In September of 2015, this one-sentence letter by Charles Darwin was sold in an auction in New York City for $197,000. This brief letter could command such a high price because scholars were unaware of its existence for over a hundred years, and it seemed to finally answer one of the most urgent questions that people have had about Darwin--Was he a Christian? It did not answer, however, a different, although related, question--Does his theory of evolution require atheism?
Written on November 24, 1880, this letter was in response to a letter that Darwin had received the day before from Frederick McDermott, who was a stranger to Darwin. Darwin was near the end of his life. He would die a year and a half later at age 73. (Darwin's correspondence is conveniently available online at the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge.)
McDermott said he desired to read Darwin's books, particularly after he had learned that Charles Kingsley had recommended them. Kingsley had been a prominent clergyman, university professor, novelist, and chaplain to Queen Victoria; he was also a friend of Darwin's, who was one of the first people to endorse the argument of Darwin's Origin of Species.
McDermott wanted reassurance, however, that he could read Darwin's books without losing his faith in the New Testament. "I fear my brain is not fine enough to argue out doubts which might be suggested by your works," he wrote to Darwin. "My reason in writing to you therefore is to ask you to give me a Yes or No to the question Do you believe in the New Testament." He promised that if he received an answer, he would not send it to "the theological papers" for publication.
Here's Darwin's letter in reply:
Nov. 24th 1880
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.
Yours faithfully Ch. DarwinDarwin was reluctant to speak publicly about his religious beliefs, but he often spoke openly about this in letters that were marked "private." Among his published writings, the most candid statement about his religious beliefs is the section on "Religious Belief" in his Autobiography, which he wrote in the summer of 1876, for publication after his death. After his death in 1882, the Autobiography was published in 1887. But, as I indicated in the previous post, his wife Emma had some passages about religion cut out because they were too disturbing.
If you go to the Darwin Correspondence Project, and search for the letters that mention religion or the Bible, you will find hundreds of letters, many of them addressed to Darwin from strangers like McDermott who want Darwin to tell them about his religious beliefs. Some of these strangers were concerned about the eternal salvation of Darwin's soul. A Joseph Plimsoll wrote six letters to Darwin--five in 1867-1868 and one in 1881--that were sermons filled with biblical quotations and pleading with Darwin to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Plimsoll identified Darwin's "development theory" as atheism, and warned him that he would go to Hell for this if he did not ask for redemption.
But one should notice that neither in the letter to McDermott nor in any published writing or private correspondence does Darwin ever identify himself as an atheist or identify his scientific theory as atheistic. On the contrary, he always insisted that his theory of evolution was compatible with theistic religion, although it was incompatible with a literal interpretation of the Bible as a divinely revealed history of the world.
Darwin's best brief statement of his religious views that is consistent with everything else he wrote about this is a letter to John Fordyce in May 7, 1879:
"It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.--You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point-- What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.--But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. 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."There are five points here that Darwin repeated in his Autobiography and in his correspondence.
(1) It is possible to affirm both theism and evolution--to be a theistic evolutionist--and people like Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray show this.
(2) Darwin thinks his views of this issue should be of no special concern for others, because each person must make up his own mind based on his personal weighing of the pertinent arguments and evidence.
(3) Darwin finds this issue so mentally challenging that he fluctuates in his thinking, and he cannot come to any final conclusion.
(4) In all of that fluctuation, Darwin has never seen any good reasons to be an atheist, in the sense of denying the existence of God.
(5) And yet, Darwin has seen good reasons, especially in his later years of life, to be an agnostic, in the sense of being in such a state of ignorance that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.
Prior to its official publication date of November 24, 1859, Darwin sent advance copies of The Origin of Species to a few people, including Charles Kingsley. Kingsley wrote a letter to Darwin on November 18, 1859, which included this remark:
"I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."A few days later (December 2), Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, that Kingsley's "capital sentence" should be inserted in the second edition of Origin, "in answer to anyone who may, as many will, say that my Book is irreligious." This sentence was introduced into the concluding section of Origin as showing that there is "no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one."
Kingsley's "capital sentence" is the first clear statement of the basic idea that is today called theistic evolution or evolutionary creation. For example, theistic evolutionist Dennis Venema echoes Kingsley's sentence in his new book--Adam and the Genome (coauthored with Scot McKnight)--when he writes: "Evolution . . . may be God's chosen design to bring about biodiversity on earth. . . . Indeed, making an object that can self-assemble would require a design far superior to that of an object that requires manual assembly. . . . I view evolution as God's grand design for creating life" (89).
The best proponent of theistic evolution among Darwin's correspondents was Asa Gray, a professor of botany at Harvard University, who was the greatest American botanist of the 19th century, who was a devout orthodox Christian, and who exchanged hundreds of letters with Darwin from 1843 until Darwin's death in 1882. The number of these letters peaked in the period of 1860 to 1864, when Gray was the leading American scientist defending both Darwin's science and the compatibility of his science with theistic religion.
In a letter to Gray on May 22, 1860, Darwin said: "Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical." Darwin and Gray agreed that God did not have to miraculously intervene throughout history to specially create every species and form of life. But they also agreed that God could have originally created the laws of nature so that natural evolution could spontaneously unfold within those laws. Darwin thought that the human mind generally, including his own mind, was "instinctively" by an "inward conviction" inclined to see divinely intelligent design at the origin of matter, life, and the human mind; but it was hard for him to see how some divine design at the beginning of everything could be manifest in the seemingly random contingencies of the natural world.
In his many letters to Asa Gray where he takes up the theological arguments, Darwin repeatedly expresses the frustration of reaching the limits of human reason in trying to resolve fundamental mysteries: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.-- Let each man hope & believe what he can.--" (May 22, 1860).
There are some fundamental mysteries in the universe, Darwin suggests, and science might never be able to fully resolve these mysteries because of the limitations of human experience and human reasoning. But it does not follow from this fact of human ignorance that there is no natural explanation for such mysteries, and that we must invoke God acting outside of nature. To invoke God as the explanation is what Rebecca Goldstein calls the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another. Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no good scientific or philosophic answer to that question, which points to the problem of ultimate explanation: we can keep passing the buck, but the buck must stop somewhere. To say that God is the First Cause--the Uncaused Cause of everything--doesn't resolve the mystery because then we have the even greater mystery of how to explain God. If we can say that God is uncaused or self-caused, then why not say that Nature is uncaused or self-caused? (I have elaborated these points here and here.)
Darwin wondered whether the instinctive tendency of the human mind to see intelligent design in the universe could be trusted, or whether it reflected an unreasonable propensity of evolved human nature to anthropomorphic analogy. He wrote about this in The Descent of Man, in explaining the evolution of religious belief. The "belief in unseen or spiritual agencies" seems to be universal. The simplest hypothesis to explain this, Darwin suggested, is that as human beings are aware of how their minds prompt them to act, and as they imagine that other human beings have the same mental agency in their actions, they are inclined to explain natural forces in plants, animals, and physical things as showing mental agency analogous to human minds; and this can lead to belief in supernatural minds that exercise intelligent agency in the world (Penguin Books, 2004, 116-118).
Recently, evolutionary psychologists have elaborated a Darwinian theory of religious belief as arising from a "hyperactive agency detection device"--that just as we believe in the existence of other human minds that we cannot directly observe, so we believe in the divine mind from projecting our mental experience onto the world. As I have observed in other posts (here and here), some of these Darwinian psychologists (such as Justin Barrett) see this as showing that Darwinian science is compatible with the truth of believing in God, others (such as Jesse Bering) see this as exposing belief in God as a fictional construction of the evolved human mind. For those like Barrett, religious belief is an adaptive truth. For those like Bering, religious belief is an adaptive illusion. So, as Darwin indicates, it's not clear as to whether we are warranted in trusting our evolved propensity to religious belief.
Thus, as Asa Gray observed, "Darwinism may bear an atheistic as well as a theistic interpretation" (in his review of Charles Hodge's What Is Darwinism?). So, if you're an atheist like Richard Dawkins, you can see Darwin's theory of evolution as making it possible for you to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist" (The Blind Watchmaker). But if you're a theist like Gray or Francis Collins, you can see Darwin's theory of evolution as showing the beautiful natural order that arises through laws of nature originally designed by God.
If you are a theistic evolutionist, however, your theism cannot be based on a literal interpretation of the Bible as a history of the world that was created in six 24-hour days, including the miraculous creation of Adam and Eve as the two individuals from whom all human beings descended. While Darwin is open to the thought that the general laws of nature were originally created by God, he cannot take seriously the stories in the Bible about God's miracles as being literally true.
For example, Darwin received letters from people who were looking for ways to make his theory of human evolution from animal ancestors compatible with the story in Genesis about God creating Adam and Eve in His image, and thus set apart from the other animals. But Darwin saw no need for this, because he did not see the Genesis account of creation as a divine revelation of a literally true history.
Leonard Jenyns was one of the people to whom Darwin had sent early copies of The Origin of Species. Jenyns was an Anglican vicar and a naturalist, and he was one of the few naturalists to whom Darwin sent a letter in 1844 revealing Darwin's views on the transmutation of species. Jenyns wrote to Darwin on January 4, 1860. He indicated that he partly agreed with Darwin's theory of how species evolved from ancestral species. But he was not convinced by Darwin's claim that "all organic beings that have ever lived on the earth, had descended from some one primordial form."
He was also worried that Darwin's theory as applied to human evolution would contradict the Genesis creation story:
"One great difficulty to my mind in the way of your theory is the fact of the existence of Man. I was beginning to think you had entirely passed over this question, till almost in the last page I find you saying that 'light will be thrown on the origin of man & his history.' By this I suppose is meant that he is to be considered a modified & no doubt greatly improved orang! I doubt if t his will find acceptance with the generality of readers--I am not one of those in the habit of mixing up questions of science & scripture, but I can hardly see what sense or meaning is to be attached to Gen: 2.7. & yet more to vv. 21, 22, of the same chapter, giving an account of the creation of woman,--if the human species at least has not been created independently of other animals, but merely come into the world by ordinary descent from previously existing races--whatever these races may be supposed to have been. Neither can I easily bring myself to the idea that man's reasoning faculties & above all his moral sense, could ever have been obtained from irrational progenitors, by mere natural selection--acting however gradually & for whatever length of time that may be required. This seems to be doing away altogether with the Divine Image which forms the insurmountable distinction between man & brutes."In Darwin's letter of reply (on January 7), he passes over the question of the Divine Image quickly: "With respect to man, I am very far from wishing to obtrude my belief; but I thought it dishonest to quite conceal my opinion.-- Of course it is open to everyone to believe that man appeared by separate miracle, though I do not myself see the necessity or probability.--"
In 1871, in The Descent of Man, Darwin did provide an evolutionary account of human reason and the moral sense as uniquely human, and yet derived from mental capacities shared with other animals, and without any reference to the Creation of Adam and Eve in God's Image. If one agrees that "man is descended from some less highly organized form," and that "man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor," Darwin concluded, then one "cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act of creation" (Descent, Penguin edition, 2004, 676).
Twenty years after his exchange of letters with Jenyns, Darwin received a letter from William Tearle (in April 1880), who was worried that Darwin's theory was "antagonistic to the strict reading of the Bible." He suggested to Darwin a new way to interpret the Bible's "Let us make man in our image": "May man not have been previously created, as an animal of a superior order, and God seeing that all living creatures required a head, and earthly master, he marked man as the most suitable, and then fashioned him after his own image." (A similar interpretation of the Genesis creation story was advanced by C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain.)
Darwin's letter of reply (April 16, 1880) was brief and dismissive:
"I am sorry to say that I can be of no assistance to you.--Any remarks which I might make on your letter would as far as they had any influence, add to your doubts on subjects which you consider sacred."
"In my opinion every man ought to weigh for himself impartially & anxiously al the arguments for & against any revelation ever having been made to man.--"In an earlier letter (to Bartholomew James Sullivan, May 24, 1861), Darwin was dismissive about an article attempting to reconcile Genesis and science: "I am weary of all these various attempts to reconcile, what I believe to be irreconcilable."
But even if a literal reading of Genesis as natural history is irreconcilable with Darwinian natural history, the contradiction might be overcome by reading Genesis as telling stories with theological meaning that were never intended to be read as literal natural history. Recently, some evangelical Christians who are theistic evolutionists have taken this position, which denies the historical reality of Adam and Eve.
But many evangelical Christians now worry that this would deny the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity, while also denying the importance of the idea of humans created in God's image in supporting the moral dignity of human beings as endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. I will say more about this in future posts.