The area of the small polygon corresponds to the expected result if all Christians had similar answers in both countries. The blue polygon indicates greater differences between the Catholics of the two countries than the differences between the two groups of Christians in the same country (Brazil). Credit: PLOS ONE (2022). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0273929
According to a study involving 5,500 Brazilian and Italian students aged between 14 and 16, religion influences secondary school students’ understanding and acceptance of evolutionary theory, but social and cultural factors such as nationality, perception of science and household income are more influential. An article on the study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Participants were asked to agree or disagree with a variety of statements related to the age of the Earth, the significance of fossils, and the origin of humans, among other topics. When the researchers analyzed the results, they concluded that nationality was more relevant than religion for the acceptance of theories of common ancestry and natural selection, which was greater among Italian Catholics than Brazilian Catholics, for example, while the pattern of responses was similar between Brazilian Catholics and Protestants.
“The results of our survey show that a broader socio-cultural context influences the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Conservative societies such as Brazil tend to be more opposed to the evolutionary ideas proposed by [Charles] Darwin is included in the school curriculum,” Nelio Bizzo, the last author of the article, told Agência FAPESP. Bizzo is a professor at the School of Education of the University of São Paulo (FE-USP) and the Institute of Environmental Sciences of the Federal University of São Paulo, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences (ICAQF-UNIFESP) in Brazil.
Scientists from the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Brazil and the University of Trento in Italy collaborated on the study, which was part of a Thematic Project on the topics of including biodiversity in the school curriculum and conducted under the aegis of FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP).
“We wanted to delve into the clash between religion and evolution because we needed to explore the mechanisms of evolution to understand biodiversity and its conservation. They are interrelated. Students will better understand the consequences of a species extinction, or local and global extinctions , for example, if they are familiar with concepts like common ancestry, natural selection and origin of species,” said Bizzo.
True or false
Analyzing responses to statements such as ‘Our planet was formed about 4.5 billion years ago’, ‘Humans are descended from other primate species’ and ‘Fossils are evidence that we lived in the past’ , among others, indicated patterns of greater or lesser acceptance by students.
The results showed a more frequent acceptance of the evolution by Italian Catholics. The response pattern of Brazilian Catholics closely resembled that of Brazilian non-Catholic Christians (Protestants of various denominations).
According to the article, Italian and Brazilian Catholics differed significantly in their understanding of geological time. In fact, the gap was wider than the difference between the views of Catholics and Protestants in Brazil. Italian Catholics accepted evolution more and understood it even better than Brazilian Catholics.
The acceptance of evolution has been influenced mainly by nationality, education system, income and other socio-economic variables, household cultural capital and society’s attitude towards scientific knowledge in general.
“Both countries have Catholic majorities, but there are large social and cultural differences associated with complex factors such as education,” Bizzo said.
While little data is available, he added, polls by the Pew Research Center, a US-based think tank, confirm that the rejection of evolution is not generalized or deeply ingrained in Italian society. “The same cannot be said of Brazil,” she said. “Another Pew study recently showed that creationism is on the rise among adults in Brazil and Christian acceptance of evolution in Brazil is significantly lower [51%] than in Italy [74%].”
The acceptance of the theory of evolution has been investigated in many studies in recent decades because it is considered a prerequisite for a better understanding of the subject. “Our study wasn’t about people’s understanding of evolution. It went further by looking at acceptance, which is necessary to achieve understanding. If you don’t accept the idea of thinking about a topic, your understanding is inevitably compromised “, Bizzo said.
In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that school textbooks provided by the São Paulo State Department of Education on Darwin’s evolutionary theories should not refer to the Biblical account of God’s creation in Genesis, held sacred by both Christians than by Jews.
“Many textbooks evidently think that only religion is the most important factor when dealing with evolution, which leads to Darwin’s theory getting mixed up with the Genesis narrative. Our study shows that this is wrong. From a point of view theoretically, we could argue some points regarding the secular state, but our study has nothing to do with that. What it does show is that it should not be assumed that religion should be included in any account of evolution because otherwise students would not accept that,” Bizzo said.
Saved by methodology
Conversely, previous research, including large-scale surveys of more than 6,000 European students, has found that religion is the main reason for secondary school students’ rejection of evolution. The contrast may reflect methodological differences, according to Bizzo, who explained that most studies on this topic involve Likert-scale questionnaires, which are widely used in customer satisfaction surveys.
This methodology typically offers five answer options. For example, in response to the statement that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, the options would likely agree completely, agree partially, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, disagree completely.
“The problem is that the tool used [the Likert scale] assign an inaccurate number to claims of scientific fact. Varying responses can lead to inaccuracies when adding up scores. For this reason, it is best to offer the options Yes or No, or True or False, in this type of questionnaire,” she said.
Furthermore, he continued, the Likert scale should not be used in studies of scientific topics. “We’ve found that when you present a recognizably scientific statement, such as “Vaccines are good for your health,” those who disagree know they disagree with a scientific finding, just like those who agree are aware of position yourself for science,” said Bizzo.
Another methodological problem is the question of anonymity in studies on sensitive subjects such as religion, for example. “Polls and polls with religious implications, especially in conservative contexts, should be conducted in a way that avoids what the literature calls ‘social desirability’, where respondents know what is expected of them and seek to meet that expectation instead to say exactly what they think. Social expectations may have contributed to the imprecision of the measurements made by these different studies,” he said.
Graciela da Silva Oliveira et al, High School Students’ Acceptance of Evolution: Is Religion the Key Factor?, PLOS ONE (2022). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0273929
Citation: Religion is not the biggest factor influencing rejection of the theory of evolution in schools, says study (2022, Dec. 14) retrieved Dec. 15, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-religion -factor-evolutionary-theory -schools.html
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