Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

Leading Darwin expert and founder of Darwin Online, John van Wyhe, challenges the popular assumption that Darwin's theory of evolution corresponded with a loss of religious belief.

June 28, 2011

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The religious views of Charles Darwin, the venerable Victorian naturalist and author of the Origin of Species (1859) never cease to interest modern readers. Bookshops and the internet are well-stocked with discussions of Darwin’s views and the implications of his theory of evolution for religion. Many religious writers today accuse Darwin of atheism. Some popular proponents of atheism also enlist Darwin to their cause. Even while Darwin was still alive there were widely varying descriptions of his religious opinions — which he kept mostly private. In 1880 the Austrian writer Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg visited Darwin at his home, Down House, in Kent. The coachman who drove Hesse-Wartegg from the train station at Orpington opined of the famous Mr. Darwin: “Ha es en enfidel, Sar — yes, an enfidel — an unbeliever! and the people say he never went to church!”. The passage quoted here was actually marked in Darwin’s copy of this German newspaper (the Frankfurter Zeitung und Handelsblatt) — no doubt it amused Darwin as much as the German attempt to capture the Kentish accent through phonetic spelling.

Other commentators were more generous in their interpretations of Darwin’s religiosity. The modern myth of a timeless conflict of science and religion was far from the reality experienced by Victorian readers who first turned the pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man (1871). It is now widely forgotten that the scientific debate over the theory of evolution was over within twenty years of the publication of Origin of Species. Yet how could that be given that the Victorians were, by and large, far more religious than people generally are today and the scientific evidence for evolution was far less complete than it is now? The explanation is that for very many Victorians the choice was not between God and science, religion or evolution, but between different notions of how God designed nature. It was already widely accepted that fixed natural laws (or secondary laws) had been discovered that explained natural phenomena from astronomy and chemistry to physiology and geology. Darwin, it was believed, had simply discovered a new law of nature designed by God. And it seems this was how Darwin himself viewed at least part of the religious implications of his evolutionary theory. This also makes it all the more understandable that Darwin was buried by the nation in Westminster Abbey in 1882.

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“A Venerable Orang-outang”, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine

A few of Darwin’s private letters referring to religion were published near the end of his life and more after his death. These have been very widely quoted in the voluminous discussions of Darwin’s religious views. Searching for other material which might have bearing on the question of his religious views, I turned to Darwin Online, an online repository of Darwin‘s corpus where it is possible to search the works by key term. Putting in terms like ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ I found what seems to be a previously unknown discussion of this question by Darwin himself. The passage occurs in Darwin’s lengthy 1879 “Preliminary notice” to the English translation of Ernst Krause’s biography of Darwin’s freethinking paternal grandfather, the poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). Darwin addressed the question of whether his grandfather was an atheist:

Dr. Darwin has been frequently called an atheist, whereas in every one of his works distinct expressions may be found showing that he fully believed in God as the Creator of the universe. For instance, in the ‘Temple of Nature,’ published posthumously, he writes: “Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress to greater perfection! an idea countenanced by modern discoveries and deductions concerning the progressive formation of the solid parts of the terraqueous globe, and consonant to the dignity of the creator of all things.” He concludes one chapter in ‘Zoonomia’ with the words of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”
He published an ode on the folly of atheism, with the motto “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” of which the first verse is as follows:—
Dull atheist, could a giddy dance
Of atoms lawless hurl’d
Construct so wonderful, so wise,
So harmonised a world?

It is curious that this passage has not been noticed before. If Charles Darwin argued that his grandfather’s frequent published “expressions” about a creator meant he was not an atheist, it is possible to put Darwin’s own writings to the same test. By searching his published writings on Darwin Online for “creator” one can quickly see the life-long use that Darwin made of this language.

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Diagram representing the divergence of species, from Darwin’s Origin of Species

The first occurrence is in his first book, Journal of Researches (first edition of 1839, based on his Beagle diary) now known universally as The Voyage of the Beagle referring to an excursion in Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

The term does not appear in Darwin’s published writings again until the first edition of Origin of Species (1859) and the many different editions and rewordings that followed until 1872.

Darwin next used the term in his following book on the pollination adaptations of orchids in 1862:

This treatise affords me also an opportunity of attempting to show that the study of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator.

This shows Darwin’s position very clearly. Even more informative are the concluding paragraphs of Variation of Animals and Plants (1868), one of his clearest and most powerful expressions of his theory of natural selection:

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.
The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.

Then in 1871 Darwin addressed the subject of religion in the Descent of Man:

Belief in God—Religion.—There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.

And in the conclusion to the second volume Darwin wrote:

He who believes in the advancement of man from some lowly-organised form, will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul. The barbarous races of man, as Sir J. Lubbock has shewn, possess no clear belief of this kind; but arguments derived from the primeval beliefs of savages are, as we have just seen, of little or no avail. Few persons feel any anxiety from the impossibility of determining at what precise period in the development of the individual, from the first trace of the minute germinal vesicle to the child either before or after birth, man becomes an immortal being; and there is no greater cause for anxiety because the period in the gradually ascending organic scale cannot possibly be determined.
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Darwin’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

Darwin himself was not entirely consistent in the language he used to describe his beliefs. And of course his views changed over the course of his life. Starting in 1876 he began writing a private autobiography for his children and grandchildren. In it he mentioned the change in his religious views. A gradual scepticism towards Christianity and the authenticity of the Bible gradually crept over him during the late 1830s — leaving him not a Christian, but no atheist either; rather a sort of theist. To be a ‘theist’ in Darwin’s day was to believe that a supernatural deity had created nature or the univerise but did not intervene in the course of history. Darwin used the term in one famous passage in the autobiography:

. . . the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker.

At other times he used the term ‘agnostic’ — a word coined and made fashionable by the naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley. In an 1879 letter, written around the same time as the autobiography and first published in Life and Letters, he writes:

In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.

Given the paucity of evidence, and the ambiguity of the statements that do remain, we will probably never be able to completely refine our definition or understanding of Darwin’s religious views. But that is not to say that there are some things that cannot be known. One point is abundantly clear, all the surviving evidence contradicts the assertion that Darwin was an atheist.

John van Wyhe is Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore. He has published four books on Darwin, including the illustrated biography: Darwin (Andre Deutsch 2008). He is also founder and director of Darwin Online.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.