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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Charles Darwin: Not An Atheist

Charles Darwin is credited with the discovery of the phenomenon of evolution by natural selection. In the 20th century, this concept became a major source of contention between atheists and theists. Due to his contributions to science, especially in areas that seem to contradict Christian doctrine, and because of some of his more famous sayings, he is often painted as an atheist. While it is known that he was not a Christian throughout his life, he was also not an atheist.

Darwin actually spent a more than half of his life as a Christian. "I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age," Darwin said to some dinner guests in 1881, just under a year before his death. Even in 1859, when his most significant work, On the Origin of Species, was published, he was still a believer in a personal God, although he had doubts about the teleological argument that nature is evidence of God.

Nevertheless, in his autobiography, in 1876, Darwin wrote that at the time that he wrote Origin of Species, he was still very much a believer because of "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."

In 1879, John Fordyce wrote to Darwin, asking if evolution and theism were compatible. Darwin responded that a man "can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist."

This was pretty much Darwin's view.
However, slowly over the years, disbelief became more a part of Darwin's thinking. One of several reasons was the Evidential Problem of Evil. During Darwin's study of biology and nature, Darwin saw a lot of suffering and death. He could not see the work of an omnipotent deity in all the pain and suffering such as the ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs.

He stopped going to church around 1849, preferring instead to go on long walks while his family attended Sunday meetings. On 23 April 1851, his daughter Annie died after a painful illness. Darwin would write about his daughter, but no longer believed in an afterlife or salvation.

Even after this time, Darwin was hesitant to share his religious views because of the harm it may cause to loved ones, but people would often write to him asking for his opinions. He once commented, "Half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions." He once replied, "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."

Darwin was rational to the core. He would not accept Christianity because of insufficient evidence, but he also would not deny the existence of God for the same reason. On Thursday 28 September 1881, Darwin met with Doctor Ludwig B├╝chner and Edward Aveling for dinner. After eating, Darwin asked why they called themselves Atheists. They said it was because they "did not commit the folly of god-denial, [and] avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion." Darwin answered, "I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist." In other words, Darwin agreed that it was folly to assert the existence of God, but he also agreed that it was folly to deny it.

This was pretty much Darwin's view.
In the 1879 letter to John Fordyce, in which Darwin commented on the compatibility of evolution and theism, he said, "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." (Emphasis Added)

Darwin was an agnostic with theistic leanings, though as he aged these leanings became slighter and more infrequent. At the end of his life, he was, first and foremost, agnostic.

Darwin's Westminster Abbey funeral expressed a public feeling of national pride, and religious writers of all persuasions praised his "noble character and his ardent pursuit of truth". In particular the Unitarians and free religionists, proud of his Dissenting upbringing, supported his naturalistic views. The Unitarian William Carpenter carried a resolution praising Darwin's unravelling of "the immutable laws of the Divine Government", shedding light on "the progress of humanity", and the Unitarian preacher John White Chadwick from New York wrote that "The nation's grandest temple of religion opened its gates and lifted up its everlasting doors and bade the King of Science come in."


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