The Evolution of Darwin
It was in 1859—exactly a century and a half ago—that Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. It is perhaps the most controversial book of the past millennium, and the work that has since made Darwin the patron saint of modern atheism. According to Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
Evolution does seem to turn many Christians into unbelievers. A famous example is the distinguished Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. Evolution gave him a profound sense of intellectual liberation from his Baptist upbringing in the South. Evolution also makes some people secular evangelists for the Darwinist cause. Michael Shermer was an evangelical Christian studying at Pepperdine University when his study of evolution convinced him to give up his faith. Shermer is now the editor of Skeptic magazine.
So does a belief in evolution automatically lead to disbelief in God? Actually, Darwin didn't think that. Darwin was not an "intellectually fulfilled atheist"; rather, he called himself an agnostic. Atheists say God does not exist, while agnostics say they don't know one way or the other. Moreover, Darwin did not boast about his unbelief; rather, he approached it with marked public caution. Shocking the mores of traditional believers may be Dawkins's thing, but it certainly wasn't Darwin's.
Here we must distinguish between Darwin the scientist and Darwin the unbeliever. Darwin, who was raised Anglican and even considered becoming a clergyman, did eventually relinquish his Christian faith. But he did not do so because of evolution.
The story is told in Adrian Desmond and James Moore's authoritative biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. When Darwin's daughter Annie died at age 10, Darwin came to hate the God he blamed for this. This was in 1851, eight years before Darwin released Origin of Species.
Around the time of Annie's death, Darwin also wrote that if Christianity were true, then it would follow that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and many of his closest family friends would be in hell. Darwin found this utterly unacceptable, given that these men were wise and kind and generous. Darwin's rejection of God was less an act of unbelief than a rebellion against the kind of God posited by Christianity. A God who would allow a young girl to die and good people to go to hell was not anyone whom Darwin wanted to worship.
When Darwin published his work on evolution, the American biologist Asa Gray wrote Darwin to say that his book had shown God's ingenious way of ensuring the unity and diversity of life. From Gray's point of view, Darwin had deepened man's understanding of divine teleology. Darwin praised Gray for seeing a point that no one else had noticed. In later editions of his books, Darwin went out of his way to cite the English writer Charles Kingsley, who described evolution as compatible with religious belief. To the end of his life, Darwin insisted that one could be "an ardent theist and an evolutionist."
Some of Darwin's followers, however, were attracted to Darwin's theory precisely because they saw it as helping overthrow the Christian case for divine creation. Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, noted that evolution's "complete and irreconcilable antagonism" toward Christianity constituted "one of its greatest merits."
So why didn't Darwin correct his overenthusiastic advocate? Here is where the story gets complicated. Over time, Darwin's hostility to Christianity did play a role in his scientific views. While Darwin was originally very modest about evolution—a theory to account for transitions from one life form to another—he became increasingly insistent that evolution was an entirely naturalistic system, having no room for miracles or divine intervention at any point. When Darwin's co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote him to say that evolution could not account for man's moral and spiritual nature, Darwin accused him of jeopardizing the whole theory: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child." Darwin's ultimate position was that it was disastrous for evolution to, at any point, permit a divine foot in the door.