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A Muddled Theist to the End: The Missing Darwin of “Creation”

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February 1, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
A Muddled Theist to the End: The Missing Darwin of “Creation”

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

I’ve seen Creation, the new Darwin film starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly, twice now. The first was a pre-opening showing followed by a discussion with Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great grandson and author of the book on which the movie was based. The second was on opening weekend, after which Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, and I led a discussion with the audience.

Cambridge’s celebrated Kendall Square Theater was full on opening weekend and almost everyone stayed for a lively discussion after. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, was whether or not Paul Bettany’s Darwin was authentic.

It was great to see Darwin on the big screen. There are many grand episodes in the history of science that would make wonderful movies, but they rarely get more than a low budget PBS/BBC treatment. The Galileo Trial, Newton’s tortured youth, Kepler’s rescue of his mother from being burned as a witch, Darwin’s various struggles, the strange story of the quantum, the development of the atomic bomb and other stories from science all seem worthy of Hollywood’s attention. But, probably because scriptwriters are “humanities” types who hated science and math in high school, we never see these stories. Apparently the “madness of King George” is a better story than the brilliant and eccentric Kepler’s extraordinary defense of his mother against charges of witchcraft.

So kudos to the producers who gave us the first big screen look at the most controversial scientist in history. And kudos for making Darwin into a sympathetic and fully human character, in contrast to the sinister portraits provided by so many of his anti-evolutionary critics. The human drama in the film, as Darwin wrestles heroically with his family relationships, is more than enough to call Creation a “chick flick.” My wife was eager to see it a second time, just one week after seeing it for the first time. It has much to offer. That said, however, I found Creation disappointing on a couple of fronts, missing two thirds of the full story.

Darwin’s life was animated by three long enduring struggles, intertwined in the coarse braid that was to be his life. One of these struggles is told with passion in the film and that is the story of how the great scientist wrestled with the gap that his theory of origins opened up between him and his wife. Emma Darwin was a devout Christian who spent a lifetime watching in dismay as her husband developed a theory about origins that seemed to undermine faith in God. Her devotion to Charles through these long troubled decades, punctuated by the tragic death of three of their ten children, is surely one of history’s great love stories. And this part of the story is richly captured by Bettany and Connolly who, incidentally, are married in real life.

The first struggle that is missing from Creation is Darwin’s heroic effort to develop his theory. Because Darwin wrote openly, elegantly, and extensively throughout his life, historians have constructed a fascinating narrative of how he arrived at the idea of natural selection—what Daniel Dennett has called the “the best idea anybody ever had.” This narrative is exciting on its own terms as evolution, like a mirage on the horizon, began to take shape through the dark glass of Darwin’s scientific imagination. Viewers of Creation, unfortunately, learn virtually nothing about Darwin’s theory, other than its enduring ability to upset religious believers. Many of them will no doubt exit the theater thinking that scientific theories drop, fully formed, out of the sky.

The second missing struggle is Darwin’s life-long wrestling with his religious beliefs. Bettany’s Darwin seems to have never had any religious beliefs. The first time we see Darwin interacting with religion at all is when he forgets to wait for grace before he starts eating his soup. Having grown up in a home, like Darwin’s, where family meals were treasured and always preceded by grace, this behavior seems highly implausible to me. The real Charles Darwin had a life-long and very genuine struggle with his faith. He spent three years studying theology at Edinburgh, preparing for the Anglican priesthood; he took a Bible on the Beagle with him and was once ridiculed for quoting it to the sailors; he had lengthy correspondences with leading Christian thinkers about the theological implications of natural selection. Darwin refused to sign on to the more aggressive materialism that swirled about him as he became increasingly famous. He refused, for example, to let Karl Marx’s son-in-law dedicate an anti-religious book to him.

Darwin’s correspondence shows ongoing reflection on traditional theological problems and a faith that waxed and waned over his long and tumultuous life. He objected to the label “atheist” as implying certain knowledge that he thought nobody could reasonably possess. “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God” he said, shortly before his death in 1882. He was never able imagine a world without God. “I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force,” he wrote to the American biologist Asa Gray in 1860. At the same time, he could not imagine that a providential creator could possibly be the cause of an “innocent and good man” who “stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning.” I suspect that many religious believers today would stand with Darwin on both of these points. James Moore, one of Darwin’s most intimate biographers, described Darwin as a “muddled theist to the end.”

By all means, go see Creation if for no reason other than to meet a fully human Darwin, without horns. But maybe also pick up a good biography, like Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s magisterial Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, to get the full picture.

Editor's Notes: To learn more about Darwin's life and his work, be sure to visit The Darwin Correspondence Project, which compiles over 6,000 of his letters and offers details for 9,000 more.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Glen Davidson - #3746

February 1st 2010

At least it would have been interesting to see Darwin struggle to keep on good terms with his highly religious wife and his religious correspondents and colleagues.  How was he “accommodationist,” and how did that affect the acceptance and perceptions of evolution?

After all, too little has changed in America with respect to accepting science in 150 years.

Glen Davidson

Gregory Arago - #3757

February 1st 2010

A non-atheist doesn’t a theist make.

Thanks for the reminder and well-written piece, Dr. Giberson!

I just finished watching it and will soon add my impressions.

pds - #3782

February 1st 2010

Was Darwin a “theist” in the same way the Biologos leadership are?

Nick Matzke - #3786

February 1st 2010

I have yet to see a much better summary of Darwin’s evolving religious views than his own Autobiography:


Conclusion: agnostic.

Note that agnostic != atheist.  It also != theist, but it basically means the opinion that ultimate questions are undecidable, or at least the person in question feels like they don’t know the answer.

Gregory Arago - #3788

February 1st 2010

Purely a communicative question for Nick: what additional meaning did you seek to convey by adding the adjective ‘evolving’ to ‘Darwin’s religious views’? Did you just mean they were changing and not static?

In Darwin’s case, as he expressed his own confusion in private letters, one could make a case that his religious views actually ‘devolved’. But then, I don’t see how that would add anything necessary to your sentence above either.

Karl Giberson - #3828

February 2nd 2010

I would not call Darwin a theistic evolutionist and his theism is not at all like the theism of BioLogos.

But I would also insist that he is certainly NOT an agnostic like Dawkins, despite the eagerness of the New Atheists to make him one of their own.

pds - #3832

February 2nd 2010


So we agree on all points.

But to quibble, you say “an agnostic like Dawkins.”  Dawkins makes very clear that he is an atheist, and not an agnostic.

Darwin seemed to be a pretty run of the mill agnostic, who sometimes doubted his agnosticism.

Gregory Arago - #3833

February 2nd 2010

This was another “missing Darwin of ‘Creation’:” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/books/chapters/chapter-darwins-sacred-cause.html

Before sending a brief response-review, my first question is a basic one:

Why wasn’t the film titled ‘Evolution,’ but instead titled ‘Creation’?

Karl Giberson - #3841

February 2nd 2010

pds I believe Dawkins, when pressed, uses the term ‘agnostic.’  He knows enough to see that certain knowledge that God does not exist is not realistic.  Agnosticism runs a spectrum, from “believers with meaningful doubts” to “non-believers with humility.”  I would say that Darwin and Dawkins occupy opposite ends of this spectrum.

pds - #3877

February 3rd 2010


My understanding is that Dawkins acknowledges that he can’t be completely sure as a matter of science that God does not exist.  But from a personal worldview perspective, he prefers the term “atheist” and he lives fully committed to the belief that God does not exist.  Just like a theist does in the other direction.  And, of course, he is an “evangelist” for atheism.

An “agnostic” generally makes no strong faith commitment to either theism or atheism.

Karl Giberson - #3933

February 4th 2010

Actually the best term for Dawkins would probably be “anti-theist.”  He is does not live his life in humble ignorance, but in enthusiastic evangelism against belief in God.

Gregory Arago - #3944

February 4th 2010

From your research, Karl, have you discovered *any* anti-theism in the writings or speech of C. Darwin?

Sure, Darwin revealed his personal disbelief in the Christian God. But that perhaps does not necessarily qualify him as an ‘anti-theist.’

For example, in the film he is fictionalised as saying, in response to T.H. Huxley suggesting that he has ‘killed God’, that “We [Brits] live in a society…bound together by the Church. An improbable sort of bark, I grant you, but at least it floats.”

When Huxley says, “Science is at war with religion,” Darwin (i.e. Bettany) looks rather sick to his stomach.

In regard to the supposed ‘missing struggle’ that Darwin had with his religious beliefs, or lackthereof, in the film there are several indicators.

One is the scene when Darwin stands up and walks out of Church when Rev. Innes starts to give a sermon on Genesis 1.

Also, in the film, Darwin says: “The loss of religious faith is a slow and fragile process like the raising of a continent…the process seems [i.e. for him] complete.”

Darwin’s worldview is surely addressed in the film.

Gregory Arago - #4005

February 5th 2010

Should I imagine, from the silence in this thread, that ‘very few’ people in the USA have seen the film ‘Creation’? I recall reading that the producers of the film had difficulty getting a distributor there. If people have such a love-hate relationship with Mr. Darwin, it is no wonder some would rather cheer for their bitterest rival in football, baseball or basketball than go see a film about the life of Darwin & his family.

As an aside, I remember also reading about the film ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,’ which is of course critical of ‘Darwinism’ as ideology. Some towns & cities actually refused to show the film, on principle. This is a topic that touches on American free speech in a way that as a non-American I can hardly understand.

‘Creation’ premiered on Sept. 10, 2009 in Toronto and opened in the USA on Jan. 22, 2010.

Just found - ‘now showing’...only in 12 theatres!!

What does this say for ‘appetite’?!

GrayMac - #4008

February 5th 2010

I’m not sure if you were replying to Karl’s statement or not, but just in case, did you notice that he said, “Dawkins would probably be anti-theist.’”, not Darwin.

Gregory Arago - #4009

February 5th 2010

Yes, I was & I read his text same as you did, GrayMac. That is why I asked Dr. Giberson, who is a well-known expert on Darwin, if he’d come across *any* anti-theism in Darwin’s writings. Do such thoughts exist in Darwin’s letters, manuscripts or published texts?

The film plays on this idea on several instances (transcriptions are mine):

His wife Emma, cries: “I think you’re at war with God, Charles!”

In response to his daughter Annie about why his book matters, Charles says: “When I write, it changes everything. Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us. Nothing mattered, not love, not trust, not faith, not honour; only brute survival. Apart from anything else it would break your mother’s heart.”

Darwin here seems to *know* he is ‘attacking’ people’s faith, including his wife’s, yet he goes forward with his plans anyway.

Of his planned book, Darwin (Bettany) says: “God will consider it a personal attack on Him.”

That seems like ‘anti-theism,’ doesn’t it?

Gregory Arago - #4068

February 7th 2010

Spoiler notice (in case any one out there will someday watch the film):

One of my favorite lines in the film is when Darwin is undergoing treatment for his health:
“Until you have faith, all the waters in the world will not be the cure of you.” – Doctor

To the issue of whether or not Emma believed her husband was writing an ‘anti-theistic’ book:
“You’ve stolen everything…with your cruel theories!” cries Emma.
“With the truth, just with the truth,” replies Charles.

We hear this ‘what is truth’ (said doubting Pilate) argument oftentimes made in the name of ‘scientism’ nowadays. Science super-sized!

Which truth? Whose truth? Religious truth? Darwin knew little to none.

“And so, you have finally made an accomplice of me. May God forgive us both.” – Emma

What did C. Darwin do that his wife Emma felt called to ask forgiveness for?

Gregory Arago - #4076

February 8th 2010

“What did C. Darwin do that his wife Emma felt called to ask forgiveness for?”

I think that ought to be a central question if one inquires about how C. Darwin can be or needs to be ‘saved’.

Why forgive Darwin for his blasphemy, if that is what he wrote from his heart in between the lines of Origin of Species (and even moreso in Descent of Man)?

Should one ask a similar thing regarding forgiveness about F. Collins’ book titled “The Language of God”? I don’t think so. Blasphemous perhaps this book is only to the god(s) and idol(s) of ‘Scientism’!

Glenn Branch - #4174

February 9th 2010

A minor correction: Darwin didn’t spend “three years studying theology at Edinburgh”; he studied medicine in Edinburgh for two years. He spent three years at Cambridge, where he was studying for a B.A. degree, which involved studying theology among other subjects.

Gregory Arago - #4383

February 12th 2010

A brief follow-up, as the thread seems to have run out of steam, to answer my own question:

Why wasn’t the film titled ‘Evolution,’ but instead titled ‘Creation’?

Because the term ‘creation’ is a more *powerful* word than ‘evolution.’

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