Because Charles Darwin’s teachings about evolution has impacted the religiously community so significantly in the last century and a half, many people ask the question, “What were Darwin’s personal religious views?” The answer to the question is not simple, but has twists and turns that reflect an internal struggle involving both faith and science.
Early in his life, Darwin’s religious affiliation was Christianity, particularly, the Church of England. And when he went to the University of Cambridge to earn a Bachelor’s degree it was in ministerial studies, which included theology courses.
Darwin developed an interest in natural sciences in the course of his studies and was especially fond of English theologian and philosopher William Paley, who emphasized in his writing that God worked through nature laws in His engagement with the world. Paley is perhaps most known for creating the famous a-watch-needs-a-watchmaker analogy to describe the design he saw in the universe.
In the 1830’s, before entering ministry, Darwin sailed on a ship called The Beagle that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of “centres of creation.” On the journey, Darwin experienced doubts concerning the fixed nature of species. At the same time, Darwin was questioning the Bible’s teaching and its overall reliability. And theologically, he had a difficult time reconciling the suffering he saw in the animal kingdom with the existence of an all-powerful God.
Darwin's Doubting Develops
“Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. 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.”
~ Charles Darwin
Darwin could still be called a theist during this period because he subscribed to the Aristotelean concept of a First Cause. His doubts about theism, however, would eventually win the battle. Later Darwin reflected on this period:
“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 from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, rainbow as a sign...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." (1882 letter, “Science has nothing to do with Christ”)
It’s known that by the late 1840’s, Darwin stopped going to church with his wife Emma who was a Unitarian.
It is clear from Darwin’s writings that the death of his nine-year-old daughter Annie in 1850 persuaded him to abandon any Christian beliefs about the afterlife he once had, His wife Emma, though, continued to believe.
Even when writing On the Origin of Species in the 1850s, Darwin was still inclined to theism, but his views gradually changed to agnosticism:
“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 (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, 1958)."
His cousin later wrote to him. seemingly concerned:
"When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. 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. It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you. Will you do me a favour? yes I am sure you will, it is to read our Saviours farewell discourse to his disciples which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling. It is the part of the New Testament I love best. This is a whim of mine it would give me great pleasure, though I can hardly tell why I don't wish you to give me your opinion about it."
Darwin reflects on losing his faith in his 1876 autobiography when he said though he was “very unwilling to give up my belief…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.”
He noted how “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.”
Rumors Upon Death
In 1915 it was reported that Darwin experienced a deathbed conversion to Christianity, according to a woman called Lady Hope.
Most historians believe the story is fiction and Darwin’s family has denied that such an event ever took place.