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Evolution, Religion and Free Will

The most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution

Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine

2003 Cornell Evolution Project

Our study was the first poll to focus solely on eminent evolutionists and their views of religion. As a dissertation project, one of us (Graffin) prepared and sent a detailed questionnaire on evolution and religion to 271 professional evolutionary scientists elected to membership in 28 honorific national academies around the world, and 149 (55 percent) answered the questionnaire. All of them listed evolution (specifically organismic), phylogenetics, population biology/genetics, paleontology/paleoecology/paleobiology, systematics, organismal adaptation or fitness as at least one of their research interests. Graffin also interviewed 12 prestigious evolutionists from the sample group on the relation between modern evolutionary biology and religion.

A primary complaint of scientists who answered the earlier polls was that the concept of God was limited to a "personal God." Leuba considered an impersonal God as equivalent to pure naturalism and classified advocates of deism as nonbelievers. We designed the current study to distinguish theism from deism—that is to day a "personal God" (theism) versus an "impersonal God" who created the universe, all forces and matter, but does not intervene in daily events (deism). An evolutionist can be considered religious, in our poll, if he calls himself a deist.

Comprised of 17 questions and space for optional comments, this questionnaire addressed many more issues than the earlier polls. Religious evolutionists were asked to describe their religion, and unbelievers were asked to choose their closest description among atheist, agnostic, naturalist or "other" (with space to describe). Other questions asked if the evolutionary scientist were a monist or dualist—that is, believed in a singular controlling force in natural science or also allowed for the supernatural—whether a conflict between evolution and religion is inevitable, whether humans have free will, whether purpose or progress plays a role in evolution, and whether naturalism is a sufficient way to understand evolution, its products and human origins.

Deism%2C%20God%2C%20immortalityClick to Enlarge ImagePerhaps the most revealing question in the poll asked the respondent to choose the letter that most closely represented where her views belonged on a ternary diagram. The great majority of the evolutionists polled (78 percent) chose A, billing themselves as pure naturalists. Only two out of 149 described themselves as full theists (F), two as more theist than naturalist (D) and three as theistic naturalists (B). Taken together, the advocacy of any degree of theism is the lowest percentage measured in any poll of biologists' beliefs so far (4.7 percent).

No evolutionary scientists in this study chose pure deism (I), but the deistic side of the diagram is heavy compared to the theistic side. Eleven respondents chose C, and 10 chose other regions on the right side of the diagram (E, H or J). Most evolutionary scientists who billed themselves as believers in God were deists (21) rather than theists (7).

The responses to other questions in the poll parallel those in the ternary diagram and are summarized in graphs below. Furthermore, most (79 percent) of the respondents billed themselves as metaphysical naturalists. They were strongly materialists and monists: 73 percent said organisms have only material properties, whereas 23 percent said organisms have both material and spiritual properties. These answers are hardly surprising given previous polls. But the answers to two questions were surprising to us.

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