Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is foundational to modern biology and pervasive in our society. Still, it is only natural that some misconceptions have evolved. One of these is that Darwin’s theory “vanquished” religion. This is not something Darwin himself ever claimed. This paper will explore the ideas surrounding that misconception and demonstrate that for all the effect that Darwin’s theory did have on religious thought and beliefs, it did not “vanquish religion,” nor did Darwin make any such claim.
Definition of “Religion.”
First, “religion” is a very broad term encompassing a very wide set of beliefs. For this paper “religion” will mean the mainstream religion(s) practiced in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: Judaism and Christianity. It is possible, though not helpful for this paper, to further break down each religion. Instead I will use their commonalities as a starting point.
The Argument From Religion
Each religion taught that there was/is a creator God who is omniscient and omnipotent. This God created the universe and mankind for a reason and that the course of events ever since is in fulfillment of God’s master plan. The position of religious authorities was that scientific study of the universe was for the purpose of better understanding God’s creation. Rene Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, in 1637, a work dedicated to praising the scientific method and the beauty of mathematics, asserted the existence of God. According to Descartes there is perfection in the universe; he had observed it. Perfection must have a source and that source can only be God.
Conflict Between Science and Religion
Not all science dovetailed with religion. Galileo’s examination of the night sky through a telescope and his reporting of what he saw brought him into direct conflict with Church doctrine of the 17th century. Still, the Bible didn’t explicitly say much about cosmology; one could believe Galileo and still believe in the Creation. The age of the Earth was another matter. Archbishop James Ussher, in the mid-17th century, published his calculation that, according to the Bible, the Earth was only about 5,650 years old. Not only was Ussher’s figure commonly accepted, geologists began their work with that figure in mind. Eventually, however, Charles Lyell, among others, reasoned that the Earth had to be much older than several thousand years; more like one hundred million years, according to Lyell.
Part of Lyell’s argument was that the geological changes evidenced in fossilization and stratification were explained more easily when one accepted a longer time frame. Other geologists had theorized that geologic change resulted from sudden, catastrophic events. Lyell suggested that slow, gradual change was better supported by evidence, that “Catastrophism” was only a means of trying to adhere to a much too short time frame. Darwin, then, began his work in an environment which allowed him to consider a long timeline. Darwin had studied medicine first, then began training for the ministry. It was while a student that he first became interested in natural history. A mentor of his recommended him as a fit companion for the Captain of H.M.S. Beagle, to serve as the ship’s naturalist and to provide the Captain with intellectual stimulation and conversation on the Beagle’s around the world voyage, from 1831 to 1836. It was during this voyage that Darwin embraced “the wonderful superiority of Lyell’s manner of treating geology.” It was also during this voyage that Darwin began to consider the “species question.” Why, for instance, were the finches of one island so different from the finches of a neighboring island? Darwin pondered this question for more than twenty years, before publishing On the Origin of Species, in 1859.
On the Origin of Species, and its reception.
Origin pulled together contemporary thought in a range of sciences. It theorized that species did not exist as they were, just as God made them, but rather that all life descended from a common ancestor and gradually diverged as it adapted to particular environments. The theory not only did not rely on a divine explanation, it seemed to preclude one. If one accepted Darwinian evolution through adaptation, must one reject the idea of a God? At the very least evolution seemed to disprove the belief that God created all living things. Or even that he had created a world “perfect” for life. And if there was no God and no “God’s plan,” what did that mean for society? Had Darwin indeed vanquished religion?
Darwin on Darwinism
In Origin, Darwin lays out a coldly rational case for speciation through adaptation. At no point does he invoke a miracle to explain something. He just lays out his evidence as he sees it. Neither, however, does he insist that there can be no divine agency. A reader could certainly draw the conclusion that there is no need, or even room, for divine agency in the origin of species. But Darwin makes no claim. He was actually a bit conflicted. “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws,” Darwin wrote in a letter to Asa Gray, “with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.” Also, “ … I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force.”
Gray suggests to Darwin “We feel safe … in our profound conviction that there is order in the universe. That order presupposes mind. Design, will. And mind or will, personality.” From Darwin, “The more I think, the more bewildered I become.” Also, from Gray, “If you import atheism into your conception of variation and natural selection, you can readily exhibit it in the result … “ From Darwin, “I had no intention to write atheistically.”
Finally, from Darwin,
With respect to design, I feel more inclined to show a white flag than to fire my usual long-range shot. I am in thick mud. The orthodox would say in fetid abominable mud. I believe I am in much the same frame of mind as an old gorilla would be in if set to learn the first book of Euclid. The old gorilla would say it was of no manner of use … Yet I cannot keep out of the question. As I say, I flounder hopelessly in the mud.
Darwin did not believe he had proved the non-existence of a creator. He had demonstrated a more elegant theory of how species came to be; nothing more, nothing less.
Anyone reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species may feel that Darwin had showed how there was no need of a creator God explanation of how species had developed in different regions of the world. Darwin himself believed that speciation had evolved through natural means, organisms adapting to their environments, with those that adapted best surviving and those that did not adapt well failing to survive. This did not mean that religion had been “vanquished.” Darwin still made room for the possibility of a divine force and others, Asa Gray in particular, accepted the “truth” of Darwinian evolution as merely the proximate cause of speciation, with “God” being the primary cause. Religion, after all, is very adaptable.
 Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science, A Historical Survey, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2005, pages 341-343.
 Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking For Truth in the Sciences, edited by Ralph M. Eaton, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, pages 34-36.
 Bowler and Morus, pages 344-346.
 Ibid, pages 347, 348.
 Ibid, page 124.
 David Young, The Discovery of Evolution, second edition, Cambridge, 2007, Cambridge University Press, page 108.
 Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1960.
 Asa Gray, review of Origin,
 Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860.
 Asa Gray, Atlantic Monthly for July, August and October 1860.
 Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 22 May 1860.
 Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 11 December 1861.