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By James A. Haught

This is the eleventh segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.

Copernicus and Galileo dealt a jolt to religion in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by proving that the earth isn’t the center of the heavens, as the church maintained.

But their religious impact was mild, compared to the earthquake unleashed by Charles Darwin’s proof that humans and other living things evolved from simpler creatures.

His scientific breakthrough was a great leap forward in the understanding of life – and a great trauma for believers in the Bible’s claim that God specially fashioned men and women “a little lower than the angels.”

Publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 triggered a ferocious backlash among the orthodox. Denunciations and debates raged. The provincial council of Cologne decreed in 1860: “We declare it to be clearly opposed to the Holy Scriptures and the Faith to say that the human body was produced by successive and spontaneous transformations of less-perfect forms into more-perfect forms.”

The man who caused the firestorm was a shy and sickly scholar interested in research, not polemics. Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family of English intellectuals. His grandfather, physician Erasmus Darwin, a scientist and poet, had befriended Benjamin Franklin and formed a discussion club with Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, and James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. Erasmus once noted after observing a revival meeting:

“Many theatrical preachers … successfully inculcate the fear of death and hell, and live luxuriously on the folly of their hearers. The latter have so much intellectual cowardice that they dare not reason about those things which they are directed by their priests to believe.”

His grandson, Charles Robert Darwin, trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but was repelled by the primitive surgery of the time. He turned to the study of theology at Cambridge, but found science more fascinating. While still a student at Cambridge, Darwin accepted a job as naturalist on a government research ship, the Beagle. This happenstance changed history.

For five years, Darwin roved the South Seas, observing animals, plants and fossils, especially the differences in species isolated from each other on remote islands. In 1837 Darwin began a notebook “on transmutation of species.” Eventually, he hit upon the idea of natural selection: that in the endless struggle for survival, “favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”

Darwin’s health failed after his years at sea. Nursed by his wife, he lived on family wealth and wrote biological treatises. In 1856 he painstakingly began writing his theory of evolution. Two years later, Darwin was stunned when his colleague Alfred Wallace sent him a treatise reaching the same conclusions. The work of both men was read to the Linnean Society in 1858, and Darwin hurried to spell out his long-hoarded evidence in a series of monumental books.

Sir Gavin de Beer, director of the British Museum, said the religious backlash occurred because the new understanding of species “provides no evidence of divine or providential guidance or purposive design, because natural selection of fortuitous variations gives a scientifically satisfactory explanation of evolution without any necessity for miraculous interposition or supernatural interference with the ordinary laws of nature.”

Further, the uproar stemmed partly from Darwin’s depiction of nature as a ruthless system of hunting, killing, devouring, fleeing, starving, freezing – an unlikely design for a loving creator. Through the storm, the frail researcher remained mostly silent, while his scientific friends defended him in debates and writings.

“As he grew older, Darwin abandoned the views of an orthodox member of the Church of England and became an agnostic,” de Beer noted. Darwin died at age seventy-three.

Today, more than a century later, the storm still hasn’t abated. Some fundamentalist groups still try to prevent evolution from being taught in public school science classes.

Darwin’s views on religion

“The assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for his existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent deity.” – The Descent of Man, 1871

“For my part, I would as soon be descended from [a] baboon … as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies … treats his wives like slaves … and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.” – ibid.

“My theology is a simple muddle. I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind.” – writing in 1870, quoted in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica

“I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more & more so as I grow older), but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” – letter to the Rev. J. Fordyce, July 7, 1879, quoted in The Collector, No. 1, 1958

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.” – quoted by George Seldes in The Great Quotations

“I cannot see so plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with a mouse.” ­ quoted by Ira Cardiff in What Great Men Think of Religion

“Science and Christ have nothing to do with each other. I do not believe that any revelation has ever been made.” – ibid.

“I do not believe in any revelation.” – quoted by Rufus K. Noyes in Views of Religion