Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pew Survey on Muslim attitudes regarding human evolution

by Salman Hameed

Earlier today, the Pew Forum has released a survey of Muslims in 39 countries. The report is titled The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society and provides a fascinating look into the complex ways Muslims are negotiating the modern world (thanks to Neha Sahgal!). In the past couple of years I have written several posts that have utilized the Pew data about Muslims. You should check out
Pew Study: Mapping the Global Muslim Population
Importance of religion for Muslims and their religious practice
Pew global religious landscape: Young Muslims and the unaffiliated
How the Muslim world sees American science and the drones
Pew Survey: Mahdi, Jesus, devotional dancing and sorcery

What does the new report says? Well, a lot of focus will be on opinions on sharia, opinions on women's rights, and extremism etc. I will also have later posts on that. But let me focus here on the question on human evolution. In 22 countries, Muslims were asked if they think that humans and other living things have a) Always existed in present form, or b) Evolved over time.

Here are the results:

Several things to comment here.
1) Interestingly, most Muslims around the world (median 53%) agree with the statement that humans and other living things have evolved over time. There is a large variation amongst countries, with Muslims in Kazakhstan (79%) and Lebanon (78%) having the highest levels of evolution acceptance and Iraq (27%) and Afghanistan (26%) having the lowest rates.

2) In 13 of 22 countries, more than half of respondents accept human evolution. On the other hand, in only four countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Indonesia) do more than half of the respondents reject human evolution (for good measure, we can throw in Turkey in this as well, with 49%). 

3) Pakistan has the most undecided population, with 30% accepting human evolution, 38% rejecting it, and 32% undecided.

4) There are some fascinating variations within the same geographical regions. For example, Morocco has a higher human evolution acceptance rate (63%) than Tunisia (45%); Iraq's acceptance is low (26%) compared to Jordan (52%), Palestinian territories (67%), and Lebanon (78%). And Bangladesh has a higher acceptance rate (54%) compared to Pakistan's at 30%. On the flip side, Malaysia (37%) and Indonesia (39%) are almost identical - something that we have also found in these two countries in  our oral interviews of Muslim physicians and medical students. 

What is causing these differences? Well, we can look at some other indicators to make some sense of it. The Pew survey also included a question about science and religion. In particular, if Muslims see a conflict between science and religion. Here are the results: 

It seems that most Muslims do not see a conflict between science and religion. This is not surprising as there exists a strong narrative of science and Islam harmony since the late 19th century. So does the variation in science and religion attitudes explain the variations in evolution acceptance rates within the same geographical region? Well, it may possibly work for the case of Tunisia and Morocco (42% of Tunisians think there is conflict between science and religion, compared with only 18% of Moroccans) if one believes that the conflict idea leads to a greater rejection of evolution. But then the opposite is true for the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, where more Bangladeshis see a conflict between science and religion, but also have a higher level of acceptance of human evolution compared to Pakistan.

And if you are looking for even more variety, you can look at southeast asia, where less than a third of respondents in Thailand (26%), Indonesia (26%), and Malaysia (30%) see a conflict between religion and science, but more than half of Muslims in Thailand (55%) accept human evolution, compared to Indonesia (39%) and Malaysia (37%). Similarly, only a handful of respondents in Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories see a conflict between science and religion, but only 26% of Iraqis accept human evolution, compared to 52% and 67% of Muslims in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, respectively. 

So what is the grand lesson from all this? Well, it seems that not only is there diversity in human evolution responses of Muslims around the world, but there is also diversity in evolution acceptance and its relation with science and religion perceptions.

5) It seems like the global median acceptance for Muslims is higher than that of Muslims in the US:

On first glance, it may seem that Muslims in the US are being impacted by the American flavor of creationism. Well, may be. There a number of Muslim countries with acceptance rates similar to the US - and may simply be due to some other internal factors. But this is an interesting question and we definitely intend to look into it a bit more. By the way, here is the distribution of evolution acceptance in the US based on religion: 

6) This is probably just a coincidence, but the lowest levels of evolution acceptance is found in Afghanistan (26%), Iraq (27%), and Pakistan (30%). Hmm. Interesting. These are the three countries with substantial recent US military intervention. 

7) Religious observance is correlated only with countries in Southern-eastern Europe: 
In countries surveyed in Southern and Eastern Europe, more religiously observant Muslims are less likely to believe in evolution. In Russia, for example, 41% of Muslims who pray several times a day believe in evolution, compared with 66% of those who pray less frequently. Significant gaps also appear between more and less devout Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (-19 percentage points) and Kosovo (-14). Views on evolution do not differ significantly by religious commitment in the other regions surveyed.
Again, this is something that needs to be further investigated. But it is possible that the issue of evolution may have become inter-twined with the religious identity of Muslims in souther-eastern Europe. But it is important to note that acceptance or rejection of evolution is not correlated with religious observance in much of the Muslim world.


I will post more from the Pew report in the coming days. In the mean time, you can find the full report here.


charmed seeker said...

//In 22 countries, Muslims were asked if they think that humans and other living things have a) Always existed in present form, or b) Evolved over time.//

What a vague question. We have to realize that those who answered (b) might not even be referring to scientific evolution at all whatsoever. They could be talking about various minute changes that occurred over time, or to that ridiclous hadith that says that humans were enormous (40 cubits or something?) and have been shrinking since.

Salman Hameed said...

I actually agree with you to a certain degree. This is the reason I'm a big fan of oral interviews, where we can clarify these things. So two things: 1) yes, you are indeed right, that some people would say yes to the evolution when they are referring to adaptation within species - and sometimes for completely unscientific reasons. b) At the same time, I'm note sure about the scale of the problem. The full questions starts off like this: "Thinking about evolution, which comes closer to
your view?" That actually may trigger the response to evolution more than adaptation.

We have done oral interviews in some of these countries and can try to triangulate the issue. I will also ask the Pew folks to see if they encountered any confusion.