Auctioning Darwin’s Irreligiosity: The Larger Context

Auctioning Darwin’s Irreligiosity: The Larger Context September 11, 2015
darwin letter
Picture of the letter, taken from the Bonhams auction site. (http://www.butterfields.com/auctions/22964/lot/39/)

News has been making the rounds that an 1880 letter of Darwin is being auctioned (by Bonhams), wherein Darwin unequivocally claims that he does “not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”

It’s well known to historians that throughout his life, Darwin had developed a sort of measured agnosticism to which he often defaulted; though even in the midst of his caution, he could be frank about his doubts. He seemed to be particularly troubled by problems of theodicy, which he often framed in the context of his observation of nature. In 1860, in response to a letter from famed botanist Asa Grey (which, unfortunately, has been lost), Darwin writes:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.– I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I sh[oul]d wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & 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 mice.

However, we have other examples of a measured restraint, for example in a letter that Darwin wrote in May 1879, the year before the letter currently being auctioned. Here, in the opening line of the letter, Darwin writes that “[i]t seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist”; and several lines later he clarifies:

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.

In another letter written just a month after the previous one, though, he’s more candid about his skepticism, and indeed unequivocal about his lack of belief in Christianity, if not revealed religion in general:

Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities

The relationship between science and religion is a theme that appears several times in his correspondence around this time. In late 1880 he was invited to a conference whose stated goal was in redressing the problem that “Almost the whole of intelligent modern Infidelity [non-belief] rests on the assumption that the proved conclusions of modern Science are hopelessly at variance with the fundamental doctrines both of natural and of revealed religion.” In his response to this invitation, Darwin respectfully declines—first citing health issues, but then also admitting that he “can see no prospect of any benefit arising from the proposed conference.”

A follow-up response to Darwin’s then asks if, though he will be unable to attend in person, he might still make some remarks on the subject that could relayed to the conference. However, Darwin again declines, saying that it would be too difficult for him to succinctly convey “the causes of my disbelief,” and again reiterates the crucial role of subjective judgment in determining the truth of such issues:

a man who wishes to form a judgment on this subject, must weigh the evidence for himself; & he ought not to be influenced by being told that a considerable number of scientific men can reconcile the results of science with revealed or natural religion, whilst others cannot do so.


The particular letter being auctioned comes in response to the inquiry of a certain Frederick A. McDermott. In this, Mr. McDermott practically demands an unambiguous “yes” or “no” from Darwin as to whether he “believe[s] in the New Testament” (which he even suggests that Darwin simply write on the back of the letter he sent!), because—in his words—“my brain is not fine enough to argue out doubts which might be suggested by your works.” It’s hard to not see this particular correspondence in the light of what Darwin had complained about in a letter from the previous year, that “Half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions”; but in any case, Darwin was at his most candid in his response to McDermott, writing:

I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.

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