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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 ...

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The Evolution of Darwin
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In the Magazine

January 2009

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