Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Nation of Creationists

Most Australian adults believe in divine creation over Darwinian evolution.

Most Australian adults believe in divine creation over Darwinian evolution.

By David Wilson

A survey of beliefs in the origin of life and the universe has found that the majority of Australians believe in creationism and theistic evolution.

Questions about the origins of our existence are among the most significant that a person may face. From where we came is, for many of us, crucial to understanding who we are and where we are going.

The question of whether the world was created by a supernatural being or came into existence and evolved from purely natural processes has been a source of controversy in philosophy, religion, science and politics for the past 250 years. A literal biblical perspective of humans as God’s creature, made in his own image, has influenced human notions of dignity, liberty, rights, political systems and many other areas of culture and society.

In contrast, a humanist view that humans are merely another species that has evolved through natural processes, and not made in God’s image because there is no God, could imply that there is no fundamental difference between humans and bacteria, only a gradual evolutionary difference. This implies that there is no dignity, liberty or right to exist for humans beyond that which humans themselves determine.

Because the debate inevitably includes morality it has engendered intense emotion from both religious and scientific people. The question of whether or not we were created raises larger questions of whether society should be modelled on Biblical guidelines (e.g. the Ten Commandments) or secular guidelines. Thus, the issue of the origin of our existence has important implications for our day-to-day lives.

There are diverse beliefs regarding the origins of the universe and life, despite the large accumulation of scientific explanations from physical and biological principles. In the United States, creationists and proponents of evolution continue to engage in debates over the legality of teaching creationism and evolution in the science classroom of public schools. Such battles are not common in Australia, where creationism and intelligent design have been banned from the science curriculum – although they are sometimes taught in scripture classes.

It could be thought that Australian Christians do not tend to hold the same views about our origins as Christians in the United States. It is possible that fundamental Christians in Australia are not as publicly vocal of their views regarding creationism and intelligent design as their counterparts in the United States or that sociocultural differences may have led Australian Christians to be more subtle in their actions associated with their position.

The extent of belief in creationism in Australia is unknown, so we have conducted an internet-based survey to elicit information on the acceptance of evolution or creation, along with demographic and religious affiliation details associated with such beliefs.

Our primary interest was belief in the origins of the universe and the diversity of life, where respondents chose between:

• creationism (God created the universe, including all life, fully developed and similar to how we see it today);

• the Big Bang and evolution without any supernatural being accounting for our origins;

• theistic evolution (i.e. evolution guided by God); or

• some other explanation.

Participants were recruited by respondent-driven and convenience sampling through various means (e-mail requests, advertisement on the University of Newcastle website, and distribution of advertisement leaflets in community settings (e.g. churches, universities, letterbox drops) with the request that participants invite others to participate. Although it cannot be assumed that participants are representative of the general public when recruited through convenience sampling, their responses are likely to be closely representative of groups that share similar religious or demographic characteristics.

A total of 4300 participants completed the survey. Respondents represented 102 countries, with the greatest number from North America, Europe and the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, but people from Asia, Africa and South America were also represented. Christians, atheists and agnostics were all well-represented, as were all age groups and levels of education. Of all survey participants, 850 were from Australia, of whom 76% (646) claimed that they were Christian. Of these, 92% (595) stated that they were “devoted Christians” and 8% (51) were “Christian, but not active”.

Belief in creationism was held by 443 Australian survey respondents. While there were some differences in the belief responses of Christians based on their age and Christian denomination, only Australian respondents who stated they were Christian also believed in creationism.

The survey results, stratified by Christian denomination and age group, were used in conjunction with the most recent Australian Census of Population and Housing data, which was collated in 2006 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to estimate of the prevalence of beliefs in creationism, theistic evolution and evolution in Australia.

Of 19,855,288 people living in Australia who completed the 2006 Census, 12,685,836 (64%) reported that they were Christian. Unlike our internet survey, it is unknown what proportion of this population could be classified as devoted or inactive Christians. However, independent sources suggest that 15–20% of Australians attend church at least monthly, and this is assumed to be the definition of devoted Christians when linking the internet survey and the Census.

In the internet survey, 27.5% of inactive Christians in Australia stated their belief in creationism and 47.0% indicated their belief in theistic evolution. The levels of belief in creationism and theistic evolution by inactive Christians in Australia are very similar to results reported by inactive Christians in other parts of the world.

By combining the data from the Census and our internet survey we have calculated the number of Australian Christians of major denominations who believe in creationism and theistic evolution, adjusted for the proportions of inactive Christians and their beliefs, and stratified these numbers by age and denomination. We estimate that 5.3 million adults in Australia believe in creationism (with confidence bounds of between 3.1 million and 7.6 million adults), while 4.7 million Australian adults (2.3–7.1 million) believe in theistic evolution to explain the origins of the universe and life as we know it.

Therefore, the majority of Australian adults believe that God, or a supernatural being, was behind our origins. Of the 17 million adults in Australia in 2011, just under one-third (31%) believe in creationism, just over one-quarter (27%) believe that God used the process of evolution, and the majority of the remaining 42% of adults in Australia believe in natural evolution without any divine involvement.

Interestingly, although there are similar numbers of Australians who believe in creationism and theistic evolution, their religious affiliations differ. Significantly more Baptists, Independents and Pentecostals believe in creationism compared with theistic evolution – there are 3.0, 3.0 and 4.8 times more creationists than theistic evolutionists in the respective denominations. In contrast, there are 23% less creationists than theistic evolutionists with a Catholic affiliation. There is a more even split of beliefs among Australian adults affiliated with Anglican, Presbyterian and other denominations.

Australian society is traditionally Christian but has become increasingly secular. God is not frequently mentioned in regular society. Furthermore, teaching of the Big Bang and evolutionary science has become widely accepted in our school systems.

It could therefore be considered surprising that almost 60% of Australian adults believe that God or a supernatural being was behind the universe and all life, and the majority of these people do not accept the well-established theory of evolution but believe that God brought about this universe and life, fully developed and similar to how we see it today, out of nothing.

What is the expected future of belief in creationism in Australia? If trends in creationism beliefs according to age groups among devoted Christians are anything to go by, then creationism will become less prevalent in the future. Older people are more likely to believe in creationism, with 85% of Christians aged over 60 years believing in creationism compared with 60–65% of Christians in Australia aged less than 40 years.

However, with this high prevalence of creationist belief among young adults, even in a society tending more towards secularism, widespread belief in creationism will remain in Australia for a considerable time.

David Wilson is Head of the Surveillance and Evaluation Program for Public Health at the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, University of NSW. He carried out this study while at the University of Newcastle.