Darwin’s Religious Odyssey
We at OUP UK were delighted recently when we heard that Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction by Thomas Dixon had won The Dingle Prize. It is awarded biennially by the British Society for the History of Science for the best book in the history of science, technology and medicine accessible to a non-expert readership, with the judges declaring that Thomas Dixon’s book “is clearly and concisely written, well argued, and accessible to the non-expert; it should appeal to a wide readership not only beyond the history of science community but also outside academia”.
In his early 20s, Darwin was looking forward to a career in the Church of England. He had embarked on medical training in Edinburgh a few years earlier but had found the lectures boring and the demonstrations of surgery disgusting. Now his father sent him off to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where young Charles signed up to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and set about studying mathematics and theology with a view to entering holy orders after graduation. But Darwin found that theology appealed about as much as surgery. His real passion at this time was for beetle-hunting rather than Bible-reading, and he had an early triumph when one of the specimens he had identified appeared in print in an instalment of Illustrations of British Entomology. In 1831 this enthusiastic young amateur naturalist was invited to join the HMS Beagle as a companion to the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy, and to undertake collections and observations on matters of natural-historical interest. Perhaps he was not, after all, destined to become the Reverend Charles Darwin.
The voyage of the Beagle lasted from 1831 to 1836. The primary purpose of the expedition was to complete the British Admiralty’s survey of the coast of South America, but its five-year itinerary also took in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Darwin’s observations of rock formations, plants, animals, and indigenous peoples were incidental to the purpose of the expedition but absolutely central to his own intellectual development. On board the Beagle, Darwin’s religious views started to evolve too. He had no doubt that the natural world was the work of God. In his notebook he recorded his impressions of the South American jungle: ‘Twiners entwining twiners – tresses like hair – beautiful lepidoptera – Silence – hosannah.’ To Darwin, these jungles were ‘temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature’, in which no-one could stand without ‘feeling that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body’. He even admired the civilizing effects of the work of Christian missionaries too, observing that ‘so excellent is the Christian faith, that the outward conduct of the believers is said most decidedly to have been improved by its doctrines’.
Back in England, however, after the voyage, Darwin would start to have doubts. His grandfather, father, and elder brother had all rejected Christianity, adopting either Deism or outright freethinking unbelief. He seemed to be heading in a similar direction. His reasons were many. His travels had revealed to him at first hand the great variety of religious beliefs and practices around the world. All these different religions claimed to have a special revelation from God, but they could not all be right. Then there was his moral revulsion at the Christian doctrine that while the faithful would be saved, unbelievers and heathens, along with unrepentant sinners, would be consigned to an eternity of damnation. Darwin thought this was a ‘damnable doctrine’ and could not see how anyone could wish it to be true. This objection hit him with particular force after the death of his unbelieving father in 1848.
There were two ways in which Darwin’s re-reading of the book of nature also gave him reasons to re-think his religion. He and others before him had seen in the adaptation of plants and animals to their environments evidence of the power and wisdom of God. But Darwin now thought he saw something else. Hard though it was for him to believe it himself – the human eye could still give him a shudder of incredulity – he came to think that all these adaptations came about by natural processes. Variation and natural selection could counterfeit intelligent design. Secondly, along with the silent beauty of the jungle he had also observed all sorts of cruelty and violence in nature, which he could not believe a benevolent and omnipotent God could have willed. Why, for example, would God have created the ichneumon wasp? The ichneumon lays its eggs inside a caterpillar, with the effect that when the larvae hatch they eat their host alive. Why would God create cuckoos which eject their foster siblings from the nest? Why make ants that enslave other species of ant? Why give queen bees the instinct of murderous hatred towards their daughters? ‘What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write’, Darwin exclaimed, ‘on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!’
Darwin never became an atheist. At the time he wrote On the Origin of Species he was still a theist, although not a Christian. By the end of his life he preferred to adopt the label ‘agnostic’, which had been coined by his friend Thomas Huxley in 1869. Darwin, for the most part, kept his religious doubts to himself. He had many reasons to do so, not least his desire for a quiet life and social respectability. The most important reason, though, was his wife Emma. In the early years of their marriage, Emma, a pious evangelical Christian, wrote a letter to Charles of her fears about his loss of faith in Christianity and the consequences for his salvation. She could not bear the thought that his doubts would mean they were not reunited after death in heaven. The death of their beloved young daughter Annie in 1851 brought home again the need for the consolation of an afterlife. The difference between Charles and Emma on this question was a painful one. Among Darwin’s papers after his death, Emma found the letter she had written to him on the subject 40 years earlier. On it her husband had added a short note of his own: ‘When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cryed over this.’