Scientific reasoning ability does not predict acceptance of evolution among religious individuals, study finds

Religious individuals with high scientific reasoning ability are not more likely to accept biological evolution as true, according to new research.

The study, published in the scientific journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, suggests that disbelief in evolution is not necessarily the result of a lack of education or intelligence.

“I grew up in a religious home and have always held strong religious convictions. I am also a biologist and I have seen all of the evidence for evolution and feel that it is the most important concept of biology for everyone to know,” said study author Jamie L. Jensen, an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University.

“However, throughout my academic training, I was constantly berated for my belief in God and often told (as is classic of a deficit model approach) that this belief is a sign of a lack of logical thinking ability and that anyone who rejects evolution does so out of pure ignorance or lack of reasoning.”

“Let me be clear, I absolutely accept that evolution is the real deal and that includes humans evolving from pre-human ape-like ancestors,” Jensen said. “However, this was something I had to wrestle with and spend a great amount of time reconciling with my religious beliefs (all while being constantly told that I was ‘dumb’ for trying to do so).”

“Thus, I wanted to show that this deficit ideas is false, that very intelligent people are actually capable of holding dichotomous ideas in their heads, i.e., they can completely understand evolutionary theory and even apply it, but they can still believe that Adam and Eve are a special case of creation.”

“However, this belief is not due to a lack of ability to read and interpret the scientific findings, it is a factor of religious belief, personal identity, and worldview. And these issues can’t simply be discarded as ignorance.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 724 religious individuals (Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews) regarding their scientific reasoning ability, religiosity, acceptance of creationist views, and acceptance of evolution.

Jensen and her colleagues found there was no relationship between scientific reasoning ability and acceptance of evolution among the religious participants. In other words, religious people with a high degree of scientific literacy and thinking skills are not necessarily more likely to believe in biological evolution.

Religiosity, on the other hand, was found to positively predict the acceptance of creationist views and negatively predict the acceptance of evolution.

“Accepting or not accepting evolutionary theory as valid is not an issue of intelligence or understanding. It is an issue intricately complicated by religion, self-identity, and worldview,” Jensen told PsyPost.

“The big takeaway is that you can be a highly scientifically-minded individual (i.e., have excellent scientific reasoning ability) and still reject evolution on religious grounds (or any other worldview grounds).”

“And the opposite is true (and rather disturbing, I might add): you can have very poor scientific reasoning ability and totally accept evolution,” Jensen added. “Certainly, readers should keep in mind that these statements apply only to individuals who have declared a religious affiliation to one of the groups we tested. We are planning a study now to include those who have declared themselves atheist or agnostic.”

“Based on my experience using this test of scientific reasoning ability, I have no reason to suspect that atheists or agnostics will have significantly higher scientific reasoning ability than any of our other groups tested, but it remains to be tested.”

The study, like all research, has some limitations. The researchers tested scientific reasoning using the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning, which is just one of many tests developed to measure scientific literacy and reasoning ability. The study also employed a cross-sectional design, preventing any conclusions about cause and effect.

“This study represents one of several recent attempts to challenge the misconception that rejecting evolution is a sign of a lack of intelligence (for example, see Sarah Brownell’s recent work on Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education),” Jensen said.

“We believe that it is critical to the advancement of society that this misconception be challenged and replaced with the idea that teaching evolution should not be a way to challenge an individual’s religious convictions. Rather, these ideas (science and religion) should be seen either as mutually exclusive ways of getting at truth, one not infringing upon the other, or, as I prefer to view them, as symbiotic ways of constructing truth that can be reconciled if students are given the opportunity to do so without being put on the defensive by insulting assumptions that they lack intelligence.”

The study, “Scientific reasoning ability does not predict scientific views on evolution among religious individuals“, was authored by Katie F. Manwaring, Jamie L. Jensen, Richard A. Gill, Richard R. Sudweeks, Randall S. Davies, and Seth M. Bybee.