Richard Dawkins has celebrated Charles Darwin as the man who “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Dawkins goes further, claiming Darwin to be a full-fledged fellow atheist for all intents. Some conservative Christians, who blame Darwin for a host of unsavory “isms” (Nazism, communism, racism…), accuse Darwin of being an underground atheist who deliberately devised the theory of evolution in order to undermine biblical faith. Each side tends to cherry-pick certain quotes which bolster its view.
Here I will try to give an accurate representation of Darwin’s religious views, based on his writings in full context. This task is challenging, since his views evolved over the decades of his life, and at times he wavered between belief and doubt. The big picture is this: he started as a nominal Christian, gradually moved to a vague theism in middle age, and ended as an agnostic. During the crucial period when he was formulating his theory of evolution, he remained a theist, holding that an intelligent designer had created the universe. Details are given below.
BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF DARWIN’S LIFE AND WORKS
Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England, west of Birmingham. His father was a successful physician. Though baptized into the Anglican Church, he attended a Unitarian church with his mother and siblings. English Unitarians in that era held the Bible in high regard and honored Jesus as the Savior and (adopted) son of God. His mother died when he was eight. He went to the University of Edinburgh medical school in 1825, but neglected his studies. In 1828 his father sent Charles to Cambridge, where he eventually did apply himself. There Charles became friends with botany professor John Henslow, who recommended Darwin to be an on-board naturalist and geologist on HMS Beagle, sent by the British Admiralty to chart the coasts of South America.
The voyage of the Beagle lasted from December, 1831 to October, 1836. Darwin made expeditions inland while the rest of the Beagle crew made nautical measurements. He collected and shipped to England specimens of living and fossilized plants and animals. His observations of marine fossils in rock layers far above sea level convinced him that continents rose and sank over long geological eras. In the Galapagos Islands off the western coast of South America, he collected specimens of birds. At the time he did not correctly identify them; it was only upon his return to England that he learned from an expert ornithologist that they represented many separate species of finches. As he was organizing his notes during the homeward leg of his journey, he began to speculate that species might change over time.
Darwin was 27 when the Beagle’s voyage ended. Darwin spent the next several years writing and editing the reports from the Beagle’s voyage, and assessing the possibility that species could transmutate and branch into multiple new species. Darwin’s father set him up with investments so that he could devote his time to his studies of nature. By 1838, at age 29, Darwin had worked out the essence of his theory of natural selection. The portrait below is from this era.
In 1838, Darwin began to have various medical problems which plagued him off and on the rest of his life. These included headaches, stomach aches, vomiting, and heart palpitations, and seem to have been linked at least in part to overwork and emotional stress. Charles married his cousin Emma in 1839. Although she remained a devout Christian, she supported Charles in his work and helped him edit early drafts of his essay on the origin of species. They had ten children. Two died in childhood. The extended illness and death in 1851 of their ten year old daughter Annie was a particularly devastating experience for Charles and Emma.
In 1842 Darwin sent a description of his ideas on natural selection to geologist Charles Lyell, and later that year drafted a 35-page “Pencil-Sketch” of his theory which he shared with a few friends. With wording that would reappear seventeen years later in the Origin of Species, the conclusion to this 1842 essay reads:
From death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature we can see that the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals has directly come. Doubtless it at first transcends our humble powers, to conceive laws capable of creating individual organisms, each characterised by the most exquisite workmanship and widely-extended adaptations. It accords better with the lowness of our faculties to suppose each must require the fiat of a creator, but in the same proportion the existence of such laws should exalt our notion of the power of the omniscient Creator. There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved.
Here, as in his other writings from this era, Darwin proposes that it is actually more admirable for God to have created a universe where new, complex life-forms can emerge according to the same type of fixed laws obeyed by the planets, than for God to specially create each species. Darwin at this point did not question that a personal God was responsible for the overall creation.
Aware of its controversial nature, Darwin delayed outright publication of his theory of evolution while he sought to tighten up its arguments and answer likely objections. News that Alfred Russel Wallace had come to similar conclusions and was about to publish a paper on the development of species via natural selection led Darwin to publish a short paper on the subject in 1858. In 1859 he released his opus, entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, where “races” denoted species or strains, not groups of humans. The photo below is from 1855.
Darwin’s proposal centered on two principles: First, there are heritable variations among individuals. Second, some individuals will be more successful than others at surviving and reproducing; their offspring, bearing their characteristics, will come to dominate succeeding generations. As this “natural selection” operates, the character of a population can shift with time, even to the point of becoming a different species.
Each of these two principles is simple, almost trivially obvious. But working together, they can explain the whole sweep of biological development since the dawn of life. Darwin’s bold proposal has been resoundingly confirmed over the past 150 years, e.g. with the identification of nested genetic hierarchies of related organisms. At the time Darwin had no idea as to the source of these heritable variations. We now know that mutations in DNA, along with some epigenetic changes, supply ongoing variations to individuals which can be inherited. Natural selection can readily be demonstrated in laboratory experiments to promote the spread of beneficial mutations. It appears that about half of the mutations that are fixed in nature are beneficial, the rest being effectively neutral and thus not strictly “Darwinian.” While the fossil record is inherently sparse (very few organisms get turned into fossils, and only a small fraction of fossils get excavated), with each passing decade more fossilized intermediate remains are found which comport with common descent.
Darwin’s second major treatise on evolution was The Descent of Man, published in 1871. It argued directly for the evolution of humans from other primates, a topic delicately avoided in Origins. It also discussed races of humans, and the mechanisms of sexual selection. The majority view among European and American naturalists at the time was that the Negro was a completely different species from the Caucasian, having evolved separately or been created by God as a separate species. As Wikipedia notes, “Biblical polygenists such as Colenso, Louis Agassiz, Josiah Clark Nott, George Gliddon, maintained that many of the races on earth, such as Negros and Asians, were not featured in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. They argued that its authors’ knowledge was limited to their own region.” Darwin, who abhorred slavery, argued instead that all known humans constituted a single species, with only superficial differences in appearance. He keenly observed how seemingly “savage” natives of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, after being educated in modern European culture, could function perfectly well as “civilized” men; thus, the seemingly enormous gulf between Caucasians and apparently inferior races was mainly a matter of culture, not innate genetics.
Besides these two books, Darwin published many studies of geology and zoology. He died in 1882. The picture below is from 1878.
DARWIN INTO HIS THIRTIES: NOMINAL CHRISTIAN
There are many writings which inform us of Darwin’s religious views at various stages in his life. A place to start is the Autobiography he wrote towards the end of his life, mainly for the benefit of his children and grandchildren. Darwin also had candid exchanges in letters to friends. We can also glean information from his private notebooks and other writings.
In his early years at University, Darwin contemplated becoming a priest in the Church of England, feeling he could make the appropriate doctrinal affirmations. While he never seems to have had deep religious experience, he considered himself a thoroughly orthodox Christian. In his Autobiography he writes, “Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.”
The two years after the Beagle voyage ended in 1836 were a time of great ferment in Darwin’s thinking, as he formulated his ideas about natural selection. He also re-evaluated his religious beliefs, eventually rejecting biblical Christianity, for reasons we will discuss in a later blog entry. Edward Aveling in 1883 published an account of a conversation with Darwin in 1881, in which Darwin said “I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age.” Darwin stated that Christianity was “not supported by the evidence”, but he had reached this conclusion only slowly.
THE MIDDLE-AGED DARWIN: NON-CHRISTIAN THEIST
Despite losing faith in the biblical revelation, Darwin retained firm theistic convictions, which persisted at least into the 1850’s. He writes in his Autobiography of this period:
Another source of conviction in the existence of God… follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species…
Darwin was about fifty years old when he penned the Origin. As noted above in connection with his 1842“Pencil Sketch” essay on natural selection, he retained the notion of an intelligent Creator of a universe in which marvels such as the production of higher life-forms unfolded according to regular laws.
In response to a sermon by E. B. Pusey which attacked evolution, Darwin wrote to H. N. Ridley in 1878 that “Dr Pusey was mistaken in imagining that I wrote the Origin with any relation whatever to Theology”, and added that “many years ago when I was collecting facts for the Origin, my belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr Pusey himself.”
Through the 1860’s Darwin struggled to reconcile his belief in an intelligent designer of the universe with the apparent imperfection and cruelty of many observed details. The specific adaptations in living things seemed to result merely from the outworking of natural laws. He described his thinking here as being in a “muddle” or “jumble.” In May, 1860 he wrote to Harvard botanist Asa Gray:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [wasp]with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—
Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.
In a subsequent (November 26, 1860) letter to Gray, Darwin admits,” I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; & yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.” Darwin wrote to astronomer John Herschel in 1861, “The point which you raise on intelligent Design has perplexed me beyond measure… I am in a complete jumble on the point. One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions & man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.”
As late as 1870 Darwin responded (July 12) to botanist J.D. Hooker:
Your conclusion that all speculation about preordination is idle waste of time is the only wise one: but how difficult it is not to speculate. My theology is a simple muddle: I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind in the details. As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a special end, I can no more believe in it, than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.
Note how different was Darwin’s view (“I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance”) from that of modern atheists who insist that the whole universe is a product of “blind, pitiless indifference.”
Then as now, the relation between the mind and the brain was controversial. Today, there are two broad schools of thought on this issue. The “dualists” hold that mental processes are in some sense non-physical, and the soul is a separate, ethereal thing or substance which happens to be in some way linked to the physical brain. The “monists” hold that the mind and body are one substance. The “physicalist” monists note that all mental events are 100% correlated with the electrochemical processes in the brain, and that there is no detectable interface between the physical brain and a non-physical soul. This viewpoint can allow for “top-down” as well as “bottom-up” causality: for instance, a person can consciously choose to do mental exercises which can make a detectable change in the neurons of the brain. The vast majority of those, including evangelical Christians, who actually do research on the human brain lean towards physicalist monism; Christian neuroscientists like Malcolm Jeeves and Donald MacKay see God as fully able to re-embody our conscious selves in a new body on the day of general resurrection.
In Darwin’s day, physicalist monism was known as “materialism.” While he believed that an intelligent designer had created the universe as a whole, it seemed to Darwin that all events within that universe, including human brain functions, unfolded according to natural laws. As he reflected in his “C” notebook on the mind and the brain, he referred to himself as a “materialist”, asking “Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter?”
HIS LAST DECADE: DARWIN THE AGNOSTIC
In his 1876 Autobiography Darwin wrote that the theistic view of his middle age “has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker… The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” He replied in 1879 to John Fordyce, “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”
The beginning of this train of thought can be discerned, for instance, in the May, 1860 letter to Asa Gray cited above, “I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.” In 1873 Darwin replied to an inquiry by N. D. Doedes of the University of Utrecht:
I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide…The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.
Contemporary atheists tried to enlist Darwin in their public campaigns against religion, but without success. One factor was surely his reluctance to pain his believing relatives and friends. But all the evidence indicates Darwin genuinely believed that the evidence was not clear enough, and man’s mind was not capable enough, to pass valid judgment on the question of God’s existence.
In November 1878 when George Romanes presented his new book refuting theism, A Candid Examination of Theism by “Physicus”, Darwin read it with “very great interest”, but was unconvinced, pointing out that its arguments did not rule out God creating matter and energy at the beginning of the universe, with a propensity to evolve. If theism were true, “reason might not be the only instrument for ascertaining its truth”.
In Edward Aveling’s 1883 account of his 1881 conversation with Darwin, he made it seem like Darwin was a fellow atheist. Charles’ son Francis later commented, ” Dr. Aveling tried to show that the terms ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’ were practically equivalent …My father’s replies implied his preference for the unaggressive attitude of an Agnostic. Dr. Aveling seems to regard the absence of aggressiveness in my father’s views as distinguishing them in an unessential manner from his own. But, in my judgment, it is precisely differences of this kind which distinguish him so completely from the class of thinkers to which Dr. Aveling belongs.” [Life and Letters, Vol 1, p 286]
Although at the end of his life Darwin described himself as “generally” an agnostic, he did entirely lose his earlier sense that an intelligent mind lay behind the formation of the universe. The Duke of Argyll recorded a conversation from the last year of Darwin’s life, where
…In the course of that conversation I said to Mr. Darwin, with reference to some of his own remarkable works on the “Fertilization of Orchid,” and upon “The Earthworms,” and various other observations he made of the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature–I said it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin’s answer. He looked at me very hard and said, “Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,” and he shook his head vaguely, adding, “it seems to go away.” [Life and Letters, Vol. 1, p 285]
THE DEVIL’S CHAPLAIN ?
In their desperation to tar Charles Darwin, young earth creationists have seized on a few phrases and events as evidence that he was deliberately doing Satan’s work. Some of these items are presented below. The reader can assess their significance.
Friends are known to employ various terms in jest among themselves. In a letter to J.D. Hooker (July 13, 1856), Darwin comments on the apparent wastefulness of excessive pollen production in plants:
Apropos to my asking him [Huxley] whether the ciliograde acalephes could not take in spermatozoa by the mouth, which takes in so much water, he gives me a sentence like our case of pollen, in which nature seems to us so clumsy & wasteful. He says “The indecency of the process is to a certain extent in favour of its probability, nature becoming very low in all senses amongst these creatures”. What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!
Worldly Victorians routinely made off-hand references to the Devil, and the term “Devil’s chaplain” had been around since the time of Chaucer. Similarly, in response to the attacks on his recently-published Origins, Darwin (Aug 8, 1860) addressed his ally Thomas Huxley as “My good & kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel ie the Devil’s gospel,” jokingly using the sort of label being flung at him by his opponents.
In January 1874 Darwin attended a séance at his brother Erasmus’s house, but found so hot and tiring that he left to lie down upstairs before the real show began. The hired medium was able to make objects like tables and chairs move around in the dark. Darwin’s comment on this was, “The Lord have mercy on us all, if we have to believe in such rubbish,” and he (Jan 29, 1874) congratulated Huxley for uncovering the medium’s trickery in a later séance that Huxley attended.
DARWIN THE INTELLIGENT DESIGN THEORIST
An interesting takeaway for me from this survey of Darwin’s faith trajectory is that during the vast majority of his years, including his most productive time in formulating and publicizing his theory of evolution, Darwin was firmly of the opinion that the universe (as a whole system) bore the marks of a personal Creator and thus was the product of intelligent design.
As noted above, Darwin differed here from the modern atheists who deny any role for a supernatural intelligent creator. But he also differed from today’s “Intelligent Design” advocates who claim to identify gaps in the natural order that would be evidence of ongoing supernatural intervention. Darwin, together with nearly all practicing scientists since his day, saw a seamless unfolding of physical and biological features according to the observed regularities we term “natural laws,” and found a “grandeur” in all this. In the concluding paragraphs of the Origin of Species (6th ed., 1872) he wrote:
Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual… There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
The complete works of Darwin are on-line here , including his Autobiography here and The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin here . Trying to find what you are looking for in the Complete Works can be tedious; for finding a specific letter to or from Darwin, the Darwin Correspondence Project has a more convenient Search function.
Two good secondary resources are the Wikipedia article “Religious Views of Charles Darwin” and Denis Lamoureux’s article in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith, Vol 64, p.108 (2012).
APPENDIX: ON THE DARWIN-HITLER CONNECTION
YE creationists and Intelligent Design proponents often charge that Darwin’s writings inspired Hitler and the Nazis in their evil philosophies and actions. Two thoughts in response: First, even if that claim is substantiated, it has nothing to do with whether or not evolution is true. The Nazis made use of modern chemistry in their gas chambers, and modern physics in their jet airplanes. That does not make modern chemistry or physics untrue. Likewise, if they made use of modern biology (which includes evolution), that would not make evolution an incorrect description of reality. If the scientific facts were actually on their side, the anti-evolutionists would not feel it necessary to play this Nazi card. (It is a rule of thumb in internet discussions that the first guy who compares or links his opponent to Hitler is a loser).
Second, if you try hard enough, you can nearly always “find” theoretical linkages between Darwin and any twentieth-century movement. For instance, we could make a case that free-market economics (in its various modern flavors) was inspired by “Darwinism”. So, yes, you can root around and find some potential intellectual connections between Darwinism and Naziism. But it is simply not the case that Darwin’s writings had direct and decisive impact on the development of Naziism. The notion that Jews and “Aryans” are closely related by Darwin’s common descent was not welcome, and indeed was denied by Nazi theorists.
If we want to look for writings that had a direct and decisive impact on the genocidal policies of the Nazis, we find that the founder of German Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther, had (late in his life) given the following advice on the proper treatment of the Jews:
“… to put their synagogues and schools to fire, and what will not burn, to cover with earth and rubble so that no-one will ever again see anything there but cinders … Second, one should tear down and destroy their houses, for they do also in there what they do in their schools and synagogues … And third, one should confiscate their prayer books and Talmud, in which idolatry and lies, slander and blasphemy is taught”
This chilling passage was explicitly featured in the 1938 the Nazi “Office of Racial Policy” publication. In contrast, I am not aware of a single direct quote of Darwin’s writings in Hitler’s writing or any other official Nazi publication. My point here is not to bash Luther for not rising above the norms of his time; in sixteenth century Europe, it was more or less expected that people groups perceived as impious or threats to the state would be burned alive or beheaded. Rather, there was a long history of indigenous German hostility towards Jews (of which Luther’s writings are a witness), which the Nazis could tap into with no help needed from Darwin.
In lieu of presenting my own detailed analysis of the claims and rebuttals in this emotionally charged area, I’ll link to a couple of articles which provide information and references:
From RationalWiki [Fair and concise. Notes inconsistencies in Hitler’s writings, which allow both atheists and creationists to read their viewpoints into them.]
From Stones n’ Bones [ Source of Martin Luther quote above.]
From Coelsblog [ Very long and detailed, complete with period photos. Argues long and hard that wellsprings of Nazi thought are not Darwinian. Mostly correct, except in asserting that Nazis were Christians in good standing.]
From Peter Hitchens [Hitchens shows that that Hitler and the Nazis were strongly antagonistic to biblical Christianity, and not Christian in any meaningful sense. Hitchens argues for a Darwin-Hitler connection, but most of his specific claims here are rebutted in the three references above. ]
I guess the Nazi-Christian connection calls for a few comments of its own:
(a) Yes, nearly all Germans were nominal Catholics or Protestants, and the vast majority of them went along with the Nazi program. That said, it is way too easy for someone 70 years later, sitting in comfort somewhere in a democratic nation, to judge those Germans for conforming. I conversed with an older colleague who was a teenager under the Third Reich. He told me that he and a lot of his fellow citizens were not entirely comfortable with the Nazi program, but it was nearly impossible to resist the incessant propaganda, the apparent endorsement by your peers, the appeal to honor and solidarity, and the very real threat of imprisonment, torture and execution if you protested. Think North Korea….or recall experiments by Stanley Milgram at Yale, done specifically to try figure out how the Nazis got people to operate outside their normal morality zone. The Milgram experiment found that most people would continue racheting up the electric shock level to a supposed subject in the experiment in the room next-door despite his screams for mercy (followed by ominous silence) as long as the experimental supervisor kept telling them to. In Milgram’s words:
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
(b) Yes, the Catholic and Protestant clergy were mainly not bothered as long as they didn’t protest. Hitchens makes a case that that was a near-term tactical decision by the Hitler to avoid premature conflict with the church, not an endorsement by Nazis of historic Christianity.
(c) The bastardized “German Christian” church set up by the Nazis was so far from biblical Christianity that evangelicals withdrew to form the “Confessing Church”, at great personal risk.
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