Today is Charles Darwin’s birthday and, as usual, several articles about him and the impact of his discovery have been appearing. Two in particular have caught my attention.
First is a a blog post by David Henson, in which he says, “I suspect that the Christian faith will look back in gratitude on the in-breaking of evolution into human consciousness as one of the most significant and fruitful theological events from the modern, scientific age.”
Second is an interview with J. David Plains, who says of Darwin: “Today we’d probably call Darwin something of a seeker. You might say he’s something of a proto-None.”
After reading that second piece I thought I’d share some of James Rachels’ discussion (in Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism) of Darwin’s religious skepticism. To be clear, this is Rachels’ account, not mine. I don’t have the sort of detailed knowledge required to evaluate it. I would be grateful, however, for the opinion of anyone who does.
As a young man, Darwin seriously considered entering the ministry. He would later recall, “I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible.” He thought he could follow the example of several other Church of England ministers and become an amateur naturalist. Eventually, though, his desire to make a name for himself as a scientist eclipsed all other considerations.
He would never again return to that youthful confidence. Early in their marriage, his devoutly Christian wife Emma began to detect Darwin’s growing doubts. She told him about her concerns in a letter and asked him to reconsider the direction he was taking. After his death that letter was found among his papers with a note written in the margin: “When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cried over this.”
As much as it pained him, he could not share her faith. He later wrote in his autobiography, “Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.”
He wrote his autobiography for his friends and family and therefore felt free to be unusually forthright about his opinion of Christianity.1 He said that the Bible is contradictory and that the reports of miracles are not credible. He appealed to the diversity of religions: Other religions have sacred writings and religious experiences that they believe demonstrate the truthfulness of their religion. Why should we believe Christianity over them?
He also believed that some Christian doctrines were morally repugnant. Hell, for example:
I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to with Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.
And this is a damnable doctrine.
He knew, of course, that a more “enlightened theism” could solve some of these problems. The problem of evil, however, continued to be a major reason for his inability to embrace theism.2 On the other hand, he was drawn to the idea of God as the first cause. In a letter to Asa Gray, a devout Christian and defender of Darwin’s discovery, he said:
I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing in 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, and 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 and believe what he can. Certainly I agree with you that my views are not necessarily atheistical.
This would become his standard line when asked about his religious beliefs. He could understand why someone could believe in God, even if he could not bring himself to that point. In another letter he described himself as an agnostic (a term coined by his friend and defender Thomas Huxley):
In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state and mind.
“Let each man hope and believe what he can.” Happy 204th birthday, Charles Darwin.
1. Publicly, however, he did not discuss religion. His discovery of evolution by means of natural selection was controversial enough; he didn’t want to defend his (lack of) religious beliefs also. Besides, he didn’t think direct attacks upon religion were effective: “Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and Theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advancement of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.”↩
2. Not just the problem of suffering caused by humanity, but the suffering endemic to animal life: “There there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?”↩