The term “agnostic” defines as a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God. Many individuals over the course of history have assumed this mindset in place of believing in religion, as they were unable to come to any sort of conclusion regarding the presence of a celestial being. One such person who identified as agnostic was Charles Darwin, the renowned scientist who wrote many highly acclaimed texts on various subjects and did extensive research on the ideas of evolution and natural selection. This was not always his religious stance, however. His life, as portrayed in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, documents this very idea, particularly the “Religious Beliefs” chapter of the book. Many researchers and Darwin enthusiasts have also written scholarly essays on the subject matter. A deep analysis of this text and the essays prove that Charles Darwin’s beliefs changed dramatically over the course of his life due to many of his findings and contemplations.
Charles Darwin’s religious beliefs as a child and young man were extraordinarily different from those of his later life. As a young boy, he grew up a member of the Church of England and even attended an institution of the church. He was not enthused about school work, so Darwin’s father sent him to Edinburgh University in October of 1825, where he studied with his older brother. He went with the intention of pursuing a degree in medicine, but he was not well suited to this career. His father then suggested that he become a clergyman. This shows the true starting point of Darwin’s religious journey. Darwin liked this idea (with the exception of declaring his beliefs in the dogmas of the Church of England) and proceeded to read divine books carefully. He stated in his Autobiography, “I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted” (49). He was extremely devout and considered himself to be well suited for the job. He held the Bible in very high regard and truly believed in the sacred text. He had yet to realize how senseless it was to say that he believed fully in what he later considered to be “illogical” and “unintelligible” (49). In order to pursue his degree, he attended the University of Cambridge. There, he was filled with a zeal for science through his studies of beetles, yet he still didn’t consider a scientific profession and remained deeply religious.
Darwin’s journey aboard the HMS Beagle was a crucial component of his religious transition after he left Cambridge University. Though many conclude that he started his voyage with already changed beliefs, this simply was not the case. He was invited to sail with captain Robert Fitz-Roy – who was looking for a naturalist to join him on the five-year scientific voyage – because of his affinity for traveling and geology. However, Darwin was a devoted orthodox member of the Anglican church, and becoming a clergyman was still a viable option for him. He had not yet gone through any religious shift and was not aware of his future stance on the topic. In fact, according to Frank Burch Brown’s essay entitled The Evolution of Darwin’s Theism, Darwin’s uncle suggested to Darwin that he should be allowed to pursue the voyage on account that “the enterprise would not in the future be ‘in any degree disrespectable to his character as a Clergyman,’ the pursuit of natural history being ‘very suitable for one of that profession’” (3). With the blessing of his uncle and his father, he heartily embraced the idea of traveling with Fitz-Roy.
Brown also raises the point that the idea of uniting a parish ministry with natural science was particularly appealing to Darwin, as it was suggested to him by Reverend John Stevens Henslow. Henslow, an extremely religious man who studied geology and botany, was one of Darwin’s professors at the University of Cambridge, whom he held in extremely high regard. Like Darwin in his younger years, Henslow also believed every word of the Bible to be the truth, despite being a man of science. Clearly, Darwin hardly started his journey believing in anything other than Christianity, and he hardly went for serious scientific purposes. In university, Darwin also found immense satisfaction of the works of William Paley, another highly religious man, who wrote the book Natural Theology. John Hedley Brooke provides some valuable insight into this in his essay, Charles Darwin on Religion. Darwin was engrossed in Paley’s descriptions of the adaptations of nature in relation to creation. Brooke states that based off of this, it is evident that Darwin truly believed in the idea that nature was made by a divine creator, and it was with this mindset that he began his historic voyage.
Darwin’s religious mentality changed drastically upon actually traveling on the Beagle and later while pondering the voyage. In the Autobiography, he described the voyage as “by far the most important event of my life and has determined my whole career” and “the first real training or education of my mind” (64). His love for science grew immensely over the five-year trip and he found pleasure in observing and reasoning. His discoveries regarding his opinions on religion, however, were far greater than any others. One such example is pointed out by Brooke in Charles Darwin on Religion, and that is that “he witnessed a degree of violence and instability in nature that jarred with the stable, “happy world” of William Paley’s Natural Theology” (68). Paley’s descriptions were once enthralling to Darwin, and to see them disproven was a large step in his journey out of Christianity. On the voyage, he also observed people of many different nations and their religious beliefs. Seeing this made him contemplate the validity of religions, both the popular and the niche.
This intense contemplation of the world’s religions that he saw on his trip is another key factor in Darwin’s shifting beliefs. Primarily, he began to view the Old Testament as false information. In the Autobiography, he revealed that he often asked himself, “is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament,” and said that this idea is “utterly incredible” (71). He continued to reflect and came to realize the incredibility of miracles in relation to the laws of nature, the ignorance of man, and the lack of details and witnesses in Christian gospels. Because of these ideas, Darwin simply could not hold his previous religious beliefs. In the Autobiography, Darwin described the transition as happening very slowly, and in his article Darwin and Religion, John C. Green explains that it is because of the slowness of the process that Darwin “never felt that deep anguish of the spirit to which Christianity ministers” (716). In other words, abandoning Christianity was relatively painless for Darwin, as he had plenty of time to process his actions.
In his musings in the Autobiography, Darwin also contemplates the relationship between pain and pleasure in nature, and how that relates to religion. It was a brief, but fundamental observation that aided his transition. He could not see the presence of an omnipresent being in the everyday pain and struggle of certain species. He explained that the organs of animals were developed through natural selection – rather than by a creator – so that the animals that possess them are able to compete with other beings and increase their numbers. To Darwin, the theory of natural selection provided evidence of adaptation, but removed the idea of design and creation. Darwin revealed that animals choose to pursue life and adaptation through either suffering (pain, hunger, thirst, fear), pleasure (eating and drinking), or both (searching for food). Pleasure serves as a guide to most species for a variety of variables. However, there is still much suffering in the world that isn’t disputed, mostly occurring in lower species. They often suffer without improvement, and Darwin argued that “a being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose there be in sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?” (75) In saying this, he was wondering how God could possibly have created the world with as much suffering that there is. If God were to be prevalent in nature, it would not be like this, as the Bible claims that everything God touches is good.
By this time, Darwin was skeptical of religion, but he could not place his faith exactly. His religious transition came to a standstill. He speculated that if all men believed in the same God and method of creation, religion would be more valid. This uniformity is extraordinarily far from the case; however, and that is why forming a conclusion was so difficult for him. He explained that the feeling in his mind that was connected with the idea of God didn’t really differ from sublimity. Darwin also couldn’t comprehend one being having the ability to conceive the universe and every necessity it has. However, he still believed in the existence of some sort of creator. This creator, according to him, would have an intelligent mind similar to that of man. Thus, Darwin labeled himself as a Theist. He thought that religion was a tribal survival strategy; however, he still believed that God is the ultimate lawgiver. This belief was particularly strong when he wrote Origin of Species, but it fluctuated greatly and eventually became weaker.
The idea of Theism was not quite right for Darwin, however, and his beliefs shifted farther. A question was aroused in his mind: “can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” (77) This question is a profound one, and Darwin simply did not have a concrete answer. He explicitly stated in the Autobiography, “I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things in insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic” (78). He had his beliefs on why Christianity isn’t superior, most of which revolved around the fact that he could not comment on many profound questions regarding the existence of a supreme power. According to scholar Howard Gruber, Darwin became a complete agnostic in 1840.
With his new conclusion in mind, Darwin pondered his status and examined how it affected himself and the world around him. He stated that a man who does not believe in God has complete control of his life and can follow whatever impulses he pleases. People, unlike animals, analyze and compare their feelings, desires, and recollections. It is crucial for them to find which of these will provide the highest amount of satisfaction. He went on to say that if they behave for the good of others, they will gain love and approbation which he deemed as the highest pleasure on earth. Sometimes reason tells humans to act in opposition to the opinions of others, which will cause them to lack approbation, but will then gain them the satisfaction of knowing that they pursued their own desires. Darwin himself followed the procedure of acting in opposition, and had no regrets in devoting his life to science.
Through analyzing his life, the grand nature of Charles Darwin’s religious shift becomes evident. He started his childhood and early adult life as a deeply religious being, progressed to becoming a Theist, and eventually proclaimed himself an agnostic. His voyage on the HMS Beagle was a truly eye-opening experience for him, and his accounts in the Autobiography allow for a unique perspective of his own opinions of the transition. Although his religious stance was an unpopular one for his time, Darwin’s agnostic beliefs were vastly beneficial to the fields of science, psychology, and sociology. He was able to make critical discoveries regarding the topics of natural selection, the origin of life, and evolution without the mental and physical obstacle of religion. The insight provided from this work was invaluable to the progression of science and life on Earth. The entire human population is indebted to Charles Darwin for his work and his audaciousness in converting out of religion.