08/12/2009 - Two hundred years after Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after the naturalist published his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life undertook an ambitious look at the history of the battle over evolution in the United States—and found that, 85 years after the Scopes “monkey” trial, it is being fought today with as much passion as ever, and on a larger scale.
Darwin’s theory of evolution initially set off a firestorm of controversy in Britain, writes David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Forum. Religious leaders argued that it directly contradicted many of the core teachings of the Christian faith, including the notion that man had a special, God-given place in the natural order. Within a few decades, however, it had gained general acceptance in Britain, even among many in the Anglican clergy, and when Darwin died in 1882, his burial in Westminster Abbey “was seen by some contemporaries as symbolic of an uneasy truce between science and religion in Britain.”
In the United States, however, the furor over Darwinism was just beginning, and by the early 1920s it had become one of the most important wedge issues dividing liberal and evangelical Protestants. Increasingly, the focus of the debate became the teaching of evolution in schools—the charge brought successfully against a teacher named John Scopes in Tennessee in 1926. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court put an end to state and local prohibitions on teaching evolution; subsequent rulings have barred schools from offering “creation science” in its place.
Nonetheless, school boards, town councils and legislatures continue to skirmish over the teaching of evolution: The Forum recounts controversies in 14 states in the past decade, including various efforts to teach “intelligent design,” the belief that life is too complex to have evolved through natural processes without the intercession of an outside, possibly divine force. “Indeed, the teaching of evolution has become a part of the nation’s culture wars,” Masci writes, noting that the subject came up even in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Polls by the Pew Research Center indicate that the anti-evolution forces have significant popular support. A 2006 survey by the Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 63 percent of Americans believe that humans and other living things either have always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being.
For its package on evolution, the Forum also drew on its landmark 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey to investigate how religion influences attitudes toward the topic. It found that large majorities of Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and the unaffiliated favor evolution as the best explanation for the development of human life, while at least 7 in 10 members of evangelical Protestant churches, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses reject it. The more religious the individuals, the likelier they are to reject the idea of evolution.
The Forum’s discussion of Darwin’s theory and the ensuing controversy are presented in a six-part package. To read the full report, go to http://pewforum.org and search for “Darwin.”