Darwin: Godfather of a Religious Revolution


Donald M. Santor

Presented to the Humanist Association of London, Ontario, Canada

Thursday, February 3, 2005





I first read On the Origin of Species as a kid in high school, and even though I had been involved in a religious community for several years, I found Darwin compelling and convincing; I even didn’t mind Darwin’s obsession with pigeons and finches.  I’m not sure how much I understood, but I became obsessed, and read it again, and then continued to revisit it over the years.  My only regret is that I should have been doing my French.


As an undergrad in history, it was presented as an essential component of the intellectual history of the Western tradition.  Later, as a secondary school teacher, I introduced evolution, or at least sections of it, into the various history and social science courses that I taught.  The Scopes Monkey Trial became part of my history curriculum.  Its inclusion gave me the opportunity to correct the erroneous impression that was embedded in the public mind by the well-known film, Inherit the Wind.  Bryan was not the fundamentalist Bible-thumping literalist that the movie made him out to be.  And John Scopes was not just teaching evolution (if in fact he ever did).  The science text that he was reputedly teaching from—A Civic Biology, subtitled, Presented in Problems—was laced with insidious misapplications of social Darwinianism.  Written for the high school science program, it endorsed such concepts as: the five races of man [sic], segregation, racism, eugenics, and discriminatory solutions for the ills of society.  For example:


...Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families [the poor] have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites….

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.”[1]


Bryan, the champion of the poor, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden, rose to the challenge of the trial and defended himself quite well.  The actual trial transcript shows that he often got the better of Clarence Darrow.  The real life reporter in the film was H. L. Mencken, a confirmed racist and an anti-religious bigot.


In the 1980s the Ecumenical Study Commission on Public Education[2], of which I was a member, presented a position paper to the Ontario Minister of Education recommending that “creation science” should not be included in the science curriculum, that it is not science, that it ignores and sometimes negates the fundamental underpinnings of what makes science science.  Instead the Study Commission urged that creation science be included in world religions courses, since it seemed to be working within a similar epistemological framework.  Consequently, stories of creation, divine creation and creation science became part of the multifaith world religions program.


More recently I revisited some of the literature because the so-called “creation science” lobby is once again attempting to reintroduce creation science into the high school science curriculum, this time under the rubric of “intelligent design”.  With this concern in mind, a couple of years ago I read Janet Browne’s new two-volume biography of Charles Darwin to discover exactly what Darwin believed about God, about religion, about the idea of design, and about intelligent design.


I would like to examine Darwin’s connection with the religious traditions of his day, and probe what he believed about them.  Further I would like to trace how his religious views changed during his lifetime and then consider the impact the theory of evolution had on religion.


Central Problem


Darwin wrote very little about his religious beliefs; he was reluctant to do so because he said he didn’t know much about the subject.  Darwin’s son, Francis, in one of the appendices to The Autobiography of Charles Darwin writes:


My father in his published works was reticent on the matter of religion, and what he has left on the subject was not written with a view to publication.  I believe that his reticence arose from several causes.  He felt strongly that a man’s religion is an essentially private matter, and one concerning himself alone. This is indicated by the following extract from a letter of 1879 [written three years before his death]. “What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself.  But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates….”[3]


This was the case for most of his life.  Even 12 years after he had published On the Origin of Species and had secured his scientific reputation and was financially secure, he was still reluctant to express his views on religion.  Many of his letters reflect this attitude.


1871 September 6, Letter to Dr. F. E. Abbott, Cambridge, Mass.


I feel in some degree unwilling to express my­self publicly on religious subjects, as I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough to justify any publicity.”[4]


1871 November 16, Another Letter to Dr. F. E. Abbott, Cambridge, Mass.


I am unable to master new subjects requiring much thought, and can deal only with old materials.  At no time am I a quick thinker or writer; whatever I have done in science has been solely by long pondering, patience and industry.  Now I have never systematically thought much on religion in relation to science, or on morals in relation to society; and without steadily keeping my mind on such subjects for a long period, I am really incapable of writing anything worth sending to the Index.[5]


It is difficult to discern if this confession of modesty reveals theological incompetence or simply a reluctance to get into the subject?


Perhaps the reason for his reticence in talking about religion can be traced to his days at Edinburgh University where he was exposed to the controversy about William Lawrence’s Lectures on Physiology, Zoology and the Natural History of Man, which was denied copyright protection because it was labeled blasphemous.  As Stephen Toulmin argues, Darwin learned to keep his head down and do his work.  He kept his radical and heretical thoughts confined to his Notebooks, which were not published till the 1970s.[6]


In a word, Darwin did not write much about religion.  Consequently, one has to piece together his views on religion that are scattered inchoately across his vast body of writings[7] and make inferences rather than draw hard conclusions.  Even when he expresses a strong opinion, he seldom explains what he means by it.  This paper will be confined to examining a limited number of Darwin’s representative comments on religion.


Childhood Education


Darwin’s father was an Anglican, but his mother and mother’s family (the Wedgwood’s of china pottery fame) were Unitarians and sympathetic to the Deist position. Regardless, Darwin was christened in the Church of England.  He attended a day school in Shrewsbury run by the Rev. G. Case, a minister of the Unitarian Chapel, later known as the Free Christian Church.


Later he attended Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury and often recalled praying to God to help him get to school on time.  Even though he attended morning chapel regularly, instead of worshipping the divine, he would spend his time memorizing 40 to 50 lines of Virgil or Homer.




After two wasted years at Edinburgh where Darwin was studying medicine, he transferred to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1828 and began to study for the Anglican priesthood.  He took up residence in the Rev. William Paley’s former rooms, but this did not necessarily endear him to the Anglican tradition.


Darwin became fluent in classical Greek and could translate the New Testament with relative ease.  Attendance at chapel was not uncommon, but he was reluctant to declare his belief in all the dogmas of the church.  In spite of this, he still relished the idea of becoming a country clergyman.  In preparation for the ministry, and wanting to understand the foundations of Christianity more thoroughly, he read Pearson on the Creed.  He accepted the literal truth of every word in the Bible, and convinced himself that the creed had to be accepted.


While at Cambridge he became good friends with Professor Henslow a foremost naturalist who was “deeply religious and so orthodox that he told me [Darwin] one day he should be grieved if a single word of the 39 Articles were altered.”[8]


To obtain his B.A. Darwin read Paley’s Evidence of Christianity, Moral Philosophy, and Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity  (1802).  He says he enjoyed the argumentation, but not the premises on which the arguments were based.  Paley was widely accepted at the time because there was no viable and acceptable alternative.


Darwin became a well-known hiker and collector of specimens, as well as an astute observer, and he gradually adopted a functional approach to organisms, a form of teleology.  Darwin’s growing interest in natural science and his religious convictions were on a collision course, but this did not seem to concern him very much.  The goal of becoming a clergyman was never formally abandoned, but it died a natural death on leaving Cambridge, when Darwin accepted a position aboard the Beagle as a naturalist.


1830s The Voyage of the Beagle


“The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career…,”[9] so wrote Darwin retrospectively in his 1876 autobiography.  It was the seminal event in Darwin’s life, beginning on December 27, 1831 and ending on October 2, 1836.  This was the time when Darwin began his transition from orthodoxy and began to question traditional beliefs; but when he left England, by his own admission, he still believed literally in the Bible.


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, i.e. 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos. 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, he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me utterly incredible.[10]


Darwin’s relentless pursuit in observing the natural world, and in collecting and analyzing specimens, created a cognitive dissonance between science and religion that could not be easily resolved. While on board the Beagle he read Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology which served as an intellectual catalyst.


…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 wildfire had some weight with me.[11]


In spite of the growing skepticism about religion and religious truths, Darwin did not suddenly jettison the Christian tradition:


But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;…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.[12]


During the voyage Darwin attended church services regularly, and even spent some considerable effort in trying to get communion while ashore in Buenos Aires.  He was motivated by a sense of social responsibility and expectations, as well as by a belief in a higher authority.  By the time Darwin had returned from the voyage of the Beagle his religious transformation was virtually complete, but he had not articulated it to any significant degree.  He tended to follow his father’s advice and not express his doubts to anyone.


Post Beagle


Darwin associated with the now famous geologist Charles Lyell, who believed in a “uniformatarian” view of the earth, the belief that the earth is in a steady state of eruption and decay.  Lyell was a strong theist, but he also held liberal religious beliefs, or as Darwin called them in his Autobiography, “religious disbeliefs”.[13]


By March or April in 1837 Darwin seems to have embraced evolution.  One of his Species Notebooks clearly reveals the shift in his thinking from special creation to evolution:


Astronomers might formerly have said that God ordered each planet to move in its particular destiny. In same manner God orders each animal created with certain form in certain country, but how much more simple and sublime power let attraction act according to certain law, such are inevitable consequences— let animal be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors….Let geological changes go at such a rate, so will be the number and distribution of the species!![14]


Darwin accepted the idea of evolution but was not certain how it could happen.  He read Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population in September 1838 and settled on the mechanism for evolution, namely natural selection.  By 1839 Darwin conceived of his theory and wrote the first draft in June 1842 in pencil, only 35 pages in length; in 1844 it was enlarged to 230 pages


Soon after Darwin had conceived of the mutability of species he could not leave man[15] out.  The gradual religious transformation that he had undergone made the adoption of evolution possible.


As soon as I had become…convinced that species were mutable productions, I could not avoid the belief that man must come under the same law.[16]


Clearly the stage was set for a widespread religious reformation.


Darwin married Emma Wedgwood in January 1839.  She was a practising Anglican who took the Bible literally, taught Sunday School, and sincerely believed in the doctrines of the church.  Sin, salvation and an afterlife were essential to her belief system.  When she married Darwin she knew there was a religious gulf between them, and that it was bound to grow wider as the years passed by.  Understanding the implications of Darwin’s ideas on religion, Emma would always worry about Darwin’s soul. As he developed his ideas about adaptation, species variation, and natural selection, his idea of God gradually disappeared.  Darwin always regretted the religious divide that separated him and Emma, and to reduce his wife’s anguish, he confined most of his thoughts to his notebooks.


On The Origin of Species, 1859
Front Piece
Darwin mentions God three times in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, twice in excerpts quoted in the front piece and once toward the end of Chapter 5.  The first quotation denies the role of “Divine power” in shaping the events that formed our world and makes the case for the role of general laws.  The excerpt, however, says nothing about how the general laws came into existence.
But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.   
William Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise.[17]


William Whewell, the author of History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was a well known rationalist philosopher and historian of science who promoted consilliance of inductions, which tended towards a unifying hypothesis.  This excerpt is clear endorsement of the Deist position.


In the second quotation, Darwin cites an excerpt from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning to argue that man should not stop searching for answers and should push the frontiers of knowledge to the limit. The excerpt seems to acknowledge the existence of God and of God’s creation, but it would be misleading to conclude that Darwin still believed in a traditional God.

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.  Francis Bacon: Advancement of Learning.[18]


Does this excerpt indicate that Darwin still accepts and believes in God?   Is this a religious crumb thrown to quiet his potential critics?   Or has he become a full-fledged deist who sees God as the Unmoved Mover?


Chapter 5: Laws of Variation 


Darwin mentions God in On the Origin of Species on only one other occasion, and rather than assert a particular belief, he makes an indirect appeal to God and expresses the conviction that those who reject the laws of variation in wild and domestic species make “the works of God a mockery and deception.”


He who believes that each equine species was independently created, will, I presume, assert that each species has been created with tendency to vary, both under nature and under domestication, in this particular manner, so as often to become striped like other species of the genus; and that each has been created with a strong tendency, when crossed with species inhabiting distant quarters of the world, to produce hybrids resembling in their stripes, not their own parents, but other species of the genus. To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception;.…[19]
Darwin says nothing about the “origin” of man, but understands that On the Origin of Species will have profound implications for human history.  He understates his case by adding toward the very end, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”  He argues that his explanation of the origin of species makes more sense than the one provided by scripture.
At the time of On the Origin of Species, Darwin seems to still believe in a God or a Creator who created the earth as well as life, but then lets it evolve according to natural laws, including adaptation and selection.  Clearly Darwin seems to be condoning the basic tenets of natural theology.  Darwin has come a long way from the days of the Beagle.  By 1859 he condones the main ideas of deism—an unmoved creator who worked through natural laws, with no special interventions.  The closing paragraph of On the Origin pulls his basic ideas together, and without directly mentioning God, he seriously challenges traditional religion and praises evolutionary creation.
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.[20]

The Descent of Man: 1871


Darwin published The Descent of Man in February 1871, 12 years after On the Origin of Species.  It is here that he directly challenges some of the central beliefs of Christianity—both religious and cultural—that clash with evolution and natural selection.


Darwin rejects the special creation of God and admits the process of natural selection may overthrow the acts of God.


Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations.[21]


The Tower of Babel also receives critical comment:


From these few and imperfect remarks I conclude that the extremely complex and regular construction of many barbarous languages, is no proof that they owe their origin to a special act of creation.[22]


Darwin challenges the à priori belief in God, one of the prevailing views of the time, but acknowledges that some still believe in God without revealing what he believes himself.

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 some of the highest intellects that have ever existed.[23]


He raises the central question but does not answer it.


Darwin even speculates that the emergence of the Golden Rule may have been encouraged by a belief in God, but is not caused by such a belief.


The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man; and the belief in spiritual agencies naturally follows from other mental powers. The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need say nothing on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to shew [sic] that the social instincts,—the  prime principle of man’s moral constitution—with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise”; and this lies at the foundation of morality.[24]
Toward the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin rejects the idea that belief in God is instinctive, but instead is a cultural creation.  This assertion may shed some light in explaining what he means by agnosticism.
I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus 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. 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.[25]


Confirmation of the evolution of man directly challenges the scriptural account of creation and its more recent manifestation, creation science:
We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.[26]  


Did Darwin Believe in God?


Death of Eldest Daughter Anne, 1851, Aged 10.


Anne Elizabeth was Darwin’s favourite child; she was affectionate and sensitive.  She contracted scarlet fever in 1849 and never fully recovered from it.  When she died, Darwin proclaimed, “We have lost the joy of the household and the solace of our old age.”  Darwin decided there would be no memorial in the churchyard, no angels scooping up a childish figure, only a headstone inscribed, “A dear and good child.”  There was nothing at the local church.  Darwin could not draw solace from belief in an afterlife, or in salvation.  In contrast, Emma, Darwin’s wife, believed Anne had gone to heaven.  Biographers mark the death of Anne as the beginning of Darwin’s conscious disassociation from believing in a traditional God.  From this point on, theological doubts became convictions.


1873 April 2 Letter to a Dutch Student


It was more than obvious to Darwin’s contemporaries that his writings would have a significant impact on religion, but regardless of his reticence to express himself directly on religious matters, Darwin still received numerous requests which he took seriously.  He seems to have been more sympathetic to students to whom he wrote lengthy replies.  In 1873, when he was 62 years of age, he explained to a Dutch student why he was reluctant to believe in God.


It is impossible to answer your question briefly; and I am not sure that I could do so, even if I wrote at some length. But 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. I am aware that if we admit a First Cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is….[27]


In responding to the many requests, Darwin did not denigrate religion or ridicule it.  Instead he briefly explained why he was not a believer. He just didn’t want to talk about religion.


1879   Letter to a German Student, written by a family member


The students never left him alone, and he was always sensitive to their requests. In another letter written for him two years before his death, Darwin recognizes why people believe in God, and that such a belief is compatible with evolution.  But he hastens to add that “God” means many different things.


Mr. Darwin begs me to say that he receives so many letters, that he cannot answer them all.  He considers that the theory of Evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God; but that you must remember that different persons have dif­ferent definitions of what they mean by God.[28]


Darwin never clearly explains what he means by God.    The German student was persistent and Darwin himself wrote a follow-up reply and reveals a little more of his personal beliefs.


I am much engaged, an old man, and out of health, and I cannot spare time to answer your ques­tions fully,—nor indeed can they be answered. Science has nothing to do with Christ,…For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.[29]


1879 in letter to Mr. J. Fordyce


Three years before his death, when he was getting very old and had experienced a lifetime of illness, he summarized his position in a letter to Mr. J. Fordyce.


What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself. But, as you ask, I may state that 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. 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.[30]


Darwin seemed to live with uncertainty quite easily.  He was not bothered by the absence of answers to the big questions and readily admitted that he could change his mind.  Nor does he bother to explain what he means by “agnostic”. 


Darwin on Design


Darwin on Design Letter to to Dr. Gray July 1860


Darwin had a lengthy and voluminous correspondence with Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist and a committed Congregationalist, that reveals his inner thoughts on the role of a god in the scheme of things.


There seems too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed….I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.[31]


Further on, in the same body of correspondence:


One word more on ‘designed laws’ and ‘unde­signed results.’ I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed.”[32]


The advocates of creation science will find little solace or support for their views in the writing of Charles Darwin. Taken collectively, Darwin’s comments on religion clearly reveal an agnostic perspective and point toward a latent humanism.


Darwin: The Godfather of a Religious Revolution

Charles Darwin had no intention of becoming the father, or even the godfather, of any religious revolution.  While he soon realized that his ideas would have a profound affect on religion in general, and on Christianity in particular, he did not lose any sleep over it.  To be sure, he knew his theory would threaten certain religious tenets.  At one point he thought he would “murder” Christianity.

From the outset Darwin’s ideas launched a frontal assault on the creation story in Genesis.  While many scholars before him had long doubted the literal interpretation of scripture, Darwin provided a plausible alternative.  According to Darwin, humanity was part and parcel of the entire evolutionary scheme, and not a special act of creation.  By challenging the creation story in Genesis, Darwin cast doubt on the story of the Garden of Eden, which in turn raised questions about the fall of “man”, original sin, and eventually fall-redemption theology.  Was Christian theology a house of cards that was based on a myth that should not be taken literally?  It was not Darwin’s intention to raise these questions and challenge scripture, but it was one of the eventual results.


By the time On the Origin of Species was published, Darwin had already established himself as a respected scientist whose empiricism held up to critical scrutiny.  So thorough was his work that many theologians accepted the theory and looked for accommodation between evolutionary science and religion.  It was possible for them to embrace both evolution and religion, and to facilitate this objective there was an impetus to interpret and/or reinterpret scripture.  If the creation story was not a scientific treatise on the origin of the universe and life on earth, then what did it mean?  Liberal theologians and Biblical scholars received a shot in the arm.  God was frequently seen as a Lawmaker who “designed” the universe; Darwin’s theories encouraged others to jettison the notion of a creative designer.  

From Darwin’s day to the present, some conservative theologians and bible students would still try to defend a literal interpretation of scripture and argue that the creation story of Genesis must be accepted as factually true.  They would resist any attempt to interpret the stories that might make them meaningful to a rational science-based society.  Even Northrop Fry’s interpretive paradigm that suggests progressive levels of interpretation—literal, metaphorical, allegorical and tropological—is rejected.[33]

While geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology was widely read in scholarly circles, it was Darwin who supplied the catalyst that popularized the public discourse. Lyell’s theories on the age of the earth were well known in the 1830s and should have caused the church to sit up and take notice, but they did not penetrate the public consciousness in the same way as Darwin’s theories.   Clergy as well as laity, along with the press, joined in the discourse.  Theories about the age of rocks were far less provocative and interesting than theories regarding the origin of “man”.


Darwin seriously challenged Paley’s Natural Theology by providing an acceptable alternative, namely gradual evolution over a long period of time.  Because an overwhelming body of data supported it, many devout religious leaders readily accepted Darwin’s theory and believed it demonstrated God’s presence in nature. “Theistic evolution” was God’s creation instrument.  Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore welcomed Darwin’s theory because he saw proof of God’s eternal presence and activity in evolution.


Science had pushed . . . God farther and farther away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out alto­gether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and reli­gion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. He cannot he here, and not there. He cannot delegate His power to demigods called “second causes”. In nature everything must be His work or nothing. We must frankly return to the Christian view of direct Divine agency, the immanence of Divine power in nature from end to end, the belief in a God in Whom not only we, but all things have their being, or we must banish Him altogether.[34]


By uniting human history and natural history, Darwin broke down the bicameral division that the church had endorsed for centuries[35] and replaced Paley’s narrow teleology with a cosmic teleology.  His intent was not to challenge the existence of God, but a particular view of how God created the universe.  In spite of his objective, he did both.


In 1996, after opposing evolution for well over a century, the Vatican adopted a similar position.  In a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope John Paul II said the theory of natural selection was “more than just a hypothesis”, and then added, “If the human body has its origin in pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.”[36]  Regardless, the Vatican is to be commended for its rapid response to advances in science:  It took 360 years to accept Galileo, and only 134 years to accept Darwinian evolution, yet somewhat reluctantly and with severe theological reservations and qualifications.


But not every one would embrace the compromise position.  Richard Dawkins for instance does not believe evolution and religion are compatible:


The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited….I’m a Darwinist because I believe the only alternatives are Lamarckism or God, neither of which does the job as an ex­planatory principle. Life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of.[37]


…although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.[38]


Darwin’s theory seriously challenged à priori assumptions as a source of truth, or as revealed truth.  The creation story of Genesis no longer had the same credibility and countless theologians and scholars would interpret it as metaphor or analogy.  But Genesis, as a literal source of divine truth, is still accepted by some today.  One of the most complete statements of à priori assumptions is the oath that is taken by prospective members of the Creation Research Society. 
1.      The Bible is the written word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired throughout, all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs.  To the student of nature, this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.
2.      All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during Creation Week as described in Genesis.  Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds.
3.      The great Flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Deluge, was an historical event, worldwide in its extent and effect.
4.      Finally, we are an organization of Christian men of science, who accept Jesus  Christ as our Lord and Savior.  The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman, and their subsequent fall in sin, is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior of all mankind.  Therefore salvation can only thru accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.[39]

In contrast, Darwin’s epistemology was based on evidence and reason.  Truth claims had to be supported with verifiable empirical data, but he kept an open mind and let the evidence speak Consequently knowledge and theories were tentative, open to falsification and revision, and if necessary, rejection.


As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men.  I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it….I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified.  This has naturally led me to distrust greatly, deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences.[40]


Darwin’s philosophy of science was based on the tentative nature of knowledge and a readiness to revise his theories in the light of new evidence.  This points to the fundamental problem of creationists, namely the acceptance of à priori assumptions as infallible assumptions.  Creationists refuse to apply the Popper test of falsification.


With Darwinian evolution revealed religion—the religion of faith—was challenged, and natural religion—the religion of reason—was endorsed.  Evolution supported the deists who believed that God started the entire affair and then left it to unfold.


Darwin always knew that his alternative explanation for creation would upset some people:

I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work [The Descent of Man] will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction.[41]
From the beginning Darwin had no intention of challenging religion, either directly or indirectly.  He intended to become a country parson, but along the way became obsessed with natural science.  The voyage on the Beagle as a naturalist changed his life, and he was committed to make sense of what he had seen. His discoveries and publications served as a catalyst for a religious revolution that was already well underway.  The irony of, course, is that the person who challenged the status quo in religion had earned his only academic degree in theology!
The lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses describe Darwin’s life in science better than most:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost realm of human thought.

                                                Ulysses, lines 31-32.

Appendix 1: Selected writings of Charles Darwin


1836-41      Charles Darwin’s notebook: geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical inquiries.


1838-43       The Zoology of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain Fitzroy. 5 Parts, Darwin et al.


1839       Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle


1841-46       The geology of the voyage of the Beagle.


1841           The structure and distribu­tion of coral reefs. Part 1 of The geol­ogy of the voyage of the Beagle.


1842-44       The foundations of the “Origin of Species”: Two essays written in 1842 and 1844 by Charles Darwin.


1844      Volcanic islands: Geological observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Part 2 of The geology of the voyage of the Beagle. London. 1841—46.


1846      South America. Geological observations on South America. Part 3 of The geology of the voyage of the Beagle.


1851-54      Fossil Cirripedia:  A monograph of the fossil Lepadidae (1851);  A monograph of the fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae   (1854).


                  Living Cirripedia:. A monograph of the sub-class Cirripedia. Vol. 1. The Lepadidae. Vol. 2. The Balanidae. London.


1856-58      Natural Selection, being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858.


1859           On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.


1868           The variation of animals and plants under domestication, 2 vols.


1871           The descent of man. 2 vols.


1872           The expression of the emotions in man and animals


1875      Insectivorous plants.


1876.          The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom.


1877           A biographical sketch of an infant. Mind: Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy


1877           The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species.


1880           The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects


1880           The power of movement in plants.


1780      Experi­ments establishing a criterion between mucilaginous and purulent matter.


1881           The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits.


1809-1882      Autobiography:  The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.  


By Charles Darwin: Published Posthumously


1887           Life and letters: The life and letters of Charles Darwin. 3 vols.


1903   More letters: More letters of Charles Darwin: a record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters. 2 vols.


1904   Emma Darwin: Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin: a century of family letters. 2 vols.


1977   Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. 2 vols.


1983-94             Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vols. 1-12


[1] George W. Hunter, A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (New York: American Book Company, 1914).  In Alan M. Dershowitz, America On Trial: Inside the Legal Battles that Transformed Our Nation (New York: Warner Book Company, 2004), p. 264.


[2] The Ecumenical Study Commission on Public Education is an organization of several mainline Christian churches as well as several non-Christian religious faith traditions, and is organized to offer advice to the Minister of Education on matters pertaining to religious and moral education in the public schools of Ontario.


[3] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin with Two Appendices (Duxford, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2003; Originally published by Watts and Company, London 1929), p. 139.


[4] Ibid., p. 140.


[5] Ibid., p. 141.


[6] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1990), p. 124.


[7] See Appendix 1


[8] Darwin, Autobiography, p. 27.


[9] Ibid., p. 36.


[10] Ibid., p. 143.


[11] Ibid., p. 144.


[12] Ibid., p. 144.


[13] Ibid., p. 46.


[14] Notebooks B, G. de Beer et al. 1960-67 “Darwin’s Notebooks on Transmutation of Species,” Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) history series, 2:27-200; 3:129-76. In Michael Ruse, Editor, But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy  (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996), p. 79.


[15] Since Darwin normally used the word “man” to refer to the human specie, in the interest of historical accuracy the author has retained this usage throughout the paper.


[16] Darwin, Autobiography, p. 66.


[17] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1859), front piece http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/origin_of_species/index.shtml 


[18] Ibid., front piece.


[19] Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Chapter 5.


[20] Ibid., Closing paragraph.


[21] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, (On Line Edition: Bank of Wisdom, Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/descent_of_man/index.shtml), p. 73.


[22] Ibid., p. 110.


[23] Ibid., 112.


[24] Ibid., 151-2.


[25] Ibid., 714.


[26] Ibid., 721.


[27] Darwin, Autobiography, p. 142.


[28] Ibid., 142.


[29] Ibid., 143.


[30] Ibid., 139.


[31] Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Volume II of a Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), p. 176.


[32] Darwin, Autobiography, p. 151-52.


[33] Northrop Fry, The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 74-79.


[34] A. L. Moore, The Christian Doctrine of God. In C. Gore, ed, Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation, 10th edition, 41-81. London, John Murray. In Michael Ruse, The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates (London: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 106.


[35] Toulmin, p. 110.


[36] Truth Cannot Contradict Truth: Address of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (October 22, 1996), Paragraph 5. http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02tc.htm


[37] Richard Dawkins, “A Survival Machine.” In J. Brockman, ed., the Third Culture, 74-95. (New York: Simon and Schuster).  In Michael Ruse, The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates (London: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 275.


[38] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), p. 6. In Michael Ruse, The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates (London: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 277.


[39] Application Form for the Creation Research Society, reprinted in Plaintiff’s trial briefs, McLean vs. Arkansas, (1981).  In Michael Ruse, Editor, But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy  (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996), p. 360.


[40] Darwin, Autobiography, p.76.


[41] Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 715.



Donald M. Santor, now retired, was a teacher of history and social sciences for several years in Ontario public secondary schools, a consultant for moral and religious education for the Ontario Ministry of Education, a professor in the Faculty of Education, The University of Western Ontario, and an author and editor of educational materials. The author can be contacted at santor@hay.net.