Darwin and Religion

“A man regarded in 2009 as an avatar of atheism had originally intended to become a clergyman and, even after he had fallen away from any semblance of Anglican orthodoxy, agreed with the Reverend Charles Kingsley and the Reverend William Whewell, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, that it was just as ‘noble’ a conception of God that he worked through divinely instituted natural laws as that he used his powers directly to create each species. Four years after the Origin appeared, Kingsley wrote that ‘God’s greatness, goodness and perpetual care I never understood as I have since I became a convert to Mr Darwin’s views.’ Darwin insisted that he saw no good reason why evolution by natural selection ‘should shock the religious feelings of anyone’. Nor do those now using Darwin to power up secularism have much time for the historical figure whose funeral at Westminster Abbey was the occasion for the archdeacon to praise Darwin for having read ‘many hitherto undeciphered lines in God’s great epic of the universe’. Disbelief, Darwin wrote, eventually ‘crept over’ him, but that disbelief is less accurately categorised as atheism than as an unstable mix of agnosticism and a robust form of deism not uncommon among clerics of the Victorian Church of England. Even in America, many late 19th-century Protestant theologians had no great problem reconciling evolution with a rational and purified Christianity. (The strong assimilation of human beings and their mental capacities to the animal model was a sticking point for many – but then it still is.) Nor was biblical fundamentalism nearly as much a feature of Victorian opposition to Darwin as it is of the early 21st century. There are almost certainly more ‘young earth creationists’ – those claiming that the world was created in exactly six 24-hour days somewhere between 5700 and 10,000 years ago – among the educated and semi-educated classes now than there were in Darwin’s time.”


Of course, the fact that we are animals does not mean that we are only animals. Just as ants communicating with pheromones emerge into some strange thing called community, so too individual humans, with their community of mind and probability-calculators and metalevel-thinking might be something more.

Additionally, one is reminded of Peter Altenberg, who famously said, in answer to a paramour’s critique that he was only interested in her sexually, “what’s so only?”