Darwin is usually, and quite wrongly, hailed as one of the great champions of atheism. His work, countless people around the world will confidently affirm, disproved Biblical accounts of creation, and ever since atheism has been the only tenable position for the intelligent person. This, at least, is the conventional wisdom on the subject. However, as is usual for popular perception of the spiritual views of great scientific thinkers, it is far from accurate.
An analysis of Darwin’s work and his personal letters to friends and colleagues reveals something very different. Although it is unfair to place history’s greatest biologist in the same category as its greatest physicist (Isaac Newton) or its greatest psychologist (Jean Piaget) and say that his scientific work was merely a rung on the ladder of a much larger spiritual quest, it is also wrong to say that Darwin was an atheist, and it is even wrong to say that he believed that his theory was necessarily relevant to theological issues at all. So much then, for the mascot of modern atheism.
In fact the most than can possibly be said of Darwin’s “atheism” is that at certain times in his life he may have held agnostic views. He realised that his theory of evolution certainly did not disprove Christianity and also realised – in contrast to most people today – that his theory might not have had any real baring on theological matters either as support or as counter argument. A theory about how the natural world unfolds, Darwin stated, is simply irrelevant to supernatural questions that pertain to a realm quite apart from the natural world.
Moreover, nearly everyone in science and religion at the time agreed with him on this. Most of the influential late nineteenth century scientists were also clergy men. One reason for this is that the clergy, who habitually engaged the deepest questions about ultimate reality, found it natural to ask questions about reality at all levels. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, today known as the British Science Society, originated as a movement of Anglican clergy seeking the advancement of science in Britain. Six of the first 14 presidents of the association were Anglican priests.
Church of England views on evolution were generally split between those who saw evolution as a more precise mechanism through which the creation described metaphorically in Genesis 1 and 2 had unfolded, and those who believed that evolution was probably right, but felt that it was simply irrelevant to those following the Christian spiritual path. For some evolution was the mechanism through which God’s kingdom unfolded, while for others it was just another ordinary scientific process like electrolysis or erosion, that had no particular bearing on the spiritual quest. That Darwin’s written statements on evolution and religion show affinities with both of these groups will come as a surprise to most modern readers, as will the fact official church figures who opposed evolution in favour of a literal interpretation of Genesis were almost non-existent.
Darwin’s views on God
Darwin did not offer complex ideas on the relationship between science and religion in the manner that other great modern scientists such as Newton and Einstein did. Darwin indicated that a full understanding of the nature of creation was simply beyond human understanding. But nothing that is recorded in his published or private writing indicates that he ever considered himself to be an atheist, and as we shall see he explicitly rejected atheism at important junctures in his life.
Darwin certainly rejected belief in a personal god who intervened in lives and answered prayers, as he felt unable to align himself with this position following the death of his young daughter. In fact, it was the death of his daughter, and not his scientific discoveries and theory, which drove his agnostic attitude towards spirituality. This, you see, is the strange truth about Charles Darwin’s religious views: he appears to have been agnostic despite his theory of evolution, compelled to this conclusion by personal circumstances rather than because of his scientific theory.
In fact his appreciation for the intricate nature of biology and ecosystems seems to have seeded a preference for a creator who designed the universe in some vague sense that we can never fully understand, but who did not influence the fairness or otherwise of what happened thereafter. The god that Darwin wrote about intermittently throughout his life was not a personal god, this god was more like the impersonal god of Eastern religions, who generated the universe in the beginning, and then simply left it to run its own course based on cause and effect.
Above: It was around ancient islands such as these during the voyage of the Beagle that Darwin developed deist ideas concerning firstly the possibility of creative design, and later of what is now termed "teleonomy", which remained with him to the end of his life.
At the end of The Origins of Species, Darwin was wrote:
“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 cycling 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.”
Clearly at this stage his belief in a creator has survived. This statement, that the Creator set the universe in motion and allowed predetermined laws to carry it forward in an inevitable manner was typical of a large number of nineteenth century thinkers who considered themselves to be deists but not to be Christians.
It has been suggested by atheistic scholars that the way in which Darwin ended the Origins of Species was insincere. But this is not the case. Atheism was hardly a radical position among the educated classes in the late-1850s. There were still some expectations of those in certain positions, such as members of parliament, regarding traditional religious views, but there was no credible danger to reputation that would arise from being an atheist for the average person. Atheism was one of a number of common religious positions which included conventional Christianity, as well as deists who saw evidence of a designing influence or intelligence which in some sense had brought the universe into being but took no active role in influencing its events. Moreover Darwin confirmed in personal correspondence not intended for the public eye that he did mean what he had written, and that he did find the theory of evolution compatible with the notion of a dispassionate designing force or intelligence.
The conflict that Darwin faced was not how to reconcile his scientific theory with the religious world view that it disproved. His conflict was how to reconcile the presence of grief and suffering with a world which otherwise appeared compatible with some kind of deity. In the second edition of the book he made alterations to the text which strengthened his conviction that evolution and deism were compatible, including the addition of the sentence that there is “no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.”
Embrace of deism
Darwin was not a Christian during his middle and later life. His rejection of Christianity was twofold: firstly he rejected Christianity because of the so called “problem of evil.” He could not reconcile the existence of a personal God with the death of his daughter or with the suffering he witnessed in the natural world. But his belief in a creative power that sets the universe in motion was maintained in some form throughout his life. In 1860 he confirmed his belief in a creative intelligence in a letter to the Harvard biologist Asa Gray:
“I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and 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 call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I find that the whole subject is just too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”
This is very far from the usual descriptions of Darwin as a staunch atheist who was compelled by his theory to reject all belief in god. Nearly always, descriptions of scientists’ spiritual views that are circulated do not square with what those scientists actually believed. There are various reasons for this.
Indeed the belief that the Genesis story is a literal description of what happened found a large following only in the American South beginning in the early twentieth century. No other civilisation before or after Darwin had ever interpreted this passage in an exclusively literal manner. All this of course makes uncomfortable reading for atheistic scholars, and so they have invariably departed from the actual truth about both Darwin’s own views and the reaction of the church to evolutionary theory.
Darwin showed a lot of humility in recognising that his opinion on religious matters may not carry much weight. Throughout his life, Darwin had emphasised the inadequacy of our ability to answer questions concerning religious views, agnosticism, or atheism adequately.
In his 1876 draft of his autobiography, which was published posthumously, Darwin aired some objections to creative design arguments, and noted that the physical features of animals which made them suited to their habitats could be explained just as easily as gradual adaptations driven by natural selection as by the design of a deity.
By 1878 Darwin’s views on the matter appear to have changed again, as he wrote of George Romanes book that presented a case for atheism that the possibility was left open that God had created matter and energy with the potential of evolving and organising without actually designing any outcomes. It is this view that comes closest to those of twentieth century biologists with spiritual inclinations and many later attempts to harmonise evolution and religion.
"...even in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God..." (Darwin, 1880)
In 1880 the atheist Edward Aveling contacting Darwin and asked permission to dedicate one of his books to him. Darwin declined, stating that his own field of expertise was science, and that he had no right to adjudicate on religious matters.
In a letter to John Fordyce close to the end of his life, Darwin admitted to ever changing views on religious matters and to being personally undecided on many things, but stated “even in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God”. These sentiments expressed to Fordyce can be taken as an accurate summary of his final position.
In 1860 a young Anglican priest, having read and accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, preached a sermon to his congregation on the lack of any need for a conflict between science and religion. That Darwin convert and priest was none other than William Temple, who by 1880 had risen to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. The English Church simply saw no reason to argue with Darwin over a matter that they didn’t consider to be particularly relevant to Christianity. Clergy of this period generally accepted the validity of science as a tool for investigating the natural world. But they saw it as only part of a full knowledge of reality, which must be complemented by supernatural knowledge, which can only be imparted to each person individually, and which is cultivated through a life of virtue, prayer, and contemplation. When he died in 1882 Darwin was buried inside West Minster Abbey alongside Newton, Maxwell, Faraday, and other great British Scientists. It was a symbol of the harmony that existed between science and religion in 19th century England, and neither the church nor the press saw any reason to object.
A far cry, all this, from the mass opinion of today amongst both the general public and scientific professionals with university qualifications. So what changed? The change in attitude can actually be pinned down rather precisely to the period between 1875 and 1900, and the publication of two extremely influential yet largely fictitious books which gave inaccurate renditions of various well known historical events. A conflict was invented between what were pitted as bold-spirited and progressive scientists on the one hand, and the suffocating influence of the bigoted church on the other. These stereotypes and their apparent conflict have become deeply engrained in public imagination.
Science became linked to freedom and excitement, the church with repression and stagnation. This in turn lead to a reassessment of thought with regard to various other religious attitudes towards money, sex, and life orientation which were very inconvenient for young libertarians. The movement caught the imagination of influential sectors of the public, and made for great reading, but was based solidly on fiction rather than fact.
A subsequent change in the content of children’s books and school textbooks cemented this attitude. From the 1880s onwards, one generation after another grew up believing that Columbus sailed around the world to prove to the church that the earth was round, and that Galileo was forced by church authorities who ignored scientific evidence to retract his heliocentric cosmological model because they felt threatened by it. Children’s books have been responsible for indoctrinating children with completely wrong ideas about the history of the relationship between science and religion across the Western world for well over 100 years. The effect, sadly, is still very much in force today. (The misrepresentation of the relationship between science and religion and misreporting of high profile events such as the trial of Galileo is covered here.)