AFT Blog # 24: Darwin

Darwin and Evolution Without God

Daniel Baril

Charles Darwin was born on the 12th of February and this year 2013 marks his 204th birthday. Darwin must be counted among the greatest figures in human history who, like Galileo, bravely defied the religious dogma of their day in order for scientific thought to progress and triumph.

Even today, 154 years after his discovery of the law of natural selection, a majority of Americans continue to reject what is considered to be a solidly proven fact. The difficulty which most believers have in accepting the Darwinian theory of evolution is not a failure to comprehend its mechanism but rather a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction between that theory and the idea of a world created by God.

A Convenient Misunderstanding

Darwin was a religious believer when in 1831 he embarked upon his voyage on the Beagle. On his return to England five years later, he was no longer the same man. He had evolved gradually from believer to atheist, gradually abandoning first Christianity, then deism and finally agnosticism.

Still today there are numerous recently published works which claim that Darwin was agnostic. It is true that, publicly, he maintained his agnosticism. He could hardly have affirmed his atheism in the Victorian society of the day without exposing himself to the condemnation of the bourgeoisie and seeing his works discredited. He also wished to avoid offending his very devout wife. However, in his private correspon­dence and in his autobiography, we see quite a different Darwin.

It can sometimes be convenient to conceal Darwin’s atheism. If the discoverer of the law of natural selection were agnostic, then there would be no contradiction between supporting that theory and being a believer. However the misconception about Darwin’s atheism is due to the fact that the first edition of his autobiography in 1882, five years after his death, was considerably censored by his widow Emma Wedgwood who wished to obfuscate her late husband’s atheism. It was only in 1958 that their granddaughter Nora Barlow published an unexpurgated version of the autobiography.

Here are a few quotations from that autobiography which illustrate Darwin’s abandonment first of Christianity and then of deism:

“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.”

The problem of the suffering to which every living being is subjected had already eroded the naturalist’s faith and led him to reject any concept of a divine plan. In a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray, he wrote:

“I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

His own works had put an end to his existential questioning:

“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.”

The following quotation from Darwin’s autobiography shows his total and acknowledged disbelief:

“Thus 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.”

Darwin also warned against the dangers of imposing a religious education on young children:

“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.”

On this particular point Darwin was indeed visionary. Today we are only beginning to discover the malleability of the human brain and the traces which education can leave upon it, in particular by modifying gene expression through DNA methylation. We can also see in this quote the first inklings of the meme concept developed by Dawkins and which applies rather well to religion.

Randomness and God: Incompatible

The Darwinian theory of evolution is incompatible with religious belief because it grants a decisive role to randomness in the mechanism of evolution, while all religion maintains that life follows the path which God desires and ordains. Some believers make a pretence of accepting the theory of evolution by deliberately turning a blind eye to this crucial point and claiming that evolution was planned by God and even that randomness was inserted into the laws of nature by God himself. This is in fact the incoherent position adopted by the Vatican and which can be called “evolutionary creationism.”

If Darwin had not come along, we would probably still have arrived at the same theory today allowing us to understand evolution. Before him, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck set forth, at the beginning of the 19th century, a theory of evolution based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This view, which seems naive to us, persists even today because of its intuitive plausibility. Lamarckism even seems to be making a bit of a comeback in light of recent advances in epigenetics.

Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, came independently to the same conclusion of the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was an idea whose time had come, so to speak. But Wallace never went as far as Darwin and refused to extend the theory of evolution to the human species because he could not bear to abandon his religious beliefs.

Indeed, for someone of his time Darwin displayed remarkable discernment by attributing to other animals emotions and even skills similar to those of humans. In his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, he describes an incident when his dog barked upon seeing a parasol agitated by the wind. Darwin interpreted his pet’s behaviour thus: reasoning quickly and unconsciously, the dog determined that the movement without apparent cause must indicate the presence of some unknown living agent. He compared this animal reaction to our own human inclination to image agents behind natural events, imaginings which generate religious beliefs:

“The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs.”

For Darwin, religion was thus an epiphenomenon, the result of our habit of seeing agents where there are none. He had thus outlined the modern programme of the evolutionary study of religion 140 years before this branch of science was established in the 1990s and which interprets religion as an extrapolation of our psychosocial capabilities.

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