Things I’m Asked: Was Charles Darwin anti-Christian?

If ever there was a person who epitomised the banishing of God from scientific thought, it would be Charles Darwin (1809-1882). He developed the theory of evolution, an idea first mooted by his famous atheist grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

I have to confess, I like Charlie. He was a man who retained a child-like wonder at the grandeur of creation – such as he experienced when he stood in a Brazilian rain forest. He was a keen observer who asked intelligent questions, but he was also thoughtful enough to care about the distress his theory of evolution might cause others.

Just to remind you: Darwin was an English naturalist. He travelled the world in a ship called The Beagle, collecting and recording information on wildlife and fossils. From what he observed, he concluded that some individuals of a species were able to adapt slightly in a way that made them better able to thrive in a particular environmental niche. Because they were able to thrive, the characteristics that gave them an advantage over other individuals of the same species were passed on to more offspring, causing their numbers to increase. Nature therefore selected the “survival of the fittest”. Nature’s continual selection of what worked best ensured that all living species were able to continually evolve so that they became ever more specialized at thriving in a particular ecological niche. This meant that nature did the selection and drove organisms to become more specialised. God was no longer necessary. As Charles anticipated, this rocked the faith of many people – a fact that caused him to be reticent in publishing his findings.

Despite his parents coming from a largely Unitarian background, Charles made a sincere attempt to embrace Christianity when he was in Cambridge.

Charles did not grow up with a Christian heritage. He studied theology at Cambridge largely at the insistence of his father after Charles had failed as a medical student. He had initially studied medicine at Edinburgh. However, the fact that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and that he spent too much time collecting beetles and barnacles, meant that he flunked his course. His father, a doctor, reasoned that if Charles became a Church of England cleric, he would have all the time he needed to indulge his naturalist pursuits. Certainly, British clerics were at the forefront of biological research at the time.

Despite his parents coming from a largely Unitarian background, Charles made a sincere attempt to embrace Christianity when he was in Cambridge. But later in life, he lost his Christian convictions, and he did so for three reasons.

The first was because his research indicated that God did not necessarily intend the existence of specific life forms, as Christianity appeared to suggest. The second reason was the death of his daughter Annie, his second child, who died from scarlet fever at the age of eleven. This, along with the suffering he saw in nature, caused him to doubt that God was loving and all-powerful.[i] He saw how a cat played with a mouse, and how an ichneumon wasp injected its eggs into a caterpillar – that hatched into maggots, which ate their way through the living caterpillar. It is fair to say that Darwin never developed a good Christian theological understanding of the vexing subject of suffering.

The third reason Darwin struggled with Christianity was because it seemed to suggest that God will eternally condemn good people to hell because they aren’t Christians. [ii] It would seem that Darwin had not encountered much depth to his Christian theology.

Darwin’s convictions about evolution caused a good deal of consternation in the church, but not universally so. The novelist and cleric, Charles Kingsley, wrote that he found it, “just as noble a conception of Deity to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development.”[iii] Frederick Temple, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, also preached that, “the finger of God could be seen at work in the laws of nature,” and that there was, “no need to oppose the extension of natural law into new territory.”[iv] In fact, Darwin valued his friendship with a number of Christian colleagues, including his mentor, the eminent botanist and mineralogist, The Rev Professor J.S. Henslow.[v]

However, despite walking away from Christianity, Darwin retained his belief in God. He said, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.”[vi] Darwin also wrote: “I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and [as such] I deserve to be called a Theist.”[vii]

So, if Darwin saw evidence of God in nature and the cosmos, I invite you to see it too.

 

[i]     Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1898, Vol.2), 105.
[ii]    Nora Barlow (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (London: Collins, 1958), 87.
[iii]   Francis Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1898, Vol.2), 82.
[iv]    Frederick Temple, “The Present Relations of Science to Religion”: A sermon preached on 1 July 1860 before the University of Oxford. See: J. Brooke and G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 36.
[v]     A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin, (London: Penguin Books, 1991) 80-82, 89-90.
[vi]   Charles Darwin in a letter first published in 1887 by his son Francis Darwin (F. Darwin [ed.], The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols (London, 1887, Vol 1), 304.
[vii]   Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, J. Carroll (ed.), (New York: Broadview Texts, 2003), 443.