Today is Darwin Day, a good time to ask what Americans really think about evolution and creationism.

It’s often reported that at least one-third of Americans reject evolution. But there’s reason to doubt that. In the past, some poll questions have given people a fairly stark choice of either accepting evolution or creationism. In a religious country like the United States, many people are reluctant to back evolution if they believe that means they’re also rejecting God.

The Pew Research Center has been trying to go a little deeper. Not surprisingly, Pew has found that the answer can vary depending on how the question is phrased.

Pew reports that for many years, it gave respondents two choices: Do they believe humans and other living things have evolved over time, or do they believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

If a person said they accept the idea of evolution, they were then asked a second question: Do you believe evolution is a natural process or was it guided by God?

Recently, Pew decided to change the process. Dropping the two-question format, Pew asked respondents to choose from the following three scenarios:

  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process.
  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power.
  • Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

Given the option to keep God in the picture, people were more willing to accept evolution, Pew found. Said Pew in a report, “Put more simply, our estimate of the share of Americans who reject evolution and express a creationist view drops considerably (from 31% to 18% of U.S. adults) when respondents are immediately given the opportunity to say God played a role in human evolution. The effect of the different question wording is especially pronounced among white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants.”

What does this mean for those of who are working to protect church-state separation and sound science education in public schools? For starters, we may have more allies out there than we think. It’s also evidence that many Americans want to reconcile their faith with modern science and are rejecting the Religious Right’s claim that the two must be in conflict.

But one thing this doesn’t mean is that we can be complacent. Bills that would erode the teaching of evolution in public schools continue to surface in state legislatures; AU’s Public Policy Department is currently opposing bills like this in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Furthermore, legislation that would impose conservative Christianity on schoolchildren is a big part of the Religious Right’s new Project Blitz strategy.

Yes, this new polling data on evolution indicates that trends are moving in a good direction, but let’s keep our guard up. Our children deserve no less.