I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence.

In "Religion," the eighth chapter of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, his son Francis claims that “in his published works he was reticent on the matter of religion — something not quite accurate because, as we shall see, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) does explicitly discuss this subject in relation to human eveolution. But, as Francis points out, Darwin willingly explained his belief (or unbelief) in private letters and in the autobiography he wrote for his children. Thus, when asked about his views of religion by J. Fordyce, Darwin responded “my judgment often fluctuates . . . In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” He then uses the term coined by T. H. Huxley, his follower and fierce advocate, when he continued, “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.” Similarly, when discussing the origins of the universe, he admitted, "I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."

Although Darwin did not endure the spiritual agonies of Arthur Hugh Clough, John Ruskin, and many Victorians who cast off their childhood faith, his autobiography indicates that he tried to retain his Anglicanism: “I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels.” Still, no matter how hard he tried, he found he could not “invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress” (Life and Letters, ch. 8; all subsequent quoted material comes from this source unless otherwise indicated)

Argument for the existence of God: “This grand and wondrous universe”

Both private letters and the autobiography he wrote for his family explain the reasons for the settled skepticism of this man who almost became a clergyman. A letter of April 2, 1873 to a Dutch student who had inquired about his views on religion begins with a common argument for the existence of God, which it then immediately undercuts: "I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide" (my emphasis). He then added, "I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose.”

Argument for the existence of God: The near universality of religions

In The Descent of Man, Darwin explained that the supposed universality of religions did not prove the existence of God. Having spent many pages examining the evidence that human beings are descendants of the animal kingdom with whom they share organs and behavior, Darwin comes to the subject of religion. “The belief in God,” he tells us, “ has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals.” The first problem with this separation of homo sapiens from their animal ancestors, Darwin argues, is that “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.” He next points out, however, that the matter of an innate belief in God is “of course distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe” (430).

Darwin does admit that if “we include under the term 'religion' the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilised races.” But such beliefs hardly qualify as the kind of religion that supposedly separated people from animals. In fact they tend to appear the opposite. Darwin dismisses the “rash argument” that an “assumed instinctive belief in God” argues for His existence. If this were so, he argues, we would “be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent Deity.” He concludes, then, that the “idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.”

Argument against the existence of God: The immense suffering in nature

Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin abandoned Christianity because he found it offensive on moral grounds. How could one believe in a God and a religion that permitted so much pain and agony in human beings and dumb animals alike? As Darwin points out, “That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement.” Rejecting this human-centric view, Darwin argues that “the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement.” Therefore the old argument “against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, . . . the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”

Darwin's rejection of Christianity differs from another Victorian reason for denying the validity of religion. In his pioneering essay, “The Warfare of Conscience with Theology,” Josef P. Altholz explains that rejecting religion on moral grounds provides a better explanation for the mid-Victorian spiritual crisis than does the conventional view that science simply disproved the validity of fundamental Christian belief. According to Altholz, “because the normal posture of the churches during the crisis was one of denial and resistance in the face of the triumphant advance of science and criticism -- it is natural to see these events in terms of the inevitable progress of the human mind and the advancement of science. . . . This is the traditional approach to the subject, immortalized in the phrase of Andrew Dickson White, "the warfare of science with theology." According to Altholz, "the spokesmen of orthodox faith narrowed the ground on which Christianity was to be defended and allowed their scientific opponents to appear more honest than themselves. In these conflicts, the position of orthodox doctrine was, as presented by its upholders, not only less valid but less moral than that of irreligious science. As events unfolded, not merely the intellect but the moral sense, particularly the sense of truthfulness, revolted against orthodoxy.” A key issue here, Altholz explains, was the Victorian approach to truth, truthfulness, and proof:

It is characteristic of the Victorians that they were more interested in truthfulness than in truth; they were more concerned with the moral character of the speaker than with the factual correctness of his statement. A result of this attitude is that the debates over biblical criticism have a curious ad hominem character. Thus, criticism is opposed because it seems to impugn the truthfulness of God as the author of the Bible; or the Essayists and Reviewers are condemned as dishonest because the conclusions they reached contradicted the promises they made at their ordinations. The trouble with this mode of reasoning is that it draws attention to personalities and away from the actual issues of debate; it is the practice of evasion in the name of honesty.

This “evasion in the name of honesty,” which led many inquirers to see religion and its defenders as immoral, in turn led to what Altholz terms an “ethical revulsion against cruel dogmas” experienced by Mill, Froude, Eliot, and Darwin. The roots of such ethical revulsion, it turns out, lay in the religious revival itself:

The apparent immorality of the Bible and the Creed provided stock arguments for atheists; more important, it provided grounds for that perplexity of faith about which professed believers were so unwholesomely reticent. It is possible that the science and criticism of the 1860s had such effect because they provided stimuli and rationales for minds already unsettled and alienated on these moral grounds. At any rate, the ethical challenge preceded and transcended the scientific challenge. Perhaps the Victorian religious revival had made men too moral to be orthodox, too humanitarian to be Christian (my emphasis).

Seen within this context, Darwin appears very much to be a man of his own time rather than an aberration or a revolutionary. (Altholz's essay, which is on this site, does a fine job, I may point out, of placing Darwin within the religious and scientific debates of his own time.)

Argument against the existence of God: The Bible is not a record of true revelation, and miracles do not exist

Darwin, like many Victorians, realized that geology, the Higher Criticism, and other disciplines had demonstrated that the Bible could not be literally true, and, as he wrote a German student in 1879, “I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation” and he rejected the existence of miracles. Furthermore, “The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me.”

Argument against the existence of God: Natural Selection and the Argument from Design

Perhaps the most important intellectual reason for Darwin's rejection of Christianity and all other religions lay in the fact that it did not fit with his theory of evolution; or, to put it differently, his theory of the survival of the fittest dismantled the “old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive.” If we accept natural selection, “we can no longer argue that . . . the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”

Argument against the existence of God: the subjective nature of belief

Writing in a post-Romantic age, Darwin aserts that "At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons." He admits, “Formerly I was led by feelings such as those just referred to (although I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me), to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul.” He wrote in the journal he kept during the journey on The Beagle, "whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind. I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.”

What happened? Darwin traces his loss of this sense of the divine in nature to his notorious loss of an ability to experience aesthetic pleasure. A man who for many years had loved reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth and had taken pleasure in looking at paintings and Romantic nature, in later years found himself “like a man who has become colour-blind” in a world in which everyone else sees bright red. Therefore, he points out, ”the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence.” Just when one begins to think that Darwin has made a major concession — he admits he may be unable to perceive something universally perceived — he points out that “this argument” in favor of the divine would be a valid one if, and only if, “all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. The state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, . . . can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God, any more than the powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.”

Bibliography

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1891. Google Books. Web. 10 April 2012.

The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. Volume I. Ed. Francis Darwin. Project Gutenberg EBook #2087 produced by Sue Asscher in February 1999. Web. 29 July 2012


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Last modified 2 August 2012