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Ted Davis
 on November 03, 2016

The Evolution of Darwin’s Religious Faith

Was Charles Darwin an atheist, a Christian, or something in-between? It's difficult to say definitively; Darwin’s personal religious journey was complicated.

Darwin Origin of Species book

charles darwin by thomas maguire

Charles Darwin at age forty, when he was struggling to come to terms with his father’s death. Lithograph by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1849), Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

For many people today, the details of Darwin’s religious journey from Christianity to agnosticism, and its relationship to his theory of evolution, take on much importance. For some, such as those who have transformed his visage into a secular Christmas ornament, Darwin has become an icon for atheism—even though Darwin refused to identify with atheism himself. For others, he has become a prophet of scientific racism, or a plagiarizer who did little original work of his own, or even “a devil’s chaplain”—a phrase that Darwin did apply to himself on one occasion when reflecting on the evolutionary picture of nature he was painting (and that has since been co-opted by Richard Dawkins).

The “real” Charles Darwin is notoriously difficult to pin down. He often thought about God, even near the end of his life, but not always with consistency. He wrote some interesting things about God’s relationship to nature, not all of them equally lucid. Consequently, the range of scholarly opinion about his religious faith and its implications for his theory of evolution—and vice versa—is wider than many culture warriors want to admit. History has a way of confounding political zeal and refuting over-simplification.

Full disclosure: I’m no expert on Darwin myself. What follows (in this column and the next) is my own analysis of Darwin, evolution, and God. I’m probably wrong about some of this, but the same can also be said of many analyses offered by experts—or there would be no Darwin industry in the historical community. I hope that readers will at least grant me the right to be wrong.

Darwin’s Religious Journey

Darwin’s personal religious journey was complicated. Historians differ significantly on the important details and timeline, but at least the endpoints are clear. When he set sail on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1831 he was a sincere Christian who had prepared for pastoral ministry in college. By the time of his death in 1882, he was happy to call himself an “agnostic”—a word invented by his friend Thomas Henry Huxley to denote an inability to reach certainty about the existence or non-existence of God. The abundant evidence of Darwin’s own utterances, both public and private, allows a variety of interpretations of the rest of the story.

Many experts believe that he never entirely abandoned his religious faith, though it’s hard to be more precise with much confidence. You won’t get that impression from most popular accounts, whether in print, on the internet, or in the cinema. For instance, Jon Amiel’s ambitious film Creation (2009) tried hard to depict one important piece of Darwin’s religious story, namely, the conversations he often had with his wife about God and religion, yet his doubts about his own doubts are not depicted. I cast my lot with those who think that Darwin continued to entertain serious thoughts about God throughout his life—and that those thoughts were not merely window dressing.

Two crucial pieces in the puzzle of Darwin’s faith were the deaths of his father in 1848 and his 10-year-old daughter Annie (perhaps from tuberculosis) three days after Easter in 1851. His father’s death hit him hard, even though he inherited the very large sum of £45,000, a genuine fortune at the time. Reflecting on this decades later, Darwin wrote, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [New Testament] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, & this would include my Father, Brother & almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” His wife was so distressed by this passage in his autobiography that she excised it from the first published edition of that work.

The death of Annie, his favorite child, was even worse for Darwin’s faith. She first fell ill not long after his father’s death, just as Darwin was becoming enthusiastic about the hydrotherapy treatments he was receiving from Dr. James Manby Gully. He believed those treatments helped him recover from his father’s passing. As Annie’s health steadily worsened, he took her for similar treatments—Emma Darwin was pregnant again and could not accompany them. The letters they exchanged as she slipped slowly away are heartbreaking to read, even at this distance. It all but broke his heart.

annie darwin

Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, eight of whom survived infancy. Their daughter Annie, born in 1841, was Charles’ favorite. This daguerreotype (image source), taken shortly after her seventh birthday, became an object of deep affection on his part, a bittersweet reminder of the little girl whose life slipped slowly away from him at Easter in 1851.

I first heard that poignant story in full detail from the mouth of James Moore at a conference nearly thirty years ago. “Of Love and Death,” he called the paper, and I vividly remember that another Darwin expert, the late John C. Greene, was literally moved to tears during the session by Moore’s sensitive rendering of the sad details. As Moore later wrote, “After years of backsliding, Darwin finally broke with Christianity (though he continued to believe in God). His father’s death had spiked the faith; Annie’s clinched the point” (Galileo Goes to Jail, cited below, pp. 146-7).

Darwin became increasingly agnostic in the last three decades of his life. Surprisingly, there is a persistent story that Darwin actually came back to Christian faith shortly before his death—and that he also denied the truth of evolution. Moore devoted a well-documented book to tracing the history of this claim, which he regards as “a grotesque gloss on real historical events” (The Darwin Legend, p. 23). He traces it to an evangelist named Elizabeth Cotton, who called herself “Lady Hope.” In August 1915—more than thirty years after Darwin died—a Baptist newspaper, the Watchman-Examiner, published an account of the explosive story she had told a few days earlier at a Bible conference in Northfield, Massachusetts. Lady Hope said that she had visited Darwin on his deathbed and found him reading the biblical book of Hebrews. When she mentioned the Genesis creation story, he was distressed and babbled a little about how “unformed ideas” of his youth had spread like “wildfire” and how some had “made a religion of them.” Then, he invited her to preach the gospel to his servants, tenants, and neighbors in the summer house on his property—and he would leave the window open to join the singing.

Is there any basis for this story, other versions of which were later told by Lady Hope herself? Darwin’s family wanted nothing to do with it, but Moore thinks that certain details ring true, especially her detailed knowledge of that part of the house where Darwin spent much of his final days. In his opinion, Lady Hope probably did have at least one conversation with Darwin, but not one that led Darwin to embrace the gospel and repent of his evolutionary sins. Moore’s conclusion was vigorously challenged in a book by creation scientist L. R Croft, Darwin and Lady Hope: the Untold Story (2012). Croft argues that the Darwins acted in conspiracy to undermine Lady Hope’s credibility and that he did indeed recover his lost Christian faith.

Whom to believe? Creation scientist Russell Grigg thoroughly reviewed the information in the books by Moore and Croft. Even though he accepts at face value the original version of Lady Hope’s story, he does not think that Darwin had a deathbed conversion. Likewise, a prominent creation scientist who knows quite a bit of history, Todd Wood, finds Croft’s argument wholly unpersuasive; so do I.

Even in death, Darwin becomes the stuff of legend.

Darwin, Evolution, and God

william whewell and charles darwin natural theology

William Whewell, a professor whom Charles Darwin knew at Cambridge, wrote a treatise on natural theology that includes a chapter on divine action in nature—a hugely important topic even in Darwin’s day. Darwin not only read Whewell’s book, he borrowed a sentence from that chapter and placed it right at the front of the Origin of Species, even before the title page. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Most historians think (as I do) that Darwin believed in God when he wrote the earliest versions of his most famous book, The Origin of Species, and quite a few think that he was still some type of deist even as late as 1859, when The Origin was published. Indeed, the first edition of the book contains evidence of this. As James Moore has said, “From start to finish, The Origin of Species was a pious work” that was both an argument “against miraculous creation but equally a theist’s case for creation by law” (cited below, p. 147). Philosopher Stephen Dilley has recently argued not only that theology was important “to the case for evolution as a whole in The Origin,” but also “that theology was a handmaiden and accomplice to Darwin’s science” (cited below, p. 29).

Darwin developed his theory between 1837 and 1844, before he had fully given up belief in God. He first wrote it as a 35-page “Sketch on Natural Selection” in 1842, followed by a much longer essay in 1844. In the former, he spoke of “a being infinitely more sagacious than man (not an omniscient creator),” who could mold organisms for their benefit over time, “either by his own direct foresight or by intermediate means.” The latter also includes some fascinating passages, showing that he continued to think in terms of creation by natural law even as he developed his theory of evolution, but before examining them we need some additional context.

Darwin, “Physics Envy,” and the “Mystery of Mysteries”

At that point in his life, you might say that Darwin suffered from “physics envy.” As a naturalist—not a physicist or an astronomer—he was a bit jealous of the great success that physics and astronomy had achieved by explaining motion on the Earth and in the Solar System in terms of wide-reaching natural laws—especially Newton’s law of gravitation. Darwin sought to make biology resemble physics as far as possible: he wanted to know how biological diversity could also be explained by natural laws, thereby making biology more fully scientific.

John Herschel, whom Darwin met during his voyage on the Beagle, famously referred to the origin of biological diversity as “the mystery of mysteries,” and he endorsed the idea of a Creator who “operates through a series of intermediate causes.” If we were ever to understand the production of new species, Herschel believed, it “would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process.”

Shortly before Darwin embarked on that voyage, Herschel had published a major work, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830). Ten years later, the great polymath William Whewell, whom Darwin knew at Cambridge, published Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, founded upon their History (1840). Herschel and Whewell both presented Newtonian astronomy as the ideal type of scientific theory. Why? Because it showed that many diverse phenomena followed logically from just a few general laws that applied universally to nature.

Darwin wanted to make Herschel’s “mystery of mysteries” conform to natural laws established by the Creator, as in this passage from his 1844 essay (note especially the words I have rendered in bold type):

“I must here premise that, according to the view ordinarily received, the myriads of organisms, which have during past and present times peopled this world, have been created by so many distinct acts of creation. It is impossible to reason concerning the will of the Creator, and therefore, according to this view, we can see no cause why or why not the individual organism should have been created on any fixed scheme. That all the organisms of this world have been produced on a scheme is certain from their general affinities; and if this scheme can be shown to be the same with that which would result from allied organic beings descending from common stocks, it becomes highly improbable that they have been separately created by individual acts of the will of a Creator.”

In other words, arbitrary acts of divine creation function as science stoppers. If God actually created all things separately and miraculously, then we will never be able to say anything more than that. According to Darwin, however, if we can show that various creatures look as if they have common ancestors then it seems unlikely that God created them separately. And Darwin believed, of course, that various creatures really do look as if they have common ancestors. As Darwin continues in the next passage, note the way in which he favorably compares the “general laws” of Newtonian astronomy with arbitrariness of special divine action:

“For as well might it be said that, although the planets move in courses conformably to the law of gravity, yet we ought to attribute the course of each planet to the individual act of the will of the Creator. It is in every case more conformable with what we know of the government of this earth, that the Creator should have imposed only general laws. As long as no method was known by which races [biological types] could become exquisitely adapted to various ends, whilst the existence of species was thought to be proved by the sterility of their offspring, it was allowable to attribute each organism to an individual act of creation. But in the two former chapters it has (I think) been shown that the production, under existing conditions, of exquisitely adapted species, is at least possible.”

In other words, if we want to understand planetary motion, we appeal to the law of gravity. Darwin knew that was a done deal—physicists had been explaining the Solar System in terms of natural law for a long time, and there was nothing controversial about it. Likewise, if we want to understand the production of “exquisitely adapted” species, we need to appeal to some “general laws”; otherwise, we are left grasping for straws. What exactly were those general laws? To answer that question, we turn to the last part of the published version of the Origin of Species.

“Physics Envy” in the Origin of Species

Vestiges of Darwin’s theism are still evident in the published version from 1859. Six pages from the end of the book, Darwin summed up his overall position on common ancestry, stating his belief “that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.” Five sentences later he went even further, suggesting that “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” (p. 484). Note the language borrowed from Genesis 2:7, which can only have been intentional—regardless of the specific intention behind it.

The final paragraph in the book (pp. 489-90) is justly famous. Let’s dissect it in light of what I’ve said about his residual theism; again I use bold type to highlight certain phrases. The first sentence reads, “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

What were these laws? “These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.” Next, Darwin gave readers a glimpse of his theodicy—he struggled with the struggle for existence, and he gave it an eschatological twist. “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”

The final sentence of the book provides further evidence of physics envy. “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

It’s the only use of the word “evolved” in the whole book, and we look in vain for even a single instance of the word “evolution.” Nevertheless that’s what we now call his theory.

Darwin’s Appeal to William Whewell’s Natural Theology

on the origin of species first edition

The first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859. Opposite the title page are two epigraphs. The one on the bottom, from Francis Bacon’s highly influential book, The Advancement of Learning (1605), recommends diligent study of both “the book of God’s word” (the Bible) and “the book of God’s works” (the creation). The other one comes from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise. (image source)

As surprising as it might seem, Darwin’s language about “general laws” in the 1844 essay harks back to a sentence in one of the great works of British natural theology. In 1833, while Darwin was somewhere off the South American coast, William Whewell had published Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. In a brilliant penultimate chapter “On the Physical Agency of the Deity”, the deeply Christian author argued that we ought to base design arguments on what philosophers now call the “lawlikeness” of nature—that is, the regularities nature exhibits—and not on any miraculous exceptions to it. Here’s the relevant passage, with my bold type for emphasis (pp. 356-7):

“We are not to expect that physical investigation can enable us to conceive the manner in which God acts upon the members of the universe. The question, ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’ must silence the boastings of science as well as the repinings of adversity. Indeed science shows us, far more clearly than the conceptions of every day reason, at what an immeasurable distance we are from any faculty of conceiving how the universe, material and moral, is the work of the Deity. But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. This, which is the view of the universe proper to science, whose office it is to search out these laws, is also the view which, throughout this work, we have endeavoured to keep present in the mind of the reader.”

Darwin used the bolded sentence as an epigraph for his book. Just two pages later, Whewell unreservedly praised John Herschel’s statement that God “doth accomplish and fulfill his divine will in all things, great and small, singular and general, as fully and exactly by providence, as he could by miracle and new creation, though his working be not immediate and direct, but by compass; not violating Nature, which is his own law upon the creature” (quoted by Whewell, p. 358). Darwin quoted Whewell, because in context Whewell was thinking exactly what Darwin had suggested in the essay of 1844: God created not by miracles, but through general laws.

Natural Theology After Darwin

bridgewater treatises william whewell

Published in London and Philadelphia between 1833 and 1840, the Bridgewater treatises consisted of eight titles (bound in twelve volumes) by leading British scientists and clergy. Each author was commissioned to demonstrate “the power[,] wisdom and goodness of God as manifested in the creation” from his own scientific or theological expertise. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

I doubt Darwin foresaw the possibility that Whewell’s language about “the establishment of general laws” would point the way to a new type of natural theology. Evolution by natural selection, operating on “chance” variations, undermined the kind of natural theology done by William Paley, whose work Darwin had appreciated as a student. Like many others since Robert Boyle and John Ray in the late seventeenth century, Paley had emphasized the wisdom and goodness of the Creator as seen in the many wonderful ways that God had specially created plants and animals to fit perfectly and harmoniously into specific, unchanging environments. As Darwin realized, if his theory was correct, then Paley was wrong: there are no unchanging environments, perfect adaptation is a chimera, and nature exhibits a struggle for existence rather than a harmonious balance. Anyone interested in doing natural theology after Darwin would need a new place from which to begin.

Ironically, Whewell’s words provided exactly what was needed to rebuild natural theology on a new foundation. As I explained in another series, natural theology did not disappear after Darwin and it took precisely the turn anticipated by Whewell. Just five years after Darwin’s book appeared, a devout Unitarian chemist from Harvard, Josiah Parsons Cooke, replied to Darwin in a profound book with an intriguing title, Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God’s Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements, published during the Civil War in 1864. Cooke deftly sidestepped evolutionary objections to Paley by inquiring into the basic properties of matter itself—the features of the physical universe that make life possible in the first place. “There is abundant evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone,” he argued, especially as they combine to make the unique substance we call water. Since natural selection doesn’t apply before life exists, this type of natural theology is one that “no theories of organic development can shake.”

A leading contemporary proponent of this kind of post-Darwinian natural theology is John Polkinghorne. He doesn’t talk about water, but he explores features of the whole universe that offer “general hints of the divine presence” behind it. He also understands that “appeal[ing] to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature” constitutes a “new-style natural theology.” Contrary to Paley and other pre-Darwinian natural theologians, such an approach

“in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight.”

I can almost hear William Whewell standing up to applaud, and perhaps even Darwin is paying attention. Contrary to what is often said, Darwin’s theory wasn’t atheistic, and it didn’t destroy natural theology. It was all about creation by natural laws—essentially the same view that BioLogos calls Evolutionary Creation—and left the door open for others to formulate newer, even more powerful, arguments from design.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.