Charles Darwin and his faith
Monday 9th October 2017
Revd. Ian Gregory talked about CHARLES DARWIN and his FAITH.
(on 3rd Sept.'17)
Charles said his loss of faith (as traditionally understood) came on his return to England after the famous Beagle expedition in 1836. He later married cousin Emma and although they both came from Unitarian backgrounds, she remained an 'intelligent, sincere and devout believer'.
Charles did not take to his first studies in medicine, so his father persuaded him to take a natural science degree in Cambridge as a preparation for being an Anglican clergyman. Charles agreed, though his Christianity was a series of propositions to be accepted and not a personal commitment to Christ, still less an encounter with the Spirit; reason was paramount. During his studies he was influenced by theologian William Paley, who argued from design in nature that there must be a personal designer, i.e. God. Then the beagle voyage of 5 years, reading and examining nature, changed his mind. Charles was convinced of the very thin line between human and other species; he also experienced an earthquake which 'conveyed to the mind a strange insecurity'. He concluded also that key human attributes like thoughts, morality and religiosity were not distinctively 'spiritual' qualities but rather the material outworking of the evolutionary process.
The problem of suffering also affected his thinking, especially the death of his favourite child, Annie, which made it horribly real. Nevertheless, Charles said he was not an atheist in the full sense of the word. He believed in a God of first causes, more 'deist' than 'theist'. He was then influenced by the philosopher William Graham, who held that the universe had not happened by chance, yet the natural laws do not imply purpose. He came to doubt whether the human mind, being evolved from that of a lower animal, could know God. He also seemed to express what more recent experts have said about our understanding of physical reality, that it has reached certain baffling, absurd, contradictory even impossible conclusions about nature. Thus, Darwin was impressed by the extreme difficulty of conceiving that man with his capacity for looking far backwards and forward into the future was the result of blind chance or necessity.
Throughout his life, he actively supported missionary activity and work in his local parish by vicars and evangelists; he said of one 'your services have done more for the village in a few months than all our efforts for many years', meaning the removal of bad behaviour like drunkeness. He lived like a country squire with all the Christian charitable activity. His science showed that competition was the law of nature and selfish competition the law of mankind, where natural selection weeded out the frail, but he ardently supported Christian charity.
Charles Darwin had faith that you could live by Christian ethics without accepting Christian orthodoxy. Was he right ?
The subsequent discussion included criticism of traditional Christian teaching, but the question was raised: Can people try to live the true Christian non-selfish way, if they do not believe or feel (even if unconsciously imbibed from others), that there is caring love at the centre of the universe ?
(Nigel Jones Sept' 17)