If I rightly understand your great theory of the origin of species, it contains nothing inconsistent with the most deep and tender religious feeling. It certainly conflicts with the popular notion of God, but it seems to me to harmonize thoroughly with the enlightened ideas concerning him held by all highly cultured minds of today… and for one I feel that you have done a vast service to true religion by your labors.
F. E. Abbot to Charles Darwin, 20 August 1871 Read the letter
The views of Darwin on religion and the implications of his scientific theories for religious belief remain a contentious subject in scientific and theological circles, as well as in the popular press. Darwin is celebrated as a secular saint, and vilified as Satan’s agent in the corruption of the human spirit. Some commentators claim that Darwin was an atheist who concealed his real views in order to avoid social conflict within his own family; others argue that he was in fact an evolutionary deist.
The correspondence reveals, far better than Darwin’s published works, the gradual shifting of his beliefs away from traditional Christianity towards deism and agnosticism, but they also show movement back and forth, and genuine uncertainty on religious questions. The popular view of Darwin as purely secularist, or even atheist, is based on a highly selective reading of sources. The correspondence also sheds much light on the spectrum of belief in Darwin’s own time. Much of the published literature from the period after the first edition of Origin has a polemical quality that often oversimplifies the views of scientific practitioners, clergymen, and lay believers. Correspondence, by contrast, provided a space in which a wide range of beliefs could be expressed, and in which the implications of religious belief for science, and vice versa, could be more sensitively considered and explored. Darwin received letters from people who held an extremely broad range of religious beliefs, as well as from crusading secularists in England and on the continent.
The article, “What did Darwin believe?” is an illustrated overview of the development and character of Darwin’s personal beliefs, including an account of annotations he made in the New Testament belonging to his wife, Emma.