Was Darwin a Christian?
Bluntly; “Yes” and “No”. Some think he was the most wonderful person to be born in Shrewsbury and others the Devil incarnate who strove to destroy Christianity. In answering this question we should note Oscar Wilde’s adage, “to every complex question there’s a simple answer and that’s wrong.” So where do we go?
It is best to consider his religious views at different times of his life. Darwin was born into a sceptical household in 1809. His father was not a Christian but had Charles baptised an Anglican, sent him first to a Unitarian school and then to an Anglican one – Shrewsbury school
The Mount, Shrewsbury
. His sisters were more devout and wrote him letters as a teenager, suggesting he should read the bible and become more spiritual. Having left medical school in Edinburgh he went to Cambridge to study for the Anglican ministry in 1828.
Christ’s College, Cambridge
Despite his claims to be idle, he worked moderately hard and graduated in 1831. As well as studying maths and logic he read much theology and some of his notes are still in Cambridge Library. The notes show that he completely believed in the historical reliability of the New Testament. His main interest in Cambridge was natural history and learnt much from Prof John Henslow, a botanist and Anglican cleric and wanted to study theology under him. Henslow was very orthodox and completely accepted the Thirty Nine Articles. He thought the Earth was millions of years old and like most of his day saw no conflict with his faith.
John Henslow and his 1822 geological map of Anglesey and
Just before he left on the Beagle he went round North Wales with the Revd Prof Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge to study the geology of Wales.
One Sunday he worshipped at Ruthin Parish Church. In 1831 Darwin was planning to be ordained and all the evidence points to his being an orthodox believer, but not an Evangelical like Sedgwick.
two views of Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, Darwin’s favourite place. The Boulders ARE Darwin’s Boulders – glacial erratics
Next was the five years on the Beagle. He wrote little about his faith. To begin with his diary mentions worship – “a stupid sermon” in Plymouth before he sailed, and a few services on board. By 1834 doubts were creeping up on him and he told some Signoritas in a Chilean church that he was “ a sort of a Christian”. As he wrote in his in not always reliable Autobiography, “I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” Because most of Darwin’s notes, diaries and letters survive we can pin down Darwin’s deconversion, or “perversion” as they called it then, to September 1838. After that comments in his evolution notebooks are much more sceptical. However he did not stop believing in God or reading religious books. He was particularly influenced by F.W.Newman’s books. Newman, the brother of Cardinal John Newman, began as an Evangelical Anglican, went to Iraq as a Brethren missionary, became a Unitarian, left that and ended up with a very private faith in a “natural” understanding of God and rejected any revelation or the Bible or salvation through Christ. Darwin followed suit.
In 1851 after the death of his ten-year old daughter Annie he lost his belief in God’s love as Darwin could not square suffering with God’s love. However I think Jim Moore’s calim that this caused his loss of faith is too simple. To me it was more a drift away from faith,and a concern about suffering. Ten years later he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray, a Christian, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent God would have created the Ichneumonidae (whose larvae feed on living caterpillars and gave inspiration to The Alien) or that a cat should play with mice.”
Asa Gray, Darwin’s retriever
However when he wrote The Origin of Species he thought the universe to be so full of wonder that it could not have occurred by Chance. And so he spent the rest of his life oscillating between agnosticism and his naturalistic theism. He wrote in 1880, “I do not believe in the Bible as revelation and thus I do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.” Nothing could be clearer, but there are still stories of an almost death-bed conversion and rejection of evolution spread by Lady Hope. These stories have no foundation and were exploded by Jim Moore in The Darwin Legend some years ago.
Yet for forty years in Downe, Kent Darwin was a pillar of the church – of the flying-buttress type – supporting it by good works and generosity from the outside! All his life he supported the evangelical South American Missionary Society and even Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, his strongest opponent, thought him a capital fellow. And so do I! It is often claimed that Darwin destroyed belief in a 6-day creation. After 25 years of research I haven’t found one Anglican clergyman who held to a 6-day creation in 1860, so how could Darwin destroy that belief? (If you ever read that Darwin destroyed belief in a 6-day creation then consider the writer a monkey rather than descended from apes!)
Victorian cartoon of Darwin the monkey
Did Darwin destroy Christianity? Darwin said no. In 1879 an atheist John Fordyce wrote asking whether evolution and God were compatible. Darwin replied that it was absurd to doubt whether anyone could ardently believe in God and be an evolutionist and gave the examples of his friends Asa Gray and Charles Kingsley. He then stressed he had never been an atheist and was best considered an Agnostic. With that view of Darwin at 70 we can leave the question.
As for me, I follow Gray, Kingsley and many others who regard evolution as God’s mode of Creation. What annoys me are those who cite a few Christian detractors of Darwin and claim that they were typical of the Church’s response. One swallow does not make a summer. Equally annoying are those who, without historical competence, claim Darwin destroyed Christianity, or insist that a Christian ought to believe in a literal 6-day Creation. I do not have a good word to say about Creationism
When Denis Alexander wrote his very mild book in 2009, there was an outcry and responded with a (n awful) book essentially attacking Denis, who was only holding what Christians had held since 1860
To conclude Darwin finished his life not as a Christian, but that does not mean there is a conflict between evolution and Christianity, though there is with fundamentalism.
References; This is based on reading most of Darwin’s published letters, various notebooks, manuscripts and published works. It is also based on collateral reading of Henslow, Sedgwick, F.W.Newman and others, and is a summary of a long article evolving in my computer