Darwin’s Religious Odyssey (book)
Publisher: Trinity Pr. Intl.
Author: William E. Phipps
Location: Harrisburg, Pa
Description: Would it surprise you to learn that although he seldom attended services Charles Darwin was a life-long member of St. Mary’s, Downe, that he served on the parish council, generously supported its educational programs, funded the visit of an evangelical missioner who preached against drunkenness, and for thirty years was a “fast friend” and conversation partner of the vicar, the Rev. Brodie Innes? That he directed in his will that Innes officiate at his funeral and burial in the parish churchyard, until prominent friends arranged for him to be interred with Britain’s famous in its national shrine? These are among the many biographical facts that appear in this comprehensive study of Darwin’s religious odyssey.
Phipps, professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Davis-Elkins College in West Virginia, USA, has extensively mined the public and private writings of Darwin and his contemporaries, as well as the writings of twentieth-century historians, to construct a detailed portrait of Darwin’s own religious journey that is as complete as any this reviewer has read.
While Phipps tells a familiar story, he contributes significantly to its details and lays to rest any possible argument that Darwin could rightly be considered a foe of religion. As a young Cambridge student he accepted the creeds and the literal truth of Scripture. His commitment to Paleyean natural theology was perhaps a complement to a deep interest in natural history greatly stimulated by his mentors Henslow, Herschel, and Segwick. His most influential friends at Cambridge were either priests or candidates. Darwin might well have become one of the numerous Anglican parson-naturalists who studied God’s creation in the English countryside had not his experience as naturalist on The Beagle effected a profound metanoia, a change in his way of seeing reality–both of nature and of God.
By the time he returned, Darwin’s intention to become a priest had died a “natural death.” With it died other beliefs. The literal truth of every verse of Scripture was one; and, according to Phipps, Darwin viewed this as a diminution rather than an enhancement of his faith. Darwin’s theory of descent with modification by natural selection, led him to abandon the doctrine of special providence, along with miracles and other notions of direct divine intervention in nature. Yet, he firmly held to the notion of general providence: God using “his most magnificent laws” works through a series of intermediate causes that bring about the astonishing variety of living beings that grace this universe. In his 1842 sketch Darwin wrote, “The existence of such [evolutionary] laws should exalt our notion of the power of the omniscient Creator.” This notion of God he would hold on to, even as he abandoned the benevolent Father of his Anglican tradition.
During the years following, Darwin’s desires were divided between his pursuits of natural history and his wish to enjoy the life of an English family man. His wife, cousin Emma Wedgwood, and Darwin brought eight children into the world, three of whom died young. The death of his beloved Annie in 1851 at age eleven, for whom he grieved the rest of his life, destroyed any last vestiges of faith in an interventionist God. Near the end of his life, he acknowledged in an interview: “I never gave up Christianity till I was forty years of age.” Why, then, did Darwin continue to be a pillar of Downe parish for the rest of his days? To please Emma? To maintain the good graces of the country folk with whom he had daily intercourse? To mollify an English public threatened by his revolutionary ideas in natural history?
What one can be certain of, Phipps argues, is that he did not dissemble in his views on religion and his relations with clergy and his community. In tracing Darwin’s religious odyssey after 1859, Phipps reviews the extensive correspondence Darwin maintained with churchmen on both sides of the Atlantic. His exchanges with his American champion Asa Gray are well known. But more pertinent to his public life in England, Darwin corresponded with Charles Kingsley and a number of those British parson-naturalists, including Frederick Hope, Charles Whitley, Algernon Wells and William Herbert, who spread his message that there is no essential incompatibility between evolution and religious faith. Priests were his defenders at the meetings in 1860 of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, when Sedgwick vehemently attacked the Origin, and the Oxford debate between Wilberforce and Huxley sponsored by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Some of the opposition to Darwin stemmed from a like distress over concurrent developments in biblical criticism reflected in the controversial Essays and Reviews (1860). Opponents of both Darwin and the higher critics tended to lump them together in their outcries. And while many were prepared to greet the argument of the Origin with some degree of equanimity, the thesis of human evolution in The Descent of Man produced a greater nervousness within both the general public and scholarly circles.
Phipps includes in his account Darwin’s views on the evolution of morality and religion. Anyone still thinking that Social Darwinism constitutes Darwin’s own view might be relieved by reading his exposition in Descent. Darwin emphasizes the evolution of sympathy and cooperation, social instincts that probably sprang from “familial affections,” and the development of conscience. “The golden rule,” he declares, “lies at the foundation of morality.” While Bishop Butler and Sir James Mackintosh influenced Darwin’s moral thinking, Edward Tylor gave him a model for describing the evolution of religion. Darwin concluded that “the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God” was not a feature of humanity’s earliest evolutionary stages, but appears “when advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level.” For Darwin, the behavioral aspect of religion made better sense when understood as a product of evolution than as the special revelation of a divine lawgiver. Yet, like his champion Huxley, Darwin was prepared to find in the highest developments of morality and religion the ethical gospel of Victorian Christianity.
For that reason and others, Phipps argues that even as Darwin rejected traditional faith, he remained a deeply religious man who “exhibited reverence toward whoever was responsible for originating and developing the universe….” “Even though Darwin rejected Christian orthodoxy, he retained Christian orthopraxy….” Phipps cites numerous examples. The devoted husband and father who doted on Emma and the children was a kindly and compassionate man to all, generous in his praise to both supporters and critics alike. He avoided the limelight and public controversy, and often suffered without retaliation sometimes vicious attacks by his detractors. A vigorous opponent of slavery and any form of human oppression or cruelty, he supported organizations to aid the poor and the handicapped and to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals. It is not surprising that he would expend some of his generosity upon the village of Downe and St. Mary’s; he contributed to church repairs and the Sunday school, funded a temperance reading room, saw that his boys were tutored by nearby clergymen, and served as treasurer of the Coal and Clothing Club that provided welfare for the village needy. He regularly contributed to the South American Missionary Society. These activities, Phipps maintains, show Darwin to be a man truly committed to the ideals of Christian life as practiced in Victorian England.
Yet, what can one say of Darwin’s personal religious beliefs? Phipps thinks that the term agnostic as Darwin used it in later life accurately summarizes his theology; but it was a “reverent agnosticism” that pertained “to a lack of certainty, not to a denial of Deity.” In concluding that God is beyond human understanding, Darwin stood in the company of prophets, theologians, and mystics, Phipps asserts. Yet his mind continued to ponder the question, not whether God existed, “but what kind of God a reasonable person can accept.” It had led him long ago to that great stumbling block, theodicy, and thence to the conclusion that God creates the general laws governing the universe, but does not exert direct control over natural events. One gains the impression from Phipps’ exposition that Darwin’s God remained a mystery to the end.
I think that at times Phipps’ portrait of Darwin crosses the line into hagiography. The warts, if any, do not show. And I would question whether Darwin’s agnosticism bears any resemblance to the “hidden God” mystery of prophets and mystics. Yet Phipps is not the first to express such great admiration for his subject. What he does provide is a clear, vigorous, and comprehensive portrait of Darwin’s religious odyssey. This book will be an absorbing read for anyone wishing to explore anew the story of a brilliant thinker and admirable human being who continues to capture our attention.