Only 22% of Mormons Believe in Evolution?

by Caroline


While I struggle with a lot of faith issues, I have not – as yet – doubted the existence of God (male and female). Like most Mormons, I am quite happy to believe in God. I also am quite happy to believe in evolution. It makes perfect sense to me that God is the creator of life and set life in motion so that eventually humanoids, then humans, were formed.


The only worrisome moment I ever had on the subject was when I was a young teen and someone – I think it was my brother – pointed out that the Bible dictionary explicitly stated that the earth was only several thousand years old, and that no life existed before the fall. I must have just quickly decided that that was a mistake, since I don’t remember ever doubting evolution or that the earth – and life upon it – were much, much older than that.


Having never had a problem reconciling evolution with God or religion, I was surprised a few weeks ago when someone on an email list I’ve joined pointed us to this Pew Research study. It says that Mormons rank second to the last in the percentage of its members believing in evolution – 22%. This puts Mormons between Evangelical Christians at 24% and Jehovah Witnesses at 8%.


What??? We are behind Evangelicals? 22%? Seriously?


To be fair, our low number may be explained by the phrasing of the question. The chart says “percent who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.” I can imagine a lot of Mormons thinking ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s the BEST explanation – let’s not leave God out of the equation, even if God did use evolution as a tool…’ I suspect that if the question were phrased differently the number of Mormons saying that they believed in evolution would be at least 60%.


In fact, this evolution believing BYU professor, who probably well represents his whole department’s take on evolution, might well have answered no to that question because of its phrasing. 


Would you have said yes to this question as worded? (‘Do you agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth?’) 

Have you ever had any problems reconciling evolution and our religion?  




Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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16 Responses

  1. Matt W. says:

    THe Only other Stat I’ve seen on this is in what I consider to be the best article on the subject, here. It notes that only 57% are anti-evolution in a survey a few years ago. (The majority of the rest, 38%, identify the churches official stance correctly as neutral)

  2. S.Faux says:

    Of course, Latter-day Saints can believe what they want about science. I don’t have to believe in gravity, if I find it unappealing. Also, I might prefer thinking of the earth as flat rather than round. I might prefer to think of dinosaurs as mere cartoon figures that are found in children’s books.

    But, if I did these things while claiming the gospel to be true, then others would rightly wonder whether I really had done my homework.

    Actually, I believe in gravity, a round earth, dinosaurs, and Jesus. Denying evolution is simply denying the obvious.

  3. courtney says:

    I would answer yes, but I am not shocked at all by the 22%. I remember when I was probably 14 and I learned that my brother-in-law believed in evolution, and I was rather concerned for the welfare of his soul! (Let’s just say I’ve grown up and learned a little bit since then.)
    I was in a religion class and a biology class the same semester at BYU and I remember the topic of evolution coming up. Apparently the science departments and the religion department were constantly battling over whether evolution was real. They called some apostle down to settle the debate, and he got mad at all of them for involving him in such a silly matter. There was some sort of letter issued to the departments making a statement on evolution. It was my religion professor’s opinion that the letter to the science people was different than the letter to the religion people: hence each department’s continued insistence that the other was wrong. That’s the story I heard in both classes, and I think it’s pretty funny.

  4. Alisa says:

    This is a great point, Caroline. I think the difference between the number in the Pew Study and the one Matt W. cites is probably the focus of whether or not evolution is the best explanation for the existence of *human life.*

    I am a believer in evolution, but it took me awhile to get there. I remember thinking that if evolution brought about humans, there was no literal Adam and Eve. That means the fall of Adam and Eve was not an actual historical event. Without the fall being actual and literal, why would the atonement need to be a historical and literal event? In that case, is Jesus a miraculous Savior, or a regular person with good teachings? See how it snowballs? I have been guilty of this very literal mindset from time to time with only occasional glimpses into a more metaphorical, more transcendant experience.

    I think Mormons in general have an easier time with other forms of life evolving, but many believe humans are literally the sons and daughters of God, and they make an exception in their belief in evolution for our species.

  5. James says:

    First off, I would have just been mad at the question for awhile. Then I would have deliberated for a good while longer about whether I should answer what felt was the intent of the question vs. the question itself. Then I would have been mad some more and, well, I don’t know how I would have answered. Even now I’m talking myself into both answers and can’t settle on one.

    I’ve never had issues with evolution, and remember having a conversation with a friend in high school who got totally shot down for suggesting evolution was valid to his seminary teacher. We both thought that was wacky.

    Given that evolution is openly accepted by the biology faculty at BYU and that the vast majority of students take a basic biology course to fulfill a general ed requirement, I am surprised this hasn’t trickled through the membership to a larger degree.

  6. sunlize says:

    For some reason, I believe in both evolution and the Mormon view of creationism. They seem to exist in different parts of my mind. One part sees evolution as completely logical and supported by science. And the other part sees our story of creation as legitimate and essential. They don’t challenge each other. I wonder what the results of the study would have been if they asked, “What is the best explanation for the origins of life on earth: a) creation by a deity, b) evolution, c) both, d) neither?”

  7. Emily U says:

    I think the Pew question is leading. In order to answer yes you’d need to either have a pretty materialistic view of human life or else have thought about the issue a lot in regards to your faith. So people’s views might not be as negative as the poll suggests.

    I do think, though, that Mormons in general have a very unenlightened view of evolution, which is in very large part due to the fact that J. Fielding Smith & B. R. McConkie were outspoken opponents of the idea, and their legacy lives on in the BYU religion dept. The more moderate views og B. H. Roberts and Talmadge are mostly forgotten.

    It’s a good question why evolution usn’t more widely accepted when it’s unequivocally accepted by BYU biologists. I guess they’re fighting against a lot of history.

    I used to get all fired up about this subject as a college student (I majored in zoology at BYU), but I don’t any more. I’m not sure why.

  8. Caroline says:

    Thanks for the stat, Matt. 38% still seems a little low to me, but maybe I was just being optimistic before.

    S.Faux, good point. I think it does indeed hurt Mormon’s credibility as a whole if a huge majority of us don’t believe in evolution.

    Courtney, how disheartening to know that certain factions in the religion department are denying evolution. Good grief – why can’t they take the Adam and Eve story as symbolic, like so many of prophets have?

    Alisa, you probably just answered my above question. I can see how people could see believing in evolution as a slippery slope thing.

    James, yes, the question is annoying. I think it would have been better if phrased something like ‘Do you believe that evolution played a part in the origins of human life on earth.’

    sunlize, those four options would make it a much better question.

    Courtney, you’re right in pinning down McConkie and JFS as huge perpetrators of anti-evolution thinking. And I’ve heard tales that Packer continues on in their legacy.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    I’m with Emily U, I don’t like the wording for the question. It would have made me pause, too, and yet, I’ve never had an issue reconciling evolution and religion. In fact, when I think, “Why can’t ‘they’ get my feelings about Mormon feminism and the angst I feel?” I try to remember that there are other doctrinal issues that can cause people just as much angst and yet not affect me.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Caroline!

  10. elizabeth-w says:

    I had a professor at byu (can’t remember his name as it was 20 years ago) who basically said that Adam and Eve were sort of the first really truly human humans. He 100% believed in a literal evolution. I kept waiting for Standards to bust in.
    I have been reading this old book “Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price” by Hyrum Andrus, published in 1967. It was very confusing to me. I finally had to put it down. It basically says that Adam and Eve were created elsewhere and placed on earth, that the earth is literally only thousands of years old, etc.
    I don’t have any problems reconciling evolution and religion. But I also don’t understand how electricity, gravity, black holes, or my microwave work. I have to take it all on faith. Just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    I wonder if you were to break it down by age, the younger a person is, the more likely she is to accept evolution as a fact.

  11. James says:

    I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that Adam & Eve have have to be symbolic in order to reconcile evolution and the biblical creation. That doesn’t rule out the possibility they ARE symbolic, but drawing that conclusion is premature, in my view.

  12. Margaret says:

    I’m also surprised that the biology department view from BYU hasn’t trickled down more. When I took the standard required biology BYU class in fall of 2005 the professors hammered it. They basically said that you could not be either a scientist or a real academic unless you accepted evolution. And then we had a whole small group session devoted to discussing evolution and addressing people’s concerns about faith and evolution. Everyone seemed to come out of the lecture and small group pretty positive about evolution. Based on experience, I’m going to guess that the number was a fault of the wording of the question or that this is one of those issues that has greatly changed over a generation and will soon become more mainstream.

  13. Steph says:

    Our minds and knowledge are really limited on this subject. I don’t think the issue in not enough of us acknowledging evolution but rather that both sides not admitting that neither really know the truth absolutely.

  14. Stan says:

    It seems that if the wording of the question skewed the results towards a ‘no’ response, all categories of responders would be somewhat equally shifted towards a lower percentage. This would still have the Mormon church ranked between Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witness.

  15. I am still trying to find the graph that I saw before that showed Mormons in almost last place. The problem was, after thinking about it I realized that the members of half the Churches in the two city region I can conceptualize as home, that is the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as Sikhs, who there are many of in the United States, pagans, wiccans, followers of Native American religions, followers of Voodoo and possibly other groups were not included. Were Quarkers and Unitarians grouped as “Main line protestants”?
    Does it even make sense to study acceptance of evolution, which is a scientific theory that has been altered over time, specifically because the gene and DNA models of heredity force us to accept other factors in change in species over time than natural selection alone, even make sense to be a queston in a survey of religious faith?

  16. Stan,
    you ignore that Latter-day Saints have unique views, or at least a view that main-stream protestants reject, and Evangelical Christians vilanize us for, that humans existed as spirit children of God before birth.
    Thus, the question becomes first what is human life? Mormons have a doctrinally different answer to this question than msot other Christians, who hold that the spirit was formed at birth. This means that a Mormon can hold that the physical origins of our mortal taberncle are explained by evolution but still no believe evolution is the best explantion for the origin of “human life”.
    Equally important to understanding these figures is determining what the exact limits and perameters of Evangelical Protestantism are. The three protestant categories are very hard to know. Which one would you put Obama in? Which one would his response to the question put him in.
    I have no clue. However, since the congregation he attended in Chicago was part of a primarily white denomination, even if the congregation itself was primarily made up of African-Americans and had a preacher who embraced liberation theology, I think ANY placement of Obama on the chart, or to make it easier Obama in 2007, would be questionable. Thus, maybe the difference between Mormons and Evangelical Christians has more to do with definitions of who is and who is not Evangelical Christian.
    I assume that people self identified for the purpose of the survey, but I suspect people called themselves Lutheran, Presbetarian and Episcopal and then were grouped under the heading “mainline protestants” so due to the grouping by the surveyors, there is lots of room for questioning the logic of their groups.

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