Chapter 4. What’s Darwin got to do with Theology?
This and the following chapter left me with the impression that they were both written as an introduction to Chapter 6, which Adrian sees as the high point of his argument. Neither of them are weighty nor highly contentious, but in them Adrian continues his practice of superficially referring to matters of evolution as proven science and of making passing, dismissive references to Bible passages without doing justice to either.
In this chapter Adrian rightly argues that since Darwin published his work, public attitudes to belief in Jesus Christ have changed enormously, though I am not as convinced as he is that this is completely due to the doctrine of evolution. Whilst I agree generally with Adrian in this respect, I start from a very different place and reason along a very different route. For instance, I disagree that Genesis (or any other part of the Bible for that matter) was written “as a theological book” (p.29). From start to finish, the Bible is a reliable record of truth about the dealings of God with men and women. It was written in order that those who are willing to read the signposts placed throughout it could be restored to a relationship with their Creator, through the work of the whole Godhead. Jesus spelled this out to His opponents in the second part of John 5 (v39-40 in particular). Theology is what men have done with that truth, turning it into religion rather than relationship. The result is an outward form which has no more life in it than the orthodoxy of the Pharisees, who rejected Christ’s ministry because they preferred to be honoured by their peers rather than by the one truthful God (v44). Modern, ‘higher’ criticism which seeks to recreate Genesis in the form of a Babylonian myth blinds its adherents as much as the self-righteousness of the Jewish religious establishment did in the gospels (v45-46). It is this theological pill which Adrian has swallowed.
Adrian continues by sketching out a history of the relationship between the “Church” and “science” and explains how the latter is now held as the authority by which all other matters are judged. As I indicated above, many of the listed scientific discoveries are only mentioned in passing and are built upon without questioning their foundations. Adrian seems to have difficulty in appreciating the importance of some of the things he states. For example, when citing the reaction of the Roman Church to Copernicus’ and Galileo’s arguments that the earth orbited the sun, he implied that this undermined the Bible. Yet, he recognised that at the time “the Church accepted the second-century Ptolemaic model of a universe which placed the earth at the centre of the cosmos.” (p.29) Claudius Ptolemy was a Greco-Roman polymath from Alexandria and his thinking was grounded not in the Jewish scriptures but in the paganism of his culture. That the church authorities had adopted his views of astronomy does not gain them credit, but it does reveal that its leaders had concerns other than being loyal to Christ. I find it hard to understand why Adrian should devote almost a page to undermining the ideas of a pagan astronomer, when it is the Bible that he is questioning.
That he is unbelieving about the Scriptures is made clear when he writes “In Chapter 6, I shall go on to show how extremely unreliable revelation [the Bible] is as a means of obtaining the truth.” (p.30) But here we must also challenge Adrian’s own confidence in evolutionary science. For example, when in Ch. 3 he recognised that natural selection can only select from what is already there, he expressed this truth without facing up to its challenge. Now, five sentences after the above claim he asserts, “But, unlike revelation, science has testable hypotheses.” In the previous section I pointed out that Darwin knew that one way to challenge Christianity would be to falsify the statements in Genesis 1 that plants and animals would reproduce “after their kind”. I have shown that whilst Adrian, in common with many others, mistakes species for kinds, this remains a testable argument in the matter of origins. There was an element of sleight of hand in Darwin’s agenda leading him to believe that he had managed to undermine Christianity. However, despite 200 years of frantic searching, no-one has yet demonstrated that one kind of creature has produced a different kind. Darwin began with minor changes within and between species, and his followers have remained firmly fixed to that spot ever since. For a hypothesis to be testable it needs to be repeatable. To date there has not been one repeatable experiment in which evolution – the arising of beneficial information by self-generated mutations and its subsequent selection by natural (not human) processes – has been observed. Adrian enjoys quoting Richard Dawkins in his footnotes, so let me include one statement by him which Adrian does not mention. When asked “Is evolution a theory, not a fact?” Dawkins replied, “Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.” [NOW / PBS interview 3/12/04]
If, as Adrian believes, evolution is science then it must be a testable hypothesis, as he acknowledges. It must be observable today. As previously discussed, harmful mutations are not evolutionary changes – they are degenerative ones and as such provide a second testable feature of Biblical creation. In Genesis 1 the Creator declared His work to be very good. Very soon man allowed sin and death to enter that creation and things have deteriorated ever since. This is not simply a moral deterioration but also a physical one, and therefore an ever-increasing (for sin has not yet been excluded from the world) tide of degenerative mutations is what a Biblical world view predicts and is witnessed to in every hospital on a daily basis.
This poverty of testable hypotheses runs throughout every discipline of what is best referred to as “evolutionary research,” for it cannot be science if it lacks these. Take the ‘Big Bang’ theory which Adrian mentions; this too is untestable. In March 2010 the BBC broadcast an episode of their popular Horizon series with the title “Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?” It was a remarkable admission that the standard model of cosmology (Big Bang) is built upon one assumption after another. This is a necessity because each “fix” ends up generating further problems which in turn need a “fix” of their own. The presenter concluded that even with all its assumptions, the standard model remains the preferred option as there were no viable alternatives. Of course I don’t need to mention the obvious alternative, because that is unacceptable to men and women who wish to explain everything whilst excluding any acknowledgement of their Creator.
The other side of the coin
Rather than take up further space by looking at Adrian’s other claims in this chapter – I am sure those who have read from the start will understand my reasoning by now – I now wish to consider aspects of Darwin’s approach to theology which Adrian does not discuss. It is reasonable to expect that any work which explores a person’s relationship with Christianity should at least refer to their own words on the subject. These are not well known, but can be easily found by the responsible researcher.
It is popularly claimed, even by some members of his family, that Darwin lost his faith after the death of his favourite daughter Annie. In Christian circles a story has been widely circulated that shortly before he died, Darwin repented and accepted Christ, the witness being Lady Hope (1842-1922). Ian Taylor in his book “In The Mind of Men” shows that the latter is an unreliable account. Taylor also cites a comment made by Darwin on 28 Sep. 1881, that “he had given up Christianity at the age of 40.” That would make it around two years before Annie’s death in 1851. Darwin himself, when writing about his younger years, acknowledges several times that he had little confidence in Christianity.
In approaching this topic, we must remember that British society in the early 1800s was very different from what it is today. The Church of England was entwined in the culture of the day, especially in establishment circles. The Darwins were a rich family, with both his father, Robert Waring, and his grandfather, Erasmus, having built upon his great-grandfather’s wealth. It was these accumulated funds which enabled Darwin himself to devote his life to research and writing rather than to earning an income. Atheism was not mentioned in British society of the time, and dissent from the Anglican Church was frowned upon. However, the influence of the Enlightenment was changing attitudes amongst the elite and Erasmus Darwin was a prominent figure in the expression of this in the Midlands. His disagreement with the Church is summed up in a note on display in the museum in the house which he once rented, “He disliked the Church so much that he turned this house around so it no longer faced Lichfield Cathedral.” (Viewed on 14 Sept 2013 at Erasmus Darwin’s House.) Erasmus passed on his unbelief to his son Robert, of whom Charles later wrote, “Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of scepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life. Before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts, for he said that he had known extreme misery thus caused with married persons… My father added that he had known during his whole long life only three women who were sceptics; and it should be remembered that he knew well a multitude of persons and possessed extraordinary power of winning confidence. When I asked him who the three women were, he had to own with respect to one of them, his sister-in-law Kitty Wedgwood, that he had no good evidence, only the vaguest hints, aided by the conviction that so clear-sighted a woman could not be a believer.” (The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, 1958 [Barlow] p.95 – available at Darwin Online.)
This quotation highlights several things. Firstly, that Robert Waring Darwin was sceptical of Christianity and had been so for his whole life. Secondly, that he knew of Charles’ own unbelief before Charles was married in January 1839. Thirdly, that he advised his son to follow his own example by not displaying his unbelief openly. Finally, the occasion of which Charles wrote would have happened about twelve years before Annie’s death. There is some confusion about Charles’ faith before he went to Cambridge. The Wedgwoods, his mother’s family, were Unitarians (a religious alternative to the Church of England) and Charles was educated initially at the house of the Unitarian minister in Shrewsbury. His mother died in 1817 and from the autumn of the following year his education was at the Anglican Shrewsbury School, though as noted above, his father saw this not as a matter of conviction, but as a gesture of pacification towards society. It is commonly argued that Charles was a Christian when he went to Cambridge after dropping out of medical training at Edinburgh University (for an example see here). This is because he later commented, “After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination. I asked for some time to consider, as from what little I had heard and thought on the subject I had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible. I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say ‘credo quia incredibile’.” (Barlow p.56)
What does this actually tell us? Firstly, that Darwin was unsure about teaching of the Church of England. However, at the time he did not doubt the authority of Bible. His reading led him to a superficial acceptance of the creed. I say superficial because in the above quotation he accepts that he did not understand these doctrines and was never able to commit himself to them fully. Once at Cambridge, his doubts caused him to question his suitability for ordination. John Maurice Herbert, a friend of Darwin at Cambridge, recollected in a handwritten note dated 1882, “It was about this time or it might have been after we got back to College, that we had our earnest conversation about going into Holy Orders; & I remember his asking me with reference to the question put by the Bishop in the Aduration service: ‘Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit &c’ whether I could answer in the affirmative—: & on my saying ‘I could not,’ he said ‘neither can I, & therefore I can not take orders.’” (source) Herbert does not give a date for the above conversation, but it must have taken place during their undergraduate years. Some see a letter to his cousin William Darwin Fox dated May 1830, as indicating a change of mind. In one paragraph Charles wrote “I have seen a good deal of Henslow lately & the more I see of him the more I like him I have some thoughts of reading divinity with him the summer after next.”(source) Dr. John van Wyhe, National University of Singapore, and Founder & Director of Darwin Online in an article called “Charles Darwin’s Cambridge Life 1828-1831” published in the Journal of Cambridge Studies in Dec. 2009 states clearly “Darwin never undertook the divinity training.”
John Stevens Henslow was a clergyman, botanist and geologist. He was the Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge, a man with whom Darwin established a close friendship and it may have been their friendship rather than his convictions which was drawing Darwin into further study. Henslow seems to have recognised that Charles was more motivated to study nature than divinity, for it was he who recommended Darwin to Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, when he himself turned down a personal invitation to be the ship’s naturalist. What the above quotations do tell us is that the young Charles before and during his years at Cambridge was trying to work through his own convictions. He was brought up in a family which did not conform to the religious norms of the day. Both his grandfathers questioned the dominance of the Anglican Church. Josiah Wedgwood as I have mentioned was an Unitarian; Erasmus Darwin was a radical thinker who had promoted the concept of evolution in his writings. (He first went public with the idea in 1770 when he added the Latin motto “E conchis omnia”, or “Everything from shells” and three scallop shells to a coat of arms upon his carriage and upon his bookplate. See photo below)
Though Erasmus died seven years before Charles was born, there can be no doubt that Charles was brought up in a family which questioned the Christianity that held sway over the society of his youth. Though his enlightened and sceptical father had had him christened in an Anglican church, Charles grew up knowing that the convictions of both his parents were in conflict with the established church. This may explain why Edinburgh was the first choice of Robert W. Darwin for his sons, as the university there was not tied to the church in the way that Oxford and Cambridge were, though it was also the natural choice, being the place where he and his father Erasmus had studied themselves.
In his autobiography Charles wrote that his grandfather’s writings had not influenced him directly, “I had previously read the Zoönomia of my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me. Nevertheless it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species. At this time I admired greatly the Zoönomia; but on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed, the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given.” (Barlow p.49) Nora Barlow in her appendix to Charles’ biography expresses the opinion that it was Erasmus’s methods rather than his conclusions to which his grandson objected, “For Erasmus Darwin’s method was largely built of a heavy superstructure of speculation on an insufficient foundation of fact, a method alien to Charles Darwin’s whole outlook.” (Barlow p.152)
Darwin therefore was not a convinced Christian when he set sail on the Beagle, even though he later wrote, “Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them.” (Barlow p.85) This reflects the statement above about his trust in the Bible before he read Pearson on the Creed, but we should note that on the Beagle he used it to support moral behaviour and not historical facts. Reading the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology on the journey nurtured his questions about the history of the earth. Once back in England he thought further on Lyell’s arguments and what he had observed on his travels, and the above quotation continues, “But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.” This is the opening paragraph on his chapter entitled “Religious Belief” and I recommend anyone who wants to understand Darwin’s attitude to Christianity to read it.
Before further consideration of Darwin’s own comments on religion, we should note his openness with his chosen wife, his cousin Emma Wedgwood. It is widely accepted that Charles discussed “his religious doubts” with her following their engagement in 1838 (e.g. this article). Again, this pre-dates Annie’s death. Charles and Emma found their different convictions to be a source of tension throughout their married life and even after his death. A footnote on page 87 of the Barlow edition of his autobiography reads, “Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from ‘and have never since doubted’ … to ‘damnable doctrine’) in her own handwriting. She writes :— ‘I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that “Christianity,” (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.’ Oct. 1882.” Barlow adds, “This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s [Charles & Emma’s 7th child] handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B”.
What then was the passage which upset Emma so much? I highlight it in italics, “Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last 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. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (Barlow p.86) I see a significance in these words which most commentators overlook. In it, Darwin reveals a tension between the teachings of the Bible and the convictions of his family. Whilst I know of nowhere else where he mentions this conflict, he speaks here with such strength that it is difficult to doubt that to him the implication of the Gospel is that the sceptical and ‘rationalistic’ views of his father, brothers and friends excluded them from salvation, (though I should point out that Darwin, like Adrian, also mistook a failure to accept rescue as punishment!) He found this application of the Gospel so objectionable that he calls Christianity “a damnable doctrine.” It is significant that the nature of his reaction to the Gospel was highlighted by Jesus Christ in His teaching. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt. 10:37) He was even stronger on another occasion according to Luke’s record, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (14:26) No-one today can know the details of all The LORD’s dealings with Charles Darwin, but I see in these few words of his a clear indication that through all the ups and downs of his earlier life as he tried to work out his own convictions, that he eventually came to the realisation that should he accept the claims of the Bible, then he would have to face up to the truth that members of his family would be excluded from God’s grace and that was a price he was not prepared to pay!
Darwin did not record when this strength of feeling against Christianity matured in him. He only describes how his unbelief crept over him. That his unbelief did become strong opposition cannot be denied, and that not simply because of his research, but as he identified because he realised that it excluded his father and brothers from salvation. He wrote most of his biography in 1876 when he was aged sixty-seven, so these are not the impetuous words of a young man, but the well-mulled thoughts of one who has held them for some time. This conflict between Christ and his own family seems to have turned the young man who once struggled to know what to believe into an active anti-Christian proponent, though he was never content to call himself an atheist. A letter to the sceptic John Fordyce dated May 1879, concluded with “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.” (here). His agnosticism appears confined only to the existence of a god of some type; it was definitely not uncertainty about the validity of Christianity. Six years before writing to Fordyce he had advised his own son George, who was at that time in his late twenties, on the best ways to undermine Christianity. George had sent his father a manuscript of an essay which he had written arguing against certain Christian beliefs, seemingly soliciting pre-publication comments from him.
Throughout his adult life Darwin had been careful not to be drawn into commenting on Christianity in a way which could be quoted publicly. However, in private correspondence he was more frank, as his letter to George illustrates. It is worth reading the whole letter but here I quote two sections from it. “Last night Dicey & Litchfield were talking about J. Stuart Mill, never expressing his religious convictions, as he was urged never to do by his Father. Both agreed strongly that if he had done so he wd. never have influenced the present age in the manner in which he has done. His books wd. not have been text-books at Oxford.— To take a weaker instance Lyell is most firmly convinced that he has shaken the faith in the Deluge &c far more efficiently by never having said a word against the Bible, than if he had acted otherwise.” And then in a P.S. “I have lately read Morley’s Life of Voltaire & he insists strongly that direct attacks on Christianity (even when written with the wonderful force & vigour of Voltaire) produce little permanent effect: real good seems only to follow from slow & silent side attacks.— I have been talking on this head with Litchfield, & he strongly concurs, & insists how easily a man may for ever destroy his own influence.” Richard Buckley Litchfield was Darwin’s son-in-law, and it is thought that the other person mentioned was Albert Venn Dicey a lawyer, jurist and constitutional theorist. J. Stuart Mill was the son of James Mill, a close associate of Jeremy Bentham, and the younger Mill was raised by his father with the “explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham had died.” [Wikipedia quoting, Élie Halévy, “The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism.” Beacon Press. pp. 282–284.] All three men were prominent in developing the ideas of the secular Enlightenment through their work.
Whilst Darwin was careful not to speak openly about his religious views, he did leave behind enough information for us to understand that he was very supportive of those who sought to influence society against the Christian thinking of his day. Earlier I noted how his close friend Charles Lyell discussed with others how they might “free the science from Moses” and how much of an inspiration Lyell’s views were to Darwin in his own writing. In his letter to George he praised Lyell for undermining the Bible, recognising though that he had not been as effective as J.S. Mill. Further, Darwin records that he read and discussed with family and friends works which sought to remove the influence of Christianity from society. And finally, his letter is a witness to the fact that he advised at least one of his sons on how he might best argue against the Gospel. What is worth noting is that Charles’ father’s advice to him to conceal his sceptical views stayed with him throughout his life, and it was advice that he felt worthwhile passing on to his own children.
Most modern commentators fail to see Darwin in the setting of his day, and in particular that of the radical circles in which he moved. Likewise, Adrian makes no reference in his book to what were the sceptical talking points and politics of the fraternity of friends to which the Darwin family belonged for at least four generations. At best it is intellectually lazy, and I suspect for some it is straightforward dishonesty to portray Charles Darwin as a one-time Christian, agenda-free scientist, who lost his faith (after his daughter died) as a result of his research. Interestingly, in an article published in the journal BioScience, 3 May 2010, the authors express the opinion that Darwin was right to worry that marriage to his cousin affected his offspring. A summary of the research on the Ohio State University website quotes Dr. Tim M. Berra commenting about Darwin, “He fretted that the ill health of his children might be due to the nature of the marriage, and he came to that because of his work on plants. He realized that with breeding of any kind, it’s better to cross-breed than to put close relatives together.” If as Berra says, Darwin was aware that intermarriage in the Wedgwood/Darwin family may have been one cause of the weakness of his own children, then he must also have been aware that there was a probability that the hand of man was responsible for Annie’s death rather than the hand of God. Further, I have been unable to find any evidence that Darwin stated that it was his daughter’s death which turned him away from Christ.