Friday, January 25, 2008

Was Charles Darwin an Atheist?

 
That's the question asked by Irwin Tessman in the January/February 2008 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Tessman is a Professor Emeritus in the Biology Department at Purdue University. You can see a podcast of his lecture, "A Darwinian View of a Hostile Atheist" at [The Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University].

Tessman is interested in comparing the views of the so-called "militant atheist," Richard Dawkins with the religious views of Charles Darwin. He concludes that their views are not very different. The biggest difference between the two men is that Darwin choose to hide his lack of religion from the public in deference to his wife Emma, who was a devout Anglican.

With the publication of the compete text of Darwin's autobiography in 1958, we now have much greater insight into Darwin's thoughts about religion. Here's how Tessman puts it,
Where does Darwin stand on the matter of a personal God? "The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which seemed so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by a man" (Darwin 1958, p.87). Darwin seems to reject the idea of a personal God and, therefore, theism too. His religious views are difficult to pin down (Browne, 2006, p.46), but something close to deism would seem to fit.

Theism is a belief in a personal God, one who responds to prayers and interferes in daily events; atheism is the opposite of theism. Deism is the belief in a God who set the universe in motion whit all the physical laws and both sacred and learned commentaries, but was absent after that. In practice, deism is much like atheism.
There seems to be general agreement that Darwin did not subscribe to the tenets of any organized religion. There is debate over whether he believed in supernatural beings. His Grandfather, father, and brother were non-believers so it's reasonable to suppose that Darwin was too.

He may have been comfortable with agnostic, a term that was invented by his friend Thomas Huxley. This would have been far more acceptable to Emma than atheist. I suspect that if Darwin were alive today he would be an atheist ... unless Emma were also alive.


Browne, Janet (2006) Darwin's Origin of Species: A biography. Douglas & McIntyre Vancouver/Toronto.

Darwin, Charles (1958) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow ed. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

13 comments :

  1. I can't recall where, but Darwin explicitly calls himself an agnostic in Huxley's sense (I think, in a letter to Huxley). As to whether he'd be an atheist now, that's the sort of question it's very hard to give a sensible answer to. You are asking if a person whose views were formed in the mid-19th century would be that person if their views were formed in the mid-20th or later. I think that Darwin would be an agnostic today, albeit atheistical about certain religions (such as the fundamentalist gods of various religions).

    And why would it matter? What counts is what a person today is led to think by reflection and reason, and whether you Dawkinsians like it or not, a lot of folk like myself think that agnosticism is the only general view that is rational.

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  2. John says,

    And why would it matter? What counts is what a person today is led to think by reflection and reason, and whether you Dawkinsians like it or not, a lot of folk like myself think that agnosticism is the only general view that is rational.

    I didn't mean to start that fight.

    The point of the article, I think, was that Darwin's view of religion in 1870 was not very different from that of Richard Dawkins today.

    I doesn't "matter" in any real sense except to help spread the word that atheism—or nonbeliever-agnosticism, if you prefer—is not a new phonomenon of the 21st century.

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  3. Oh, that fight.

    Well, if one is atheistic to ~ 10 000 major and minor deities, and agnostic to the philosopher one, I think the agnosticism disappears in the noise.

    But then I may have another and more empirical definition of "general" than John. :-P

    But, as John says, why would it matter? I believe I have somewhere seen Dawkins refer to his own view as agnosticism, and I understand that philosophically it is.

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  4. Wilkins, like a lot of people, is confused over the distinction between the terms "agnostic" and "atheist". Simply put, the former is an epistemological position (I do not know whether a god exists or not) while the latter pertains to what one does or does not believe concerning a god's existence. What one can claim to know, and what one chooses to believe, are two different things.

    Most Christians, if you back them up against a wall, will admit to being agnostic theists. They admit they don't know for certain and cannot prove that their god exists, but they believe it does all the same. I would describe myself as agnostic atheist.

    A lot of people like to think there's a kind of "pure" agnosticism that exists on its own, as a safe, non-committal neutral position on the matter (and this is almost always because they simply find the word "atheist" scary), but this isn't really the case. All you need to ask these people is how they live their day to day lives: as if a god does exist or as if one doesn't. If they say "I don't live my life either way," then that defaults to the latter choice. If you're living as if the very notion of a god is irrelevant to you, then the honest thing to say is that you don't believe. You may not be a proactive, oppositional atheist like Dawkins and the lot, but you're an atheist all the same.

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  5. From Darwin's remarkably slim autobiography: 'The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.'

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  6. Quick. Someone alert Miller to correct his "Finding Darwin's God" book.

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  7. While I have no doubt that dariwn had atheistic thoughts, he was no decidedly antirreligious guy, making reference to god and that even the idea that he may have created one or a few forms to start with. Darwin was not yet "ready" to adopt a scientific approach to the origin of life.

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  8. But Mats, Miller is clearly not a True ChristianTM, as he's arguing for both the truth of Christian theism and the heresy of Godless "Darwinism".

    When you post things like that, mats, you just made God madder and madder.

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  9. Modusoperandi, could you be more blatant with a 'no true scotsman' argument?

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  10. But Mats, Miller is clearly not a True ChristianTM, as he's arguing for both the truth of Christian theism and the heresy of Godless "Darwinism".

    Clearly,you missed the point of my sarcasm. What I said was a reference to Miller's futile atempt to reconcile magic evolution with Christian theology. This post, I believe, was done to demonstrate that Darwin's view of the world was totally against Biblical Christianity. Accordingly, what does this do to Miller's atempt to reconcile Christianity with Darwin?

    This pretty much shows how reliable Miller is on Christian theology.

    Oh, and it shows that Darwinists who point to him as evidence that one can be a Christian and a darwinist are either ignorant of darwin's true message, or are deceiving the "ignorant masses".

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  11. The "true scotsman" is used by darwinists frequently: "All true scientists say that evolution is a fact!"

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  12. mats "What I said was a reference to Miller's futile atempt to reconcile magic evolution with Christian theology."
    Oh, you... You put "magic" in front of the wrong term.

    "...Darwin's true message"
    What, that over time generations of living things can change? Golly, what an insidious message. He'll come after our children, next!

    "The "true scotsman" is used by darwinists frequently: "All true scientists say that evolution is a fact!"
    Don't forget IDs "Boy, things sure are complicated!", or the creationist's "Evolution is just a theory!". Sometimes, they spell evolution "evilution", just to be witty.

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  13. magic evolution

    Scientific theories are predictive; magic is not. Btw, please explain how creationism is distinguishable from magic.

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