Defaming Darwin

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The website Christian Answers, maintained by Creation Ministries International, claims that Charles Darwin’s work on evolution "caused him to reject the evidence for God in nature and ultimately to renounce the Bible, God and the Christian faith".

Darwin is damned for rejecting "the revelation of God in the Bible and then [being]unwilling to accept the revelation of God which God Himself has given in nature". Only by taking the path "away from evolutionism, humanism, and atheism", would an individual avoid "the tragedy of Charles Darwin". All of these statements are either incorrect or prejudiced.

First, Darwin did not believe there was evidence for God in nature; he consistently rejected the claim that such evidence existed, on purely scientific grounds. Second, Darwin did not "renounce" the Bible or God — he decided that the Bible was not authoritative and concluded that claims within and beyond it for the existence of God lacked a firm evidentiary basis. He abandoned rather than renounced the Christian faith, and he did not live in a manner that suggested his life was without hope, suffering neither despair nor depression. He sincerely wanted to believe in God but found that he could not, and his candour should not be used against him.

The Creation Science movement deliberately distorts Darwin’s beliefs. Pro-creation groups routinely disrespect Darwin’s personal integrity and refuse to acknowledge that men and women of good conscience may struggle to believe in God and accept the Bible’s authority.

Rather than denouncing Darwin — who lived according to Christian principles despite lacking Christian beliefs — religious believers could be trying to provide an account of the origin and destiny of life that takes account of debates over the evidence for design in nature. They could usefully turn their attention to working out an explanation for the authority of Christianity’s sacred texts that does not rely upon bold assertions of their infallibility; and developing a positive vision of Christian living without recourse to dire warnings of the consequences of wrongdoing. Discrediting Darwin will not advance the cause of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus.

In my view, Darwin’s religious convictions need to be interpreted within the course of Darwin’s own life and manner of living. He once wrote: "what my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself". He never intended that they be part of his intellectual legacy. Darwin formed his views in response to a range of influences and impulses that were peculiar to his life and times. The Beagle expedition and the untimely death of his daughter Annie were but two events among many that affected his actions and attitudes. Another person might have dealt with these experiences differently.

Although he was hurt by some of the things said and written by his opponents within the Church, Darwin did his best not to retaliate or to seek revenge. It was only in letters to close friends that he revealed any hint of personal bitterness. Given that so many within the Church of England embraced a highly literal view of the Bible, and implied that this was the only viable approach to Biblical interpretation, Darwin’s options for dissent were mercilessly limited. Victorian Christianity was also shaped by doctrines such as the eternal torments of hell and the utter falsity of rival religious systems. The liberalisation of Anglicanism came too late to accommodate Darwin’s questioning mind and inquiring spirit.

As Darwin was not a philosopher or theologian, his views in these fields should not carry much weight. This was Darwin’s own advice to those who tried to enlist his support for non-scientific causes. I suspect that Darwin would be horrified at the ways in which his name and memory have been exploited by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and many other modern writers. He would have been hurt by the allegations and accusations of those within the Creation Science movement who have presumed to know his motives and moods. Despite their diametrically opposed agendas, both groups are willing to ignore the available evidence when attributing opinions to Darwin. They are also imprecise about what constituted theological orthodoxy and conventionality in Darwin’s time, the convictions that distinguish Christian belief from both theism and deism, and the ways in which agnosticism differs from atheism and anti-theism.

This raises the question of a writer’s motive in tackling such subjects. While we presume that scholars write out of intellectual and academic interest, are they entitled to pursue a polemical interest? And if so, are they obliged to declare any ideological ambition for their work? It appears to me that Dawkins and Dennett are committed to specific social and political outcomes — such as mass abandonment of religious belief and the eventual prohibition of religious organisations — and that they find Darwin’s religious convictions useful in pursuing these ends. Because of their agenda, they select and present particular evidence and arguments.

I have struggled to achieve a balanced and impartial view of Darwin’s religious outlook, despite my own beliefs and affiliations. It is definitely a challenge to avoiding overstating or exaggerating what Darwin did or did not say or do with respect to religious belief and practice, but the crucial element is a commitment to trying. While I might be accused of a similar lack of impartiality and readers might detect a controlling ideological impulse here, I have tried to avoid quoting selectively from Darwin’s writings and to remain vigilant about why I am writing and what I hope to achieve. I believe that many writers who claim Darwin as an ally have not been ready to acknowledge their own affiliations or critique their own presuppositions.

Although Darwin’s views on religion take some time and effort to discern and decipher, Darwin was not the "devil’s chaplain" and never tried to be. His family was known for questioning Anglican orthodoxy and promoting divergent philosophical and theological beliefs, and he personally struggled with religious belief throughout his life. It was not science that led Darwin reluctantly into agnosticism; it was philosophy and ethics. His reason were neither new nor, as he conceded, very creative.

In a letter to John Fordyce, who subsequently authored Aspects of Scepticism, Darwin remarked: "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 … Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."

But one statement stands apart from all of Darwin’s reflections and musings on religion and belief, which appear to pre-empt the militancy of Dawkins and Dennett. In a passage excised by his wife Emma and son Francis from the published version of his Autobiography, Darwin commented that the scientific community must not "overlook the probability of the constant inculcation [of]a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong [an]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."

Does this statement reveal Darwin’s "real" attitude to religion and imply that his other statements were intended to deceive? Its controversial character was certainly not lost on his wife and son, who decided it should not be read by the public so soon after his death.

Their reasons for amending the text are not altogether clear. Were they concerned about the public’s reaction and the effect of these words on Darwin’s reputation? Did they think this passage was merely "purple prose" that needed editing out because the text was too florid? Was their principal concern that the statement could and would be misinterpreted — or that it did not sit well with all his other writings on religion and belief? We know that the Darwin family was well acquainted with the controversies stirred up by evolutionary theory in religious communities. Or perhaps they cut out this passage to avoid further controversy and keep the public’s attention on Darwin’s scientific work.

What we can piece together of the religious convictions of Charles Darwin confirms that men and women are infinitely complex beings and that it is unlikely we can ever grasp their totality. While we might try to use the lives of others to guide our own conduct, each individual must still face the questions that life asks of them in the peculiar circumstances in which they live.

This is an edited extract from Tom Frame’s Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia (UNSW Press: 2009).

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