Religious Belief

By Charles Darwin


This is an extract from:

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

1809-1882

With original omissions restored
Edited with Appendix and Notes
by his grand-daughter
Nora Barlow.
(1958)

During these two years[1] I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the noveltry of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished, -- is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c, as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. This appeared to me utterly incredible.

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is suppoted, -- that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become, -- that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us, -- that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneous with the events, -- that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses; -- by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least noveltry or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight on me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; -- I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeji or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine[2]

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domestic Animals and Plants[3], and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered.

But passing over the endless beautiful adaptions which we everywhere meet with, it may be asked how can the generally beneficient arrangement of the world be accounted for? Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world that they doubt if we look to all sentinent beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness; -- whether the world as a whole is a good or a bad one. According to my judgement happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove. If the truth of this conclusion be granted, it harmonises well with the effects which we might expect from natural selection. If all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this have ever or at least often occured. Some other considerations, moreover, lead to the belief that all sentinent beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness.

Everyone who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantegous or disadvantegous to the posessor) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, together with use or habit[4], will admit that these organs have formed so that their possessors may compete succesfully with other beings, and thus increase in number. Now an animal may be led to pursue that course of action which is the most beneficial to the species by suffering, such as pain, hunger, thirst, and fear, -- or by pleasure, as in eating and drinking and in the propagation of the species, &c. or by both means combined, as in the search for food. But pain or suffering of any kind, if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action; yet is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil. Pleasurable senseations, on the other hand, may be long continued without any depressive effect; on the contrary they stimulate the whole system to increase action. Hence it has come to pass that most or all sentinent beings have been developed in such a manner through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides. We see this in the pleasure from exertion, even occasionally from great exertion of the body or mind, -- in the pleasure of our daily meals, and especially in the pleasure derived from sociability and from loving our families. The sum of such pleasures as these, which are habitual or frequently recurrent, give, as I can hardly doubt, to most beings an excess of happiness over misery, although many occasionally suffer much. Such suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.

That there is much suffering in he world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentinent beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to supose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favour of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God. There are also many barbarian tribes who cannot be said with any truth to believe in what we call God: they believe indeed in spirits or ghosts, and it can be explained, as Tyler and Herbert Spencer have shown, how such a belief would be likely to arise.

Formely I was led by feelings such as those just referred to, (although I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me), to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul. In my journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, 'it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.' I well remember by conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. The state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sence of sublimity; and however difficult it may be to explain the genesis of this sence, it can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God, any more than the powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.

With respect to immortality[5], nothing shows me how strong and almost instinctive a belief is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicist, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus gives it fresh life. -- Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentinent beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.

Another source of conviction in the existance of God connected with the reason and not the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capability of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look at a first cause having an intelliegent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a theist.

This conclusion[6] was strong in my mind about the time, as far I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt -- can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as the possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such a grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.[7]

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.

A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will recieve the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtely is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbiation he will then not recieve; but he will still have the solid satisfactionof knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience. -- As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures. My sole and poor excuse is much ill-health and my mental constitution, which makes it extremely difficult for me to turn from one subject or occupation to another. I can imagine with high satisfaction giving up my whole life to philantropy, but not a portion of it; though this would have been a far better line of conduct.

Nothing[8] is more remarkable than the spread of scepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life. Before I was engaged to be married, my father advised me to conceal carefully my doubts, for he said that he had known extreme misery thus caused with married persons. Things went on pretty well until the wife or husband became out of health, and then some women suffered miserably by doubting about the salvation of their husbands, thus making them likewise to suffer. My father added that he had known during his whole long life only three women who were sceptics; and it should be remembered that he knew well a mutitude of persons and possessed extraordinary power of winning confidence. When I asked him who the three women were, he had to own with respect to one of them, his sister-in-law Kitty Wedgwood, that he had no good evidence, only the vaguest hints, aided by the conviction that so clear-sighted a woman could not be a believer. At the present time, with my small acquaintance, I know (or have known) several married ladies, who believe very little more than their husbands. My father used to quote an unanswerable argument, by which an old lady, a Mrs Barlow, who suspected him of unorthodoxy, hoped to convert him: -- "Doctor, I know that sugar is sweet in my mouth, and I know that my redeemer liveth."

Notes

Notes marked F.D., were written for the original edition by Charles Darwin's son Francis Darwin. N.B. indicates a note added by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow for the re-edition with original omissions restored.

  1. October 1836 to January 1839. -- F.D.

  2. Mrs Darwin annotated this passage (from "and have never since doubted"... to "damnable doctrine") in her own handwriting. She writes: -- "I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief -- but very few now wd. call that 'Christianity,' (tho' the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E.D." Oct 1882. This was written six months after her husband's death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis's handwriting. The passage was not published. -- N.B.

  3. My father aks whether we are to believe that the forms are preordained of the broken fragmentsof rock which are fitted together by man to build his houses. If not, why should we believe that the variations of domestic animals or plants are preordained for the sake of the breeder? "But if we give up the principle in one case, ... no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided." -- Variations of Animals and Plants, 1st Edit. vol. ii. p. 431 -- F.D.

  4. "together with use or habit" added later. The many corrections and alterations in this sentence show his increasing preoccupation with the possibility of other forces at work besides Natural Selection. -- N.B.

  5. Addendum added later to end of paragraph -- N.B.

  6. Addenum of four lines added later. In Charles MS. copy the interleaved addition is in his eldest son's hand. In Francis's copy it is in Charles own hand -- N.B.

  7. Added later. Emma Darwin wrote and asked Frank to omit this sentence when he was editing the Autobiography in 1885. The letter is as follows: --

    "Emma Darwin to her son Francis 1885.

    My dear Frank,

    There is one sentence in the Autobiography which I very much wish to omit, no doubt partly because your father's opinion that all morality has grown up by evolution is painful to me; but also because where this sentence comes in, it gives one a sort of chock -- and would give an opening to say, however unjustly, that he considered all spiritual beliefs no higher than hereditary aversions or likings, such as the fear of monkeys towards snakes.

    I think the disrespectful aspect would disappear if the first part of the conjecture was left without the illustration of the instance of monkeys and snakes. I don't think you need to consult William about this omission, as it would not change the whole gist of the Autobiograohy. I should wish if possible to avoid giving pain to your father's religious friends who are deeply attached to him, and I picture to myself the way that sentence would strike them, even those so liberal as Ellen Tollett and Laura, much more Admiral Sullivan, Aunt Caroline, &c., and even the old servants.

    Yours, dear Frank,
    E.D."

    This letter appeared in Emma Darwin by Henrietta Litchfield in the privately printed edition from the Cambridge University Press in 1904. In John Murray's public edition of 1915 it was omitted. -- N.B.

  8. This paragraph has a note by Charles: -- "Written in 1879 -- copied out Apl. 22, 1881." Probably refers also to previous paragraph. -- N.B.

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