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Culture & Religion

32-year study finds Australian students becoming more secular

Australian students are becoming more secular. American students are staying relatively the same.
Photo: Roctopus / Getty Images

In a world in which many aspects of life and what we believe seem to be trending in the wrong direction, a 32-year study in Australia offers hope.

In 1986, researchers began polling first-year biology students at Sydney’s UNSW, offering four options about their beliefs on evolution and creationism:

  • God created people (Homo sapiens) pretty much in their present form at sometime within the last 10,000 years.
  • People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the whole process, including our development.
  • People developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
  • I honestly have no opinion about this matter.

The first year the poll was conducted, 60 percent of respondents believed that God had something to do with the process of humans inhabiting the planet. By 2017, that number dropped to 29 percent. While only 25 percent thought God had nothing to do with the process thirty-three years ago, the latest poll shows that 62 percent believe that to be the case today.

An average of 530 students takes part in the survey each year. Michael Archer, a professor at UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth & Environment Sciences, as well as lead author of the study, wanted to know if introducing evolution to Australian students would be as challenging as it is with American students, given this country’s fundamentalist views on creationism.

Archer says the view that God created people whole cloth has always been relatively small: 10.4 percent at the beginning of the study, down to 5 percent now. The more surprising trend has been the drop in the theistic view that a divine entity played at least some role in the process. He says,

In 1986, 60% of the students endorsed either the creationist option or the theistic, god-guided evolution option (the second of the four above). By 2017, the proportion of students endorsing either of these theistic options had fallen to 28.8%. Conversely, endorsement of the non-theistic option rose from 25.1% to 62.2%. This rise appears to mirror the fall in endorsement of the theistic options.

By contrast, the percentage of American students that believe in creationism has hovered around 40 percent the entire time. While belief has wavered in America, according to Pew the vast majority of Americans (90 percent) believe in some kind of higher power. Only 33 percent of Americans believe humans evolved solely from natural processes, according to a 2015 Pew study. Twenty-five percent of Americans believe evolution was guided by a supreme being, while 34 percent outright reject evolution.

While Australia appears to be growing more secular, some factions in American society are moving in the opposite direction. In 2017, eight states proposed laws that would allow some level of creationism to be taught in public schools. Recently, attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force,” which many believe will have the opposite effect on actual religious liberty—specifically, freedom from religious ideology, which is often not taken into consideration by the faithful.

While Americans have the right to believe whatever they’d like, this fundamentalist push has real-world consequences, namely on one the biggest threat to the world today: climate change. Skepticism about mankind’s role has been pushed into American classrooms by fundamentalists that want to engage in the “debate” over whether or not it is manmade.

While Australians can escape dogmatic religious ideas removed from reality, they cannot escape the devastating effects that global warming has had on their nation’s agriculture. While it’s reassuring that the country’s biology students are learning, Americans would do well by following suit.

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