The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 51): Charles Darwin–What His Theory is…and Oh, He Wasn’t an Atheist

If you follow the current creation/evolution debate, chances are that you might not really understand what the theory of evolution actually states. And if you are a Christian (particularly one who has been influenced by YECists like Ken Ham), you probably have assumed that Charles Darwin was an atheist who came up with his theory of evolution in order to try to convince people that God doesn’t exist. Well…welcome to my post. You’re going to learn a few things.

Darwin’s Theory
When it comes to Darwin’s actual theory, his genius lay in his understanding that the entirety of the biological/natural world is intricately connected on a wide-ranging, biological and natural scale. Essentially, it was the realization that life is not static: every living organism is constantly reacting to, and influencing at the same time, the environment in which it finds itself. And, given the fact that 19th century geologists (most whom where clergymen!) were unearthing ancient fossils of dinosaurs and speculating that the earth itself was possibly millions of years old, Darwin’s theory of evolution drove him to speculate that perhaps, if given enough time, all the varieties of life we observe in the world today ultimately “descended” from a common ancestor, way back in the past, millions of years ago.

Simply put, Darwin (and biologists ever since) observed small-scale adaptations within species (i.e. finch beaks), and observed a number of biological similarities between a cross-section of species. Therefore, the speculation was that if the earth was indeed millions of years old (and geologists were already making that case long before Darwin), then it is possible that perhaps all these different species evolved from a common ancestor. Ever since then, especially with the advancement in genetic studies today, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been verified time and time again.

Limitations…Let’s Be Clear on the Limitations
But it must be emphasized again that Darwin’s theory is limited to the biological world of nature, and it is only concerned with the development and evolution of biological life. In no way does it make any philosophical or theological arguments regarding God or the dignity of man; and in no way does it make any argument regarding the origin of life itself. Simply put, when Darwin wrote Origin of Species, he was putting forth a theory on the origin of species from a pre-existent form of life; he was not putting forth a theory on the origin of life itself.

This is important to note for a number of reasons. First, the current YEC movement (as well as the followers of William Paley), are objecting to a claim that Darwin’s theory never makes, namely that nature is a random accident, and that God does not exist. They are mistakenly attaching a philosophical claim onto the biological theory, and then attacking the biological theory on the false basis that it is an atheistic, philosophical worldview.

Second, the current New Atheist movement (championed by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris) are, in fact, high-jacking Darwin’s biological theory and attempting to claim that it is the scientific basis for their atheistic/philosophical claims. Both YEC and the New Atheists are a threat to clear thinking and honest inquiry, for both are either willfully ignorant or purposely misleading.

Third, since Darwin’s theory is limited to biological life in the natural world, and since it simply cannot even address questions regarding God, morality, or the dignity of man, the theory itself it subject to different philosophical interpretations that the theory itself cannot verify or reject. If you are an atheist, you will look at evolution and conclude that “nature can do it all by itself,” and therefore God doesn’t exist. Of course, your conclusion that God doesn’t exist in no way can be extrapolated from the theory of evolution—it is a philosophical leap in the dark that is not buoyed by the evolutionary evidence.

Furthermore, if you come to that conclusion, it is quite obvious that (a) the “god” you are rejecting is the god of deism, and (b) you aren’t aware of the difference between the deistic god and the biblical God. Therefore, when Richard Dawkins claims that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, someone should remind him that some of Darwin’s earliest supporters—Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple—were Christian clergymen.

Darwin’s first sketch of his “tree of life” from his notebook (circa 1837)

If you are a Christian, you should realize that being convinced of the theory of evolution does not entail a disbelief in God. In fact, if you are a Christian, you are free to conclude that evolution is the way by which God, not only has created, but is continuing to create, the natural world. This is what Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901) (as well as millions of Christians today) believe. Ronald Numbers tells us that Le Conte “…perhaps the most influential theistic evolutionist in America, described science itself as ‘a rational system of natural theology’ in that it pointed beyond itself to a divine Mind that served as the ‘energy’ that was immanent throughout creation” (Galileo Goes to Jail166).

We must see the theory of evolution in a clear light: it is a biological theory that has produced some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries in human history, but it still is (as all scientific theories are) a working, provisional theory that is always open for revision and questioning.

In addition, and unfortunately, the theory of evolution has been abused, misrepresented, and manipulated to support some of the greatest atrocities in human history. But the moment one begins to present Darwin’s theory as the basis for any philosophy or ideology, is the moment one takes a step in either one of two misdirections: (1) Nazism or Communism, which, like nature itself, is “red in tooth and claw,” or (2) cultish, heretical, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and ultimately anti-Christian movements like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis.

Darwin’s Own Loss of Faith (Oh Hell, that Hurts!)
One more misconception about Darwin himself must be cleared up here: Charles Darwin was not an atheist. He didn’t come up with his theory of evolution as a way to justify his rejection of God. At the same time, though, neither was Darwin a Christian, and he never had a “death-bed conversion” back to the Christian faith. He, like so many Englishmen of his day, grew up in a nominally Christian household. And although he eventually lost his Christian faith, he never described himself as an atheist. He was, by all accounts, an agnostic later in life. But again, it was not his theory of evolution that was the cause for his loss of the Christian faith.

The reason for Darwin’s problem with Christianity was two-fold: first, there was the Christian teaching of hell—namely that there was a place where the souls of unbelievers would be tortured for all eternity; second, there was the existential problem of pain and suffering in the world.

Regarding the teaching of hell, we must realize that much of what we believe today regarding hell is not so much from the Bible itself, or even from the teaching of the early Church, but rather is a product of a certain strand of Catholic thought from the High Catholic Age. Dante’s Inferno is more influential to our modern concept of hell than the Bible actually is. Therefore, although Christians for the past 2,000 years have speculated as to the nature of hell and to the justified and proper punishment for those in rebellion against God, the dogmatic teaching of eternal hellfire and souls tormented forever in eternal pain is a teaching that has never been universally held by the Church, and is one that is not spelled out in the Bible itself. And so, it is unfortunate that one of the reasons why Darwin left the Christian faith was a teaching that wasn’t particularly Christian.

Regarding the problem of pain and suffering, this is one we cannot dismiss out of hand. Darwin certainly could not. Within the span of three years, Darwin experienced the death of his father (1848) and the death of his eldest daughter (1851). Indeed, when one comes face to face with suffering, pain and death, it is undoubtedly going to be a challenge to any kind of belief in a loving God. “How could God allow this to happen?” “Why did God not intervene?” Questions like these are ultimately unanswerable. This is not the place to get into an extended discussion on the problem of pain and suffering, but given the topic at hand, we must admit that the problem of pain and suffering is, in fact, a very real challenge to anyone’s faith.

Despite losing his Christian faith, nonetheless, Darwin never rejected belief in the existence of God. He himself viewed his own theory of evolution as simply uncovering the natural laws imposed on creation by a creator God. As Ronald Numbers states, “Although an agnostic late in life, Darwin denied he had ever been an atheist and frequently referred to evolutionary outcomes as the result of laws impressed on the world by a creator” (GGJ 227). Simply put, using modern categories, Darwin would have probably labeled himself as a theistic evolutionist—although not a Christian.

In addition, we must also note that not only was Darwin not an atheist, he also harbored no ill will toward Christianity, Christians, or the Church. Ronald Numbers again: “[Darwin] himself fell away, but he gave generously toward church repairs and sent his boys to be tutored by clergymen. Local priests always had his support; the Reverend John Innes became a lifelong friend. In 1850 they started a benefit society for the parish laborers, with Darwin as guardian. Innes later made him treasurer of the local charities and, with a testimonial from him in 1857, Darwin became a county magistrate, swearing on the Bible to keep the Queen’s peace” (GGJ 150).

Darwin’s Grave: Westminster Abbey

All this goes to show that Darwin, despite falling away from his Christian faith, never was an atheist, never was hostile toward Christianity, and never viewed his own theory as something that “proved” or supported atheism. Not only did he not see his theory as an atheistic threat to Christianity, neither did the Church of England. After all, as Numbers tells us, “The English lay no one lightly in Westminster Abbey, their national shrine, much less the mortal remains of those who affront the monarchy, the established church, or Christianity” (150).

The implications that Darwin’s theory of evolution had, philosophically, theologically, and socially, certainly had to be worked out—and for the past 150 years we’ve witnessed the mess—but the theory itself was not philosophy, it was not theology, it was scientific. It no more is anti-biblical or anti-Christian as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is either anti-biblical or anti-Christian. It is high time that extremist ideologues on both sides of the non-existent “creation/evolution debate” are rejected as the charlatans they are.

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