Atheists Science and Evolution Knowledge Survey

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. PhD  and Avelina Espinosa PhD — © 2011

American atheists understand the essence of science, are knowledgeable about evolution and well informed about the controversy over evolution versus creationism versus Intelligent Design (ID).

During the first two weeks of November 2011, we surveyed 133 atheists, non-believers and agnostics native to 35 states in the United States. Three hundred and thirty two members of Atheist Alliance of America (AAAmerica) received an email invitation to participate in an online anonymous and voluntary survey –40% of the contacted individuals responded. Among responders, 71.6% were males and 28.4% were females.

Here are their summarized responses:

Controversy Evolution vs. Creationism

Level of concern over the controversy “evolution versus creationism versus Intelligent Design” and its implications for science education:

Intelligent Design (ID)

ID is religious doctrine consistent with creationism 61.7%

ID is not scientific but has been proposed to counter evolution based on false claims 37.6%

No opinion 0.7%

The Teaching of Evolution

Which explanation about the origin and evolution of life on Earth should be taught in science classes?

Darwin In Biology Courses

Your opinion about the statement: “It is possible to offer an excellent biology course that includes no mention of Darwin or evolution”:

 Evolution and Your Reaction to It

Hearing about evolution makes me appreciate the factual explanation about the origin of life on Earth and its place in the universe 99.3%

No opinion 0.7%

Acceptance of Evolution

Accept evolution and express it openly regardless of others opinions 93.3%

Accept evolution but do not discuss it openly to avoid conflicts with friends and family 5.2%

No opinion 1.5%

Evolution Among All Sciences

Evolution is the unifying theme of all sciences:

How Science Works

Opinion about the following statements:

“Scientific theories are based on opinions by scientists”: Correctly Disagreed 85.9%

“Scientists use statistics to assess the probability of occurrence of a phenomenon in respect to random chance”: Correctly Agreed 89.6%

“Science relies on experimentation to test claims”: Correctly Agreed 97.8%

“A scientific argument is as valid and respectable as its non-scientific counterpart”: Correctly Disagreed 61.5%

“Crime-scene and accident-scene investigators use a different scientific method to investigate a crime or an accident”: Correctly Disagreed 86.7%

Definitions of Evolution

Opinion about the following statements concerning “Evolution is…”:

“Gradual process by which organisms acquire beneficial traits during their lifetimes –such as longer necks, larger brains, resistance to parasites– and pass on these traits to their descendants”: Correctly Disagreed 48.1% [note that agreeing with this statement would suggest a Lamarckian understanding of evolution]

“Gradual process by which monkeys –such as chimpanzees– turn into humans”: Correctly Disagreed 96.3%

“Random process by which life originates, changes, and ends accidentally in complex organisms such as humans”: Correctly Disagreed 69.6%

Think Evolution Is…

On Faith, God, Religion and Prayer

Faith in a God is necessary for morality: … Disagree 100%

Religion is very important in my life: ……… Disagree 100%

I pray at least once a day: ………………….. Disagree 100%

On the Evidence for Evolution

Opinion about the following statements:

“All currently living organisms are descendants of common ancestors, which have evolved for thousands, millions, or billions of years”: Correctly Agreed 97.0%

“The hominid (human lineage) fossil record is so poor that scientists cannot tell with confidence that modern humans evolved from ancestral forms”: Correctly Disagreed 99.3%

“The origin of the human mind and consciousness cannot be explained by evolution”: Correctly Disagreed 96.3%

“Humans are apes, relatives of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans”: Correctly Agreed 76.3%

“The universe, our solar system and planet Earth are finely tuned to embrace human life”: Correctly Disagreed 84.4%

On the Earth, the Moon, the Continents

Opinion about the following statements:

“The Earth and its moon are several billions of years old”: Correctly Agreed 99.3%

“In planet Earth, the continents constantly move; this phenomenon has occurred over millions of years”: Correctly Agreed 98.5%


The atheists, non-believers and agnostics who responded to our survey were knowledgeable about the foundations of science, evolution and the public controversy over acceptance of evolution and its teaching in the United States. In Summary Figure 1 (below) we compile some of the relevant findings of this survey and compare atheists’, non-believers’ and agnostics’ responses to those of the highly educated professors of New England (N=244, data from Paz-y-Miño-C. and Espinosa 2011), whose knowledge about science and evolution is the highest nationwide and their religiosity the lowest among US scholars. Note that the figure does not imply that atheists, non-believers and agnostics in our survey have equal training in the sciences as the professors, but simply that in the questions here reported both groups are comparable, except for religiosity which, among atheists, non-believers and agnostics, is 0.0%.

Summary Figure 1. Compiled responses of atheists, non-believers and agnostics to the survey (N=133); for comparison, responses by the highly educated New England professors are included (N=244, data from Paz-y-Miño-C. and Espinosa 2011).


The survey was conducted as part of G. Paz-y-Miño-C. (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) and A. Espinosa (Roger Williams University) collaborative research program on patterns of acceptance of evolution by highly educated audiences; upon the authors request, Atheists Alliance of America (AAAmerica) distributed an email invitation to 332 of its members, encouraging them to participate in the study.

Survey Format: The participation in the survey was anonymous and responders were asked to complete the entire survey, to not skip questions, and to not go back to previous questions to fix answers and/or compare between questions/answers. All responders were free to withdraw from the survey at any time by closing the browser. The research protocol was approved by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Institutional Review Board, Protocols IRB-9.009 and IRB-9.042.

Responders Profile: One hundred and thirty three (N=133) of the 332 contacted individuals responded to the survey during the first two weeks of November 2011 (response rate 40%); 71.6% males, 28.4% females; ages 60+ (39.0%), 50-59 (22.7%), 40-49 (19.9%), 30-39 (14.2%), 20-29 (3.5%), and below 20 years (0.7%); 93.6% identified themselves as “Caucasian” and 6.4% as other (i.e. Hispanic, Multicultural, Asian Pacific, or Other); 86.7% consider themselves to be atheists, 11.1% non-believers, and 2.2% agnostics.

Responders born in the United States selected 35 states as “place of birth”; only 8 responders selected other countries as place of birth.

Political ideology: 39.7% progressive views, 35.5% liberal views, 14.2% moderate views, 7.8% other, and 2.8% conservative views.

Partisanship: 56.0% democrat, 19.1% independent, 13.5% unaffiliated, 6.4% libertarian, 4.3% Green, 0.7% republican and other.

Education: 27.7% bachelors degree, 26.2% masters, 12.8% associate or technical degree, 11.3% PhD, 9.2% doctoral or equivalent, 7.1% high school, 5.7% professional degree.

Margin of error per sample (N=332) at 95% certainty and 50% response distribution ±6.59% — Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. and Avelina Espinosa — © 2011 all rights reserved.

Acknowledgements: We thank Nick Lee (President AAAmerica) and Tom Melchiorre (Editor Secular World Magazine) for facilitating the distribution of the online survey to the AAAmerica members. The authors (Paz-y-Miño-C. and Espinosa) requested AAAmerica permission to conduct the study. The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Institutional Review Board approved the Protocols IRB-9.009 and IRB-9.042.

Secular World Magazine published a summarized version of this study: Paz-y-Miño-C., G. & Espinosa A. 2012. Atheists’ knowledge about science and evolution. Secular World 8(1): 33-36 [PDF].

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To test your understanding of science and evolution, you can respond to a shorter version of the survey and compare your responses to those of the 133 atheists, non-believers and agnostics who were polled in the study. Note that your responses will not affect the results already reported in the Atheists Science and Evolution Knowledge Survey. The server will simply help you compare and contrast your responses to those of the atheists, non-believers and agnostics polled in the study. You will be free to withdraw at any time by simply closing your browser. Click on SURVEY

Related Article: Can Atheists Be Our Leaders?

Back to Evolution Literacy website

Below: The profile of the US no religion population. There are three geographic divisions in the US which are particularly non-religious: New England (22 percent), the Pacific Northwest (20 percent),  and the Mountain States (19 percent). Source Trinity College Survey 2008.

Below: Since 1990, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has decreased to 77 percent from 86 percent. Atheists have gained ground in every state; 15 percent of Americans identify themselves as non-believers. Source Trinity College Survey and The New York Times.