July 2023

Darwin’s Religious Views

Although it can be done, it is difficult to discover Charles Darwin’s religious viewpoints for three reasons. 1. It changed with time. 2. He was loathe to offend religious people. 3. He was not above appearing religious if it would advance his theory of life’s evolution by natural selection.

Darwin’s family religious heritage was Unitarian. Unitarians, as a group, were the liberal free thinkers of nineteenth century England. Darwin’s great grandfather Erasmus Darwin was the consummate enlightenment skeptic who bordered on atheism. Erasmus, in his evolutionary treatise Zoonomia, did add a whiff of theism. Charles’ father, Dr. Robert Darwin, was also a skeptic and an evolutionist (transmutationist, as it was called) and was agnostic regarding religion.

Darwin’s boyhood interests included horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and shooting. He developed a passion for collecting shells, minerals, and insects. At one point his father told him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.” His father was persistent in finding a career for his son. At his father’s request, Darwin tried medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland but dropped out after observing the horror of performing surgery without anesthesia. At this point his disappointed father laid down the law. No more misspent money, no more wasted time: if Charles reckoned that he could fall back on his father’s wealth, he had better think again. In the meantime, Dr. Robert Darwin did not have to be a believer to notice that a salaried gentlemen country parson’s life would fit his aimless son with a penchant for field sports.

In his autobiography, Charles claims that when his father set before him the prospect of becoming an Anglican priest, Charles asked for time to think it over, being somewhat worried about having to declare his allegiance to “all the dogmas of the Church of England, especially since, following upon two generations of freethinkers, he wasn’t all that familiar with them.” So, he read a few theology books, and “as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.”

It is hard to take Darwin at his word here. The Darwins were Unitarians and liberal Whigs with three generations of religious skeptics, heirs to the Enlightenment and critics of scriptural literalism and dogmatic belief. Instead of believing Charles had a sudden conversion to biblical literalism and dogmatic Anglican beliefs, it seems more likely that this was just a practical response to his situation. After dropping out of medical school Charles felt that this might be his last chance for a respectable career, as demanded by his father, and was willing to say and do what he thought was necessary. This becomes clear when you concentrate on two italicized words in the phrase, “I persuaded myself that our Creed must be accepted.”

Charles indeed did have a brush with theism during his theological education at Cambridge, given his friendship with Anglican parson-scientists John Henslow and Adam Sedgewick. Required reading for a theology degree included William Paley’s “Natural Theology.” This book which was warmly approved by Henslow and Sedgewick had a basic theme, “nature declared the glory of God in every detail.” But if Darwin was briefly attracted to theism, it did not last long. By the time he was about to marry his cousin Emma Wedgewood at the beginning of 1839 he had to confess to her that, like his own father and her father, he was an agnostic.

After graduation from Cambridge theology college, but before he could accept a parish of his own, Charles was offered a position as the ship’s naturalist on a voyage of the HMS Beagle which was planned by the British Admiralty to map the coastline of South America. At the beginning of this voyage and trying to be true to his recent education he quoted the Bible on authority and looked for “centers of creation” to explain distributions of species that he was observing. Through the five years of the Beagle’s voyage his views on religion changed. Ironically, it was one of his observations about the distribution of varied species of finches on the Galapagos Islands that started to change his mind. Instead of “looking for centers of creation” he began looking for natural phenomenon or a natural law underlying this distribution of bird species. He noted the differing bird beak sizes which seemed associated with the seed size and toughness found on each individual isle. The tougher the seeds the larger the beak. Darwin spent a lot of time on the mainland of South America while Captain Fitzroy completed his coastline mapping survey on the HMS Beagle. He collected many specimens of plants and animals and sent them back to England on merchant vessels that were visiting ports on the South American east and west coasts. He discovered fossils of extinct animals. One, the megatherium was a giant-sized ground sloth. Darwin wondered why a perfect God would create an animal just to see it go extinct. He noted two species of Rhea one in northern South America and one in southern South America differing mostly in size and wondered what purpose God had in creating two species when one would have sufficed. He had many other insights into the laws of nature, but one that repeatedly stood out was the stark randomness and cruelty of nature, underlying its benign façade. For an example, he discovered a parasitic wasp which stung a caterpillar just enough to paralyze it, but not kill it, then lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar which would then remain alive until the growing larvae could eat it alive from inside out. What is a beneficent God’s purpose here? One needs only to observe a lioness bringing down a baby zebra on the Serengeti plain and then proceed to eat it alive to understand the ubiquitous cruelty in nature that Darwin was noticing and recording over his five years as a dedicated naturalist. At the completion of the HMS Beagle’s voyage most of Charles Darwin’s biographers now agree that he was a confirmed evolutionist and religiously agnostic.

After returning home and marrying Emma he began his studying and writing career. He wrote The Voyage of the Beagle. He gave talks about geology and the natural world that he had observed on his voyage. He began studying what he called artificial selection by corresponding with many animal and plant breeders around the world. He read Malthus’ book on overpopulation, which discussed the disastrous end of unchecked worldwide human population growth. Darwin knew that plants and animals produced more progeny than could possibly survive. He had observed for years the small variations in the immediate descendants of the plants and animals he studied. This led directly to his theory of natural selection. Those offspring that were better adapted to their environment would survive and live to reproduce. Survival of the fittest. Over twenty years he developed this theory more fully and performed many experiments to confirm it. He bred pigeons, studied earthworms, chronicled the life cycles of barnacles, and authored a book about carnivorous plants to name a few. He made friends with eminent scientists like the botanist from Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker, and the anatomist Thomas Huxley. Both were supportive of his theory and encouraged him to publish. But Darwin was reticent to publish a theory which he knew would be extremely controversial and likely cause a lot of angst among the general public. As Huxley had once told him, “Darwin, don’t you realize that you have killed God and I say good riddance to that vindictive old bastard.” Charles was not sure he wanted to kill God in one fell swoop. For one thing, his loving and caregiving wife Emma remained a true believer.

Another critical event in Darwin’s life that influenced his religious views was the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie from what is thought now to have been disseminated tuberculosis on 23 April 1851. He said, “I could no longer believe in any loving, beneficent God after Annies death.” Although his wife and family continued intermittent attendance at religious services, Charles never set foot inside an Anglican Church again.

A letter from Alfred Wallace in 1858, another naturalist who noted similar principles of evolution in plant and animals he was studying in Indonesia, surprised and upset Charles because he realized he might be scooped if he did not publish immediately. After a joint paper with Wallace on evolution presented to the Linnaean Society in 1858, Darwin went on to finish and publish “Origin of Species by Natural Selection” in 1859. The first printing sold out immediately and it went into a second printing within weeks. It was a widely discussed book of the times. Darwin’s friends and associates, among them Hooker, Huxley and Robert Grant spread the idea of evolution by natural selection. They used newspaper articles, scientific journals, and speeches. One of note was the well-known debate between bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley. “Darwinism” became a hot topic discussed in school, at home and in proper social circles. Despite Darwin’s reticence to stir up a nasty controversy and upset a lot of people he had started an avalanche and now he could only stand back and watch.

Some apologists have said Darwin had a deathbed conversion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin had been working assiduously on his entirely materialistic account of evolution for years, methodically squeezing out every place where the divine might enter. That was the account he stuck to and defended all his life. There were several of his friends, notably Charles Lyell, Alfred Russel Wallace and Asa Gray that supported the idea of evolution for most lifeforms but argued that man’s moral and intellectual abilities could not be explained by natural selection. This annoyed Darwin and in response he wrote the Descent of Man. In this book, Darwin argued that not only man’s moral and intellectual capacities are brought about by natural selection, but even religion itself. This was his last word on God.

—Craig Wilkinson, MD
HoU Treasurer

Turning 75

It has been a few months since my last submission to the newsletter, so I thought I would check in and write about a few things that have been on my mind. Having made it to three quarters of a century in June, I’ve spent some time reflecting on several things that have happened in the last few years. I don’t think that thirty years ago I would have ever imagined that we would have a pandemic kill so many people or a person like Donald Trump do so much harm to the United States, or to the whole world for that matter. Nor would I have guessed that a religious group could be so easily fooled by someone like Trump. But a recent poll shows that 80% of Evangelicals would still vote for an immoral, unethical, uncaring man.

So, I was thinking about a scenario for these so-called Evangelical Christians to contemplate. What if Jesus Christ were to come back to earth and it happened to be at a Trump rally. Do you people really think he would put his arm around Trump and say, “I want you to be just like this man. I want you to lie nearly every time you open your mouth. I want you to cheat on your wife, have sex with a porn star and grab women by their privates. I want you to cause more people to die from a pandemic by willfully giving the public bad information and bullshit about this disease. (And the list goes on and on.) Now obviously I’m not a believer, but I was in my youth, and I have read the bible. Nothing I learned or understood about Christ would make me believe that he would have anything to do with Trump. And the support they continue to give to Trump leads me to see Evangelicals (as Trump would put it) as “fake Christians.”

I also would never have thought that fascism could subvert the Republican party the way it has. In the past I would have been hesitant to call a group of people fascists, but I think they are becoming just that, fascists. If you look at the various definitions of fascism you will find some small differences but there are a few key attributes; 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democracy or democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Tolerating and or encouraging violence. 4. A readiness to curtail liberties of opponents and the media. I believe that we can ascribe these attributes to the conservative party and not be too far off. Plus, in an expanded discussion we can be more specific about these four key attributes. For example, we can show how the racist things they say in speeches and in print encourages violence. The threat to our democracy is apparent now and has been for a while and it needs to be called out and confronted.

There are other things I’ve been reflecting on, like the environment but I’ll leave that for another time. Our annual BBQ is coming up before too long, so in closing I’ll say I hope to see you there, where we can enjoy good food and good conversation.

—Robert Lane
HoU Board Member

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