Darwin's Arguments Against
Christianity And Religion


Science has not broken with religion. But a large number of the scientific thinkers of our generation have. When we ask why, the reason returned is apt to be colored by the personal feelings of the answerer. One attributes it to the bondage into which what he speaks of as "so-called modern science" has fallen, to materialistic philosophy, or even to Satanic evil-heartedness. Another finds its explanation in the absorption of scientific workers, in this busy age, in a kind of investigation which deadens spiritual life and spiritual aspirations within them, and totally unfits them for estimating the value of other forms of evidence than that obtained in the crucible or under the microscope. Others suppose that it is the crude mode in which religion is presented to men's minds, in these days of infallible popes and Salvation Armies, which insults the intelligence of thoughtful men and prevents their giving to the real essence of faith the attention which would result in its acceptance. Others, still, conceive that it is advancing knowledge itself which in science has come to blows in religion with the outworn superstitions of a past age. In such a Babel of discordant voices it is a boon to be able to bend our ear and listen to one scientific worker, honored by all, as he tells us what it was that led him to yield up his Christian faith, and even, in large measure, that common faith in a God which he shared not with Christians only but with all men of thought and feeling.

A rare opportunity of this sort has been afforded us by the publication of the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, by his son, in which is incorporated a very remarkable passage, extracted from some autobiographical notes written by this great student of nature, as late as 1876, with the special purpose of tracing the history of his religious views. Certainly no one will hesitate to accord to him a calm hearing; and we cannot but be instructed by learning by what processes and under the pressure of what arguments so eminently thoughtful a mind was led to desert the faith in which he was bred, and gradually to assume a position toward the problem of the origin of the world which he can call by no more luminous name than that of agnosticism.

The history of the drift by which Mr. Darwin was separated from faith in a divine order in the world, divides itself into two well-marked periods. The first of these, which was completed at about the time when he reached his fortieth year, ends with the loss of his Christianity. During the second, which extended over the remainder of his life, he struggled, with varying fortunes, but ever more and more hopelessly, to retain his standing at least as a theist. At the end of the first he no longer believed that God had ever spoken to men in his Word; at the end of the second he more than doubted whether the faintest whisper of his voice could be distinguished in his works. He was never prepared dogmatically to deny his existence; but search as he might he could not find him, and he could only say that if he existed he was, verily, a God that hides himself.

Let us take up the matter in the orderly form which Mr. Darwin has himself given it, and inform ourselves seriously what were the objections to Christianity and the difficulties in the way of a reasoned theism which led him to such sad conclusions.

His account of his loss of Christianity takes the shape of a personal history. He gives us not so much an argument against Christianity as a record of the arguments which led him to discard it. These fall into two classes: in the first stands the single decisive argument that really determined his anti-Christian attitude; while in the second are gathered together the various supporting considerations which came flocking to buttress the conclusion when once it was attained. The palmary argument depends for its weight on a twofold peculiarity of his personal attitude. He had persuaded himself not only that species originated by a process of evolution, but also that this process was slow, long continued, and by a purely natural development. And he held, with dogmatic tenacity, the opinion that the Book of Genesis teaches that God created each species by a separate, sudden, and immediate fiat. If both these positions were sound, it followed necessarily that either his theory or Genesis was in error; and to him, in his naturally enthusiastic advocacy of his theory, this meant that Genesis must go. Now he was ready for another step. Genesis is an integral part of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is not only bound up with the New Testament in a single volume, but is in such a sense a part of Christianity-as its groundwork and basis-that Christianity cannot be true if the Old Testament record is untrustworthy. To give up Genesis is, therefore, to give up Christianity. Thus his chief argument against Christianity reduces itself to a conflict between his theory of evolution and his interpretation of Genesis, about the accuracy of both of which there are the gravest of doubts. Here is the form in which he himself describes the process: "I had gradually come by this time, that is, 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindus. The question then continually rose before my mind, and would not be banished: is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindus he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, etc., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me as utterly incredible."

It was impossible, however, to deal with Christianity as if it came claiming our acceptance uncommended by evidence of its own. The assumed conflict with Genesis would be fatal to the theory of evolution if the Christianity in vital connection with Genesis were confessed to be truth demonstrated by its own appropriate historical evidence. Mr. Darwin could not, therefore, rest in this short refutation without calling to its aid other more direct arguments, such as would suffice to place Christianity at least on the defensive and thus allow the palmary argument free scope to work its ruin. Thus we read further: "By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become; that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us; that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events; that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye- witnesses-by such reflections as these . . . I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wildfire had some weight with me."

This is Mr. Darwin's arraignment of the Christian evidences. A close scrutiny will reveal the important place which miracles occupy in it. It may almost be said that Mr. Darwin concerns himself with no other of the evidences of Christianity, except miracles. It looks as if, in his objection to Christianity, arising from the conflict that existed in his opinion between Genesis and his theory of evolution, he felt himself faced down by the force of the miracles by which, as he says, "Christianity is supported," and felt bound to throw doubt on this evidence or yield up his theory. In one word, he felt the force of the evidence from miracles. It is instructive to observe how he proceeds in the effort to break the weight of their evidence. He does not shortly assert, as some lesser scientific lights are accustomed to assert, that miracles are impossible. He merely says that they need clear evidence of their real occurrence to make us believe in them, and that this is increasingly true as the reign of law is becoming better recognized. And then he tries to throw doubt on the evidence of their occurrence: they profess to have been wrought in a credulous age; the documents in which they are recorded cannot be proved to be contemporaneous with their asserted occurrence, and are marred by internal contradictions in detail which lessen their trustworthiness; and it is not necessary to assume the miraculous origin of Christianity in order to account for its rapid spread. In a word, Mr. Darwin deserts the metaphysical and what may be called the "scientific" objections to miracles, in order to rest his case on the historical objections. He does not say miracles cannot have occurred; he merely says that the evidence on which they are asserted to have occurred falls something short of demonstration.

Were our object here criticism rather than exposition, it would be easy to show the untenableness of this position: it was not in the field of the historical criticism of the first Christian centuries that Mr. Darwin won his spurs. There are also many more sources of evidence for Christianity than its miracles. It is enough for our present purpose, however, to take note of the form which the reasoning assumed in his own mind. It has a somewhat odd appearance, and was about as follows: The miracles by which Christianity is supported are not demonstrably proved to have really occurred; therefore the conflict of my theory with Genesis, and through Genesis with Christianity, is not a conflict with miraculous evidence; therefore my theory may as well be true as Christianity. The validity of the inference seems to rest on the suppressed premise that none but miraculous evidence would suffice to set aside his theory. And there is a droll suggestion that his state of mind on the subject was not very far from this: "I was very unwilling to give up my belief," he writes; "I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being found at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus unbelief crept on me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress." Nothing short of a miracle would, then, have convinced him; and nothing short of a miracle could have convinced him of a miracle. Surely a man in such a state of mind would be refused as a juror in any case. In lesser causes we should speak of him as under bondage to an invincible prejudice; in this great one we are certainly justified in saying that his predilection for his theory of the origin of species, and that in the exact form in which he had conceived it, lay at the root of his rejection of Christianity. If both Christianity and it could not be true, why then Christianity certainly could not be true, and a full examination of the evidence was unnecessary.

It was some years after his giving up of Christianity before his belief in the existence of a personal God was shaken. But as time went on this also came. The account given in his autobiography of this new step in unbelief is not thrown into the form of a history so much as of ordered reasoning. So that we have, strangely enough, as part of a brief body of autobiographical notes, a formal antitheistic argument. The heads of theistic proof, which Mr. Darwin treats in this remarkable passage, are the following: (1) "The old argument from design in nature as given by Paley"; (2) "the general beneficent arrangement of the world"; (3) "the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God at the present day, drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons"; and (4) the argument "from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity." The full development of these propositions, while it would be far, no doubt, from exhausting the argument for the existence of God, would afford quite a respectable body of theistic proof. In offering a refutation of, them, one by one, Mr. Darwin evidently feels that he is sufficiently treating the whole fabric of theistic argumentation; and he draws an agnostic conclusion accordingly. It will be very instructive to note his answers to them, in as much detail as space will allow.

To the first-the argument from design as developed, say, by Paley-he replies that it "fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered." "We can no longer argue," he adds, "that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection than in the course which the wind blows." By this he means that the adaptations of means to ends, as observed in nature, are the necessary result of the interaction of the purely mechanical forces of nature, and would result from them whether there is a God or not; and that therefore they cannot be pleaded as a proof that there is a God. This conception of the working of nature is the result of the stringency with which he held to his theory of evolution by natural selection, in the exact naturalistic form in which he first conceived it. The second argument, that drawn "from the general beneficent arrangement of the world," he meets by a reference to the great amount of suffering in the world. As a sound evolutionist he believes that happiness decidedly prevails over misery; but he urges that the existence of so much suffering is an argument against the existence of an intelligent first cause; "whereas the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection," which he appears to assume to be a necessarily antitheistic conception. In treating the third argument, derived from man's "deep inward conviction and feelings" that there is a God, to whom his aspirations go out, on whom he is dependent and to whom he is responsible, Mr. Darwin confuses the "conviction" with the "feelings," and sets the whole aside as no more valid an argument for the existence of God than "the powerful, though vague, and similar feelings excited by music." He sorrowfully recalls the time when he too had such feelings rise within him in the presence of grand scenery, for instance: when he could not adequately describe the "higher feelings of wonder and admiration and devotion which filled and elevated his mind;" but confesses that they no more visit him, and that he might truly be said to be like a man who has become colorblind and whose loss of perception is therefore of no value as evidence against the universal belief of men. But he denies that the "conviction of the existence of one God" (why "one" God?) is universal among men; and hints that he believes that all these feelings can be reduced to the "sense of the sublime," which, could it only be analyzed, might be shown not to involve the existence of God any more than the similar emotions raised by music. The confusion here is immense confusion of a conviction that accompanies, or rather begets and governs, feelings with the feelings themselves-confusion of the analysis of an emotion into its elements with the discovery of its cause, and the like. But the confusion and Mr. Darwin's method of seeking relief from his puzzlement, are characteristic traits which may teach us somewhat of the value of his testimony as to the scientific aspects of faith. The fourth argument, that which rests upon our causal judgment, is the only one to which he ascribes much value. He does not hesitate to speak of the "impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe as the result of blind chance or necessity." But the question arises: Impossibility to whom? And here again Mr. Darwin's theory of the origin of man, by a purely natural process of development from brute ancestors, entered in to void the unavoidable conclusion. "But then," he adds, "arises the doubt. Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?" Or, as he writes later, after having again confessed to "an inward conviction that the universe is not the result of chance." "But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?" Thus the last and strongest theistic proof fails, not because of any lack in its stringent validity to the human mind, but because so brute-bred a mind as man's is no judge of the validity of proof.

We are tempted to turn aside and ask, Why, then, are the theistic proofs so carefully examined by Mr. Darwin? Why is so much validity assigned to the judgment of his human mind as to the value of the argument from design, for instance? Why does he trust that brute-bred mind through all the devious reasonings by which the theory of development by natural selection, on the basis of which the value of its conclusions are now challenged, was arrived at? In a word, is it not certain, if man's mind is so brutish that its causal judgment is not trustworthy when it demands a sufficient cause for this universe, that it is equally untrustworthy in all its demands for a sufficient cause, and that thus all the fabric of our knowledge tumbles about our ears, all our fine theories, all our common judgments by which we live? When Mr. Darwin chokes down this "inward conviction" and refuses to believe what he confesses to be "impossible" to him not to believe, he puts the knife at the throat of all his convictions, even of his conviction that he exists and his conviction that a world lies about him, such as he sees with his eyes and theorizes about with his "bestial" mind; and there necessarily goes out into the blackness of nescience all thought, all belief, all truth.

But we remember that we are not now criticizing, but only trying to understand Mr. Darwin's reasons for refusing to believe in "what is called a personal God." This much is plain, that the root of his agnosticism, as of his rejection of Christianity, was his enthusiastic acceptance of his own theory of evolution, in the mechanical naturalistic sense in which he conceived it. We raise no question whether this was an inevitable result; there have been many evolutionists who have been and have remained theists and Christians. But this was the actual course of reasoning with him. It was because he conceived of each organic form as liable to indefinite variation in every direction, and to development into other forms by the natural reaction of the environment on these variations, through the struggle for existence, that he denied that the hand of God could be traced either in the line of variation or in the selection of the types to live. It was because he included all organic phenomena, mental and moral as well as physical, in this natural process, that he found himself unable to trust the convictions of the mind of man, which was after all nothing but the brute's mind beaten and squeezed into something of a new form by an unmoral struggle for existence stretching through immemorial ages. In a word, Mr. Darwin's rejection of Christianity and loss of faith in a personal God were simply the result of his enthusiastic adoption of a special theory of the origin of organic differentiation, and of ruthless subjection of all his thought to its terms.

And now, returning to our original query, we are prepared to answer why one scientific man broke with faith. Mr. Darwin was honest in deserting the faith of his childhood and the theistic convictions of his manhood. But was he logically driven to it? He himself, despite himself, confesses that he was not. To the end his "conviction" remained irreconcilable with his "conclusion." Yet he was logical, if the evidence in favor of the extremely naturalistic form of the evolutionary hypothesis is more convincing than that for God and the Bible; but logical with a logic which strips the very logic on which we are depending for our conclusion of all its validity, and leaves us shiveringly naked of all belief and of all trustworthy faculty of thought. If we are to retain belief in our own existence, Mr. Darwin himself being witness, we must believe also in that God who gave us life and being. We can only account for Mr. Darwin's failure to accept the guidance of his inextinguishable conviction here, by recognizing that his absorption in a single line of investigation and inference had so atrophied his mind in other directions that he had ceased to be a trustworthy judge of evidence. Whatever may be true in other cases, in this case the defection of a scientific man from religion was distinctly due to an atrophy of mental qualities by which he was unfitted for the estimation of any other kind of evidence than that derived from the scalpel and the laboratory, and no longer could feel the force of the ineradicable convictions which are as "much a part of man as his stomach or his heart."