The Evolution of Religion, According to Darwin

Some hundred-fifty years since the publication of On the Origin of Species roiled the deeply intertwined worlds of science and religion, it remains a commonplace to set Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the practice of religion, and those who engage either, as polar opposites.

A recent piece by Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times set out the well-worn path: a thoughtful, temperate physicist who has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to designate February 12, 2013 as Darwin Day versus a fire-and-brimstone physician who’s called evolution “lies, straight from the pit of hell.” If there’s any nuance in the piece, it’s that Oppenheimer notes—briefly—that both protagonists, Democratic representative Holt D. Rush and his Republican counterpart Paul Broun, are Christian. One a mild-mannered Quaker; one a fundamentalist Baptist. You guess which is which. 

A short hinge paragraph in Oppenheimer’s piece goes on to highlight the affirmation by Pope John Paul II that evolutionary theory is not in conflict with Roman Catholic teaching. But the heft of the article, as with so many on Darwin’s work, sets religious belief—especially Christian belief—in opposition to scientific reason. Central to this narrative is the idea that Darwin himself experienced a decisive conversion away from any belief in the Anglican Christianity within which he had studied toward ordination.

My Santa Clara University colleague David Pleins, whose Evolving God: Charles Darwin on the Naturalness of Religion (Bloomsbury) will be released this summer, sees no small irony in rigid ideological polarities that he says Darwin himself resisted throughout his life. Further, Pleins argues that reading Darwin and the theories he developed through the lens of an uncompromising rejection of religion has prevented us from seeing the full scope of Darwin’s genius, which reckoned with religion in evolutionary terms every bit as much as it did with natural selection or adaptation. 

With the anniversary of Darwin’s birthday on the horizon, I had the opportunity to talk with Pleins about the more complicated portrait he has developed of the role of religion in Darwin’s thinking and how it might invite us to reconsider his scientific contributions and the debates they have enflamed.


You argue in the book that, from Christian fundamentalists, to unwavering atheists like Richard Dawkins, even to more moderate folks who’ve developed their perspectives from popular media, there’s been widespread misunderstanding of Darwin’s engagement with religion. You highlight five movements in Darwin’s religious evolution that are marked out in his writings. What are these?

Well, I think that the paradigm that Victorians “lost their faith” is pretty worn out. Sure, Darwin abandoned a traditional Christian belief but he also had a lifelong interest in religion. So, first, I look at the religious aspects of his around-the-world voyage, especially his encounters with Catholicism, primitive religions, and missionizing that sparked a rethinking of religion. I also consider his relationship with his wife Emma, discovering how his doubt about traditional belief actually played a positive role in his search for religious truth.

But especially I explore the secret notebooks that Darwin wrote after his voyage. In these he searches for a materialist theory of religion. I also tackle his later application of this line of thinking in the Descent of Man, where he offers an evolutionary view of the “Golden Rule” and an anthropological view of religion’s development.

So was that the sum of it for Darwin—to come up with a theory of how religion works that could be reasonably integrated into his theory of biological evolution?

No, his interest in religion doesn’t end there. I take the story to the end of his life through the years when he wrestled with whether his scientific ideas led to atheism, agnosticism, or a new kind of theism. People may be surprised to find that he kept reading in liberal theology till the end of his life. The death of his daughter Annie, usually credited with killing his faith, actually didn’t stop his reading in religion or his explorations on the topic.

Yes, the death of Annie is one of the episodes that many mark as the decisive factor in Darwin’s turn away from religion. In another well-known vignette, from his famous trip around the world—the voyage that many commentators see as the beginning of the end of his faith—Darwin tells a group of young women in Chile who are confused by his Anglican practice that he is “a sort of Christian.” You argue that rather than signaling an evolving loss of faith, such episodes hint at “a growing awareness that evolution was not just about physical forms but had religious and moral trajectories.” What do you mean by this? How did the voyage change Darwin’s view of religion? 

Today we’d probably call Darwin something of a seeker. You might say he’s something of a proto-None.

So, well before most scholars imagine Darwin thinking about religion’s evolution, I see signs of this revolution stirring already during his voyage. Tribal religions caused Darwin to wonder if this is the sort of mentality that gave rise to all religion. The varieties of human religious experience certainly provided much food for thought. Catholicism in South America goaded him to think about his own Christian belief and the justice of Christian warfare in the region. Natural disasters and animal pain troubled him with regard to the problem of evil. And the English Christian missions made him wonder how humans improve morally. The seeds were planted for an evolutionary view of religion. I think he already came to suspect during his voyage that religion had evolved.

You talk about the ways in which Darwin’s exploration of the evolution of religion as a natural human phenomenon paralleled his explorations of human evolution in more biological terms. Were the two paths of evolution related for him? 

Typically scholars treat Darwin’s thinking about religion as an afterthought. They say that after his voyage he started with geology, moved to plants and animals, and then went on to religion and morals, but they overlook the fact that already in his voyage volume and trip diary the human questions, including religion, are on his mind. In fact, he’s editing his voyage volume for publication even as he works on the early notebooks and moves right on to religion’s evolution as a continuing interest. I find it provocative that the month before his famous reading of Thomas Malthus’ theories of population that sparks the natural selection insight, he was equally jarred by the French sociologist Auguste Comte to think about religion’s evolutionary stages.  

You borrow in the book Doug Burton-Christie’s description of Darwin as a “contemplative naturalist” to explore his sense of the sublime as “the ultimate ground for human religious sense.” What do you mean by this? How does this factor into Darwin’s evolutionary theories?

In his field notebooks, Darwin’s first reaction to the rainforests of South America was simply: silence hosannah. When he later wrote about these contrasts between awe and destruction he said, “Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”

He later wondered if his experience of the sublime proved God’s existence, but I think it is safe to say that early on he must have thought so. He was certainly a contemplative naturalist in those rainforests.

Darwin’s thought on religion in the context of evolution was not entirely a private matter. As you illustrate in Evolving God, he kept returning to the question of religious faith through his life. Your next project, on the a series of poems written as a eulogy for Darwin by his friend, the well-known skeptic George Romanes, continues the dialogue between science and religion, faith and reason after Darwin’s death. You’ve discovered a new manuscript of the eulogy poems that had been out of circulation for a hundred years. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Consider the situation. Romanes was a religious skeptic and a preeminent evolutionist in Darwin’s inner circle. Given this, it was quite a surprise to uncover the original typescript of his “Memorial Poem” written to honor Darwin. I say this not only because of the rarity of such a find but because in his poems Romanes struggled so deeply with questions of belief and the problem of evil in an attempt to uncover the eternal truth in Darwin’s scientific revelations. Here’s a Darwinian showing us how to think seriously about faith. In addition to my Darwin book, I trust the Romanes volume will stir things up a bit when it appears.

Darwin’s birthday is something of a high holy day for those who would draw a hard line between science and religion, believers and unbelievers. It seems to me that there’s much in this impulse that repeats itself in the drive to quickly, decisively, and narrowly categorize the growing population of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones. On the one hand, there are (mostly) Christians who want to see Nones as lapsed from one denomination, but who can be won back somehow. On the other, are some atheists, secular humanists, and so on who want to claim a population of people who largely are not unbelievers as among their ranks. Your study of Darwin and Romanes seems to suggest that we might approach understanding religiosity in a different way, as a matter of process—of evolution.

Yes, I think that’s the case. The lines need not be so sharply drawn, then or now. I’d say that Darwin teaches us that it is quite natural for humans to be religious and that it is appropriate for Darwinians to be curious about why humans seek a religious purpose to their lives. That doesn’t require that we think that religion is entirely artificial. That it’s merely a coping mechanism. One can be a Darwinian without having to condemn religion or the sense—a sense that Darwin often explored—that there is something more.

I differ here from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and other well known atheists, as well as probably a number of Darwin scholars, in that I’d say that Darwin has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled theist. As for Romanes, I believe he shows us that theology and faith can play a positive role in a Darwinian frame inasmuch our longing for eternity is more than a scientific question.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University. Her forthcoming book, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of American Nones will be released by Oxford University Press later this year, and her writing on religion has appeared in The Atlantic Wire, AlterNet, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a consulting scholar at TheBTSCenter, where she edits the Bearings blog and, with Keith Anderson, is developing The Narthex.