skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Religion

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?

A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
Darwin to Asa Gray, 22 May [1860]
… it has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain & suffering in this world, as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events, … rather than from the direct intervention of God.
Darwin to Mary Boole, 14 December 1866
You are quite at liberty to honour me by putting my name down as one of the Patrons of the Cat Show; but let me advise you not to do so, as people may refuse to go & admire a lot of atheistical cats!
Darwin to J. J. Weir, 18 September [1872]
I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.
Darwin to John Fordyce, 7 May 1879
I thank you for your Judgment … that theology & science should each run its own course & that … I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off.
Darwin to Mary Boole, 14 December 1866
I had a dim perception of the truth of your profound remark, that he wrote in fear & trembling “of God, man & monkeys”, but I would alter it into God, man, Owen & monkeys.
Darwin to J. D. Hooker, 23 [April 1861]

Tim Lewens2.jpg

Tim Lewens
Tim Lewens

Science and Religion Interviews

The importance of Darwin and the nineteenth century debates on science and religion for present day issues and concerns, such as intelligent design, are addressed in series of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers and historians.

Read more

'Re: Design' dramatisation

A dramatisation of the correspondence between Charles Darwin and Asa Gray was commissioned by the Darwin Project, and written by Cambridge playwright, Craig Baxter. It was developed for the stage by director Paul Bourne of the Menagerie Theatre Company, Cambridge, UK.

Read more

BOOLE-M-E-01-00536.jpg

Mary Everest Boole
Mary Everest Boole
CUL 300:2.c.95.12
Cambridge University Library

What did Darwin believe?

What did Darwin really believe about God? the Christian revelation? the implications of his theory of evolution for religious faith? These questions were asked again and again in the years following the publication of Origin of species (1859). They are still asked today by scholars, scientists, students, and religious believers.

Read more

Darwin-America.jpg

Darwin in America
Darwin in America
after CUL DAR 225: 175
Cambridge University Library

Darwin and religion in America

Thomas Dixon, 'America’s Difficulty with Darwin', History Today (2009), reproduced by permission. 

Darwin has not been forgotten. But he has, in some respects, been misremembered. That has certainly been true when it comes to the relationship between his theory and religion. Charles Darwin himself hated religious controversy. Creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’ are not evidence of some general and timeless antagonism between faith and reason. Rather, they are the products of a particular place and a particular time: the United States of America since the end of the Second World War.

Read more

HUXLEY-T-H-01-02486.jpg

Thomas Henry Huxley
Thomas Henry Huxley, Vanity Fair, Jan 28th 1871
Cambridge University Library

British Association meeting 1860

Several letters refer to events at the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Oxford, 26 June – 3 July 1860. Darwin had planned to attend the meeting but in the end was unable to. The most famous incident of the meeting was the verbal encounter between Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley in a discussion of Darwin's theories. This account of the meeting has been drawn from the Athenæum, which provided the most complete contemporary report and which Darwin himself read.

Read more

GRAY-A-01-01957.jpg

Asa Gray
Asa Gray
CUL DAR 257:109
Cambridge University Library

Essays & reviews by Asa Gray

Asa Gray wrote a series of reviews of Darwin’s works for American magazines such as Atlantic Monthly and The Nation.

Read more

Downe-Church.jpg

St Mary’s Church, Downe
St Mary’s Church, Downe

Darwin and the Church

The story of Charles Darwin’s involvement with the church is one that is told far too rarely. It shows another side of the man who is more often remembered for his personal struggles with faith, or for his role in large-scale controversies over the implications of evolutionary theory for religion. His local activities in the village of Down paint a fascinating picture of a man who, despite his own divergent beliefs and uncertainties, was determined to support the church as a social institution. His correspondence provides a unique window into this complicated relationship throughout Darwin’s life, as it reveals his personal and professional interactions with various clergymen and religious bodies.

Read more

OWEN-R-01-03629.jpg

Richard Owen
Richard Owen, photograph by Ernest Edwards, c. 1863. From L. Reeve ed. 1863-6
CUL Ii.4.35
Cambridge University Library

Darwin and Design

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Britain, religion and the sciences were generally thought to be in harmony. The study of God’s word in the Bible, and of his works in nature, were considered to be part of the same truth. One version of this harmony was presented in William Paley’s Natural theology, or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity (1802).

Read more