Theos evolution survey seriously underestimates the British public

(This is not the first time Theos has fallen into difficulty with its polling data)

The British Humanist Association has criticised research by the think-tank Theos as “an insult to the British public”.

The research was widely reported earlier this week as showing that “half of Britons do not believe in evolution”. In fact, the poll asked two separate questions about evolution, neither of which presented the option of simply agreeing with the scientific theory of natural selection.

The survey first asked whether respondents believed in “theistic evolution”. This was confusingly defined as “the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth.” The survey then asked whether respondents believed in “atheistic evolution”, again reflexively defined as “the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd.”

Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education, said, “There are very many non-religious people in Britain who understand and accept natural selection, and who may even agree that belief in God is unnecessary, but who would not necessarily subscribe to this idiosyncratic definition of ‘atheistic evolution’.”

The interpretation that Theos layered on their data went even further, suggesting that atheists were to blame for the spread of “Intelligent Design” and Creationism because they associate evolution with nihilism and the view that there is “no purpose” in life.

“Like the religious critics of Darwin’s own day, Theos are trying to tell us that evolution without God is degrading and demeaning,” said Mr Copson. “There is no evidence for this view. In fact many people today would subscribe to Darwin’s own view that a proper understanding of evolution contributes greatly to an enlargement of humane feeling. As Darwin said in The Descent of Man (1871): “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.””

Mr Copson continued, “It’s already an insult to the British public to underrate our collective understanding of science based on such a flawed poll. But to go on and suggest that Creationism is the fault of atheists is truly manipulative. This is a cynical attempt to spin the data, which was already inadequate, into an excuse to silence the many non-religious people who want to talk about and celebrate Darwin this year.”

Throughout 2009 the BHA is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  Along with numerous scientific institutions like the National History Museum and other members of the Darwin 200 coalition, a string of special events and exhibitions are in progress, with special programming also on TV and radio.

“The scientific merit of evolution today can be seen by anyone, religious or humanist,” continued Mr Copson,  “But for many people Darwin’s legacy is additionally meaningful precisely because it is naturalistic, because it brings some of the biggest questions about life and existence down to earth. Learning about evolution is often a defining moment in naturalising people’s understanding of the world.  We will continue to celebrate not just the theory itself, but the very real and positive value that it holds for us.”


For comment or information, contact Andrew Copson, Director of Education, on 07534 248 596.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity representing the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned non-religious people living in the UK. It exists to support and represent such people, who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.