Charles Darwin on Religion

Charles Darwin discovered the connection between environmental factors and the evolution of species which serves as the foundation of modern evolutionary science. He put forward the concept of natural selection, which is the process by which species adapt to the environment in an effort to survive and multiply. 

According to Darwin, all life on earth came from one common ancestor. A prominent naturalist of the 1800s, Darwin discussed this in one of the most authoritative and controversial books in the field of biology: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was of great interest when it was first released in 1859, but it was met with equal doubt and opposition by monotheist religions who believed that one deity alone created life on earth. This creationist perspective on the origin of living organisms was a popular doctrine in the Western world during the Victorian era. 

Furthermore, Darwin’s ideas also contradicted natural theology as described by William Paley, a Christian clergyman, and naturalist who proposed in his book Natural Theology in 1802 that God designed the mechanisms that happen in nature. Thus, Darwins’ had a massive impact on religious institutions and compelled several sects such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention to not accept evolutionary theory as it can conflict with Biblical interpretations. 

Darwin wrote in his correspondence with fellow scientists that he did not consider himself an authority on others’ religious beliefs and believed that science and religion are not connected to each other. He also sparsely mentioned the topic in his written works, partly in respect for his wife’s pious nature but also because he was not opposed to the Church. His correspondence with the Christian missionary John Fordyce revealed that his opinions on religion often “fluctuate,” sharing with his friend that he was not an atheist, as some might say but an agnostic who believed in a higher being. However, his religious beliefs, as he said, were constantly fluctuating. Due to his adherence to the scientific method, Darwin’s need for hard evidence made it difficult for him to fully lend some facets of religion. 

Early Life

Darwin was raised with an upper-class upbringing and thus was taught Christian beliefs from his birth. As was typical at the time, he was sent to the local educational facility, Shrewsbury School, where he learned the conventions of religion. He also went to Church at the Unitarian chapel in town. 

Darwin’s grandfather, through his mother, Josiah Wedgwood, was famous in the pottery industry and a known Unitarian. He rejected the idea that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were one entity but that God was one being alone. Meanwhile, Erasmus Darwin, his paternal grandfather, was a free thinker who laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s own beliefs in evolution in his book from 1794 to 1796 entitled Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life. He proposed that organisms did not stem from a “creator.” 

Darwin’s mother, Susannah Darwin, passed away in 1817, leading him to attend the parish church instead and then enroll in boarding school. By the age of 16, he went to Edinburgh to study in one of the most renowned medical schools. There, his interest in the natural world grew. At the time, one of his sisters sent him a letter to encourage him to read the Bible not only out of obligation. 

After his father, Robert Darwin, had enough of Darwin’s neglectful attitude toward his studies, he was sent to Cambridge to study to become a clergyman. There he read Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy and Evidences of Christianity. He even lived in the same dorm that Paley once used. Darwin noted Paley’s idea that God’s design was manifested in several phenomena in the world. During his years at Cambridge, he regarded Paley’s theory as part of his faith. It was the period in which he was the most firm in his Christian beliefs. 

Emma Darwin and Religion

After his time in Cambridge and his journey on the HMS Beagle, Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, on January 29, 1839. The two spent time together and wrote to each other often. Their letters are available in the Darwin Correspondence Project archives and detail Emma’s devout Unitarian beliefs. Emma believed in the afterlife and often questioned Darwin about his faith because she wanted to be assured they would be together after death. Her letters reveal that her faith was not shallow but was strengthened by research and study. Emma hoped to learn the truth. She was a critical thinker but continued to support her husband’s investigation of the natural world. 

The couple often conversed with clergymen such as James Martineau and John James Taylor and Anglican writers such as Francis Newman, who described his experiences as a Calvinist turned Theist. They also discussed religion, evidenced by Emma’s New Testament book showing annotations from her husband on its margins. They both participated in reflection regarding the passages in the Bible. The two valued each other’s openness to their opinions; however, these discussions lasted for the entirety of their marriage, suggesting that none of them shifted to wholly believing the other. 

Annie’s Death

One event that had a profound impact on Darwin’s religious beliefs was the death of his first daughter, Annie. She was a fragile child who was often ill. She came down with a fever in 1851, upon which Darwin remarked about his daughter’s gaunt look to Emma. Annie’s health deteriorated, and she eventually died on April 12, 1851. Darwin’s grief over Annie’s death changed his perspective on his faith, and he became distant from religious affairs. 

Support of Missionary Work

One of his friends on the HMS Beagle was James Sulivan, the 2nd lieutenant on the ship, who wrote to Darwin about his support of the South American Missionary Society (previously called Patagonian Mission Society). Sulivan and Darwin remained friends until the later years of Darwin’s life. He continuously donated to the South American Missionary Society and requested to become an honorary member. Letters to Sulivan reaffirm that Darwin was not against religious groups.