Darwin and God

Darwin was brought up as a Christian, but not all his family were conventional Christians. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a successful doctor and well known poet, was a notable free-thinker and a  Unitarian. Members of this Christian sect believed in God, and believed that the teachings of Jesus were good, but didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. 

Charles when he set sail on HMS Beagle at the age of 22 believed in the creationist account of the origin of the world as told in the Bible. His father had suggested that Charles should become a clergyman and, Charles wrote in his autobiography, ‘I asked for some time to consider, as from what little I had heard or thought on the subject I had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman.’ 'Accordingly I read with care 'Pearson on the Creed,' and a few other books on divinity; 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.’ So Robert Darwin sent Charles to Cambridge where he studied for a degree which involved the study of the classic literature of Greece and Rome, theology, mathematics and astronomy to prepare him for his future life as a country clergyman.

Darwin wrote in his autobiography: ‘Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. Nor was this intention and my father's wish ever formerly given up, but died a natural death when, on leaving Cambridge, I joined the "Beagle" as naturalist.’

Gradually Darwin’s belief in Christianity faded. His wife Emma remained a Christian and his lack of belief distressed her but they respected each other’s position. Darwin used to walk to Church with his family but did not go in to the service. He always remained on good terms with the local vicar though, near the end of his life some eminent but agnostic guests were rather surprised to find the vicar seated at Darwin’s table. 

Darwin was not alone in his doubts. When he published ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859, a debate was going on about whether man was created by God in his image as the Bible describes, or whether humans developed from other animals, was already going on. Most Christians now see the account of creation in Genesis  as a poetic and religious exploration of the world rather than a scientific explanation.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was opposed to the explanation given in William Paley’s influential book  Natural Theology which Darwin studied at Cambridge.  Paley set out to prove that natural world must have had a designer, who was God, but characteristics that Paley used as evidence of design were used by Darwin as evidence for his theory that species arose as a result of natural selection in the struggle for survival and reproductive success.

This turning upside down of the argument was unsettling to Church leaders. They were further disturbed when Thomas Huxley, in promoting Darwin’s theory, opposed not only the literal interpretation of Genesis, but also the power of the church. Huxley wanted to see: ‘the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies’, which he considered to be theology and ‘parsondom’. Darwin did not share this militant anti-clericalism but was powerless to prevent people taking his theory further than he thought was safe.

The views of the Anglican and even the Roman Catholic church have moved on since Darwin’s time. Pope Pius accepted evolution in the 1950s, while cautioning that the theory was not ‘certain doctrine,' but in 1996 Pope John Paul II went further and declared that ‘fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a Hypothesis.’ 

The theory of evolution is still opposed by Christian fundamentalists and there are also scientific fundamentalists who think the world can only be explained at in scientific terms and that scientists should vehemently oppose religion. Darwin himself was very much alive to the  complexity of the world and maintained that he was a deist, that is, he believed  there was a god. He did though, totally reject the idea that unbelievers would go to hell. This, he wrote, was ‘a damnable doctrine’.  He tried to avoid speaking about religion though, pointing out that he had not studied the subject as he had studied worms.

Surprisingly, when Darwin died Thomas Huxley, who not only argued against creationism but who was fiercely opposed to the power of the church,  pressed for Darwin to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Darwin himself and his family expected him to be buried in the churchyard at Downe village church with a service conducted by his friend the vicar. The local carpenter had already started to make his coffin when this plan was overturned in favour of the prestige that Westminster Abbey would give to the commemoration of his life. His wife did not go to the funeral in London, she said she would feel closer to him in their garden.

I have a feeling that Darwin himself would have preferred to be buried in the churchyard at Downe with the worms that lived under his home turf.

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