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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and religion: a definitive web resource

I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose.

 Charles Darwin to N. D. Doedes, 2 April 1873

Darwin is more famous, and more notorious than ever. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing controversies over science and religion. Today’s debates, from the teaching of intelligent design in schools, to questions of free will and human values in light of modern research in genetics, have deep roots in the nineteenth-century controversies surrounding Darwin’s work on evolution. Yet Darwin is most often used in ways that distort or oversimplify his views. He is misquoted or misrepresented in order to support a particular position. Whose Darwin is the true Darwin, and what are the implications of his theory for the present?

Between 2007 and 2010, the Darwin Correspondence Project undertook a research and education initiative to make available key letterson on science and religion from Darwin's correspondence. The work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, and provided extensive contextual and interpretive material.  The materials created as a result of the initiative continue to form the core of the 'Religion' pages on this site. 

The aim of the 'Darwin and religion' project was to provide a complete, durable, and reliable multi-media resource in order to lay to rest misunderstandings and misrepresentations that have found currency on the web and in popular culture generally; to promote well-informed debate; and to arrive at new insights through the engagement of the present with the past. Darwin’s letters provide a unique resource for recovering the complexities of discussion in his own day, and for studying the impact of his theories on people from a wide range of backgrounds. The picture that Darwin’s letters present of his personal beliefs, and of the implications of his theory for religious belief generally, is much richer than that given in his published works, or indeed in most modern scholarship.

At least 200 of Darwin’s correspondents were clergymen, some of whom were personal friends and many of whom provided Darwin with data for his publications. He often relied on information and support from scientific colleagues who had strong religious convictions, and he was approached for advice on the implications of his work for morality and religious belief. The letters show that Darwin’s work could mean many different things to different people. Some saw Darwinism as a threat to religion, but many found ways of reconciling their beliefs with an evolutionary view of nature.

Alongside the web resource, a dramatisation was commissioned of a fascinating series of letters exchanged between Darwin and his friend Asa Gray, Harvard professor of botany and a devout Presbyterian.  A version of the script of the dramatisation, called Re:Design, together with video recordings of performances, is available through the website, with notes to encourage its use as a focus for debate in schools, colleges, and at conferences. It proved to be an extremely effective touchstone for communication and discussion, allowing complex and sensitive issues of scientific theory and religious belief to be explored in an open and thoughtful way. Many of the performances were held in small to medium size venues, with audiences composed of a mixture of students, academics, and the general public. Project staff, the actors and playwright, and other experts were often involved in leading discussion or fielding questions. 

The grant also funded a public essay prize offered for the most interesting exploration of Darwin’s correspondence in the context of present-day debates on the relationship of science and religion.