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In the description of Darwin’s life and work, a common assumption is that he gradually lost all belief in God, eventually becoming an atheist. In this article we demonstrate that, while Darwin became more and more sceptical of some aspects of traditional Christian beliefs, he nevertheless saw himself as standing in the natural theology tradition, a prominent theological stream of thought in the Victorian age.1 Furthermore, he recognized the existence of God as creator of the universe and as author of the laws which govern it. We propose, therefore, that Charles Darwin is not to be regarded as an atheist and that his theory of evolution by means of natural selection does not spell the end of theistic belief. Gijsbert van den Brink is Professor of Theology and Science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Harry Cook is Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at The King’s University in Edmonton, Canada.

That Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species is a historically significant text, no one will doubt. Apart, perhaps, from Marx’s Das Kapital, there is no other nineteenth-century publication that has changed our view of the world as profoundly as the Origin, the study in which Darwin presented his theory of natural selection. It may seem less obvious to include a discussion of this book in the pages of a journal dedicated to the interface of academic scholarship and the world of faith, for, initially, the book has little to do with the world of the faith. Darwin was, above all, a passionate observer of nature (“naturalist”) and the Origin is the result of this passion.2 Furthermore, it is difficult to defend the idea that Darwin gradually shifted his attention to the religious or theological implications of his theory, although he was fully aware of them. While his study that was to follow, The Descent of Man (1871), might indicate an ascending line in this direction, the topic of his final big study was definitely sobering: earthworms.3 For more than forty years, Darwin collected data on these animals which, in his view, played a more important role in world history than many people would suspect. Some jested that he did not pass on the work on earthworms to others until he became afraid that he would soon accompany these organisms.4

If there is a connection between The Origin of Species and the Christian faith, many authors suggest it is a negative one. Often the idea is that Darwinism and Christian theology are like communicating vessels: the more there is of the one, the less there is of the other, for Darwinism includes explanations of natural events that undermine the Christian faith. As a recent introductory textbook on evolutionary biology states:

Before Darwin, both philosophers and people in general answered questions such as “Why do plants have flowers?” or “Why are there apple trees?”—or diseases, or sexual reproduction—by imagining the possible purpose that God could have had in creating them. This kind of explanation was made completely superfluous by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The adaptations of organisms—long cited as the most conspicuous evidence of intelligent design in the universe—could be explained by purely mechanistic causes.5

This viewpoint, which one can also find in many other contemporary textbooks,6 overstates the extent to which Darwin’s Origin of Species broke with the tradition of natural theology which had developed in Britain.

In this article we show that Darwin does not eliminate God from his world of ideas, and that the Origin is highly relevant from a theological point of view, even today. We demonstrate that the book in fact continues a longstanding natural theological tradition.7 First, we will show how even though in some sense Darwin breaks with the traditional doctrine of creation, his references to the Creator in the Origin still fit in with this tradition. Next, we will suggest that these references can very well be understood from within the context of Darwin’s personal religious biography, so that, despite the rhetorical style of the Origin, these references need not be dismissed as disingenuous. Third, we will briefly examine the reception history of the Origin, testing whether this point has been picked up by earlier communities of readers. It appears that while the reception of the book exhibits a varied character, it includes many readers who readily saw how Darwin’s theory about the origin of species fitted in with traditional natural theology.

Darwin and Natural Theology

While Darwin’s book abandoned the idea of the immutability of species, it at the same time retained a solid tie with natural theology in other ways. Not without reason, The Origin of Species has even been called “the last great work of Victorian natural theology.”8 Already during his studies at the University of Cambridge—beside Oxford the only university in England at the time—Darwin was introduced to this form of theology by naturalists such as John Henslow, Adam Sedgwick, and William Whewell who were ordained clergy in the Church of England.

Investigation into what we would now call the natural sciences by these scholars “was always done in a religious context and generally involved looking at nature to praise the abilities of the creator.”9 The work of William Paley (1743-1805) had a prominent place in Darwin’s program of studies. The arguments of Paley, who popularized the famous watch-on-the-heath analogy of the design argument, would later be reviled, but they made a lasting impression on Darwin.10

Even before the publication of the Origin one could discern an interesting development in the natural theology tradition: increasingly more thinkers became convinced that the apparent adaptations of organisms and species to their natural environment was not the result of specific divine interventions but of particular generally-applicable laws. As Whewell stated in one of the Bridgewater Treatises: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”11 In this connection it is significant that on the first page of the Origin—the “frontispiece” opposite the title page—Darwin had Whewell’s statement printed as the first of two citations. The second citation is from Francis Bacon and concerns the two books of divine revelation: the book of God’s word and that of God’s works (such as nature). In the second edition he added a third citation, one of Joseph Butler, in order to point out that natural explanations can point to God’s actions just as well as supernatural ones can.12

These citations with strong theological implications, located in such a prominent place in the Origin, indicate the great extent to which Darwin positioned his own work in the British natural theology tradition. What Darwin aimed to do in the Origin was to present and support a theory about the nature of the “general laws” that regulate biological adaptations.13 Darwin was well acquainted with the work of thinkers of his time, such as Thomas Malthus’ notion of a struggle for existence due to the limitations of available sources of food, and Charles Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism that assumed the reality of a long geological history. Darwin built on these theories and innovatively added to them his own theory of natural selection based on random variation.14 In this way, Darwin wanted to provide more clarity in regard to what was, in his time, a topic of much debate and great uncertainty: what are the sorts of secondary causes, then, which play a role in the adaption of species? His answer, namely, that not only the adaptations within the species, but also the transitions between the species, are the result of natural selection based on variation, certainly represented a secularizing trend within Victorian theology, but not a break with it; behind the veil of the general laws there was still and at all times the hand of the Creator.15 Thus, Darwin’s theory by no means dealt a death blow to the enterprise of natural theology, as is often suggested. As Jon Roberts has pointed out, natural theology continued to have many adherents, particularly in Great Britain and the United States, also after the publication of the Origin.16

If we now connect the opening pages of the Origin with the last words in the book, we note a striking inclusion which Darwin made even stronger in the second and subsequent editions of the work:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.17

From the second up to and including the sixth and final edition, Darwin inserted in this final sentence after “originally breathed” the words “by the Creator.”18 One can argue, of course, about the reason why Darwin made this addition. It is conceivable that he could not resist the cultural pressure to present his theory in such a way that believers would not be too upset. But the combination with the citations on the frontispiece and the various (seven) other references to the Creator in the second edition—even if some of these disappeared in later prints19—are nevertheless noteworthy. Moreover, the first printing contained several careless and unclear expressions; it is well known that the book was completed in a rush because Alfred Wallace, who independently from Darwin had come to formulate a comparable theory, was about to publish the theory ahead of Darwin. Subsequently, Darwin, in the second and later printings of the Origin, eliminated some imperfections, brought in some clarifications, and also reacted to some criticisms that had been brought to his attention.20 The added comment about the Creator in the final sentence can thus be regarded as one of these added clarifications.

In any case, most critics do not question Darwin’s moral integrity. Thus, even if the formulation of the closing sentence served a tactical purpose, Darwin could nevertheless take responsibility for its message. In this regard, Brooke correctly remarks: “[S]tatements made in response to social pressures are not necessarily disingenuous.”21

Darwin’s Religious Biography

That Darwin did not refer to the Creator just to bolster his image is confirmed when we examine Darwin’s religious biography. This topic has been the subject of extensive discussions and has given rise to much confusion. Even now one encounters the suggestion, made by atheist thinkers, that Darwin was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, whereas in Christian circles a story continues to circulate about Darwin’s presumed deathbed conversion. Both are demonstrably incorrect.22 Particularly, since Darwin’s correspondence has been published our understanding of Darwin’s religious development has become more accurate and detailed.

Darwin was, from his birth to his death, a member of the Church of England. The relationship of the Darwin family to the local church diocese has been amply documented.23 Although Darwin did not attend worship services regularly, he was on friendly terms with the local curate, Rev. John Brodie Innes, and he supported the church’s budget and the congregation’s social support programs. Like his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and his father Robert, Charles Darwin left church attendance to the women in his family. His wife, Emma Darwin, was Unitarian24 in her beliefs but attended, and was active in, the local Downe parish of the Church of England. When Charles, in 1844, outlined some of his biological theories, Emma immediately concluded that these theories differed from standard church doctrine and worried that she and Charles would not spend eternity together.

Initially, Darwin had few problems with the prescribed tenets of the faith of the Church of England, but during his voyage on the Beagle (1831-1836) his Christian faith had started to wane. He began to question the first chapters of the Bible, the portrayal of God in the Old Testament, the depiction of miracles in the Scriptures, the reliability of the Gospels and (especially) the doctrine of eternal punishment.25 When someone asked him, in 1880, whether he believed in the New Testament, he responded in a letter: “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”26

It is often claimed that the death of his daughter Annie eradicated the last remnants of faith in Darwin’s life. This is suggested not only in popular films and television programs but serious scientists, too, are at times inaccurate on this point.27 It is correct that the death of his daughter affected Darwin deeply28 and gave him the final push in his abandoning the Christian faith with which he grew up.29 However, it is demonstrably incorrect that Darwin after this event no longer believed in a personal, creating God, for the passing away of Annie in 1851 predates comments Darwin made about the Creator.

One of these later comments was made in a short letter Darwin wrote in 1879, only a few years before his own death. Although he was under no obligation to respond, in this letter Darwin gives a very openhearted answer to a question regarding his religious perspectives. Darwin writes that his views often fluctuate but that “in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.”30 Darwin further reports that as he gets older his views can usually, but not always, be characterized as “agnostic” when he is asked about his spiritual orientation. Darwin adopted this term, coined by his colleague and follower Thomas Huxley, and first used it in his autobiography published in 1876.31

Thus the following image emerges: Initially Darwin views himself as a traditional Christian; in the 1840s, however, this view is replaced by a more general faith in a Creator God, while it is only in the ’70s that he starts to doubt this faith too. This means that in the 1850s, during his preparation for the Origin, Darwin was a (non-confessional) theist. In another letter, he has explicitly indicated this.32 It is striking that in the secondary literature Darwin’s beliefs in this period are often described as deist.33 We know, however, that while Darwin was acquainted with this term, he did not apply it to himself.34 He did do so with the word “theist,” which for him included faith in God’s omnipotence and omniscience. Even in 1876 he notes, obviously in a fluctuation away from his usual agnosticism, in the present tense, “I deserve to be called a Theist.”35

Darwin and the Problem of Evil

But didn’t the so-called problem of evolutionary evil make it impossible for Darwin to still believe in a God? Here, too, things are considerably more nuanced than what is sometimes suggested. Darwin was, without reservations, impressed by the endless sea of suffering and death that accompanied the process of biological evolution, and that caused him to doubt the existence of a God who daily acted in the lives of people and nature. He has written about this in touching expressions. Well-known, for example, is his reference to the Ichneumonida (scorpion) wasp:

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 Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.36

However, this citation is often quoted out of context by deriving from it the suggestion that suffering in nature brought Darwin to deny any notion of design and God.37

That this suggestion is incorrect is shown in the sentence with which Darwin in his letter to Gray immediately follows the quotation just mentioned: “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.” Thus we see Darwin search for an acceptable form of theodicy, preferring in the final lines of the Origin what later came to be known as the greater good theodicy: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows.”38 When examined carefully, the struggle with the theodicy question, as we encounter it with Darwin, does not differ substantially from that of present-day believers, who may also from time to time feel their faith crumble as a result of experiences of suffering and affliction (either in their own life or in that of fellow beings).39

All of this is significant since it makes crystal clear that, contrary to what is often suggested in popular science writing, Darwin cannot possibly be regarded as an icon of naturalistic atheism. Darwin held to methodological naturalism, to use a later terminology, but not to metaphysical naturalism.40 It was very clear to him that the theory of natural selection he developed in the Origin was not in conflict with faith in a Creator God. That the theory of evolution necessarily leads to atheism, as Dawkins and his followers propose, would have seemed exceedingly strange to Darwin. He wrote to Asa Gray, the Presbyterian botanist at Harvard University who propagated Darwin’s theory in America: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist & an evolutionist,” and mentioned Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray himself as examples. While it may be true that Darwin’s selection theory makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist, one can argue with equal justification that this theory does necessitate anyone to become an atheist or agnostic.41 Darwin just as well made it possible to (continue to) be an “intellectually fulfilled Christian theist.”42

Thus the theory of natural selection underdetermines, so to speak, which religious view is correct. But, given the fact that Darwin himself spoke of “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wondrous universe (…) as a result of blind chance or necessity” it is amazing to see him brought forward as the patron saint of those who see the universe as the result of blind chance.43 It is understandable, then, that Lamoureux critiques this, somewhat testily perhaps, but justifiably: “The historical record is clear: Throughout his life, Darwin rejected the belief [that] the world was the result of blind chance. Period.”44

Let us now finally test this claim by briefly confronting it with the rhetorical character of the Origin of Species and by inquiring whether we can find traces of this non-naturalistic reading of Darwin in the Origin’s reception history.

Rhetoric and Reception

Between the beginning and the end of the Origin’s first edition we encounter fourteen chapters in which Darwin presents the various parts of his “one long argument”45 according to the rules of scientific reasoning, substantiates and interconnects them, and defends them against criticism from alternative conceptions. In the sixth edition he even adds an additional chapter, “Miscellaneous Objections,” in which he gives justifications regarding a number of points which had given rise to criticism since the appearance of the Origin. Darwin was anything but a solipsist. While it is anachronistic to call him a scientist—that term would come into use later—he nevertheless presented himself as a serious investigator in the sense that he was in constant contact with his fellow biologists (or “naturalists,” the term used at the time) and all others interested in his work, in order to deal adequately with feedback to his theory and to answer objections.

It is therefore not surprising that Darwin’s argumentation in the Origin is strongly rhetorical in style. This term is not intended to be pejorative, but indicates that Darwin used many stylistic approaches to win readers to his side. In that regard, the Origin demonstrates a form of “situated rationality.”46 Darwin is aware, for example, of the feelings that his theory can cause and for this reason asks his readers to suspend their misgivings in regard to the mutability of species. He also addresses presumed objections, uses several metaphorical forms, and occasionally even involves himself emphatically in the discussion. As David J. Depew states, “Readers of the Origin can hardly miss its author’s personal warmth, ethical sensibility and capacity for wonder.”47

Darwin’s rhetorical attempts to gain the support of his contemporaries have been examined by Dutch philosopher, Ilse Bulhof. In a sensitive hermeneutical reading of the Origin, Bulhof analyzes the complex personality that lies behind the work of the natural scientist. She indicates, for example, that Darwin liberally describes his abilities as a researcher as early as the first paragraph and she has a good idea why he does so:

It would, of course, have meant a terrible waste of his energy and labour, over many years, if consensus about the origin of species had turned out to be different from what he [i.e. Darwin] had in mind. In an effort to prevent such a waste, Darwin used the first paragraph of The Origin of Species to set out a detailed description of his qualities as scientific researcher, thus seeking to obtain the credit which he badly needed in view of the uncertain nature of his project. In other words, Darwin used these passages to rhetorical effect. Indeed, the book as a whole should affect the readers. It should not leave them indifferent, but persuade them to take Darwin’s side in the debate on the origin of species.48

Bulhof even suggests that the persuasive power of Darwin’s arguments was dependent on his rhetorical abilities. In our opinion, this argument is unconvincing, however, since even in a more sober, non-rhetorical form Darwin’s theory would have prevailed, given the enormous amount of evidence that was found in its favor during the twentieth century. Also, as we have seen, the rhetorical element in the Origin does not invalidate the sincerity of Darwin’s references to a Creator God. On the contrary: if Darwin allowed himself more personal comments every now and then, these references can very well convey his personal religious views at the time. We therefore conclude that Bulhof is absolutely right in emphasizing the strongly rhetorical style in which Darwin couched the presentation of his theory. Yet, as we saw above, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that Darwin used this style to hide his “true” views, as if he pretended to be a theist in order to persuade his audience whereas in fact he professed some form of metaphysical naturalism. Also from his other writings it is clear that this was not the case.

Finally, as to the reception of Darwin’s work, this was then, as it is now, varied and layered. That all contemporary reactions of the religious community were unanimously negative is incorrect; according to Peter Harrison this suggestion is part of the “conflict myth” that is often brought forward when the relationship between religion and science is discussed.49 Among the early admirers of Darwin’s theory were prominent Christians, such as the aforementioned Asa Gray, and also Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury.50 A later Christian theologian who endorsed Darwinian evolution was, among many others, Charles E. Raven (1885-1964).51 Next to such enthusiastic endorsements, there were, of course, also many negative responses. It is worth noting, however, that quite a few of these came from scientific writers, who did not necessarily oppose the theory of evolution because of its presumed religious (or theological) implications. As John Durant submits, “The first and most obvious fact about the initial […] response to the Origin is that it was extremely mixed.”52

During the last decades there has been a significant increase in interest in the reception of Darwin’s ideas in his time. In the course of this development the analyses of Christian Darwinians, too, have become increasingly more detailed, accurate, and well informed.53 A notable early example of someone who was, as has become clear in recent research, much more sympathetic towards Darwinian evolution than one would have ever thought is the orthodox, Reformed dogmatician from Princeton Theological Seminary, Benjamin B. Warfield (1851- 1921). As a “high Calvinist,” Warfield held an inerrancy view on the authority of Scriptures, but he seamlessly combined this with openness for theories of evolution.54 In a surprising late essay Warfield even contended that Calvin, too, in his interpretations of creation “very naturally thought along the lines of a theistic evolutionism.”55 At times Warfield was critical of the specific Darwinian view of evolution, but this was at least partly due to the general crisis of the Darwinian theory of evolution in scientific circles at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.56 Nevertheless, Warfield continued to have great respect for Darwin as a person. In an astute sketch about Darwin’s spiritual biography, Warfield wrote that Darwin was “one before whom we gladly doff our hats in true and admiring reverence.”57 With this conclusion, if only for the great significance that the Origin had for our knowledge of the natural world, there can still be agreement. It is clear that the reception history of Darwin’s Origin displays many examples of theistic and even Christian readings of this monumental book, thus confirming the thesis that Darwin might without insincerity be interpreted in non-naturalistic ways.58

Cite this article
Gijsbert van den Brink and Harry Cook, ““I am Inclined to Look at Everything as Resulting from Designed Laws”: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species as a Specimen of Natural Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:1 , 25-37


  1. Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, letter of May 22, 1860; DCP (Darwin Correspondence Project) 2814 ( “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…”
  2. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859). All six editions of the book are available at For the history of the book, including the six editions, see Michèle Kohler and Chris Kohler, “The Origin of Species as a Book”, in Michael Ruse & Robert J. Richards, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the ‘Origin of Species’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 333-351.
  3. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871); Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation on their Habits (London: John Murray, 1881); Darwin would pass away in 1882, one year after he published The Formation of Vegetable Mould.
  4. Janet Brown, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 478-480.
  5. Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution, 3rd ed. (Sunderland MA: Sinauer, 2013), 8-9.
  6. See the summary of Casey Luskin in Jay Richards, ed., God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2010), 88-90.
  7. Janet Browne describes the “…natural theology popular in the upper reaches of British society.” She defines this as the view “that sought to use the characteristics of the external world to establish the existence of a divine creator, and to provide proofs of his benevolence, wisdom and power.” Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (London, Pimlico, 2003), 52. Alister McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine. Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 12, adopts a somewhat wider definition: “The field of ‘natural theology’ is now generally understood to designate the idea that there exists some link between the world we observe and another transcendent realm.”
  8. John Durant, “Introduction,” in John Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief (Blackwell: Oxford, 1985), 16.
  9. Michael Ruse, Charles Darwin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 3. The moral and religious embedding of all study of nature up to the middle of the nineteenth century is also strongly emphasized by Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), 148-59 and passim (cf. ix).
  10. Darwin not only read Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794) as assigned literature for the completion of his studies in 1831 but also, on his own accord, Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). He later comments: “I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation”; cited from Janet Browne, Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 18. Richard England also describes the importance of natural theology in Darwin’s development of the theory of natural selection: “Natural Selection, Teleology, and the Logos: From Darwin to the Oxford Neo-Darwinists, 1859-1909” in Brooke J. H., Osler M.J., van der Meer J.M., eds., Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 270–287. (This book is Osiris 2nd series, vol. 16, 2001).
  11. William Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (London: Pickering, 1834), 356; see also Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity, 17.
  12. John Hedley Brooke, “The Origin and the Question of Religion,” in Ruse and Richards, eds., Cambridge Companion, 265, assumes there is some opportunism on the part of Darwin in using these citations.
  13. That God was the source of nature’s laws would be a persistent theme in Darwin’s religious beliefs; see William E. Phipps, Darwin’s Religious Odyssey (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press, 2002), 44.
  14. The concept “mutation” was not known in Darwin’s time; Darwin usually spoke of “descent with modification” or “transmutation.” Likewise, the term “evolution” occurs only sporadically in the Origin, and only in the sixth edition (that the first edition ends with the word “evolved” is coincidental); this term was, at the time, strongly associated with orthogenesis, the theory that evolution proceeds linearly by internal mechanisms.
  15. Durant, “Introduction,” 17-18.
  16. Jon H. Roberts, “Myth 18: That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology,” in Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 161-169. See also the extensive argument in McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine.
  17. On the Origin of Species, 490; cited from the first printing, as available at (accessed May 19, 2019).
  18. In the sixth printing (“with additions and corrections”; 1872) the sentence is found on 429; incidentally, in this edition the by then somewhat dated “On” has been omitted from the title for the first time. For an account of the modifications at the sentence level, see Morse Peckham, The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1959).
  19. Brooke, ”The Origin,” 266-267 ascribes this to the influence of Richard Owen, who had accused Darwin of half-heartedness.
  20. For the nature of the modifications, see for example Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Theological and Scientific Commentary on Darwin’s Origin of Species (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 21-26. In regards to Darwin’s discussion of the “crowd of difficulties” that he himself saw contained in his theory, Peters and Hewlett venture the hypothesis that “modern critics in both the creationist and the intelligent design camps have not come up with anything that Darwin had not anticipated” (22).
  21. Brooke, “The Origin,” 267.
  22. James R. Moore, The Darwin Legend (Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 1994) effectively discounts the rumor of Darwin’s conversion.
  23. Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 36, 72-73, 94; William E. Phipps, Darwin’s Religious Odyssey, 42-47.
  24. This meant, at the time, that she did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity.
  25. See for example Denis Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights: Toward an Intellectually Fulfilled Christian Theism – Part I. Divine Creative Action and Intelligent Design in Nature,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 64.2 (2012): 108-119 (esp. 109). This article also appeared in Faith & Thought 55 (October 2013): 2-17.
  26. Letter of Nov. 11, 1880 to F.A. McDermott, included under number 12851 in the (still-under- development) Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP): https://www.darwinproject. (accessed May 19, 2019). The mentioned letter, which is not longer than the sentence cited, sold for almost $200,000 US at an American auction in the fall of 2015.
  27. Denis O. Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights: Towards an Intellectually Fulfilled Christian Theism – Part II. Evolutionary Theodicy and Evolutionary Psychology,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 64.3 (2012): 166-178 (see also Faith and Thought 57 [October 2014]: 3-20), 175 fn.8, mentions as examples of the first Jon Amiel’s film Creation (2009) and an episode of the TV program by David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things (2009); and as example of the second, Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, 513. Lamoureux also mentions several studies that are more nuanced on this topic, such as Randal Keynes, Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution (London: Fourth Estate, 2001).
  28. “We have suffered only one very severe grief [,] in the death of Annie (…). Tears still sometimes come into my eyes when I think of her sweet ways,” Darwin writes in 1876 in a look back at his life. See Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958), 97-98.
  29. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Warner Books, 1991), 387: (“…chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity”).
  30. Darwin letter to J. Fordyce, May 7, 1879, DCP nr.12041.
  31. Phipps, Darwin’s Religious Odyssey, 142-148, discusses the nature of agnosticism in Huxley and Darwin.
  32. “[M]any years ago when I was collecting facts for the Origin, my belief in what is called a personal God was as firm as that of Dr Pusey himself”; Darwin’s letter to H. N. Ridley, Nov. 28, 1878, DCP nr.11766 (Ridley had written Darwin that the clergyman, Edward Pusey—one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement—had attacked Darwin’s theory of evolution in a sermon earlier that month. The fact that Pusey had a powerful faith in God can hardly be doubted).
  33. See for example Ruse, Charles Darwin, 285; Brooke, “The Origin,” 264. When I (GvdB) spoke to him about this, Brooke rightly pointed out that, although Darwin did not self-identify as a deist, he may still be seen as such from a contemporary perspective, given what is commonly understood by deism: the view that God initiated the cosmos without subsequently being involved in it (personal communication, April 30, 2019). See also John Hedley Brooke, “Darwin and Religion: Correcting the Caricatures,” Science and Education (2009), 391-405.
  34. In a letter of 1862 to Asa Gray (DCP nr.3595) Darwin critically writes about Clémence Royer, the translator of the Origin into French, that she “is an ardent deist & hates Christianity. . .”. In his fascinating paper “Darwinian Theological Insights” (Part I, 116-117, fn. 21), Denis Lamoureux tentatively concludes from this that Darwin did not apply the term to himself due to the anti-religious polemics that he heard in it.
  35. See Barlow, ed., Autobiography, 93; also Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights. Part I,” 114.
  36. Darwin to Asa Gray, May 22, 1860; DCP 2814.
  37. See for example Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 8, where this comment is placed right alongside another comment, quoted out of context, about the chaplain of the devil (“What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the … cruel works of nature!” July 7, 1856, DCP 1924). Cutting and pasting of this kind is reminiscent of the so-called proof texting method associated with scholastic theology, a method that contemporary theology abandoned long ago.
  38. On the Origin of Species, 490; this sentence directly precedes the quoted closing sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life…” (cited at footnote 17 above). See also the sentences in Darwin’s Autobiography where he reasons that “‘…to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails” because most “sentient beings [experience] an excess of happiness over misery” (88- 90). Enlightening on some of these matters is Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights: Toward an Intellectually Fulfilled Christian Theism—Part II”, 167-169.
  39. Darwin’s religious ambivalence and profound wrestling with the faith is well captured in Mr. Darwin’s Tree (2009), a one-man play written and directed by Murray Watts and starring Andrew Harrison.
  40. “Metaphysical naturalism is the philosophical belief that material reality is the only reality. … In contrast, methodological naturalismis an approach to scientific investigation that seeks to take phenomena on their own terms to understand them as they actually are.” Robert C. Bishop, “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65.1 (2013): 10-39 (10; emphasis by the author). See also Kathryn Applegate, “A Defense of Methodological Naturalism,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65.1 (2013): 37-45.
  41. The first is argued by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (London: Longman, 1986), 6; the second by John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), who points out that Darwin himself “never came close to drawing such [viz. Dawkinsian atheist] conclusions from his theory” (2). As to how Christian theology can be seen as compatible with accepting Darwinian evolution, see among others Haught, Making Sense of Evolution; Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? 2nd ed. (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2014); Gijsbert van den Brink, Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2020).
  42. Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights: Part I,” 108. See also Darwin in his May-1860 letter to Gray: “I can see no reason, why a man…may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence.”
  43. See Barlow, ed., Autobiography, 92.
  44. Lamoureux, “Darwinian Theological Insights. Part II,” 170.
  45. Darwin, Origin of Species, 459.
  46. The term is by Nicholas Wolterstorff; for an analysis see Nathan D. Shannon, Shalom and the Ethics of Belief: Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Theory of Situated Rationality (Eugene OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015).
  47. David J. Depew, “The Rhetoric of the Origin of Species,” in Ruse and Richards (eds.), Cambridge Companion, 237-256 (238).
  48. Ilse N. Bulhof, The Language of Science: A Study of the Relationship between Literature and Science in the Perspective of a Hermeneutical Ontology (With a Case Study of Darwin’s The Origin of Species) (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 17-18.
  49. Harrison, Territories, 172.
  50. For Charles Kingsley, see Piers J. Hale, “Darwin’s Other Bulldog: Charles Kingsley and the Popularisation of Evolution in Victorian England,” Science and Education 21.7 (2012): 977-1013; for Frederick Temple, Peter Hinchliff, Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  51. See F. W. Dillistone, Charles Raven: Naturalist, Historian, Theologian (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975).
  52. Durant, “Introduction,” 18.
  53. On this topic, see for example, David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987); David N. Livingstone, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Bradley J. Gundlach, Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013); McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine, in particular shows how Darwin’s theory of evolution was embedded in (and received as part of) the traditional discourse of natural theology.
  54. David N. Livingstone and Mark A. Noll, “B.B. Warfield (1851-1921): A Biblical Inerrantist as Evolutionist,” Isis 91 (2000),:283-304. A nuanced discussion, but not a refutation, of their thesis is offered by Fred A. Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 369-387.
  55. B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Creation,” Princeton Theological Review 13 (1915): 210, note 56.
  56. See Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades around 1900 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).
  57. B. B. Warfield, “Charles Darwin’s Religious Life: A Sketch in Spiritual Biography,” Presbyterian Review 9 (1888): 569-601, 571.
  58. An earlier and somewhat shorter version of this paper was published in Dutch as “Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: Icoon van het atheïsme?”, Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 70 (2016): 155-162.

Gijsbert van den Brink

Vrije Universiteit
Gijsbert van den Brink is Professor of Theology and Science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Harry Cook

The King's University (Edmonton)
Harry Cook is Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at The King’s University in Edmonton, Canada.


  • Jeffrey L. Regier says:

    Thank you for a fascinating article. I do have one question: In the section “Darwin and the Problem of Evil,” near the end of the third full paragraph, a sentence reads, “While it may be true that Darwin’s selection theory makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist, one can argue with equal justification that this theory does necessitate anyone to become an atheist or agnostic.” Isn’t there a word missing (specifically, “not”)? To me, the sentence makes more sense if it reads, “While it may be true that Darwin’s selection theory makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist, one can argue with equal justification that this theory does NOT necessitate anyone to become an atheist or agnostic.”
    I plan on using this article in my Evolution and the Nature of Science course this coming semester.

  • Harry Cook says:

    Hello Jeffrey. Thank you! The sentence should have read:
    While it may be true that Darwin’s selection theory makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist, one can argue with equal justification that this theory does not make it impossible to continue to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian.