Was Charles Darwin An Atheist?

Darwin

Charles Darwin

In honor of Darwin Day, I want to take a moment to dispel a very common misconception about one of the greatest figures in the history of science. I have frequently encountered Christians who adamantly proclaim that Darwin was, “an atheist setting out to disprove God,” and, therefore, we shouldn’t accept the theory of evolution. This is a rather bizarre claim that Darwin himself would have strongly disagreed with, so I want to briefly debunk it here.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a guilt by association or ad hominem fallacy (depending on exactly how it is worded), so this argument is automatically invalid. Whether or not the theory of evolution is correct has to be determined by the evidence and scientific merits of the theory itself, not the beliefs of its most well known founder (Alfred Russell Wallace independently came developed the same theory).

HMS beagle

HMS Beagle

Further, the claim itself is blatantly false. Before becoming a naturalist, Darwin actually began training to become a clergyman, and when Darwin first set sail on the HMS Beagle (the voyage where he would make his earth-shattering discoveries), he still considered himself to be a Christian and believed much of the Bible. This is a quote from Darwin himself,

“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.”

Admittedly, Darwin’s views had begun to change by the time that he completed his voyage, but the notion that his goal was to disprove God is patently absurd.

Later in life, it seems clear that Darwin rejected his fundamentalist upbringing, but it also appears clear that he was never an ardent atheist whose goal was to discredit the Bible. In reality, his writings reveal a man who was very uncertain about the existence of God. I could give many quotes from Darwin that affirm this, but I think he said it best in a letter to James Fordyce:

“What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to anyone but myself. But, as you asked, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. . . . 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 (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

Similarly, in his autobiography, he said,

“I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

There you have it from Darwin himself, he was not an evil, sinister atheist setting out to destroy the notion of God.

Finally, I want to briefly dispel another common myth about Darwin. Namely, the claim that he had a deathbed conversion during which he denounced evolution. Nothing could be more untrue or insulting to the memory of a great man. All of Darwin’s numerous manuscripts, notebooks, and letters affirm that he was fully committed to his theory throughout his life, so this claim is incongruous with his written works. Further, it has been thoroughly debunked by historians (links to sources here). Finally, even IF this outlandish claim was true, it would have absolutely no bearing on the theory of evolution itself (i.e., this argument is an appeal to authority fallacy). Whether or not evolution is correct is determined by its own merits, not by the credentials of the people who accept or reject it.

So, in conclusion, whether you agree with his theory or not, Darwin was undeniably a phenomenal scientist, and he should be remembered and celebrated as a man of extraordinary intellect, not as a villain seeking to pollute the world with satanic lies.

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One Response to Was Charles Darwin An Atheist?

  1. Jude says:

    An excellent article. Darwin died an agnostic, but he studied the Bible profusely in his youth. I wonder if he would not have lost his faith had his daughter not died? What a different dialogue the world might be having today about science vs. faith.

    His “On the Origin of Species” opens with a quote from Sir Francis Bacon:

    “To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

    The book ends with the following sentence, with the words “by the Creator” added in the second and successive editions:

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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