Much has been written about the religious views of Charles Darwin. What exactly did he believe and when? Did he “reject” Christianity? Was he out to “destroy” Christianity, as some in the Church have come to believe?
While it is true that Darwin’s ideas have caused great harm to the Church and have led many people to openly question the authority of the Bible, what did the man himself actually believe? Was Darwin a Christian?
Charles Darwin was born in 1809. He was part of a well-to-do family in England.
His grandfather, Erasmus, was a prominent physician, poet, and somewhat of an activist. He could best be described as a “progressive” or “free” thinker. Dr. Erasmus had a naturalistic view of origins and even promoted basic evolutionary ideas. His religious stand was as a deist, and he rejected the idea that the Bible was supernaturally inspired.
Charles never met his grandfather, who died before Charles was born. He did, however, become familiar with his grandfather’s beliefs and ideas through reading his writings.
Charles’s father, Robert, was also a physician. Beyond that, Robert was also a very successful investor, which provided the Darwin family with a very comfortable life.
As is often the case, the rejection of the authority of God’s Word by one generation led to complete rejection of God in the next. Robert Darwin was an atheist.
In spite of Robert’s lack of belief, Charles was christened in the Church of England (Anglican). This was obviously not due to any conviction that Robert had about the doctrine of the Anglican Church. It was most probably done to keep up appearances within the social order of the day.
There was, however, the influence of the mother. Susannah Darwin, Charles’ mother, was a Unitarian. She took Charles to chapel for worship services. After her sudden death, Darwin’s sisters took him to services at the Anglican Church.
For a year, Charles attended a Unitarian day school and later attended Shrewsbury Grammar School.
One writer has stated that Darwin “was thoroughly orthodox” during this time in his life. However, given the varied influences during his upbringing, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that Darwin’s thinking was in any way “orthodox.”
As was expected, Charles was to go to college to train to be a physician, like his father and grandfather. So he was soon off to Edinburgh to study medicine. That did not last long.
Darwin hated dealing with corpses, and he disliked dissection, both of which were necessary to become a doctor. To further hasten his retreat from medicine, he had developed a great interest in natural history and zoology. These pursuits began to occupy more and more of his time. His great interest in geology also took shape during these years.
It soon became clear that medicine would not be his life’s work. In his autobiography Darwin wrote about this time in his life, stating, “He [Darwin’s father] was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”1
Further, Darwin wrote, “To my deep mortification my father once said to me, ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.’ ”2
So at the advice of his father, it was decided that Charles would become a country clergyman. After all, this was a position with a steady income, some social stature, and plenty of time to collect beetles and follow his natural history pursuits. The only thing lacking here was a genuine, heartfelt calling to the ministry.
In Darwin's own words:
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 . . . and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word of 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.3
So he was off to Cambridge for his “theological” training. Unfortunately for Darwin, Cambridge was not the place to convict him of the authority of the Bible. At this time, theology training at Cambridge consisted mostly of coursework in the classics and philosophy along with a heavy emphasis on the works of William Paley — works that presented a rationalistic view of Christianity. Paley is best remembered for his arguments in favor of one of the primary theological positions of the day, natural theology. Basically, Paley held that one can know God, the Designer, by close examination of His creation, that is, nature. More simply, if it looks designed, there must be a designer. Early on, Darwin was fascinated by this argument. However, he rejected it later.
Even though Paley’s theology also presented a biblical argument, this was largely ignored. During this period, the authority and historicity of the Bible had been called into question. Through the study of nature one could come to sufficiently understand God, it was believed. But the Bible was not held to be the ultimate authority. In fact, the Bible itself was being called into question, particularly regarding the actual nature of the Noahic Flood and the age of the earth. It was at this time that the idea of the earth being millions of years old was taking hold, not only in secular “scientific” circles but also in the Church itself.
Even though Darwin was at Cambridge for a degree in theology, his interest in natural science only strengthened. He attended lectures on botany, and his interest in geology grew. Most of the academics that taught Darwin in these areas were either openly critical of or outright denied the authority of the Bible. Again, the foundation of a system of belief was being laid that Darwin built upon in later life.
Though Darwin did get his degree in theology, he still had no heartfelt call to ministry. As reported by two of Darwin’s biographers, Desmond and Moore,
Darwin had asked Herbert whether he really felt “inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit” to enter the Church. When the Bishop put the question to him in the ordination service, what would he reply? “No,” answered Herbert; he could not say he felt moved. Darwin chimed in, “Neither can I, and therefore I cannot take orders.”4
So much for a genuine call to ministry. While some in the Church today point to Darwin’s preparation for Christian ministry as evidence that he had some Christian beliefs, this is clearly not the case.
After leaving Cambridge, Darwin was presented an opportunity to participate in a South American survey expedition aboard the HMS Beagle. He was to join the ship’s company as a naturalist and gentleman companion to the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy.
During the voyage, Darwin was actually more interested in the geology of the lands he visited than the zoology of these new places. In fact, over half of the notes he made were geologic in nature. As he observed the geology, he became convinced that the strata were laid down over millions of years. Much of this was because he admired the works of a man named Charles Lyell. Lyell was the author of the book Principles of Geology.5 As he studied Lyell’s work, Darwin became convinced the uniformitarian view of geology was correct. Simply put, he came to believe that “the present is the key to the past.” In other words, denying that events such as the catastrophic global Flood had a major role in shaping the earth, he believed that the ordinary geological processes we see today have always proceeded at the same rate so that the geological formations we see today required millions of years to form.
Here was a situation where a man who had already come to doubt the authority of the Bible was becoming more captivated with the secular thinking of his day. So the Bible was wrong, he decided, and the millions of years were true.
However, at that point, he had not rejected the Bible as completely untrue, rather “whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox,” he wrote, “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 supposed it was the novelty of the argument that amused them.”6
So here Darwin was using the Bible as a basis for morality although it was without any real confidence in its authority, because he then wrote, “But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world . . . was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.”7 Later in life, he would come to understand the inconsistency in accepting biblical morality while denying its history. Unfortunately, his solution was to reject the Bible completely.
After the Beagle
The voyage of the Beagle ended October 2, 1836. Darwin soon began the process of studying the specimens he collected and pondering the observations he had made.
He was also considering spiritual things. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote, “During these two years [October 1836 to January 1839], I was led to think much about religion.”8 Unfortunately, this consideration did not lead in any way to a genuine understanding of Christianity or his need for salvation. This is obvious in his relationship to his new wife.
In January 1839, he married his first cousin, Emma. She was a very religious woman who was understandably concerned about the spiritual state of her husband. Although some have suggested that Darwin was at least a nominal Christian at that point, his own writings put that idea to rest with statements like “before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts . . . some women suffered miserably by doubting about the salvation of their husbands.”9 If Darwin were saved, why would this even be an issue?
Death and Suffering
One of the most important issues in Darwin’s life was his struggle with death and suffering. Perhaps it was this issue that tipped the scales for Darwin more than any other. It was a theme that he considered all his life. All around him he saw death, disease, and struggle. And with all he saw, he doubted more and more that a caring God could exist. This is evident when Darwin said, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”10
He further concluded, “This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”11
So if there is death and suffering, there cannot be a God that cares, he reasoned. Why would God create creatures to prey upon and kill each other? This was particularly brought home to him at the death of his daughter, Annie. She died at age ten after a brief illness. At the time, Darwin wrote, “Poor dear Annie . . . was taken with a vomiting attack, which at first thought of the smallest importance; but it rapidly assumed the form of a low and dreadful fever, which carried her off in 10 days. Thank God, she hardly suffered at all. . . . She was my favourite child. . . . Poor dear little soul.”12
One can only imagine the grief he felt at the loss of his child. One of Darwin’s major biographies states, “Annie’s cruel death destroyed Charles’s tatters of beliefs in a moral, just universe. Later he would say that this period chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity, St. Charles now took his stand as an unbeliever.”13
While there is no case to be made that Darwin was in any way a Christian at that time, it is easy to understand how such an event could cause a “spiritual” person to give up his “spirituality.”
Life and Faith
For much of his life, Darwin did consider issues of spirituality. Perhaps this was a result of his understanding of the logical outcome of the ideas he proposed. He did seem, at least at times, to struggle to reconcile the inconsistencies: “My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details.”14
Further, he wrote, “When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”
While he postulated ideas that would be a basis for an understanding of the world governed by natural processes alone, he acknowledged, for a time at least, a First Cause. This First Cause was needed to help explain the origin of life, but this “god” was detached and did not interact with man or man’s affairs. This acknowledgement of even an impersonal “god” did not last.
Eventually, Darwin concluded, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”15
As he came to more completely realize the logical outcome of his materialist worldview, he apparently understood that his defense of the Bible while on board the Beagle was without basis. Those many years later he wrote, “A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for the rule of his life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.”16
As his life continued, whatever vestiges of genuine spirituality that may have existed gradually faded and died. That he never understood or accepted the basic tenets of Christianity was well described when he wrote, “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, would be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”17
If Darwin ever even remotely considered that Christianity might be true, that idea was now dead. “I was very unwilling to give up my belief. . . . But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”18
Did Darwin Become a Christian on His Deathbed?
One of the most popular misconceptions about Darwin is that he came to Christ on his deathbed. While it would be wonderful if it were true, unfortunately this is nothing but an urban legend.
Reports of Darwin having some sort of conversion experience began within weeks of his death. These began in England, but before long at least one was reported from as far away as Canada. The most famous of them all came from a woman known as Lady Hope.
Lady Hope was born Elizabeth Reid Cotton and was the daughter of General Sir Arthur Cotton. She and her father were active evangelists in Kent, near the home of Charles Darwin. In 1877, she married Admiral Sir James Hope and thus became Lady Hope.
While attending a conference in Massachusetts in 1915, Lady Hope told of a visit that she had with Darwin some months before his death. According to her, Darwin had been bedridden for some months before he died. The report was that at the time of the visit she found Darwin sitting in bed. When she asked what he was reading, he was reported to say, “Hebrews . . . the Royal Book!” Additionally, Darwin supposedly commented, “I was a young man with unformed ideas.”
Lady Hope further claimed that before her departure she was asked by Darwin to return and speak to his servants in his summerhouse. When asked about the subject on which she should speak, Darwin was said to have replied, “Christ Jesus!”
While it would be wonderful to report that this account of Darwin’s conversion was true, there are just too many inconsistencies in the account. First, if Lady Hope did indeed visit Darwin, it would have been at least six months before his death. At this time Darwin was not bedridden, nor was he bedridden for an extended period of time before he died.
Second, this supposed conversion was never mentioned in any of Darwin’s correspondence. Given that Darwin wrote extensively (totaling over 14,000 notes and letters), it is curious to suggest that if he did have a genuine conversion experience, it was not mentioned at all in any of his writings.
Third, and most importantly, his family denied each and every report that Charles Darwin came to Christ. Certainly, a genuine conversion would be something to be celebrated and joyously shared with family and friends, especially for his wife. In 1915, Darwin’s son Francis wrote, “He [Darwin] could not have become openly and enthusiastically Christian without the knowledge of his family, and no such change occurred.”19
Also, if the story were credible, why did Lady Hope wait 33 years before relating it?
A close examination of this tale is fascinating because of what it does not claim. The actual report of Lady Hope’s story does not say that Darwin actually renounced evolution; it merely says that Darwin speculated over the outcome of his ideas. Also, it was obviously not a deathbed meeting. It took place several months before Darwin died. Most telling is that Lady Hope never described Darwin actually professing faith in Christ. She simply reported that Darwin was reading the Bible. Even if true, this is a far cry from a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
So no matter how earnestly this tale is repeated in churches around the world, there is no truth to the “deathbed conversion” account.
In Conclusion: Was Darwin a Christian?
As much as we might wish it to be true, there is no evidence in the life of Charles Darwin that he was a Christian. Certainly, he struggled with spiritual issues, but that is not the same thing at all.
Many have tried to paint a picture that Darwin was a Christian, but because of circumstance or issues in his life walked away from the faith. Darwin’s words themselves cause us to reject that position out of hand: “Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life.”20
There is no more personal God than Jesus Christ. If this was not a consideration for Darwin earlier in his life, then how could one even consider him to be a Christian during those years?
In a letter to F.A. McDermott dated November 24, 1880, Darwin wrote, “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”21
Charles Darwin rejected the Bible. Thus he had no basis to truly understand the world around him. He did not truly understand the geology of the world. Rejecting biblical creation, he could not answer the question of how life itself started. He never could reconcile the issue of a loving God amidst the death and suffering in the world.
Ultimately, he never acknowledged sin. He did not understand that the world is broken because of sin. Most importantly, he did not recognize that he was a sinner in need of a Savior.
Was Charles Darwin a Christian? The answer is no. More than anything else about his life, this is the tragedy. A soul lost for eternity, separated from God.