George Stimpson

His life and works

Home > Information Roundup > What was Darwin's religion?
What was Darwin's religion?

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), the great naturalist, in his mature years declared that he had no fixed theological beliefs and that his mind was subject to fluctuation on the subject of religion. In 1825 his father (a son of the great Erasmus Darwin) sent him to Edinburgh to prepare for the medical profession, for which he was obviously unfitted. Three years later he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, with a view to becoming a minister of the gospel in the Anglican Church. His proficiency in every branch of natural science led him to abandon his preparation for the ministry. Darwin was never an atheist in the general acceptation of that term, and the story that he repudiated his entire philosophy, including the theory of evo­lution through natural selection, on his deathbed was a pure invention. The following passage from his autobiography expresses his religious views in a general way: "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never [page 58] been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. But may say that the impossibility of believing that this grand wondrous universe with our conscious selves arose through chance seems to be the chief reason for the existence of God." In his writings Darwin continually employs expressions indicating a general belief in a supreme being. "I trust in Providence," "God of Nature," "I thank God" and "I hope to heaven" are characteristic phrases taken at random from his writings. "The ennobling belief in God," he wrote in his Descent of Man, "is not universal with man; and the belief in spiritual agencies naturally follows from other mental powers." In his Naturalist's Voyage Round the World he said: "Both temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature—No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that they| is more in man than the mere breath of his body." Darwin did not fail in that same work to pay high tribute to the work of the mis­sionaries on the islands of the Pacific, and he contributed £50 toward the support of the mission established in Tierra del Fuego by Allen Gardiner. The following record in the last-mentioned book is inter­esting in this connection: "They asked me, 'Why do you not become a Christian—for our religion is certain?' I assured them I was a sort of Christian." Two other passages from Darwin's letters give us a hint as to his mental processes on the subject of religion. "As for a future," he wrote on one occasion, "every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities." Again: "Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful." It is said that Darwin ordered his coffin made in his lifetime so as to give employment during a slack season to the carpenter who made boxes and cases for his natural history collection.