In commemoration of Darwin Day (February 12), it’s worth noting that evolution has been a controversial topic in US politics since at least the Scopes Trial of 1925. And of course it continues to stoke controversy to this day, especially with religious conservatives in power at the national level and in various states. The nones, as a young cohort, are an up-and-coming voting bloc, but as religious cohorts go they’re staunch defenders of evolution. Their potential political influence bodes well for the future of science-based policy.
Americans are well aware that scientists have reached a consensus regarding evolution. In 2018 the Pew Research Center found that over three-quarters of American adults know that most scientists say “humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection.” Only about one-in-five Americans say the scientific consensus is that “humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”
The nones are the most aware of the scientific consensus. Nearly nine in ten (86 percent) say that scientists agree humans evolved through natural selection. Three-quarters of Catholics and two-thirds of Protestants say the same.
As for their own views, 88 percent of the nones say their position is that humans have evolved over time. About two thirds (64 percent) say that God had no role in human evolution, while roughly one-quarter (24 percent) say God guided human evolution. In comparison, though 81 percent of all U.S. adults agree that humans have evolved, nearly half (48 percent) say that God has had a hand in the process.
The growth of the nones matters because their trust in science raises the bar for all Americans. Though over three-quarters of religious Americans (people who have a religious affiliation) say evolution is real, 60 percent say it is a divinely guided evolution. Just 18 percent say God was not needed and 21 percent are creationists. The presence of the nones tips the balance in favor of those who agree humans have evolved without the need for a deity compared to people who have straight creationist views.
Slowly, the nones are transforming American policy and culture. Their presence alone boosts trust in evolution and other science-related issues such as climate change. The political mobilization of the nones is what America needs to enact policies that are based on science and not on superstition.
Led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, religious conservatives and their allies have been eroding the public, secular education system, trying, at times successfully, to inject religion into science or history classes. The Supreme Court could erode secular education even further by allowing the diversion of public monies to religious schools (e.g. Espinoza v. Montana). At a time when the country is becoming more openly nonreligious, Christian conservatives are looking to consolidate their power and make it less safe to be nonreligious. The political awakening of the nones cannot arrive soon enough.