Darwin and Religion

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I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on Religion. He follows his course as a Naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself.

Revd John Brodie Innes, 1 December 1878

It is often thought that when Darwin published On the Origin of Species there was a strong division between those who supported science and those who believed in God. But was it really so clear cut?
What did Darwin actually believe? Letters written to and from Darwin reveal a surprisingly complex reaction to his ideas. They show Darwin’s respect for the church and his desire to keep his own, often fluctuating, views to himself. 

This pack explores Darwin’s private views on religion and the impact this his ideas had on the lives of those around him.

  • Religious Education KS3 and 4
  • History KS3 and 4

Huxley's sketch of 'Bishop Darwin'

This satirical sketch was drawn by Darwin's friend Thomas Huxley (known as 'Darwin's Bulldog' because of his strong defence of his work). The sketch shows Darwin as a bishop blessing a naturalist. .

Darwin's views on religion

Below you can find quotes from a series of letters, click on of the letters to read the full version

1.

What does Darwin believe?

Darwin did not like to discuss his religious beliefs but his personal, sometimes painful, deliberations are occasionally expressed through his letters.

Explore the letters in this theme

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.

Letter 2814, Charles Darwin to Asa Gray

Activity: Interview Darwin about his beliefs.

In this activity we see how Darwin shared his fluctuating views about religion with friends and strangers. Given the opportunity, what would you ask him?

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2.

Tolerance but not acceptance

Some friends and family paid tribute to Darwin’s extensive research and argument but could not accept his conclusions about human origin.

What Darwins correspondents wrote

This seems to be doing away altogether with the Divine Image which forms the insurmountable distinction between man & brutes.

Letter 2637a: Leonard Jenyns to Charles Darwin

Activity: How important is tolerance?

Despite agreement with many principles of evolution and natural selection, some arguments were respectfully rejected. In this activity we explore conflict and the role of tolerance in its resolution.

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3.

Controversy

The publication of On the Origin of Species challenged respected colleagues and peers and led to strong disagreements over origin and faith.

What Darwins correspondents wrote

Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow;

Letter 2548: Adam Sedgwick to Charles Darwin

Activity: Taking a stand in the controversy

Letters show how initial reactions to Darwin’s work were sometimes fiercely divided. In this activity we explore the extent to which Darwin’s ideas are compatible with religion.

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4.

Beyond belief

The life of a village clergyman appealed to Darwin, but his later acts of pastoral care proved that he could make a contribution regardless of religious persuasion.

What Darwins correspondents wrote

To a person fit to take the office, the life of a Clergyman is a type of all that is respectable & happy: & if he is a Naturalist & has the “Diamond Beetle”, ave Maria; I do not know what to say

Letter 282 Charles Darwin to William Darwin Fox

Activity: What is the role of religion to a community?

Darwin’s role in local charities, church and school finances, and his concern for the status of the church, leads us to ask what are the roles of religion, the state and the individual in supporting communities today?

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