On Darwin’s Faith

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Depending on one’s perspective, Charles Darwin is a lightning rod and a foundation. Opposing sides in the theology-evolution issue use him in different ways. Whereas conservative Christians describe him as an immoral, hateful atheist who is a messenger from the devil, evolution supporters refer to him as a scholar, a brilliant thinker, and even an inspiration.

Interesting how the two views of one life differ based a perspective of a forced choice that some present. In terms of his religion, Darwin faith life was filled with struggle. Below are chronological moments in Charles Darwin’s religious life. Besides, February 12th is his 208th birthday.

1809: Charles Darwin is born into a family of a father who was a religious skeptic, a Unitarian mother, and 4 siblings (3 sisters and a brother) who attended church with their mother. His paternal grandfather was a deist, as was Darwin’s brother.

1817: Darwin’s mother died. Thereafter, his older sisters took him to an Anglican church where he remained and was educated. At the time, the Anglican church had a 6-day, young-earth creationist view of the world.

1828: After several years in medical school at the University of Edinburgh, Darwin enters Cambridge University to study theology. Studies introduce him to Paley’s Natural Theology, which influenced his beliefs in a God intervening in creation.

1831: Darwin graduates from Cambridge with a theology degree, but decided not to pursue being an ordained pastor. A geology field trip initiated the thought that the earth is very old, therefore developing a view of today’s old-earth creationists with an intervening God as the designer. Later that year he begins his 5-year journey on the HMS Beagle.

1831-1836: Through his many observations across the globe, Darwin is convinced God is present in nature and that God was the intervening designer.

1836-1839: After his journey, Darwin thought deeply about biology, geology, and theology, so he spend much time writing. He rejected origins based on Genesis 1 and eventually Christianity – but not God.

1839: Marries Emma (a Unitarian) in an Anglican ceremony. They would eventually have 10 children, two of which died in infancy.

1851: Annie, his second oldest child and the “apple of her proud father’s eye” dies after an illness of several years. This devastated Darwin, and some say this greatly impacted his view of suffering.

1856: Starts writing On the Origin of the Species.

1859: On the Origin of the Species is published. In it Darwin mentions god as the Creator on multiple occasions – signally his shift from a traditional theist to a non-traditional theist with God as the creator of the evolutionary process.

1860-1861: Reflecting on reactions people had about the book, Darwin writes to a Harvard botanist, “I had no intention to write atheistically … my views are not at all necessarily atheistical.” He also admits being troubled by the suffering that occurs in nature and in the world, but reinforces a belief in design by a Creator.

1871: The Descent of Man published. While acknowledging the “highly irreligious” will denounce his work, he supports his belief in a Creator at work in designing life. “The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance.”

1876: Because of his struggles with suffering, he continues to question God’s existence. In his biography Darwin explains his belief in God as an intelligent designed and states, “I deserve to be called a theist.” His writings point to one who believes in a god that is not assigned to one particular religion. Later he concludes, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is not solvable by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

1879: Although agnostic, Darwin writes this powerful sentence about evolution and theology in a letter: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man be an ardent theist and an evolutionists. …. In my extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God …. I think that as I grow older, but not always, that an Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind.”

1882: After a difficult 3 months with health issues, Charles Darwin dies – and never an atheist. Reports of him recanting his view of evolution and proclaiming Jesus Christ as savior lack evidence, therefore untrue. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey (Anglican).

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36 thoughts on “On Darwin’s Faith

  1. I think his upbringing, his theology degree, and his exposure to the workings of the natural world gave him a thorough comprehensive viewpoint few other people have ever come near. I respect his work and writings a great deal. Thanks for the post.

    Happy Birthday, Chuck.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim,
      He was unquestionably educated and full of wonder about nature. Yet, his religious history also shows a bit of the personal torment he went through. Nonetheless, maybe the greatest biological thinker of all time.


  2. Your post does an excellent job of summarizing Darwin’s groundbreaking life. Two of your quotes from Darwin (“I deserve to be called a theist”) and (“The mystery of the beginning of all things is not solvable by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic”) lead me to ponder the implications of Dictionary.com’s primary and secondary definitions for the word THEISM:

    1. The belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism).

    2. Belief in the existence of a god or gods (opposed to atheism).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is an interesting summary of Darwin’s life, Frank. Darwinian theory is mentioned in several of the topics I have been studying at university (why I rarely comment these days, but I’m on a uni break now 🙂 ) although it hasn’t been noted that he retained a belief in God. Darwin was an interesting and complex theorist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanne,
      Glad to see you during your break. Welcome back, and I hope classes are going well for you.

      Darwin’s work is very interesting, and in some ways, ahead of his time. Interestingly, when one sees lists of great thinkers of all time, he’s the only biologist who makes this list.

      There are many misconceptions not only about evolution, but also about Darwin, especially regarding his religion … so that’s the driving force for this post.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Marina,
      Many thanks. Many Europeans may not know that many in the US have a difficult time with evolution, let alone the person behind natural selection. His faith is one thing, thus why I did this post. Cheers to the week ahead!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really enjoyed reading this chronology of Darwin’s life, Frank. There is no doubt that he continues to be a polarizing figure in some circles, but I think many people with harsh pronouncements don’t really know what he believed, or the depth of his searching for a compatible relationship between his understanding of faith and his scientific study. I think his struggle with suffering, even in observing nature, is really interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debra,
      Glad you saw this post as it was the one I mentioned as you were about to leave for the Gino concert. (How was it?)

      This post is such is small portion within a larger topic that involves a combination of people not knowing as well as having misconceptions based on what they think they know. Of course some of that are deliberate attempts to misinform in order to justify a position.

      Meanwhile, I will have much more to say in upcoming months.


  5. Fascinating and thorough Frank. So glad in my working through my favorites I didn’t miss this one. I think Darwin identification as both Theist and Agnostic is likely how many of us would see ourselves given the opportunity to really sit and think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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