Somtimes history imitates game show and no more so than when we try to guess at Charles Darwin’s religious beliefs, for surely there are more ideas on Darwin’s convictions (or lack thereof) in this regard than perhaps any figure of the modern era. Darwin, in his various comments on religion and God, could have been a one-man “To Tell the Truth” stumper on the question of his own beliefs. A brief review of the many conclusions offered in this regard will serve to make the point.
Some , like Alberto Kornblihtt, rather naively claim, “Darwin believed in God and his body is buried in Westminster Abbey.”1 The standard rendering of Charles Darwin’s faith, however, is that it was a slow imperceptible slide into unbelief. On that we have Darwin’s own word. On religious matters he said, “I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convinced me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.”2 And so it has come down to us to this very day. The standard view of Darwin is that he slowly, reluctantly abandoned Christianity first and later–much later–all belief.
This received canon notwithstanding, others are less convinced. Stanley Jaki has noted: “The publication in full of Darwin’s Early Notebooks forces one to conclude that in writing his Autobiography Darwin consciously lied when he claimed that he slowly, unconsciously slipped into agnosticism. He tried to protect his own family as well as the Victorian public from the shock of discovering that his Notebooks resounded with militant materialism. The chief target of the Notebooks is man’s mind, the ‘citadel,’ in Darwin’s words, which was to be conquered by his evolutionary theory if its materialism were to be victorious.”3
The radical deism of his grandfather Erasmus matured to a quiet atheism in his father Robert, and as a boy the Unitarian instruction of young Charles devolved to his sisters. Introduced to radical freethinkers as a teenager in the Plinian Society during his abortive attempt at pursuing a medical career at the University of Edinburgh, we find him taking almost naturally to the skepticism of David Hume (1711-1776) and the positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857).4 No wonder Janet Browne admits that “Darwin was profoundly conditioned to become the author of a doctrine inimical to religion.”5 Darwin claims to have started out as a theist when writing Origin of Species, but then asks rhetorically, “can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” and concludes, “I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”6
But can we really leave it at that? In the end, can we conclude that Darwin, in a hopeless theological muddle, simply settled on uncertainty in this question? Some who read his Origin would have accepted perhaps a different designation. Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) blasted Darwin’s theory. Accepting Darwin’s evolutionary ideas threatened, according to Sedgwick, to “sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.”7 Charles Hodge (1797-1878) agreed. Whatever Darwin’s personal religious faith may or may not be, he insisted, Darwinism is Atheism.8 So what are we to make of Darwin? Theist, Atheist, Agnostic: Will the real Charles Darwin please stand up?
On balance, the historical evidence suggests that Darwin’s religious views always tended toward some form of theistic nihilism. Darwin was always careful to keep any teleological implications out of his theory even when couched in befuddlement:
With respect to the theological 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, and as I wish to do so, evidence of design and benificence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. . . . 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. 9
Again he wrote:
The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. . . . There seems to be no more design in the variablity of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.10
And he was emphatic not to be misunderstood on the teleological question:
For brevity sake I sometimes speak of natural selection as an intelligent power; in the same way as astronomers speak of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets, or as agriculturalists speak of man making domestic races by his power of selection. In the one case, as in the other, selection does nothing without variability, and this depends in some manner on the action of the surrounding circumstances on the organism. I have, also, often personified the word Nature; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws–and by laws only the acertained sequence of events.11
It is clear that when Darwin viewed nature God was not there. In fact, for Darwin man was mere animal, different in degree certainly but not in kind. As for the complex emotions often associated with reverence for God, Darwin saw parallels in the “deep love of a dog for his master” and “of a monkey to his beloved keeper.”12 “The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator,” he insisted, “does not seem to arise in the mind of man until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.” In short, God is the invention of man not man the creation of God. All this tends toward atheism. But to view Darwin simply as an atheist and leave it at that seems too simplistic. After all, he claimed to be an agnostic. Why not take his word for it?
The problem with simply calling Darwin an agnostic is that agnosticism means many things. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), in fact, coined the word to distance himself from charges of materialism and even atheism. But it became a failed strategy as agnosticism soon came to have a wide range of connotations in public discourse and common parlance. Even Lenin noticed the miscarriage stating that “in Huxley agnosticism serves as a fig leaf for [his] materialism.” Indeed by the end of the 19th century agnosticism had come to mean different things to different people. Many simply regarded agnosticism as a kind of uncertainty about God’s existence; hypothetically any agnostic might be swayed into belief by reason and argument. At first blush one is inclined to associate Darwin with this brand of agnosticism. Darwin, after all, was always a minimalist in his negation of God. However, he never felt a direct attack was necessary because he, like Huxley, believed that all talk of God and deity was beyond human understanding. Darwin adhered not to a weak form of agnosticism that says merely, “I don’t know if there’s a God because I’ve not seen sufficient evidence for Him,” his was a much stronger form of agnosticism that argued God was unknowable–all God-talk was ultimately, for Darwin, nonsense. It is this epistemological certainty that makes this a strong version of agnosticism. So here’s the problem: simply calling Darwin an agnostic is not specific enough because it leaves the two forms (the strong and the weak) ambiguous.
Well known historian of science Maurice Mandelbaum (1908-1987) understood this. In an interesting analysis of Darwin’s religious views, he noted, “In the end his Agnosticism was not one brought about by an equal balance of arguments too abstruse for the human mind; it was an Agnosticism based on an incapacity to deny what there was no good reason for affirming. Thus, those who, at the time, regarded Agnosticism as merely an undogmatic form of atheism would, in my opinion, be correct in so characterizing Darwin’s own personal opinion.”14 Darwin as “undogmatic atheist” came as close to the truth as anyone had been able to come in the century since Origin appeared.
But perhaps another designation would be even more precise or at least equally useful in this regard. Scottish theologian Robert Flint (1838-1910) offered a term of his own that comports well with Darwin’s position. He wrote:
The atheist is not necessarily a man who says “There is no God.” What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds. It has often been questioned whether there is any such thing. But every man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of belief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God. If a man have failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God, it is perfectly natural and rational that he should not believe that there is a God; and if so, he is an atheist, although he assume no superhuman knowledge, but merely the ordinary human power of judging evidence. If he go farther, and, after an investigation into the nature and reach of human knowledge, ending in the conclusion that the existence of God is incapable of proof, cease to believe in it on the ground that he cannot know it to be true, he is an agnostic and also an atheist, an agnostic-atheist–an atheist because an agnostic. There are unquestionably many such atheists. Agnosticism is among the commonest apologies for atheism. While, then, it is erroneous to identify agnosticism and atheism, it is equally erroneous so to separate them as if the one were exclusive of the other: that they are combined is an unquestionable fact.15
Flint’s important study of Agnosticism offers an insightful and useful designation in the term agnostic atheist. Nick Spencer’s recent article in The Guardian (interestingly cited approvingly on Richard Dawkins’ blog May 21, 2009) noted a problem with the overly simplistic use of the term agnostic. “Attitudes are fine,” he suggests, “but they need to be about something. Adjectives need nouns. If Huxley was indeed an agnostic, he was an agnostic atheist, tending away from the divine but unwilling (so he claimed) to be too dogmatic about it.” And so too with Darwin.
Perhaps more importantly Darwinism is suffused with agnostic atheism. Edward Larson is right in concluding that, “For Darwin, differential death rates caused by purely natural factors created new species. God was superfluous to the process.”16 Darwin never argued against God in any of his works, including Descent of Man, only against the necessity of God. This minimalist formulation is powerful in its dismissiveness of deity and thus forms an essential (though not necessarily sufficient) foundational premise for secularism. It was–and is–atheism but always of a distinctly undogmatic stripe. When the liberal Victorian clergy rushed to support Origin, Darwin was quick to respond. The Reverend Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) approved of a theistic brand of Darwinism, and sure enough it soon found its way into the very next edition of Origin in January of 1860 (and every subsequent edition thereafter) as having the approbation of a “celebrated author and divine.” When Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888) supported his own theistic version of Origin Darwin compiled his warmly supportive reviews and published them as Natural Selection Not Inconsistent with Natural Theology. A Free Examination of Darwin’s Treatise on the Origin of Species, and of Its American Reviewers in 1861. Publication expenses were completely borne by Darwin. As Benjamin Wiker points out in his incisive The Darwin Myth, it’s not that Darwin actually agreed with Gray; his private correspondence is replete with his polite objections to Gray’s theistic additions. Nevertheless, “he had no qualms about using Gray’s argument if it would smooth the way for acceptance of his theory. Once the theory was accepted,” Wiker adds, “the theistic patina would be ground away by the hard, anti-theistic core of the argument.”17 The point is it would be wrong to interpret Darwin’s willing inclusion of Kingsley’s religious support in Origin or his eager approval of Gray’s theistic reviews of his work as evidence of his matching belief; Darwin was always more than willing to set his hard agnosticism aside in the interest of promoting his pet theory.
So what are we to make of Darwin’s religious beliefs? There are five possibilities:
- Darwin was a religious believer. This is hardly supportable by any historical evidence whatsoever.
- Darwin was an agnostic. This is true as far as it goes, but the term itself is too vague and diverse in meaning to be of much use and, in fact, may leave seriously misleading impressions.
- Darwin was an atheist. This is also true insofar as his theory tended to support atheism but probably goes too far in relation to Darwin himself for it implies a dogmatism ill-suited to his subtler and more pragmatic nature. For all of Richard Dawkins’ effusions on behalf of the Down House patriarch, Darwin would likely have found Dawkins’ approach crude and unappealing if not downright appalling.
- Darwin was an undogmatic atheist. This apt phrase suggested by Mandelbaum is descriptive of Darwin’s belief and approach but must be reconciled with his own claims to being “an Agnostic.”
- Darwin was an agnostic atheist. This comes closest to encompassing the range and character of his beliefs and it comports to his theory as well.
So, in the end, I’m willing to accept either Darwin as undogmatic atheist or agnostic atheist. The dual attribution of “atheism” shows the common ties that bind. But please let’s not wallow in codswallop about Darwin as a “sincere religious believer” whose eventual conversion to a more hardened agnosticism was late in life and reluctant.18 The notebooks demonstrate quite clearly Darwin’s religious skepticism and materialistic propensities as early as age 28, ideas he had been introduced to as early as age 17 as a Plinian. The Plinian Society was telling for Darwin. Despite his casual dismissal of them in his Autobiography, Darwin was exposed some of the most radical freethinking of day at those meetings. Darwin was always careful to conceal this fact because its revelation would have made plain the philosophical template through which he would make all his observations while voyaging on The Beagle. In short, the metaphysic preceded the science.
Is Darwinian evolution compatible with theism? It surley was never intended to be and certainly never intended to be compatible with Christianity, though Darwin was more than willing to enlist religious allies on its behalf. Darwin’s materialism would sharpen into the undogmatic atheism or agnostic atheism described earlier but materialism was the template upon which he developed his evolutionary theory to be sure. Whether Darwin was a full-blown materialist or, as Neal Gillespie believes, a positivist influenced by the ideas of Comte is for another posting at another time, but Darwin was most surely not a weak or soft agnostic who abandoned his faith slowly and reluctantly.
So Darwin’s cagey religious minimalism would almost surely have stumped everyone on “To Tell the Truth.” Depending on the question he could appear weakly agnostic or even theistic at times. It is only after looking carefully at his private notebooks and matching his early experiences with his later writings that a coherent pattern emerges. Once identified as an undogmatic atheist or an agnostic atheist the real Charles Darwin can then stand up.
1Alberto R. Kornblihtt, “On Intelligent Design, Cognitive Realism, Vitalism and the Mystery of the Reald World,” Life 4/5 (April-May 2007): 235-237.
2Charles Darwin, Autobiography, edited by Francis Darwin (1893; reprinted, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), p. 62.
3Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988), p. 126.
4For more on the these influences see William B. Huntley, “Charles Darwin and Daivd Hume,” Journal of the History of Ideas 33.3 (Jul.-Sept. 1972): 457-470; and Frank Burch Brown, “The Evolution of Darwin’s Theism,” Journal of the History of Biology 19.1 (Spring 1986): 1-45.
5Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) , p. 177.
6Darwin, Autobiography, p. 66.
7Quoted in Browne, Charles Darwin, p. 94.
9The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, v. 2, 105. This problem of pain and suffering is often used by the nay-sayers of theism as a telling argument. Why, they ask, would a beneficent and all-powerful god create a world with so much misery? For a thorough response and a well-grounded theodicy see William A. Dembski’s The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.
10Darwin, Autobiography, p. 63.
11Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1897), 1: 6-7.
12Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871; reprinted, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 79.
13Ibid., p. 556.
14Maurice Mandelbaum, “Darwin’s Religious Views,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19.3 (June 1958): 363-387, 376.
15Robert Flint, Agnosticism, The Croall Lecture for 1887-88 (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1903), pp. 50-51.
16Edward J. Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), p. 69.
17Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin(Washignton, DC: Regnery, 2009), p. 109.
18Karl W. Gioberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (New York: HarperOne, 2008), pp.19-20.