Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.–Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Incidentally, this post will say precious little of Rhodesian man, “missing links,” or opposing thumbs. I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be. Believe it or not, this post is about kindness, about skepticism, indeed, even about forbearance. Most importantly, it’s about how creationists, Latter-day Saints, and Richard Dawkins might have something to learn from Charles Darwin. Much—too much to summarize—has been written on Charles Darwin’s views towards organized religion. As a young boy with parents of the British Liberal tradition (quite different from American liberalism, to be sure), Darwin’s parents were of mixed religious convictions—a common story in the love tales of the great men’s familial upbringing (JS comes to mind). His father was not affillated while his mother took young Charles to a Unitarian Church. Unwilling to rock the boat with the local Anglican church, his father allowed the children to participate in religion. Darwin was raised in a free-spirited household that was open to a variety of religious/intellectual influences.
What caused Darwin to lose faith? He never cited his evolutionary theory; indeed, during his famed Voyage on the Beagle, he still was reciting Biblical verses on points of morality, even though he had given up the Old Testament as being correct in any real sense. Later, following the publication of On the Origin of Species, he wrote to his collaborator, Asa Gray, that he could not view the world around him as being evidence of the God he had been taught: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice.” Yet, he qualified his disbelief in phrasing that resonates somewhat to the Mormon mind: “On the other hand, 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. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance” (emphasis mine). Darwin never deviated from this avowed agnosticism, though he did decry the exclusivism of the Christianity of his day: “the plain language (Mormons would argue, on the contrary, that the plainness had actually been lost to them through years of apostasy) 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.” For the Mormons, this is damnable indeed.
Most importantly, his reaction to these answers were not bitter lash-backs against the religious establishment. When he moved to Downe, Kent, he became friends with the local Reverand, John (later Brodie) Innes, supported his work, and even donated monetarily to the Church. In spite of a later kerfuffle over some issues regarding pedagogy with the school, Darwin retained his friendship with the Reverand. He never rallied picketers, created his own Darwin fish, nor started propaganda campaigns to look religious folks look silly. His own son wrote just such an article denouncing all religion as absurd. Darwin urged his son if he “think[s] it new & important enough to counterbalance the evils” that his article would invite.” His work would certainly invite “the evils [of] giving pain to others.” In spite of his own lack of faith, he recognized the need for discretion in attacking the faith of others. This was no mere political move to win over the masses. He cared about causing pain, about bringing others down.
Darwin would later say, in mostly as a lament: “I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came from and how it arose…The safest conclusion seems to me to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.” Incidentally, the Mormons insist that there is no first cause in the sense that there is no “first” in eternity.
For those of you who have read/seen any of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. al., I would ask what resemblances you see between their crowd and Darwin. I simply see overzealous (though, in Dawkins case, brilliant) talking heads who have let the culture war’s Zeitgeist get to them. Similarly, I wonder if certain religion faculty in CES (I can think of a bombastic fireside at Ricks College back in the day) would be as comfortable as Darwin in recognizing their ignorance about “the first cause” (which the Lord has never seen fit to explain in detail). In fact, I might think that at least some of Darwin’s questions about his Father have been answered in the afterlife (probably as taught by Henry Eyring, Sr.). But I could be wrong?