Much blood has been spilled over Darwin. Debates rage about whether he was a Christian or not. By that I do not mean judgments about his theology or philosophy, but rather whether Darwin thought of himself as a Christian. Quotes are cited back and forth as to whether he “repented” or not of his stance on natural selection. In fact there is a famous false story about his deathbead conversion which keeps on being reprinted over and over. More than one site, both Christian and non-Christian have refuted that particular story, to no avail. It keeps turning up as fact, even though the story never shows up until years after Darwin’s death and is denied by his daughter who was present at his deathbed. As a result, some variations of the story now even include a supposed cover-up by his daughter. But read here for one of the debunking stories.
So, why is there so much equivocal writing on whether Darwin believed in God or not? Well, besides all the interesting conspiracy theories, I would suggest a simpler explanation. Darwin could easily have believed in God and believed strongly in the processes of natural selection without seeing any contradiction between the two beliefs. No, he was not a deluded schizophrenic. Rather, what evidence we have on Darwin would seem to me to point to his being a Deist. He may not have been formally a Deist, but the apparent equivocal nature of his writings and confirmed anecdotes about him would seem to be a reasonable description of a Deist.
So, what is a Deist?
Deism is a theological position (though encompassing a wide variety of view-points) concerning God’s relationship with the natural world which emerged during the scientific revolution of seventeenth century Europe and came to exert a powerful influence during the eighteenth century enlightenment. By virtue of this, deism as a theological doctrine has had a great influence on the character of the modern world.
Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things. God is thus conceived to be wholly transcendent and never immanent. For Deists, human beings can only know God via reason and the observation of nature but not by revelation or supernatural manifestations (such as miracles) – phenomena which deists regard with caution if not scepticism.
Deism was particularly influential among upper-class and/or “educated” Europeans. Several of our Founding Fathers (in the USA) were Deists. In passing, this is also what should call us to caution when we quote our Founding Fathers to try to “prove” a Christian foundation to this country. Thomas Jefferson was clearly a self-proclaimed Deist, and even produced a “gospel” which excluded the miraculous from Jesus’ life. Yet, he considered himself a Christian, at least in the sense that he saw in Jesus the highest aspiration of a system of morals:
In an 1803 letter to Joseph Priestley, Jefferson stated that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the “Christian System” in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Rush during 1798–99. He proposed beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the ethics of the Bible, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines had to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, and presented in every paradoxical shape. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers. “
Because we do not know about Deism nowadays, and because people claimed to be Christian, even when they were Deists, we often make the mistake of reading quotes from them regarding their Christianity, when in reality they are supporting a deist view of God. In fact, deists did not see their viewpoint as being anti-Christian at all, but rather as a cleaning of Christianity from unfortunate accretions.
So, when we look at Darwin we ask ourselves how he could claim to be Christian yet believe in a purely natural process of evolution. The answer is deism. In that system of belief both statements make perfect sense. In the same way, those who assiduously quote our Founding Fathers to support the Christian beginning of this country need to be careful. As with Jefferson, who was openly a deist, several of our Founding Fathers who were deists (such as Benjamin Franklin) would have considered to be priestcraft and superstition much of what modern conservative Christians are trying to claim was their intention. The “deist” Founding Fathers would have had not intention whatsoever on having any more of Christianity as founding principles than a set of “moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice and philanthropy.” And, as with Jefferson, they would have considered those moral doctrines to also be compatible with the “morals of the ancient philosophers.”
So, when you hear arguments about Darwin’s Christianity, you can now drop the word “Deism” into the conversation.