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1.5 Religious Views

1.5 Religious Views

Darwin’s family tradition was nonconformist Unitarianism, while his father and grandfather were freethinkers, and his baptism and boarding school were Church of England. When going to Cambridge to become an Anglican clergyman, he believed in the literal truth of the Bible. However, he learnt John Herschel’s science which, like William Paley’s natural theology, sought explanations in laws of nature rather than miracles and saw adaptation of species as evidence of design. On the Beagle voyage Darwin looked for “centres of creation” to explain distribution. He nevertheless remained quite orthodox, and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality.

By his return he was critical of the Bible as history, and wondered why all religions should not be equally valid. In the next few years, while intensively speculating on geology and transmutation of species, he gave much thought to religion and openly discussed this with Emma. To Darwin, natural selection produced the good of adaptation but removed the need for design, and he could not see the work of an omnipotent deity in all the pain and suffering such as the ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs. Though he thought of religion as a tribal survival strategy, Darwin still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver.

From around 1849 Darwin would go for a walk on Sundays while his family attended church. Though reticent about his religious views, in 1879 he said that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God, and that generally “an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

The “Lady Hope Story”, published in 1915, claimed that Darwin had reverted back to Christianity on his sickbed. The claims were refuted by Darwin’s children and have been dismissed as false by historians. His last words were to his family.

Charles Darwin’s views on religion have been the subject of much interest. His work which was pivotal in the development of modern biology and evolution theory played a prominent part in debates about religion and science at the time, then in the early twentieth century became a focus of the creation-evolution controversy in the United States.

Following Darwin’s marriage to Emma in January 1839, they discussed about Christianity for several years. He went as far as saying that “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.”