A detailed look at Mormon beliefs on evolution and human origins

12/20/2017 08:25 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

The Utah state Board of Education is once again debating the role of human evolution in the curricula and instructional standards of Utah public schools. Commentator Ben Spackman recently weighed in with a Salt Lake Tribune editorial arguing that there is a strong tradition in both Mormon theology and authoritative statements from leaders that would embrace a more science-friendly perspective on the topic. But what do Mormons themselves think about evolution? Recent findings from the Next Mormons Survey can help shed additional light on this question.

The Next Mormons Survey asked two questions related to evolution and human origins; respondents were asked to express their level of belief in two separate statements. The first asks about Adam and Eve and human evolution:

“God created Adam and Eve sometime in the last 10,000 years and humans did not evolve from other life forms.”

  • 53% “I am confident and know this is true.”
  • 21% “I believe and have faith that this is probably true.”
  • 13% “I believe this might be true, but I have my doubts.”
  • 7% “I believe this is probably NOT true.”
  • 6% “I am confident and know this is NOT true.”

In our survey, more than two thirds of Mormons say they are confident (or have strong faith) that Adam and Eve were created literally by God and that their bodies were not the result of biological evolution. This jumps to 78% among Mormons who say that they are active members and 81% of those who attend church at least once a week.

We also asked a more general question about the origin of life on Earth:

“Evolution is the best explanation for how God brought about the emergence and development of life on Earth.”

  • 24% “I am confident and know this is true.”
  • 25% “I believe and have faith that this is probably true.”
  • 17% “I believe this might be true, but I have my doubts.”
  • 13% “I believe this is probably NOT true.”
  • 20% “I am confident and know this is NOT true.”

Here, one third of Mormons express firm disbelief in God-guided evolution, about half express belief in God-guided evolution, and the remaining 17% could go either way. On this question, 50% and 51% of Mormons who say they’re active and attend church weekly, respectively, say that they are generally confident about their belief in God-guided evolution.

If we consider confident knowledge and probable faith together as indicating general agreement with these statements, combining these two questions together gives us this portrait of Mormon attitudes toward evolution and human origins:[1]

  • 37% reject God-guided evolution and believe in a literal Adam and Eve who were not the process of biological evolution. These Mormons have a more literalist/fundamentalist view.
  • 37% accept God-guided evolution as the origin of life on Earth but also believe in a literal Adam and Eve created by God and not the result of evolution. Perhaps many in this group believe Adam and Eve to be a special exception to the evolutionary process while accepting evolution as the most persuasive explanation for all other life.
  • 13% accept God-guided evolution and reject the idea that Adam and Eve were separately created by God outside of this process. This could include those who believe that God used evolution to create Adam and Eve or that God was just not part of the picture.[2]
  • 13% reject God-guided evolution and reject a literal Adam and Eve as well.

Back to our question about the influence of Mormon beliefs in the conversation about science standards in Utah classrooms, the Next Mormons Survey reveals that there are a few key factors that consistently predict Mormon attitudes about evolution: age, geography, and political partisanship.[3]

All other things being equal, Mormon Millennials are about 14% more likely to believe in God-guided evolution compared to Mormons in the Baby Boomer or Silent generation. Mormons who live outside of Utah are about 9% more likely to believe in evolution than those who live inside Utah, and political Democrats are about 12% more likely to believe in evolution than Republicans.

When we combine these three factors together, the survey reveals that among American Mormons, older Utah Republicans are only about 25% likely to believe in God-guided evolution compared to 61% of Millennial Democrats living outside of Utah. This goes up to 69% among Millennial political Independents outside of Utah.

In this light, it makes more sense why elected officials and community leaders in Utah, many of whom are older Republicans, might be less than enthusiastic about aggressively supporting the teaching of biological evolution in Utah public schools. It turns out that only about a quarter of this demographic group are believers in evolution as the best explanation for the origin of life on Earth.

Perhaps the more important question, though, is why political partisanship makes such a big difference. Why would Republicans in general be less likely to believe in (even God-guided) evolution compared to Democrats? (Keep in mind that this analysis already accounts for the effect of age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, belief in God, seminary attendance, returned missionary status, etc., see Footnote 3.) Also, why would Utah Mormons be less likely to believe in God-guided evolution compared to Mormons outside of Utah, especially given how famous Utah is for its various natural history monuments and dinosaur museums? Also, why would factors like education and levels of belief orthodoxy not make a difference among American Mormons? Finally, what are the implications for other important issues in politics and society when a critical mass of a social community (Mormon or otherwise) is unable to be persuaded by a strong scientific consensus on a particular topic?

[FN1] By way of comparison, the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey indicates that 33% of the U.S. public believe in atheistic evolution, another quarter believe in God-guided evolution, and another third believe in a literal creation of humans. Among American Mormons specifically, this same survey showed that 11% of Mormons believe in atheistic evolution, 29% in God-guided evolution, and 52% reject human evolution altogether.

[FN2] Given the extremely high rates of spirituality and belief in God among American Mormons, we did not include an option measuring belief in atheistic evolution.

[FN3] These are the factors that are statistically significant in a multivariate regression analysis that statistically controls for several other variables that could also influence evolution attitudes including demographics, political attitudes, belief orthodoxy, Mormon cultural markers like temple recommend or returned missionary status. It is also interesting to note that levels of education do not make a difference once controlling for these various factors. In many other contexts, education is a strong factor predicting evolution attitudes.

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