skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To John Fordyce   7 May 1879

Down Beckenham | Kent [Heene, Worthing.]

May 7th 1879

Private

Dear Sir

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.—1 You are right about Kingsley.2 Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point—3 What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.4

Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

Footnotes

CD wrote this letter in reply to a now missing letter from Fordyce, in which Fordyce had enclosed a newspaper clipping of a letter by himself, dated 30 April 1879, that was published in the Grimsby News on 2 May 1879. Fordyce’s letter took issue with an earlier communication to the paper that argued that CD’s work revealed him to be an atheist (see Fordyce 1883, pp. 189–90). CD’s copy of the newspaper clipping is in DAR 226.2: 47.
In his letter to the Grimsby News, Fordyce mentioned Charles Kingsley as someone who reconciled CD’s theory with the conception of a deity. CD had added a comment by Kingsley to Origin 2d ed., p. 481 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter from Charles Kingsley, 18 November 1859 and n. 4).
Asa Gray was a strong supporter of CD’s work; he had written an influential and favourable review of Origin and an article on the implications of the theory for natural theology (A. Gray 1860a and 1860b).
The term ‘agnostic’ had been coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley (for more on the meaning of agnosticism in the context in which the term was coined, see P. White 2014, p. 222).

Bibliography

Fordyce, John. 1883. Aspects of scepticism: with special reference to the present time. London: Elliot Stock.

Gray, Asa. 1860a. Discussion between two readers of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species, upon its natural theology. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 30: 226–39.

Gray, Asa. 1860b. Review of Darwin’s theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 29: 153–84.

Origin 2d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1860.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

White, Paul. 2014. The conduct of belief: agnosticism, the Metaphysical Society, and the formation of intellectual communities. In Victorian scientific naturalism: community, identity, continuity. Edited by Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Summary

Believes it absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and evolutionist; gives the examples of Kingsley and Asa Gray. As regards CD’s own views, his judgement often fluctuates but "I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God". Thinks that "generally (and more and more as I grow older) … an Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind".

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-12041
From
Charles Robert Darwin
To
John Fordyce
Sent from
Bassett Down letterhead
Source of text
Linnean Society of London (Quentin Keynes Collection)
Physical description
3pp & C 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12041,” accessed on 18 February 2020, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-12041.xml

letter