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Friday, March 6, 2009

Did Darwin believe in God?

Insofar as it is Darwin's Big Year, and I've spent a few years studying him and his work, I figured I might post something useful. There's a largely creationism-fueled rumor that Darwin re-affirmed belief in God on his deathbed. I don't really want to argue with this claim, though it's been largely disproved. What makes the argument interesting is how, given the role that evolution is believed to have played in the secularization of Western society (particularly, Western Europe), the debate over Darwin's belief has very high stakes. And as a result, Darwin's faith is often discussed in either/or terms -- he believed in God or he didn't.

But the truth is much more complicated, and reflects the richness of human experience. Before Darwin went to sea on the Beagle, he was headed to seminary school. And this is often taken as an expression of how strong a Christian he was before he developed his evolutionary theory. But going to seminary, and becoming a pastor, was in the nineteenth century something like going to law school; Anglican churches were directly supported by a national tax, and hence, they were more like a vast civil service, and an excellent career option if you didn't want to go into business or medicine. The two best colleges in the country, Cambridge and Oxford, were still seminaries -- their primary educational mission, to teach future Anglican clergy. In practice, they also taught a lot of future heretics, scientists, Oscar Wildes, and Bishop Newmans, but these were secondary to that core mission.

So young Darwin, like most Victorians, was a casual Christian. Sure he believed in God, but his God was a bit like a numinous English pastor with whiter hair and a fond taste for port; I imagine him as something like William Paley but "more grand." What Darwin did have a passion for, was hunting and shooting things. In youth, he was more a latter-day Ted Nugent than Isaac Newton. But his interest in hunting soon translated into an interest in collecting bugs and other specimens, and this flourished when he went to Cambridge. Gentleman collecting was all the rage; see Pastor Farebrother of Eliot's Middlemarch for a finely-carved example of what Darwin nearly became.

When he set sail upon the Beagle, a four-year trip that would expose him to a wild variety of climates, ecosystems, and cultures, his perspective began to change. Part of this was the deep insight he gained into a nature that was (in Tennyson's words) "red in tooth and claw"--rather than the finely-wrought mechanism that Paley's God was supposed to have created. Darwin's horror, in realizing that nature was not the beautiful system of balance which he'd been taught to expect, is well documented. But his voyage also gave him extensive evidence of the violent animality of man; the brutal repression of native Americans in South America, the tribal war of the Fuegians, the behavior of the English toward the Maoris (as well as his negative impressions of the Maoris themselves). I think this fundamentally changed Darwin's impression of humanity; we were clearly not made in some divine image, but rather, advanced animals with larger brains and some moral capacity. You'd have to live in a rampantly progressive time when human virtues were trumpeted, and the various perfections of modern man extolled, in order to appreciate what a cruel joke all of that would seem after his experiences. As a result, Darwin became a very reluctant atheist. By this, I mean Darwin was hurt by his fall from faith, and preferred not to discuss or address it directly. I think it remained sort of a psychic wound for him -- the divine perfection of nature, after all, was what had originally ensnared him. Hence his deep need to affirm, at the close of The Origin, that "there is grandeur in this view of life."

At the same time, Darwin deeply loved his wife Emma, who was fervently religious. He thought she was a supremely moral woman, and respected her faith, although he couldn't bring himself to lie about his own. His lack of belief in God hurt her deeply. It was only after they'd lost Anne, their oldest daughter, that they made some kind of peace over this issue. After losing someone they'd loved so much, I don't think religious differences seemed quite so important.

So, no, Darwin did not believe in God. But he regretted it, and deeply respected religion. I think he would be as horrified at the anti-religious histrionics of Daniel Dennet and Christopher Hitchens as he'd be thrilled with how his evolutionary theories have developed.

P.S.> I've largely left out the immense influence which religious thinking and natural theology had upon his theory of evolution, because that's not really the point of the post. But if you'd like to do some reading on Darwin, James Moore and Adrian Desmond's biography Darwin is an supremely well-written and careful work. And it helps that they write like writers, not historians.
For a more personal examination of the impact of Darwin's experiences and theories upon our belief, and whether there is "grandeur" in this view, I'd recommend Darwin Loves You by George Levine. Levine is a literary scholar who's spent much of his life thinking about Darwin as a human and a writer--and he's developed an unmatched intimacy with Darwin's world.

1 comment:

Robert S. said...

Your conclusion is unsupported. I've never seen any quote by him that showed he ever lost his belief in God. You haven't presented any either. If you have one, present it. He lost belief in the Bible and in Christianity but that doesn't mean he became an atheist. Good luck.