Charles Darwin had a non-conformist background, but attended a Church of England school. He studied Anglican theology with the aim of becoming a clergyman, before joining the Voyage of the Beagle. On return, he developed his theory of natural selection in full awareness that it conflicted with the teleological argument. Darwin deliberated about the Christian meaning of mortality and came to think that the religious instinct had evolved with society. With the death of his daughter Annie, Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile. He continued to give support to the local church and help with parish work, but on Sundays would go for a walk while his family attended church. However, in his autobiography he recalled that at the time of writing On the Origin of Species he was convinced of the existence of God as a First Cause and deserved to be called a theist.
In his later life, Darwin was frequently asked about his religious views. 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." He was always insistent that he was agnostic and had "never been an atheist".
Natural history had grown from the idea that the different kinds of plants and animals showed the wonder of God's creation, making their study and cataloguing into species worthwhile. In Darwin's day it was common for clergymen to be naturalists, though scientific findings had already opened up ideas on creation. The established churches (of England and Scotland) and the English universities remained insistent that species were miraculously created and man was distinct from the "lower orders", but the Unitarian church rejected this teaching and even proclaimed that the human mind was subject to physical law. Erasmus Darwin went further and his Zoönomia asks ..would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality.... possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!, anticipating Lamarckism.
He joined the natural history course of the Revd. John Stevens Henslow who gave him tuition in theology, and Charles became particularly interested in the writings of the Revd. William Paley. Paley's Evidences of Christianity and Moral and Political Philosophy were set texts. Darwin wrote: "I could have written out the whole of the 'Evidences' with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley....I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's 'Natural Theology.' I could almost formerly have said it by heart." After doing well in his theology finals Charles read Paley's Natural Theology which saw a rational proof of God's existence in the complexity of living beings exquisitely fitted to their places in a happy world, proving their design by a Creator. While this was at odds with the ideas of Grant and Erasmus Darwin, it convinced Charles and encouraged his interest in science. During this time Cambridge was briefly visited by the Radicals Richard Carlile and the Revd. Robert Taylor on an "infidel home missionary tour", causing a stir before being banned, and Taylor would be remembered by Charles as "the Devil's Chaplain", a warning example of an outcast from society who had challenged Christianity and had been imprisoned for blasphemy.
The developing science of geological strata and the finding of extinct fossils appeared to contradict the Biblical account of Noah's ark, but this was reconciled by theories such as Catastrophism which postulated a series of catastrophic floods each followed by the creation of new species ex nihilo. Lyell's book explained features as the outcome of a gradual process over huge periods of time, and in the second volume he explained extinctions by a "succession of deaths" with new species then being created. Darwin later wrote home that he was 'seeing' land-forms as if he had the eyes of Lyell. FitzRoy evidently shared this view at the time, but on the return of the Beagle he wrote a section for his account of the voyage recanting this and earnestly explaining his renewed commitment to a literal reading of the Bible, with rock layers high in the mountains containing sea shells interpreted as proof of the flood and ideas of the six days of creation extending over aeons dismissed because the grass, herbs and trees would have died out during the long nights. In contrast, Darwin by then had developed a convincing new theory on the formation of coral atolls which supported Lyell's arguments.
In his later private autobiography, Darwin wrote of this time:
In seeking to explain his observations, by early 1837 Darwin was speculating on transmutation of species and writing of "my theory". Having decided to marry, he visited his cousin Emma on 29 July 1838 and told her of his ideas on transmutation. On 11 November he returned and proposed to Emma. Again he discussed his ideas, and she subsequently wrote beseeching him to read from the Gospel of John "our Saviour's farewell discourse to his disciples", a section on following the Way which says "Love one another" (13:34), then describes Jesus as the Word Incarnate saying "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6), and warns:
His warm reply eased her heart's concern, but this tension would remain. Emma worried that his lack of faith could mean that they would not be together in the afterlife, and as disbelief later gradually crept over Darwin, he came to:
Darwin was interested in ideas of Natural "laws of harmony", and made enquiries into animal breeding. Having read the new 6th edition of the Revd. Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, around late November 1838 he compared breeders selecting traits to a Malthusian Nature selecting from variants thrown up by chance so that "every part of newly acquired structure is fully practised and perfected", thinking this "the most beautiful part of my theory". He was well aware of the controversy his theory would cause, and of the likely reaction of the scientific establishment he was trying to become part of, so was very cautious in considering all possible arguments against his theory and in discussing his theory with friends. As Richard Millner wrote: "Darwin dreamt of being beheaded or hanged; he thought a belief that went so contrary to biblical authority was `like confessing a murder'." (Encyclopedia of Evolution (1990), p. 113). Darwin himself wrote to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, "I am almost convinced... that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable."
During Annie's long illness Darwin had read books by Francis Newman, a Unitarian evolutionist who called for a new post-Christian synthesis and wrote that "the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil". With Annie's death Darwin lost the last embers of his faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile. Darwin wrote at the time, "Our only consolation is that she passed a short, though joyous life." For three years he had deliberated about the Christian meaning of mortality. This opened a new vision of tragically circumstantial nature.
On Sundays Emma took the children to church. After Annie's death, Darwin sometimes went with them as far as the lych gate to the churchyard, and then he would go for a walk. During the service, Emma continued to face forward when the congregation turned to face the altar for the Creed, sticking to her Unitarian faith.
In his autobiography written in 1876 he recalled that at the time of writing the On the Origin of Species the conclusion was strong in his mind of the existence of God due to "the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. 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.
On moving to Downe, Kent in 1842, Darwin supported the parish church's work, and became a good friend of the Revd. John Innes who took over in 1846. Darwin contributed to the church, helped with parish assistance and proposed a benefit society which became the Down Friendly Society with Darwin as guardian and treasurer. His wife Emma Darwin became known throughout the parish for helping in the way a parson's wife might be expected to, and as well as providing nursing care for her own family's frequent illnesses she gave out bread tokens to the hungry and "small pensions for the old, dainties for the ailing, and medical comforts and simple medicine".
In 1864 Innes retired to a property he had inherited in the Scottish Highlands, changing his name to Brodie Innes and leaving the parish in the dubious hands of his curate, the Revd. Stevens, while still remaining the patron. The meagre "living" and lack of a vicarage made it hard to attract a priest of quality. Innes made Darwin treasurer of Downe village school and they continued to correspond, with Innes seeking help and advice on parish matters. The Revd. Stevens proved lax, and departed in 1867. His successors were worse, one absconding with the school's funds after Darwin mistakenly shared the treasurer's duties with him. The next was rumoured to have disgraced himself by "walking with girls at night". Darwin now became involved in helping Innes with detective work, subsequently advising him that the gossip that had reached Innes was not backed up by any reliable evidence.
A new reforming High Church vicar, the Revd. George Sketchley Ffinden, took over the parish in November 1871 and began imposing his ideas. Darwin had to write to Brodie Innes, explaining what had upset the parishioners. Ffinden now usurped control of the village school which had been run for years by a committee of Darwin, Lubbock and the incumbent priest, with a "conscience clause" which protected the children from Anglican indoctrination. Ffinden began lessons on the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican faith, an unwelcome move from the point of view of the Baptists who had a chapel in the village. Darwin withdrew from the committee and cut his annual donation to the church, but continued with the Friendly Society work.
For two years Emma organised a winter reading room in the local school for local labourers, who subscribed a penny a week to smoke and play games, with "Respectable newspapers & a few books... & a respectable housekeeper..there every evening to maintain decorum." This was a common facility to save men from "resorting to the public house". In 1873 the Revd. Ffinden opposed it, as "Coffee drinking, bagatelle & other games" had been allowed and "the effects of tobacco smoke & spitting" were seen when the children returned in the morning. Emma got Darwin to get the approval of the education inspectorate in London, and just before Christmas 1873 the Darwins and their neighbours the Lubbocks got the agreement of the school committee, offering to pay for any repairs needed "to afford every possible opportunity to the working class for self improvement & amusement". A furious Ffinden huffed that it was "quite out of order" for the Darwins to have gone to the inspectorate behind his back. In the autumn of 1874 Darwin let off steam at Ffinden and formally resigned from the school committee on health grounds.
Ffinden then refused to speak to any of the Darwins, and when two evening lectures were proposed for the village in 1875, Lubbock had to act as an intermediary in requesting use of the schoolroom. The committee agreed, but Ffinden refused to co-operate, writing that "I had long been aware of the harmful tendencies to revealed religion of Mr. Darwin's views, but.. I had fully determined.. not to let my difference of opinion interfere with a friendly feeling as neighbours, trusting that God's grace might in time bring one so highly gifted intellectually and morally to a better mind." Darwin was equally haughty in return, condescending that "If Mr. F bows to Mrs D. and myself, we will return it". He found dealing with Ffinden, along with arguments about natural selection with the Roman Catholic convert Mivart, increasing his private hostility to Christianity. However, although he disagreed with Brodie Innes about evolution and politics they remained good friends.
In the introduction Darwin wrote:
Later on in the book he dismisses an argument for religion being innate:
Fame and honours brought a stream of enquiries about Darwin's religious views, leading him to comment "Half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions." He sometimes retorted sharply, "I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God", and at other times was more guarded, telling a young count studying with Haeckel that he "did not believe that there ever has been any Revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities." He declined a request by the Archbishop of Canterbury to join a 'Private Conference' of devout scientists to harmonise science and religion, for he saw "no prospect of any benefit arising" from it.
When Brodie Innes sent on a sermon by E. B. Pusey, Darwin responded that the Origin had no "relation whatever to Theology", though when he wrote it his own "belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr. Pusey himself." Brodie Innes deplored "unwise and violent" theological attacks on his old friend, for while they had disagreements, "How nicely things would go if other folk were like Darwin and Brodie Innes."
In a letter to a correspondent at the University of Utrecht in 1873, Darwin expressed agnosticism:
During the public interest in Modern Spiritualism, Darwin attended a séance at Erasmus's house in January 1874, but as the room grew stuffy Darwin went upstairs to lie down, missing the show, with sparks, sounds and the table rising above their heads. While Galton thought it a "good séance", Darwin later wrote "The Lord have mercy on us all, if we have to believe such rubbish" and told Emma that it was "all imposture" and "it would take an enormous weight of evidence" to convince him otherwise. At a second séance Huxley and George found that Williams was nothing but a cheat, to Darwin's relief.
In 1876 Darwin wrote the following regarding his publicly stated position of agnosticism: "Formerly I was led... to the firm conviction of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, 'it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.' I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind."
In November 1878 when George Romanes presented his new book refuting theism, A Candid Examination of Theism by "Physicus", Darwin read it with "very great interest", but was unconvinced, pointing out that its arguments did not rule out God creating matter and energy at the beginning of the universe, with a propensity to evolve. If theism were true, "reason might not be the only instrument for ascertaining its truth".
Those opposing religion often took Darwin as their inspiration and expected his support for their cause, a role he firmly refused. In 1880 there was a huge controversy when the atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected as a Member of Parliament and then prevented from taking his seat in the House of Commons. In response, the secularist Edward Aveling toured the country leading protests. When Aveling later requested permission to dedicate a book on Darwin and his Works to Darwin, he declined in a four page letter marked PRIVATE, adding that "though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion."
In Germany militant Darwinismus elevated Darwin to heroic status. When the eminent Freethinker Doctor Ludwig Büchner requested an audience he thought he was greeting a noble ally. To Darwin this was a grotesque misunderstanding, but he felt unable to refuse. Darwin's wife Emma Darwin expressed her expectation that their guest "will refrain from airing his very strong religious opinions" and invited their old friend the Revd. Brodie Innes. On Thursday 28 September 1881 Büchner arrived with Aveling. Darwin's son Frank was also present. Darwin wittily explained that "[Brodie] & I have been fast friends for 30 years. We never thoroughly agreed on any subject but once and then we looked at each other and thought one of us must be very ill". In uncharacteristically bold discussions after dinner Darwin asked his guests "Why do you call yourselves Atheists?", saying that he preferred the word "Agnostic". Aveling replied that "Agnostic was but Atheist writ respectable, and Atheist was only Agnostic writ aggressive". Darwin responded "Why should you be so aggressive?". Freethought is "all very well" for the educated, he argued, but are ordinary people "ripe for it?" Aveling retorted what if "the revolutionary truths of Natural and Sexual Selection" had been confined to the "judicious few" and Darwin had delayed publication of the Origin, where would the world be? Surely "his own illustrious example" encouraged freethinkers to proclaim truth "abroad from the house-tops". Darwin agreed that Christianity was "not supported by the evidence", but he had reached this conclusion only slowly: "I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age."
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin was published posthumously, and quotes about Christianity were omitted by Darwin's wife Emma and his son Francis because they were deemed dangerous for Charles Darwin's reputation. Only in 1958 Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow published a revised version which contained the omissions. This included statements such as the following:
After Charles Darwin's death it was claimed that he underwent a deathbed conversion to Christianity. Beyond being a common story frequently applied to famous non-believers, the claim can be dismissed by his never having left the church. The claims were refuted by Darwin's family, but resurfaced several times, often by those said to be agenda-driven.