Did Darwin Believe in God?

Ever since Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, well-intentioned, but ill-informed or gullible people have either tried to convert Darwin posthumously to their own religious views or else have branded him an arch-atheist.  Many years after he died, a rumor arose that Darwin had converted to Christianity on his deathbed, and this became a persistent legend among evangelical Christians.  The historian James Moore devoted an entire book to dismantling this myth, but the rumor still circulates despite his exposé [1].

On the other side of the fence, prominent atheists have tried to claim Darwin for their own, too.  When a prominent German materialist visited Darwin in England, he tried to get Darwin to confess that he was a fellow atheist.  Darwin refused his request (though he did admit to being an agnostic)[2].

The debate over Darwin's religious views is still raging among the general public, as is evidenced by the recent article in The American Thinker on "What Darwin Said about God."  In this article, Michael Bargo, Jr. purports to set the record straight by showing that Darwin believed in God.  Presumably, this would reassure his readers that Darwin is no threat to religion.  Unfortunately, Bargo's evidence comes exclusively from Darwin's Origin of Species, where Darwin did not explicitly discuss religion.  Darwin mentioned God and Creator only a few times in Origin, and often this was to argue against divine intervention in natural processes, not to express belief in God.  Why not rather explore Descent of Man, Darwin's autobiography, and Darwin's correspondence, where he did explicitly discuss religion?

It would make sense to start with Darwin's most plain writing on the subject -- an entire section of his autobiography on "Religious Belief."  In that section he plainly stated that in the late 1830s -- at the same time he was formulating his evolutionary theory -- he gave up belief in the Bible and miracles.

He stated further, "I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.  And this is a damnable doctrine"[3].  Not only did he remonstrate against Christianity, but Darwin also explained that the "argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one"[4].  No wonder his relatives withheld publication of this section on religion from the first edition of his autobiography.  Darwin's anti-religious remarks were deemed too explosive.  Unfortunately, some still want to edit out this part of Darwin's life.

Some will argue, however, and rightly so, that Darwin did still believe in God when he wrote Origin of Species in 1859.  Though denying that God had a direct hand in creating species, he did nonetheless indicate that God created the natural laws of the cosmos, including the laws of evolutionary development.  He also interpolated a statement about a Creator breathing life into one or a few (primitive) organisms into the 1860 edition of Origin.

But what kind of God did Darwin believe in at that time?  It certainly was not the God of Christianity.  In their scholarly biography, Adrian Desmond and James Moore claim that Darwin decisively rejected Christianity by 1851, eight years before completing the Origin of Species [5].  Nor was Darwin's God a God who did miracles or intervened in nature or history.  In 1859 Darwin was most likely a deist, a person who believes that God created the world, but then let it run without any divine involvement.  The Creator in Origin of Species was not the personal God of Christianity, nor was it a God who influenced evolutionary development in any way.

Nowhere was this more evident than in discussions Darwin had with his contemporaries over the question of whether there is a purpose or goal to the evolutionary process.  In a now-famous letter of July 1860 to Harvard biologist Asa Gray, Darwin decisively rejected the idea that there is a plan or purpose behind the evolutionary process.  He insisted that there was no divine influence on the formation of species, and, as he explained fully later, this included humans.

We should also note that Darwin's statement about a Creator breathing life into one or a few organisms did not really reflect his private views.  We know this, because later in his correspondence he expressed regret about including this statement, explaining that he had added it to deflect criticism of his theory.  Darwin also speculated in his private correspondence that life had arisen without divine intervention by purely material processes.

As Darwin explained in his autobiography, after writing Origin, his residual belief in a deistic God faded.  He soon became an agnostic, which is the term he often used to describe his religious position.  In his autobiography, he stated: "I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic"[6].

By the time Darwin wrote Descent of Man in 1871, he had clearly abandoned belief in God.  He even provided a completely naturalistic explanation for the origin of religion.  He claimed that religion arose because people feared unknown natural forces and wrongly ascribed life to them.  Darwin thought religion was a psychological mistake [7].

Darwin's religious contemporaries were also deeply concerned about his theory, because Darwin thought he could explain morality as an evolved trait (as I explain more fully in my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany).  In Descent Darwin explained that morality had arisen through natural evolutionary processes and thus was not created by God.  According to his view, morality was neither universal nor unchanging.  This effectively undermined the Judeo-Christian conception of morality.

So, what lessons can we draw about the relationship between religion and evolutionary theory from Darwin's own trajectory?  First, as he developed his evolutionary theory, he moved from Christian belief in a personal God to a deistic position to agnosticism.  It is not clear to what extent his religious views shaped his evolutionary theory, or vice-versa.  It seems reasonable to think they developed in tandem.  Second, he rejected any divine intervention or even divine purpose in his evolutionary scheme.  Third, he rejected the religious basis for morality.  None of these points is good news for those trying to refashion Darwin into a religious believer whose evolutionary theory is no threat to religion, especially to traditional forms of Christianity.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan), as well as other books and articles in scholarly journals about social Darwinism and related themes.

[1] James R. Moore, The Darwin Legend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994).

[2] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), 656-58.

[3] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958), 87.

[4] Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 90.

[5] Desmond and Moore, Darwin, 378.

[6] Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 94.

[7] Darwin, Descent of Man, 2 vols. in 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981) 1: 66-68.