to rate their religiosity, complete a measure of their scientific reasoning ability,  and to respond with their degree of agreement with various creationist and evolutionary statements.

We produced a model of the relationships between these factors where we hypothesized that scientific reasoning ability would predict both religiosity and agreement or disagreement with evolutionary statements. We were intrigued (yet not surprised) that there appears to be no relationship between the scientific reasoning ability of religious people and their acceptance of evolution. Nor was there a relationship between scientific reasoning ability and religiosity among our study group. Not surprising, however, is that religiosity is a negative predictor of the acceptance of evolution (a finding that has been thoroughly verified in the literature).

Figure taken from article. Illustration of structural equation model that characterizes relationships among factors. Bidirectional lines (dotted line) indicate correlation coefficients, while directional lines (solid lines) indicate predictive relationships. Significance is noted: *p < 0.001

What does the data mean?

There is not a deficit in an underlying ability to reason that causes religious people to reject evolution. Our data clearly shows that individuals can be highly adept at scientific reasoning and still reject evolution (most likely on religious grounds). Our data also shows that one can be severely lacking in scientific reasoning ability and still accept evolution. It appears from this study that worldview (or religion), not intelligence, is the main driver of this decision.

What does this mean for education?

Our data clearly shows that individuals can be highly adept at scientific reasoning and still reject evolution (most likely on religious grounds).

In a recent editorial in Science Magazine, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe discusses an eerily similar dilemma in the realm of public acceptance of Climate Change. She argues that most scientists assume that providing more data to individuals will change their minds but research is showing this doesn’t work! Why? Because it has “much more to do with identity and ideology than data and facts”. This parallels what we are finding in evolution education. Data and facts are not enough. It is a worldview issue.

A likely solution is to offer students pathways that allow them to maintain their worldview while accepting the scientific facts. In our current research, we propose the use of a ‘Reconciliatory Model Approach’, one in which students are encouraged to find a bridge between the science and their religious beliefs. And this approach, at least preliminarily, appears to be working. The goal is to still cover the facts and encourage sound scientific reasoning, but approach it with a goal of reconciliation rather than assuming a deficit model and suggesting that their lack of acceptance is due to ignorance.

Why is it important?

Our goal is to show that scientific reasoning ability is not predictive of evolution acceptance among religious individuals and that science and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive, as they are so often portrayed to be. We hope to expand our efforts to include a religious as well as other religious denominations to continue to investigate the barriers to evolution acceptance with the end-goal being to create pedagogical implementations that successfully teach evolution such that the public is more educated and accepting of the foundational theory of biology, a theory that has profound implications for human health, conservation, and the preservation of our biodiversity.

Jamie Jensen & Seth Bybee

Jamie is a Discipline-based Educational Researcher (DBER) in Biology and Associate Professor at Brigham Young University.She specializes in the development and assessment of undergraduate biology curricula that employ evidenced-based pedagogical strategies to increase student scientific reasoning skills and deep conceptual understanding.One of her most passionate research foci is studying factors influencing knowledge and acceptance of evolutionary theory and finding ways to help student reconcile science and religion.

Seth is an associate professor at Brigham Young University. His main focus is phylogenetics with research spanning from fossils to gene family evolution. He is intrigued by the evolution of color vision systems and color signals and how the diversity of life on earth is connected. He has a new found and sincere interest in evolution education in the undergraduate classroom. He is the most biological fit biologist you will ever meet...he has seven kids.

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Robert Landbeck

“But why is that, and what can we do to reconcile these two opposing worldviews?” Probably because ‘religious’ thought most often begins with the idea that ‘we’ arre made in the ‘image and likeness’ of a creator God. Even though the I&L remains undefinable. And as the religious project ideas of morality and spiritiuality onto that I&L and thus themselves, it sits badly with assumptions and observations of human nature that come with evolutionary theory. Being made in the I&L of a creator God is a comforting thought. But probably a self deception because it’s easier to hold to that idea than confront the unholy truth of human nature itself.

Mitchell Diamond

It’s good you did the study to confirm, but this should not be a surprise. Your implicit postulate was wrong. Humans are not rational animals. There’s tons of research on this. See Kahneman & Tversky, Leonard Mlodinow, Antonio Damasio, V.S. Ramachandran, Timothy Wilson @ UoVirginia, Dan Ariely for popular accounts. There’s plenty more. It doesn’t matter if subjects are liberal or conservative, religious or not (as you point out). Decision-making and thinking is derives from cognitive biases, which, once set, are held onto tenaciously. Most people who accept evolution don’t understand it very well. Their adherence to scientific ideas isn’t generally based on empirical understanding, but is rather the fortunate bias towards science (good for us!). Well, maybe just a little bit of rationality…

Bertrand Russell

Evolution and fundamentalist religion are incompatible. Evolution says that humans are not a special creation of God but evolved from simpler forms of life and are just part of the animal kingdom. Fundamentalist believers cannot accept this because it would destroy their whole world view. Life would be nothing for them. Reason and evidence and education have no effect on them.

Ian Peters

I’d also suggest the 2 meanings of “Theory” causes confusion as most people do not understand the scientific meaning.

Jane Chambers

Nice article, but, as a writing teacher, I would have failed your last sentence. It is a disaster of prepositional phrases. This makes your conclusions unclear. If you wish to reach a larger audience effectively, I suggest revision of this sentence. Good luck, Jane


science and religion must be contradictive in the matter of evolution, namely because of a controversial soul that can not be evolving. Evolutionary theory proves its non-existence, and thus breaks the source of livelihood for the churches, and the possibility of its rule over the people doctrines the afterlife. By the way, Jesus did not acknowledge Plato’s concept of the immaterial soul and only proclaimed the bodily resurrection

Robert Neville

It absolutely has to do with identity and ideology. The scientific establishment initially approached evolution as a refutation of religious views and was therefore regarded by many to be based less on fact than antagonism toward religion. It has taken many years to undo the damage so that people can see beyond the fact that many scientists are hostile toward religion and evaluate the evidence for themselves. In the same way, Climate Change has been paraded in front of the public in the guise of sweeping changes to taxation and heavy modification of lifestyle choices without a strong rationale for their positive impact. . Instead the approach should be on mitigation of risks associated with Climate Change such as discouraging settlement in coastal areas and shoring up threatened areas. The mantra that there is a consensus of support for this view from the very people most likely to benefit from sweeping changes makes he argument less than persuasive.

Christopher J Hall

Many people are surely SMART enough to, upon accepting evolution – it’s mindless and un-directed (godless) implications and other worldview-altering, science-given realizations (as our insignificant position on a spect of cosmic dust in an unimaginably vast universe) wind up at a terminus of non-belief or atheism. However, it seems to me that, in order to make the leap to such a terminus, most people are just not BRAVE enough.

jim thinnsen

“Despite overwhelming evidence for evolution”

I guess we get to play the dishonest Darwinian game of semantics…. Before we continue… YOU need to clarify what you mean SPECIFICALLY when you use the duplicitous and purposely vague term “Evolution”.. DO YOU MEAN.. Variation, Adaptation, Speciation or ….De-volution?.. i.e. ..Finches beaks, Cave fish going blind, Moth colors, Weak bacteria lacking enzymes targeted by antibiotics, Dog ears, Mutated fruit flies with 2 WORTHLESS extra wings, Bear coats, Dog Ears and Squirrel tails? OR DO YOU MEAN Slow Microbe to Microbiologist (UCA for all flora and fauna) You will be required to put your cards on the table here in this classroom.

jim thinnsen



What is the “overwhelming evidence” for evolution? Googled: “A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results.” The evidence is that there are varieties of life today… and then there are fossils. Setting aside DNA for now as the estimated half life for DNA (which is not a constant) is approx 521 yrs, so very likely there is no reliable DNA connections that can be made from fossils (further, DNA similarity in living creatures today does not automatically equate to an evolutionary relationship–it just means similar coding for similar function… sorry if your PhD taught you otherwise). What’s left is primarily a study of the geologic column and morphology of the fossils themselves. Fossils form by rapid burial and are, at best, an approximation of the location of the plant/animal at the time it was buried. This gives little assurance though as to the time of death, and less assurance still as to the time the creature (and other creatures like it) lived–it may have existed for a long time until later one was buried rapidly and fossilized. Morphology is a bit of a guessing game as most fossils are incomplete, and when multiple fossils of the same animal can be brought together to get a complete skeletal structure, that’s what you have… a skeleton (ta-da). This will give a general sense of the size, structure and mass of a creature but nobody knows how it really looked, behaved, etc… this is done by analogy, by inferences, by likening the fossil to the skeletal structure of living creatures today. By it’s nature then, this process is going to lead to assumptions and making connections between life forms alive today and those that are now extinct, but in reality (going back to scientific theory), no real measurable, repeatable, observable connection has actually been made. Moving past fossils, let’s look at the present – evolution can be said to be occurring here in the present and we see variability in life today (think of all the variations of canines, for example). That is true, observable, measurable, and repeatable, right? Yes, and that is good (real) science. Unfortunately, all varieties of canines are still canines (we don’t, for example, see them developing feathers, or flukes and flippers… nothing significant leading to the kinds of major evolutionary changes that Darwinian evolution relies upon). In fact, every experiment (think of Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos, or the long-term experiment of E.Coli) only supports minor variations – the finches adapted to the environment with varying beak sizes and the E.Coli was able to survive on citrate… but the finches remain finches and E.Coli remains E.Coli–natural selection and random mutation only carry organisms so far. From what is observable, conducting real scientific study here in the present, is that there is no tree of life, there are more like “bushes of life”. Going back the alleged hundreds of millions of years in the fossil record, we still see the same basic kinds of creatures that are still alive today. Where the fossil record is no friend to Darwinian evolution is that instead of a branching out tree of life, the tree is upside down – the fossils show there was once greater variety of life, but over time, that variety has lessened as creatures have gone extinct. Further, the fossil record gives the sudden appearance of life (ex. the Cambrian explosion) which also does nothing to support the notion of a progressive development from a single-celled amoeba to eventually what became a human being. So I come back to my original question, what is the “overwhelming evidence” again?? Evolution IS A faith-based religion: faith is defined as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This fits very well for those who insist we all evolved from bacteria from billions of years ago.


What is the overwhelming evidence for evolution? My understanding is that neo-Darwinian theory does a very good job of explaining the subtle/small changes in living organisms, but lacks the explanatory power to support the sudden arrival of new novel information in DNA, new biological systems, and new body plans. It is also my understanding that no scientific experiment has ever reproduced the kind of evolution that creates new novel information in DNA, new biological systems, or new body plans… but rather has only sometimes produced mutations (sometimes to the extent of irreparably damaging the DNA), has not produced a new biological system (such as a nervous system where one did not exist at all previously), and has not produced a new body plan (only modified slightly in response to environmental pressures… ex. Darwin’s finches). Being that we cannot reproduce taking a one-celled bacterium and through the unguided process of random mutations being acted upon by natural selection, and ending up with a multi-celled complex organism that no longer functions on the same order as the original (whether in a single leap or a succession of many incremental steps – reference the E.Coli experiment – after 60,000+ generations E.Coli is still just E.Coli, just adapted to survive on citrate [which resulted from a loss of function that previously existed]), I’m having trouble finding this fits with what I would consider “overwhelming” evidence. On strictly scientific grounds alone, I am not convinced that all life had a universal common ancestor… that the microbe that made you and me also made an oak tree.


Evolution and religion differ widely on the question of origins evolution of universe is based on empirical evidence in the lab while the creationist have scared book the holywrite where it contents where conveyed through advocates by higher being God

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