|Belief: historical essay|
What did Darwin believe?
What did Darwin really believe about God? the Christian revelation? the implications of his theory of evolution for religious faith? These questions were asked again and again in the years following the publication of Origin of species (1859). They are still asked today by scholars, scientists, students, and religious believers. The questions have taken on a new relevance in light of controversies over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in schools, the resurgence of fundamentalism as a political force, and the combative rhetoric of crusading secularists, many of whom take Darwin as an icon.
But Darwin was very reticent about his personal beliefs, and reluctant to pronounce on matters of belief for others. His published writings are particularly reserved or altogether silent on religion. His Autobiography contains a short discussion of his religious views, presented as a gradual migration from Anglican Christianity to agnosticism. But this was written toward the end of his life, and intended for the highly select audience of his family and immediate social circle (see Barlow ed. 1958, preface). It should not therefore be read (although it often is), as a neutral account of the development of his thought, or of his innermost beliefs and feelings. A far more revealing source is his correspondence.
Letters became an important medium through which Darwin's readers sought to draw him out on matters of personal belief, and to explore the religious implications of his work. Letters written to Darwin by persons unknown to him became more frequent from the late 1860s onward, as his international fame grew. Young naturalists, sceptical writers, clergymen, and educators wrote to him about his religious views, often seeking direction for their own.
In December 1866 Darwin received a letter from Mary Boole, a spiritualist writer who was supporting her five daughters as a librarian after her husband, the mathematician George Boole, died in 1864.
Boole, like a number of Darwin's readers, found a way of reconciling the theory of
evolution by natural selection with some form of religious belief. But when Boole asks
Darwin about specific points of belief, such as a personal and beneficent God, he is not
very helpful. His reply is polite and brief. He writes, ‘
In his response to Boole, Darwin implies that certain questions are beyond the scope of
scientific investigation: ‘
In what is perhaps his most revealing response, a letter in 1879 to John Fordyce, an author of works on scepticism, Darwin writes:
In this letter, Darwin is quite clear that he has never been an atheist. Does he believe in a Creator? Is he a theist? Such terms, he suggests, are so vague and variable that they might mean almost anything. Is he then an agnostic? Yes, but not all of the time. His judgment, he says, is often in a state of flux.
What did Darwin mean by the term “
Darwin's own letters have not survived, but we gain a sense of what the couple discussed from Emma's words to him:
We know from Darwin's scientific notebooks from this period that his views regarding the Christian revelation were extremely heterodox.
An extract from notebook C, p. 166 reads: ‘
It is clear from other correspondence that one of Emma's most cherished beliefs was in an afterlife. When she writes of them "belonging" to each other, she means so in eternity. There is a marked tension in Emma's letter between reason and feeling, and between the feared separation caused by differences of belief, and the desired closeness that requires these differences to be shared.
The tendency amongst Darwin scholars has been to assume that mutual affection between the couple, together with a strong sense of propriety on Charles's part, sustained their marriage. If not deeply religious, Darwin was at least not disrespectful to religion. He kept his views largely to himself, and allowed his differences of belief with Emma to remain for the most part submerged. Scholars have also presented Emma as playing the traditional role of Victorian wife, supportive of her husband. Her religious piety and wifely devotion have appeared only as a background to Darwin's own life and intellectual struggles.
Some private documents, recently made available to the Darwin Correspondence Project by members of the Darwin family, offer a fuller perspective on Emma's religious beliefs. The documents show the importance of Unitarianism, with its emphasis upon inner feeling over Scriptural or doctrinal authority, as a foundation for Emma's views. They also show that Emma's beliefs were not simple and unwavering, but a product of intensive study and questioning.
Alongside respectable Anglicanism, Unitarianism was another important religious tradition in the Darwin and Wedgwood families. Josiah Wedgwood, who was grandfather to both Charles and Emma, was a Unitarian, and this religious background helped to bring the provincial families, the Darwins and Wedgwoods, together in the first place. Darwin had attended a Unitarian school in Shrewsbury. The circle with whom he and Emma socialised when in London included several leading Unitarian clergymen, James Martineau and John James Taylor, as well as the religious writer Frances Power Cobbe. All were regular guests of Darwin's brother Erasmus, and of Emma's brother, Hensleigh Wedgwood and his wife Fanny.
In the early years of their marriage, Charles and Emma read a number of works by Unitarian and liberal Anglican authors, including Martineau, Taylor, and Francis Newman. Newman's Phases of faith was a religious autobiography, charting his spiritual journey from Calvinism to theism. Many of these writings were widely read in the period, and formed part of a heated debate on the authority of the Anglican creed. Sworn belief in the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church was then a requirement for students, fellows and teachers at Oxford and Cambridge, and of anyone taking holy orders.
Lay members of the church were not required to profess belief in any particular doctrine, only to recite the liturgy. But we know, from Francis Darwin's comments, that Emma used to make the family turn round in silence to face the rest of the congregation when all stood to recite the creed, with its Trinitarian formula.
Emma's copy of the New Testament, extensively annotated during the early years of her marriage, contains notes on passages judged by various Biblical scholars to have been inauthentic, or added by later authors.
Emma's Bible also contains some annotations by Darwin. These indicate a critical reading of Scripture, informed by new historical approaches to the text.
They also show that Darwin looked to the Bible as a guide to moral conduct, as in his
remarks on Paul's letter to Galatians, chapter six: ‘
Some of the Biblical commentary that Emma and Charles read in this period raised questions about the process of belief itself. Should it derive from a critical and historical reading of Scripture? should it issue from obedience to the authority of the Church? or should it derive from inner feelings or instincts?
In a letter written to Charles several months after their marriage, Emma suggests an appreciation for earnest doubt as a means of seeking truth:
Yet she is concerned that the exclusive pursuit of science, which involves
As Darwin would later reveal to Fordyce and other correspondents, his opinions on certain religious matters remained unformed. Conscientious doubt, viewed not as a state of disbelief, but as a state of inquiry, an openness with regard to nature and to revelation, like the openness that Charles and Emma so valued between each other--this might have been a bond, rather than merely a void, between the couple. This is not to suggest that tensions between them were resolved. But the evidence of their shared reading and correspondence does indicate that religious differences were not merely suppressed in their marriage; rather, that the foundations of belief and of doubt were a subject of ongoing discussion and mutual concern for many years.
* * *
The value of methodical doubt as a virtue of scientific character would be asserted by one of Darwin's leading proponents, Thomas Huxley. We can see Huxley pleading his case in correspondence in the late 1840s and early 1850s with his fiancée Henrietta Heathorn, a relationship that also incorporated differences in religious belief.
Letter from T. H. Huxley to H. A. Heathorn, October 1847.
Huxley later defended this manner of belief in his correspondence with the clergyman
Charles Kingsley, who had written to him following the death of Huxley's first son,
Noel, aged 5. Kingsley offered Huxley the consolation of belief in everlasting life.
Huxley could not accept this, but Kingsley's letter opened a line of communication that
extended over many years. ‘
When he came to review Origin of Species in 1859, Huxley identified this same method of forming sound beliefs as characteristic of Darwin: "so outspoken [is] his conviction, so honest and fair the candid expression of his doubts." Huxley urged that Darwin's readers adopt the same frame of mind: a state of "doubt which so loves truth that it neither dares rest in doubting, nor extinguish itself by unjustified belief."
In support of his claim, Huxley referred to the many passages in Origin in which Darwin raised objections to his own theory, or discussed the limits of scientific knowledge on particular questions. One can indeed find numerous examples of this in Darwin's publications: his devotion of a whole chapter in Origin to the difficulties of the theory of descent; his mode of assembling evidence favourable and unfavourable, circling around a position from all sides for dozens of pages, as in his writing on hybrid sterility in Variation in animals and plants under domestication (1868); or on the origin of human races in Descent of man (1871).
Some leading Darwinians found this approach frustrating. Alfred Russel Wallace repeatedly urged Darwin to place more emphasis on the facts favourable to natural selection, and worried that Darwin gave leverage to his critics by calling attention to the difficulties of his theory. Indeed, Huxley's own style of debate, often aggressive and confrontational, hardly followed the Darwin role model.
Darwin's leading German supporter, Ernst Haeckel, complained to Darwin in 1867,
Darwin is often portrayed as one who worked quietly in his study at Down House, avoiding scientific and social controversy, allowing others like Huxley, Wallace, and Haeckel to battle on his behalf. Darwin did express gratitude for, and occasionally glee at, the combativeness of his colleagues and supporters. But he was also concerned that such controversial styles of debate would alienate potential allies and disturb old allegiances. Haeckel's letter had been prompted by an admonition from Darwin written several weeks earlier:
According to Darwin, the voice of science should not be one of absolute conviction, but rather of openness and criticism, or even sometimes of confessed ignorance. The diversity and collaborative nature of Darwin's readership favoured such provisionality and uncertainty. This readership ranged from gentlemanly specialists and young professionals to pigeon fanciers and gardeners. It included his own family and social circle, and his large network of correspondents, many of whom were clergymen and members of the gentry, persons on whom he relied, and whose observations and authority he incorporated into his texts.
But this cautious style also left him vulnerable to critics, as Wallace and Haeckel
pointed out. To this day, Darwin's manner of self-doubt and questioning is still seized
upon by some as signifying a weakness, if not in his character, then in his conviction
in the accuracy of his theories. Modern proponents of intelligent design, from the
president of the Discovery Institute to the country and western singer turned
televangelist Pat Boone, cite passages showing Darwin's awareness of alternative
interpretations as evidence that the great scientist's theory of evolution by natural
selection was somehow tentative: ‘
We know that Darwin had not a shred of doubt about the power of natural selection to modify and transmute species. The questions were in the details of how it operated. Darwin's correspondence shows that his religious beliefs changed substantially over the course of this life, and that they never reached a fixed position. His agnosticism should be understood as a state of genuine uncertainty regarding the existence and nature of God. Darwin's unwillingness to pronounce on religious matters stemmed from his strongly held view that science and religion rest on different foundations and forms of evidence, and that his scientific expertise, no matter how extensive, did not make him a religious authority. Running right through his early discussions on religion and science with Emma, to his publications on evolution, and later correspondence with clergymen and enquiring readers, is an agreed commitment to the practice of conscientious doubt and critical inquiry in both science and religion.
Selection of persons and works referred to
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