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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Was Charles Darwin an Agnostic Atheist?

Let me say, right at the start, that I really don't care whether Charles Darwin was a deist, an agnostic, an atheist, or something else entirely. He died on April 19, 1882. That was a very long time ago. And the truth of evolution does not depend on what Darwin may or may not have believed about God.

Still, it's of some historical interest to learn what Darwin thought of religion. My own opinion is that these speculations are never going to be satisfactorily answered because Darwin was not always candid about his beliefs, for Emma's sake.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to find me favorably recommending an article on Uncommon Descent but this article by Flannery deserves your attention: Theist, Agnostic, Atheist: Will the Real Charles Darwin Please Stand Up?.

It's not going to make my agnostic friends happy but I think it's a pretty good analysis of Darwin's beliefs. I especially like the emphasis on the fact that his grandfather wasn't religious and his father (Robert) was an atheist. I'm pretty sure that his brother, Erasmus, was a nonbeliever as well. It strains credibility to imagine that Darwin was ever a religious man.


  1. I think you give a rather crude and slanted analysis too much credit: at a basic level, it makes its argument by assuming that anything other than a pious believer is an atheist. Darwin's father Robert (not Richard) was quietly a freethinker, and publicly supported the Church of England. Describing him as an atheist is simplistic, and from my limited understanding of the period inaccurate. Similarly, the term materialism did not imply atheism in the 1820s when Darwin was exposed to such ideas, according the Desmond, and that seems likely to apply to Darwin's notebook "oh you materialist".

    The article skips over the probability that Darwin's religious beliefs changed over time. It also conflates what looks like genuine openness with atheism. Darwin's doubts have been interestingly discussed in the Correspondence Project, which also notes how ID proponents seize on such doubts.

    Near the end of his life, Darwin was still interested in religious views on science, and on 3 July 1881 wrote to William Graham saying, while not accepting "that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this..... Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

    Plantinga has erected a philosophical attack on "naturalism" on a misrepresentation of Darwin's clear feeling in that specific letter that religious convictions are questionable when evolution is accepted, but that there is still a conviction that there is some deep purpose. Don't think it's reasonable to call that atheism, agnosticism is a pretty good description.

  2. dave says,

    I think you give a rather crude and slanted analysis too much credit: at a basic level, it makes its argument by assuming that anything other than a pious believer is an atheist. Darwin's father Robert (not Richard) was quietly a freethinker, and publicly supported the Church of England. Describing him as an atheist is simplistic ...

    An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in God. Is that simplistic enough?

    Robert Darwin (thanks for the correcting the slip-up) supported the Unitarian church as well as the Church of England. Darwin supported his local church even though he did not attend the services on Sunday morning. That does not make him a theist.

    I understand why some people want to avoid calling Darwin an agnostic atheist. The alternative is that he was an agnostic deist.

  3. Based on my reading of biographies of Darwin, it appears that his father, Robert Darwin, was skeptical about religion, particularly Christianity, but it would appear inaccurate to label him an atheist, at least as we understand that term today. As for Darwin himself, when he set foot on the Beagle, he was a devout Anglican, and was the butt of jokes for his piety by the crew. However, he clearly lost much if not most of his religious beliefs as he grew older, in part because of his anger over the death of his daughter and in part because of the savagery of nature as described in his theory of natural selection.

  4. SLC says,

    As for Darwin himself, when he set foot on the Beagle, he was a devout Anglican, and was the butt of jokes for his piety by the crew.

    It's my understanding—mainly from Janet Browne—that Darwin wanted to do what was "right." English gentlemen supported the church and attended services' therefore, Darwin supported the church and attended services. It's what distinguished the upper classes from the lower ones.

    It may not be appropriate to refer to this as "devout" and to interpret the behavior as pious.

    In fact, given Darwin's family background and upbringing, it doesn't seem likely that he was ever a "devout" Anglican in the sense that he accepted all the beliefs promoted by the church.

  5. Re Larry Moran

    I have not read Janet Brownes' biography but other biographies seem to indicate that the crew of the Beagle thought that Darwin was quite devout, based on his behavior, and gave him a hard time over it.

  6. Larry, your definition of "An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in God" as expressed by you and the ID analysis means that anyone having any serious doubts about their faith is an atheist. Darwin's mother and wife were both devout Unitarians, hardly atheists but in the analysis I linked, "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."

    It seems about right to assess Darwin as a youth who accepted Christianity without any great faith or piety, and who developed over time into an agnostic deist. There was a telling episode where Darwin, a dropout from Edimburgh university, studied theological texts to convince himself that he could honestly become a parson. It shows acceptance of doctrine but not innate faith in doctrine, and he wasn't the only student destined for holy orders who felt that way.

    As for materialism, Desmond's "The Politics of Evolution" pp. 5-6 note 13 is clear that scientific materialists in the 19th century could be deists: although strictly it meant no spirits or vital powers independent of matter, the label was used more widely and included mechanistic explanations of the mind or body by deists who believed in God.

  7. By coincidence, have just found another example of the shocking materialism about these days, in Chicago...

    Darwin can be seen as a Christian conformist who gradually became an agnostic deist, but had the uncompromising honesty to look seriously at the outcome of his scientific ideas, and for example to treat language as an evolved behaviour shared to some extent with "lower animals", not something uniquely human and supernatural.

    Alternatively, IDists would probably describe that as "a secular noble lie", quoting your more recent post, and would construct a view in which Darwin lied about his childhood beliefs and lied every time he expressed any tentative deism. Looks to me out of character for Darwin, but right in character for cdesign proponentsists...

  8. "Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last was 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." This quote is from his autobiography. Maybe I am a bit thick, but that sounds fairly adamant to me.

  9. T. Fife, the "thus disbelief" quote is adamant enough, but note that it's from page 87 of his autobiography, as published unexpurgated by Nora Barlow, and is preceded on page 86 in the same context, "by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation."

    It's specifically disbelief in Christianity, and does not say anything about his continued if intermittent stirrings of belief in a vague deistic creator.

    Having described the Christian threat of hellfire for unbelievers as "a damnable doctrine", he goes on to discuss his later religious views, and notes on pages 92–93 that "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." before considering the unreliability of evolved beliefs, and concluding on page 94 that "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."

    Darwin remained adamantly indecisive on this issue: if you define agnosticism as weak atheism, that applies with the caveat about indecisive vague deism, but if you use the common definition of atheism as belief that there is no god or that god is 99% improbable, then Darwin must remain an agnostic.

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  11. Darwin self-identified as an agnostic and rejected the description atheist. In addition to the Autobiography already quoted, see also:

    Buchner's account

    Aveling's account