Reports of the National Center for Science Education

What do Christians REALLY Believe about Evolution?

Recently a California teacher requesting help from NCSE wrote:

I am a high school biology teacher trying to find information on the official position of Christian denominations and other major world religions on evolution for use in my classes. I have many creationist students in my classes who assume anyone who believes in God agrees with the literal creationist beliefs on this. Can you help?

This teacher also felt he needed more information about the legal rights and responsibilities of teachers who are teaching evolution.

These are questions which arise for teachers all across the country. NCSE had already produced a flyer summarizing court decisions. The NCSE brochure "Seven Significant Court Decisions Regarding Creation/Evolution Issues" outlines the relevant legal issues. The position statements of science teachers' professional associations published in NCSE's Voices for Evolution also confirm that science teachers can honestly tell their students, "Legally, I cannot teach you 'creation science' or any other religious explanation of life on earth."

However, although they cannot teach religious doctrines, teachers are permitted to teach about religion. The topic is usually reserved for social studies classes, but many science teachers, like the one whose questions are quoted above, want to be better informed about evolution/creation beliefs and may find that sharing such information with students and their community clears the way for teaching about evolution.

What Do Christians Believe?

While a number of recent surveys give us some information on how many Americans express beliefs compatible with literal interpretations of the Bible, they don't tell us whether such beliefs are, in fact, required of Christians by their denominations. Even though the numbers of those polled in the US who say that they accept evolution is about equal with those who accept special creation of humans, the majority of Americans professing to be Christians belong to denominations that accept evolution.

Table 1 is adapted from a 1998 article released by the Religion News Service and lists the twelve largest denominations in the US in order of size. It also shows which denominations have in some manner officially supported the teaching of evolution in public schools. The percentages listed in the second column represent the percentage of that denomination's members in relation to the total membership of those listed in the table (not in relation to all Christian denominations). A mark in the column entitled "Voices" indicates that the leaders of this denomination have contributed an official statement which we have published in NCSE's Voices for Evolution (Matsumura 1995).

Some denominations have subsequently issued additional statements. The column headed "Joint Statement" shows which denominations endorsed "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law" (American Jewish Congress and others 1995), an interfaith statement that declares:

5. Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion….

6. These same rules apply to the recurring controversy surrounding theories of evolution. Schools may teach about explanations of life on earth, including religious ones (such as "creationism"), in comparative religion or social studies classes. In science class, however, they may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including "creationism", although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may not either advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student's religious explanation for life on earth.

Finally, official representatives of some denominations were plaintiffs in the famous McLean v Arkansas case. Official denominational opposition to the law requiring the teaching of "creation science" is recorded in the column headed "McLean".

Table 1: Membership and Acceptance of Evolution in 12 Largest US Christian Denominations

DenominationMembership (millions)PercentVoicesJoint StatementMcLean
Roman Catholic Church61.249.0
Southern Baptist Convention15.712.6
United Methodist Church8.56.8
National Baptist Convention USA8.26.6
Church of God in Christ5.54.4
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America5.24.2
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)4.83.8
Presbyterian Church (USA)3.52.8
National Baptist Convention of America3.52.8
African Methodist Episcopal Church3.52.8
Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod2.62.1
The Episcopal Church2.52.0
• Indicates statement issued by official body of this denomination.
† Indicates statement signed by the National Council of Churches of which this denomination is a member.
‡ Indicates that this denomination was listed as an "endorsing organization".

Table 1 demonstrates that of Americans in the 12 largest Christian denominations, 89.6% belong to churches that support evolution education! Indeed, many of the statements in Voices insist quite strongly that evolution must be included in science education and "creation science" must be excluded. Even if we subtract the Southern Baptist Convention, which has changed its view of evolution since McLean v Arkansas and might take a different position now, the percentage of those in denominations, including the United Church of Christ and the National Sikh Center, have shown some degree of support for evolution education (as defined by inclusion in Voices or the "Joint Statement").

However, many Americans, including your students, may not know the position of their denominations. Several science teachers have told NCSE staff, "When I tell my students to check with their ministers, they are surprised to find out that it's okay for them to learn about evolution!" Seeing the information in Table 1 might give some students just such a surprise.

While it isn't a science teacher's job to tell students or the community at large "what they should believe", clearing away their misconceptions may help a teacher get on with the job of teaching science. By all means tell them that what most Americans believe and most Christian denominations teach is this: "teaching evolution is okay!"

By Molleen Matsumura, Network Project Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.