Charles Darwin and Religion

Farida Majid

Published on  Darwin Day (February 12, 2006)

             Honoring Charles Darwin, the father of modern biology, Britain has recently put his portrait on the ten-pound note, replacing one bearded Victorian icon, Charles Dickens, with another. New York City's American Museum of Natural History has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition ever offered on the naturalist's life, theories, and achievements that opened for public view in Nov. 19, 2005. The exhibit will travel for the next two years in various prestigious venues in North America and then end up in London's Natural History Museum in time for the celebration in 2009 of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species

            In the heartland of the Protestant Christian United States, the birthplace of modern religious fundamentalism, Darwin's name is being invoked for a different reason. His name is being dragged in court cases, lawsuits, and bitterly contested local School Board elections. Exactly 80 years after the infamous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is still considered to be anti-Bible, hence sacrilegious. The supporters of creationism, believers in literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and other biblical narrations of life on earth, have come up with a new name, "Intelligent Design" for creationism and want to push this as a part of science curriculum. All serious scientists, and all serious men/women of religion, of course, oppose the position of the creationists who insist that the Bible's version of creation be taught in science courses as scientific fact. But such are the times we live in -- the religious fundamentalists usually have the sway and get away with murder.  

            Millions of dollars flow into these religious right wing institutions reinstating their message-disseminating muscle power. The religious broadcasters have enormous influence over the minds of millions of Americans. 51% of Americans outright reject the theory of evolution and believe that the word "image" in the biblical phrase "God created man in His own image" means a picture taken by a camera click. When voters ousted the creationist members of the school board in a High School in Dover, Pennsylvania, in November this year, Pat Robertson of Christian Broadcasting Network blared dire warnings. Citizens of Dover had "voted God out," so they should not turn to God in case of a looming disaster. "If they have future problems in Dover," said Robertson, "I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. May be he can help them." 

            Was Darwin such an iconoclast as Robertson is claiming? Does he deserve to be put down as an opposition to God?  Since the creation myth is shared by the other Abrahamic faiths, how is the issue dealt with in Judaism and Islam? It is worthwhile to look for answers to these questions, because as silly as Robertson's statements are, this is a cultural controversy of our time that is spilling over into the realms of both science and religion. We should begin by looking at the fascinating man, Darwin, his only voyage round the world, and the compelling private and public drama behind the publication of The Origin of species. 

            Most of my notes are taken from the book, Darwin and the Beagle (Penguin Books, 1971) by Alan Moorehead, the famed author of The White Nile (1960) and The Blue Nile (1962).  Moorehead's book, though meticulously researched, is written in easy narrative style for a general audience, and the Penguin edition is magnificently illustrated by paintings, drawings and sketches made by artists who, in lieu of latter-day photographers, accompanied Darwin in this expedition in 1831-36. Moorehead begins his account by depicting a young, twenty-two year old Charles Darwin, bubbling with enthusiasm at the offer of the post of a naturalist on the long voyage. He had just graduated from Cambridge University's Christ's Church, and was about to enter the Church as a country parson when this astonishing offer came to him through the recommendation of his Professor of Botany, John Stevens Henslow, himself a clergyman. 

            On September 5, 1831, Darwin was summoned to London to meet Robert FitzRoy, the aristocratic captain of HMS Beagle, a small but very well outfitted ship with a splendid, experienced crew. The two young men got along famously at that meeting, and thus, despite youth, inexperience, and against all odds, Darwin embarked on the greatest adventure of his life - the voyage of the Beagle. It was the voyage, Moorehead reminds us, "that became, as it were, the origin of the Origin of Species, and the basis of those ideas which have since changed all our lives." 

            The Admiralty of Britain was sending off this expedition with two missions: first to continue the charting of South American coast, and secondly to get a more accurate fixing of longitude. But there was another unstated mission. Robert FitzRoy was a deeply religious man who believed every word in the Bible absolutely. It was not unusual to take a naturalist on board a voyage such as this, but FitzRoy had a special object in view, a religious object.


"The voyage, he believed, would provide a grand opportunity to substantiate the Bible, especially the book of Genesis. As a naturalist, Darwin might easily find many evidences of the Flood and the first appearance of all created things upon the earth.  He could perform a valuable service by interpreting his scientific discoveries in the light of the Bible. Darwin, the young clergyman-to-be, was very ready to agree.  He too, did not in the least doubt the literal truth of every word in the Bible at this time - it was part of the world he accepted and liked so well - and if he could be of use in this way, well then, that made the prospect of the voyage all the more exciting" (25).

            Darwin was fortunate also in his family background. His father, Robert, was a doctor and made a small fortune in Shrewsbury, and grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin made a great name both as a doctor and as a writer of verse with scientific and evolutionist themes. Darwin later denied that he was influenced by any of his grandfather's poems in any way. His mother was a Wedgwood, the famous family of potters, and he married his first cousin Emma, the daughter of Sir Josiah Wedgwood, his maternal uncle. Charles and Emma had ten children, seven of whom survived, and they lived a genuinely happy family life. The Darwins, in other words, were upper class Whigs and Liberals, very different than the aristocratic, rigid and conservative Tory background of FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle. 

            To appreciate the full extent of Darwin's achievement and his inner struggle we should try to get an idea what "creationism" consisted of in Victorian England. It was markedly different than the post-Darwin creationism of the American Protestants. By a series of mystical calculations and computations, Archbishop Ussher and Dr. John Lightfoot of Cambridge University had fixed the actual date of the creation of the world - it was 9 am on Sunday, 23 October in 4004 b.c. - and this extraordinary pronouncement was printed with all the authority of the Gospel itself in many copies of the Bible that were in circulation at the time.  There may have been theological arguments about the interpretation of the facts; but the facts of the Bible were sacrosanct: the world had been created in six days, man was made in His image, all the creatures of earth had sprung into existence at the same instant, and they all survived the Great Flood because Noah had taken two of each species, one male and one female, aboard his Ark.  In those days such beliefs were at the heart of nearly everyone's consciousness. If you took away those beliefs, you could shake the very foundation, destroy the society, and mock God Himself! This was unthinkable! 

Darwin had to be extremely cautious. Ever since his return from the voyage, Darwin had been busy writing up, editing, and revising the materials gathered from the long trip. Full ten years' labor was exerted to edit five volumes of Zoology of the Beagle, after that there was Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle in several parts. His Journal when it came out in 1839, apart from its scientific value, was regarded as one of the best books of travel and adventure ever written. It was translated and published all over the world. But Darwin delayed, and waited for more than twenty-three years before publishing his heretical theories on the origin of the teeming species on earth. 

It should be mentioned here that creationism is a peculiarly Christian debate, and since the Vatican declared in 1996 that there is no conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the Bible, it is strictly an American Protestant issue. Persecution of heretics is extremely rare in Islamic history and civilization. Islam expressly forbids a clergy, and unlike Catholicism or the Church of England, it does not have a central religious authority. Judaism also does not have a central religious authority.  If you don't have a designated central authority, who is to say what is heretical and what is not?   

Moreover, Islam was a truly global religion within a few centuries of its emergence; with the result that a great deal of cultural improvisation had to take place.  Take the example of our premier medieval poet, Sayyid Sultan of 17th century Bengal.  In his magnum opus, Nabi-Bangsa, he blithely includes Brahma-Vishnu-Maheswar from the Hindu pantheon as being part of our Nabi's genealogy.  To Sayyid Sultan, as long as he puts Adam as the first, and Muhammad as the last prophet, he was free to chose his series of nabis (prophets) in between. There had been a marvelous number of Muslim heretics over the ages; so many that Tariq Ali devoted a whole chapter—The Joy of Heresy—in his recent book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002). There are however, not many Joan of Arcs, Giordano Brunos or Galileo Galileis in Islam. The case of the Sufi maestro Mansur al-Hallaj's execution in 922 AD in Baghdad is a rare example, but even that had more to do with his rattling the self-interests of Shia and Sunni political establishments of the time than for committing religious heresy.  

In light of this, as several Muslim and African intellectuals (including Nobel Laureate, Wole Soywinka) pointed out at the time, what Ayatollah Khomeini did with the issuance of the Salman Rushdie fatwa was not only utterly un-Islamic, but a bad, risible imitation of a Christian Pope or an Archbishop. Lately, I have noticed that the Islamist ‘wanna-be' fans of all things Christian and medieval are fast becoming subscribers of creationism. Literalism is the vermin at the root of all religious fundamentalisms. 

Back to the Galapagos Islands. It cannot have been easy for Charles Darwin to accept the discoveries that he was making and the conclusions he was forced to draw against the very grain of his own religious upbringing. Over the five years' duration of the Beagle voyage, Darwin knew he was diverging further and further away from the simple views held by FitzRoy.  "Disbelief crept over me," wrote Darwin, "at a very slow rate but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and never doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct" (qtd by Moorehead, 205). 

The "disbelief" that Darwin is referring to is not exactly what our "suddenly modern" deshi secularists ignorantly presume it is. As a man of his time, he could not have thoroughly abandoned the idea that the laws of nature might reflect some higher purpose and design of God. Darwin was saying, or at any rate suggesting, that the world had not been created in a week, and certainly not in the year 4004 B.C.  It was inconceivably older than this, it had changed out of recognition and was still changing, all the living creatures had changed as well, and man, far from being created in God's image, may have begun something much more primitive. Darwin did not exactly say that man had descended from an ape, in fact what he did believe was   modern man and modern apes had diverged in pre-history from a common line of ancestors. These "lines" are not straight, not even crooked, they are sometimes interrupted, severed, but yet strangely continued, and in some cases, stopped dead on the track, vanished from the face of the earth. "In my theory," Darwin wrote later in his Notebook, "there is no absolute tendency to progression, excepting from favourable circumstances" (from Metaphysics, Materialism and the Evolution of Mind). 

Darwin's waiting game had its own danger. Another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was thinking upon the same lines himself, could forestall his theory. Then, suddenly, in June, 1858, Darwin received a letter from Wallace with an enclosed essay entitled On the Tendencies of Varieties to Depart Indefinite from the Original Type, and a request to send it on to Sir Charles Lyell, the famous geologist, if Darwin thought it was any good.  Darwin, as usual, behaved magnanimously. Risking the prospect of his own brilliant theory's originality smashed and all his work towards it rendered worthless, he sent on Wallace's article to Lyell with high recommendation without any hesitation. Fortunately, Lyell and the scientific community knew enough of Darwin's work, and they persuaded him to present a joint paper with Wallace. Next year, in 1859, Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. The first edition of 1250 copies sold out on the first day of publication. 

Of course people were outraged at the idea that they might share a common lineage with animals, and the Church, as expected, was thoroughly aroused. The clergy came out in full force to do the battle at the famous meeting of the British Association in Oxford in June 1860. Darwin was not well enough to attend, but his old teacher, Professor Henslow headed the team of Darwinist scientists. Moorehead gives an amusing account of this meeting, and the book has large reprints of caricatures (by "Ape" from the magazine, Vanity Fair) of Darwin, T.H. Huxley, the great naturalist who supported Darwin agqinst Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Richard Owen, an anatomist in the clergy camp. "There is something anachronistic," muses Moorhead, "even absurd, about the whole controversy; it seems to belong, not to the last century, but to Middle Ages, and one has to make a conscious effort of the mind to believe that it really happened"(208). Wonder what he would have to say about Pat Robertson followers in the USA of the 21st century! 

Speaking of Middle Ages, which produced a galaxy of star-quality Muslim scientists, physicians, astronomers and philosophers, one can not fail to notice that none of them went through this kind of ordeal or clash with the establishment arm of their religion. Mistaking religious myths as the source of scientific information was never a part of Islam's ethos as it obviously had been in the Christian faith all the way up to the nineteenth century, and now in America of the 21st century. "God speaks in metaphors," emphasizes the Qur'an many times. The celebrated Qur'anic verse from Sura Nur (24), from which Islamic mysticism has derived much gnosis and illuminations, from Mansur al-Hallaj to Imam Ghazzali, ends with these words: "And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything"(tr. A. J. Arberry).  

No paean to Charles Darwin should be complete these days without paying a tribute to Stephen Jay Gould, who, to my great sorrow, passed away recently at the age of only 63. This Harvard paleontologist was exceptionally brilliant from a very young age. Like his beloved guru Darwin, he had a facility with language.  Written with clarity needed to explain complex concepts to a general audience, combined with a superb scientific understanding, his numerous articles and books succeeded in making Charles Darwin a household name to the educated American public.  

In his article titled "Nonmoral Nature" (Natural History, vol. 91, no. 2, 1982), for instance, he tackles a highly controversial issue - the religious "readings" of natural events. His primary point in this essay is that the behavior of certain animals in nature, like the ichneumon wasps that inhabit a live caterpillar, as parasites, ruthlessly inflicting pain on a helpless prey, should not be judged by our human moral terms. This issue has presented theologians with an exacting dilemma: if God is good and if creation reveals his goodness, why do nature's victims suffer? By applying Darwinian logic, Gould succeeds in showing how to appreciate the wasps for their efficiency for survival. In this way, he asserts, the act of predation can be seen as nonmoral, that is, neither good nor evil. He says, the ichneumon wasps are a detail, and since natural selection is the law that is regulating details, asking the question "why such cruelty?" is one that is posed only in "our terms" and not considering the fact that nature has its own terms to deal with the issues of survival of creatures.  

Towards the end of his essay, Gould has remarks on creationists and secular humanists that is worth quoting in full:


It is amusing in this context, or rather ironic since it is too serious to be amusing, that modern creationists accuse evolutionists of preaching a specific doctrine called secular humanism and thereby demand equal time for their unscientific and discredited views. If nature is nonmoral, then evolution cannot teach any ethical theory at all.  The assumption that it can has abetted a panoply of social evils that ideologies falsely read into nature from their beliefs - eugenics and (misnamed) social Darwinism prominently among them. Not only did Darwin eschew any attempt to discover an antireligious ethic in nature, he also expressly stated his personal bewilderment about such deep issues as the problem of evil. …[I]n words that express both the modesty of this splendid man and the compatibility, through lack of contact, between science and true religion, Darwin wrote to Asa Gray,

            "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can."


Asa Gray (1810-1888), America's greatest botanist, whose works are still considered important and read as text books, was a serious critic of Darwin at first, but later countered religious attacks on Darwin by showing that there is no conflict between Darwinism and religion.


Farida Majid is a poet, scholar and literary translator living and teaching in New York City.

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