Charles Darwin’s Religious Belief

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is an internationally famous name, but many know nothing about his personal life or his religious belief. As you know, Darwin attended a Church of England school, and he studied Anglican theology with the aim of becoming a clergyman. He was born the fifth of six children into a wealthy Shropshire gentry family in Shrewsbury. The Darwin-Wedgwood family was a prominent English family, descended from Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), who was an English potter, credited with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery. He was very rich, and Wedgwood’s company is still a famous name in pottery today. One of Josiah’s daughters married Erasmus’ son Robert. And one of the children of that marriage, Charles Darwin, also married a Wedgwood – Emma, Josiah’s granddaughter. Emma, was very religious and conservative woman. For a time in her youth she was sent to Paris, where she studied piano, but she remained a conservative/traditional woman. (Of course she accepted Darwin’s marriage proposal in 1838, at the age of 30). Some said: “A source of difficulty in the Darwin’s marriage was conflict between his scientific findings and Emma’s own devout Christian beliefs. The difficulty was increased when, following the painful and emotionally devastating death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie”. They added: “With the death of his daughter Annie (below picture shows Darwin, his wife, and Annie) Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile” (Darwin had ten children, but three of them died very soon). Now, Emma Darwin is remembered for her patience and fortitude in dealing with her husband’s long-term illness. Some say: “She was a crucial factor in her husband’s scientific accomplishments”. They also add: “Darwin was evidently pained by the anxieties his beliefs produced in Emma, and tried to express them as gently as he could. He loved his wife.” And Darwin’s son said: “After dinner he played backgammon with my mother, two games being played every night; for many years a score of the games which each won was kept, and in this score he took the greatest interest. He became extremely animated over these games, bitterly lamenting his bad luck and exploding with exaggerated mock-anger at my mother’s good fortune .” But all of these stories are incomplete, and just Charles Darwin’s own reflections on his life and work, written between the ages of 67 and 73, can show us the truth about his personal life and his religious belief. In his autobiography, Darwin tells the story of the slow maturing of his mind and of his theories. But after his death, his conservative family divided concerning the publication of some of the passages of Autobiography relating to his religious beliefs. His wife told his son: “I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published … I should wish if possible to avoid giving pain to your father’s religious friends who are deeply attached to him”. Many members of the family felt strongly that Darwin’s views, so privately recorded and not intended for publication, would be damaging to himself in their crudity. In 1887, his son wrote: “My father was very kind-hearted, and thoroughly liberal in his religious beliefs or rather disbeliefs; but he was a strong theist .” But some said: “After T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s close friend, coined the word “agnostic” around 1868, Darwin used it to describe himself.” Anyway, finally in 1956, after about 70 years censorship, Nora Barlow, the granddaughter of Darwin, published the full text of Charles Darwin’s Autobiography. Darwin died 130 years ago, but even now many people in the west and the whole world are as fanatic and ignorant as the people at the age of Darwin. Now Lets take a look at the passages of Darwin’s Autobiography relating to his religious beliefs, that were censored for decades but still can be an answer to his enemies and all stupid religious fanatics:

“During these two years, I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc. and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished, -is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, etc., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. This appeared to me utterly incredible. By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, – that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become, – that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us, – that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, – that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses – by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation . The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories. But 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. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination to 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, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine .

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“Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, 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 . Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domestic Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered. But passing over the endless beautiful adaptations which we everywhere meet with, it may be asked how can the generally beneficent arrangement of the world be accounted for? Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world, that they doubt if we look to all sentient beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness; – whether the world as a whole is a good or a bad one. According to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove. If the truth of this conclusion be granted, it harmonizes well with the effects which we might expect from natural selection. If all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this has ever or at least often occurred. Some other considerations, moreover, lead to the belief that all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness. Every one who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantageous or disadvantageous to the possessor) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, together with use or habit, will admit that these organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings, and thus increase in number. Now an animal may be led to pursue that course of action which is the most beneficial to the species by suffering, such as pain, hunger, thirst, and fear, -or by pleasure, as in eating and drinking and in the propagation of the species, or by both means combined, as in the search for food. But pain or suffering of any kind, if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action; yet is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil. Pleasurable sensations, on the other hand, may be long continued without any depressing effect; on the contrary they stimulate the whole system to increased action. Hence it has come to pass that most or all sentient beings have been developed in such a manner through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides . We see this in the pleasure from exertion, even occasionally from great exertion of the body or mind, – in the pleasure of our daily meals, and especially in the pleasure derived from sociability and from loving our families. The sum of such pleasures as these, which are habitual or frequently recurrent, give, as I can hardly doubt, to most sentient beings an excess of happiness over misery, although many occasionally suffer much. Such suffering, is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.”

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement . A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation. 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. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddhists of no God. There are also many barbarian tribes who cannot be said with any truth to believe in what we call God: they believe indeed in spirits or ghosts, and it can be explained, as Tyler and Herbert Spencer have shown, how such a belief would be likely to arise . 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. In my Journal I wrote that 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. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become color-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence. This argument would be a valid one 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, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity; and however difficult it may be to explain the genesis of this sense, it 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. With respect to immortality, nothing shows me how strong and almost instinctive a belief it is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicists, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus gives it fresh life [!]. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long continued slow progress . To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.

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Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from 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 . But then arises the doubt -can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake. 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 . A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience. – As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures . My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole time to philanthropy, but not a portion of it; though this would have been a far better line of conduct. Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of skepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life. Before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts, for he said that he had known extreme misery thus caused with married persons. Things went on pretty well until the wife or husband became out of health, and then some women suffered miserably by doubting about the salvation of their husbands, thus making them likewise to suffer. My father added that he had known during his whole long life only three women who were skeptics; and it should be remembered that he knew well a multitude of persons and possessed extraordinary power of winning confidence. When I asked him who the three women were, he had to own with respect to one of them, his sister-in-law Kitty Wedgwood, that he had no good evidence, only the vaguest hints, aided by the conviction that so clear-sighted a woman could not be a believer . At the present time, with my small acquaintance, I know (or have known) several married ladies, who believe very little more than their husbands . My father used to quote an unanswerable argument, by which an old lady, Mrs Barlow, who suspected him of unorthodoxy, hoped to convert him: “ Doctor, I know that sugar is sweet in my mouth, and I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

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