Science & Technology

Despite Clashes With Religion, Charles Darwin Wasn't Exactly an Atheist

When it comes to scientific concepts that clash with the church, evolution certainly tops the list. From the day Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, people have puzzled over how the theory squares with the words in the Bible. Such a seemingly non-religious take on the world must have been written by an atheist, right? In reality, Darwin had a complex view of religion, and it wasn't just his scientific theories that caused it.

Keeping the Peace

Darwin was an extremely private man. The only glimpses we have into his feelings on the world come in the form of the private letters he sent to and received from fans, critics, and his wife, Emma. Emma was deeply religious, and only strengthened her faith after the death of the couple's 10-year-old daughter. But Charles never hid his views on faith from her, even before they married. Though his letters to her haven't survived the test of time, her letters give big hints into his feelings on the matter:

"My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain ... my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you."

His other letters did survive. In 1878, four years before his death, he responded to a young reader who asked him to explain "in two or three words" whether evolution "destroys the existence of a God."

"The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me," he responded, "is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy ... No man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires."

Compared to the lively conversation that he and Emma must have had when he was young, it seems like the years had softened Darwin when it came to religion. But two years later in 1880, he was a bit blunter with another reader. "Dear Sir," he wrote, "I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God."

There are more hints in the letters he sent to his friends in the years to follow. To the pro-Darwinian evolution atheist Edward Aveling, he wrote, "It has ... always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion."

In other words, if he didn't believe, he wasn't about to go blabbing about it to the world. Keeping the peace was more important to him than professing his beliefs.

Faith in Evidence

In the end, though, Darwin was probably more of an agnostic than a nonbeliever. "In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God," he once wrote. "I think that generally (& more & more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

That puts him in good company with some important scientific figures. Agnosticism is popular with scientists because science requires that you withhold judgment before all the evidence is in. Because faith is arguably outside of the realm of evidence, many consider agnosticism to be the most scientific position. Albert Einstein, for one, was equally complex in his views on religion, and greats like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have planted their flags squarely in the agnostic camp. As much as evolution and religious doctrine may sometimes clash, Charles Darwin himself wasn't one to skewer religion.

The perceived clash between Darwinism and religion has never quite died down since it first exploded in American courthouses. Check out "Summer for the Gods" by Edward J. Larson (free with a trial membership of Audible) for a compelling play-by-play of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which kicked the whole controversy off. If you make a purchase through this link, Curiosity will receive a portion of the sale.

Darwin Letter Revealing His Religious Beliefs Up For Auction

Written by Ashley Hamer February 6, 2018