As I reviewed the autobiography of Charles Darwin, it became clear to me that Darwin’s theory of evolution not only created a conflict with God and the Church but also precipitated a crisis with Emma, the woman he loved dearly and who would later become his wife and the mother of his ten children.
Darwin was a scientist. From childhood he was fascinated with rocks, insects, birds and animals. At one point he was killing and preserving insects and birds, but he stopped that practice after his older sister, who was like a mother to him after his mother’s death, urged Darwin not to kill living beings for the sake of enlarging his collection.
As a young man Darwin had an opportunity to travel as a naturalist on a ship, the Beagle, during which journey he collected specimens from many parts of the world. For the next twenty years he systematically organized his evidence and conceptualized a theory, which he published in 1859 in his masterpiece The Origin of Species. In his book he scientifically proved that life on earth has evolved through cumulative natural selection and mutation over millions of years, from a simple unicellular organism to a complex human being.
Darwin’s theory of evolution offended the priests of the Church as it challenged their literal interpretations of the scriptures. They declared him a heretic and persecuted him. Darwin, himself, was a peaceful man who did not enjoy engaging in heated religious and controversial political debates, but some of his friends, colleagues and disciples defended him publicly and got into angry debates with the clergy. Those debates made Darwin both famous and infamous.
Darwin’s attempts to avoid public conflict with religious leaders were to some extent successful, but he could not avoid similar conflicts with his wife who was a strong believer and a practising Christian. A rationalist, Darwin did not believe in any God or divine being, as the Church had never been able to offer proof of the divine, while his wife maintained a strong faith in God. She was concerned about her husband, believing he gave too much attention to rational and logical thinking, and too little to emotion. She also feared that if he did not believe in God he would burn in hell. Darwin had no such worry about life after death, as he did not believe in an afterlife.
When he wrote his autobiography, shortly before his death, Darwin explicitly stated his lack of belief. His wife was so perturbed by some of his statements that, when it was published posthumously, she not only edited it but also censored out the passages that she thought would offend believers. Because of her attitude, their children were in conflict between their nonbelieving father and their Christian mother, between a rationalist and a fearful believer. They went along with their mother’s wishes, as they did not want to upset her, not realizing that they were censoring their father’s truth. It was only decades later, in 1959, when Darwin’s granddaughter, Nora Barlow, had the courage to share her grandfather’s whole truth that the complete edition of Darwin’s autobiography was published, one hundred years after the publication of The Origin of Species. The complete edition highlights the dynamics of Darwin’s conflicts with the Church as well as with his wife.
When we read Darwin’s autobiography we realize that Darwin was very honest regarding his disbelief about God and Christianity. He wrote, “I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” (p 86) Darwin shares that his disillusionment with faith was not precipitated by any catastrophic encounter, rather it was the result of a gradual process of rationally understanding the world around him. He stated,
Thus disbelief crept over me at a 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 my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.
This paragraph is one of those which offended the religious sensibilities of Darwin’s wife, so she took the liberty of censoring it. Nora Barlow shares as a footnote “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 would now call that “Christianity” (tho the words are there).’ This was written six months after her husband’s death. The passage was not published.” (p 87)
I find it amusing that Darwin’s wife, rather than stating that she could not digest her husband’s well-cooked atheistic thoughts, calls them “raw.” She also gives the impression that Christianity has evolved over the centuries and has become more compassionate than punitive. Darwin stated what he genuinely felt and did not try to cover up the dark side of Christianity.
Darwin was quite perturbed when he read the Old Testament and realized that God of the Old Testament was harsh and cruel and revengeful. He wrote, “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 as a 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.” (p 85)
Darwin was quite clear that the past belonged to holy scriptures, while the future of humanity belonged to science and philosophy. By following the path of science he discovered his truth and shared it with the world. He wrote, “I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science.” (p 95) Darwin’s autobiography, written at the end of his life, captures the essence of his “love for science.” He sounds very resolved and very peaceful in his heart concerning his convictions. One of the ironies of Darwin’s life was that his father, realizing that the young Charles was not interested in walking in his footsteps and becoming a doctor, suggested that he became a minister and encouraged him to study theology. Unfortunately the more he studied Christianity, the more disillusioned he became. In his autobiography he wrote, “Considering how fiercely I have been criticized by the orthodox it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman …”
Darwin resolved his conflict between religion and science and had accepted atheism peacefully, but he remained perturbed about his conflict with his wife whom he dearly loved. When his wife learned of his atheistic views, she wrote him a letter sharing her ambivalence, her awe for his scientific mind, and her regret that he had lost his faith. She asked him gently not to dismiss the possibility of a Greater Power that might transcend logic and rationality. On one hand she wrote, “Your mind and time are full of the most interesting subjects and thoughts of the most absorbing kind …” and on the other hand in the same letter stated, “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.” (p 236)
Darwin was clear in his heart and mind that man was an evolved ape rather than a fallen angel and that life could be understood without divine revelations, but as far as his wife’s feelings were concerned he could not change her mind and heart, and had to live with that conflict and sadness all his life. The pain he experienced is evident from the note that was found at the bottom of his wife’s letter. He had written,
When I am dead,
know that many times,
I have kissed and cried over this.
Those kisses and tears can become the fate of an atheist who marries a believer and lives all his life in conflict between his head and his heart.
Barlow Nora, The Autobiography of Darwin Charles, 1809-1882, WW Norton & Company, New York 1958