Tuesday, April 25, 2006

English Writing Assignment #4: Research Project

The Evolving Religious Views of Charles Darwin
At last! After countless months of constant effort and toil, I had finally succeeded in acquiring a human cloning machine and the necessary genetic information to run my experiment. The story of how I managed to get my hands on such marvelous materials is a fascinating tale; unfortunately, it is also a tale that is outside the scope of what it is to be written here. I will say only this: certain national and international authorities—if they were made aware of what I had done—would no doubt be very unhappy. At the moment, the thought of future trouble mattered little compared with what was now in my possession: a sample of Charles Darwin’s DNA and the means to bring him back to life!

As I gazed at my astounding piece of technology like a king surveying his kingdom, I felt a riotous laugh begin to emanate from the back of my throat. I shook it off; this was no time for “Mad Scientist” theatrics. I had to keep my mind focused on the task at hand. Wasting no more time, I began to operate my machine. As I worked, I contemplated exactly what it was that I wanted to discuss with Darwin. Already well-versed in his scientific theories, I had no desire or need to talk about biology. No, I was much more interested in hearing about the man’s religious opinions. Even now, more than 100 years after his death on April 19th, 1882 (Clark 196), the significance of Darwin’s ideas was still felt like an unending echo in the halls of philosophical thought. The man had irrevocably changed the world, and I was determined to learn more about the religious views that underlined his work. He had lived in a heavily Christian society—had he himself been a Christian? What were the factors and experiences that shaped his beliefs? These were the questions on which I hoped to shed some light.

A few hours later, my experiment was complete. Lying on a cot next to my machine was a perfect replica of Charles Darwin as he was before his death. I had only to flip one more switch and he would awaken; I proceeded with eagerness. Immediately, he took a long and startled breath. As he blinked his eyes, I saw in them a mysterious spark of consciousness that had been absent just a moment before. I led him over to a table and, after offering him a cup of tea, I began our dialogue:
David Carlson (DC): Mr. Darwin, first let me say that it is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. I have the utmost respect and admiration for your work. In all honesty, I consider you to be one of my personal heroes.

Charles Robert Darwin (CRD): I thank you for your kind words, although I fear that having met me, you will come away with an altogether less impressive feeling about me. Be that as it may, I am happy to talk with you. What is it that you wish to discuss?

DC: What I’m most interested in talking about today is religion. Specifically, I’m hoping that you can explain to me what kind of religious beliefs you held during your life and, if possible, what factors influenced these opinions.

CRD: I will be happy to oblige you, but I fear that this topic is complicated to such a degree that I may have some difficulty giving you a straightforward answer. Perhaps you could start with a more specific question?

DC: Of course. Why don’t we start at the beginning? Could you explain to me what kind of influences your family had on your early religious development?

CRD: Certainly. My family came from a Nonconformist background and attended a Unitarian chapel, but, due to the social pressures of the time, we were also active in the Church of England (“Darwin’s Views on Religion”).

DC: Could you elaborate more on Nonconformists and Unitarianism? I’m afraid I’m only vaguely familiar with these terms.

CRD: Nonconformism was a 19th century Protestant Christian movement which emphasized freedom of thought and dissent from the “doctrines or practices of the established Church of England” (Britannica 754). Unitarianism, a part of the greater Nonconformist movement, was (and is) a Protestant sect that placed heavy emphasis on the use of reason and on moral living. Famous for denying the Trinity, Unitarian theology held that God, by nature, was a single person and viewed Jesus as human, not divine (Britannica 137). Compared to the Anglican Church, Unitarianism was much less formal and dogmatic. My father often joked that Unitarianism was simply a “featherbed to catch a falling Christian” (Browne 12).

DC: Thank you for the clarification. Please continue.

CRD: After my mother died when I was eight (Clark 6), my sister, Caroline, took responsibility for my religious instruction. She made sure that I learned the Bible and, favoring Anglicanism over my mother’s Unitarian roots, took me to St. Chad’s, the Anglican Church at which my siblings and I had been baptized (Browne 21).

DC: It sounds like Caroline had a large impact on your early religious formation.
CRD: She did, indeed. When I was a bit older and away attending school in Edinburgh, she wrote to me, encouraging me to pursue my faith, specifically emphasizing the importance of regular Bible-reading and scriptural meditation (Burkhardt 36-39). Later, as I began to make my way in life, the beliefs that I held were , at root, the beliefs that had been imparted to me by Caroline (Adon 64).

DC: Earlier, you mentioned your formal education. How did your schooling affect your religious beliefs as a young man?

CRD: In 1828, at the behest of my father, I began to attend Cambridge University; the eventual goal was for me to become an ordained into the Church of England (Bowlby 94).

DC: You, an Anglican priest? I would never have guessed it!

CRD: I had some reservations about the idea, myself. I was not sure that I could honestly proclaim my belief in all the creeds of the Church of England (Bowlby 90), so “I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted” (Darwin 57). Nevertheless, some misgivings about the Anglican Church remained with me, but, this was the path that my father wished me to tread, so, deciding to take the “line of least resistance” (Bowlby 94), I obeyed his wishes.

[Darwin then paused to take a sip of tea, and I feared that he had grown weary of this subject, but just as I prepared to ask him a new question, he continued with his explanation.]

CRD: While at Cambridge, I was exposed to the philosophical writings of William Paley. These writings—including Evidences of Christianity and Natural Theology—seemed to be wonderful and impressive in their logical power and, at the time, I was fully persuaded by the arguments Paley presented (Darwin 59). The goal of Paley and other natural theologians was 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” (Browne 52). As a believer and a budding scientist, I saw natural theology as firm foundation on which to base my future investigations and I was enamored with the idea that “the study of nature [was] a divine quest: a romantic exploration of forces, powers, laws and truths that appealed to [me] at the deepest imaginative level” (Browne 130).

DC: If I remember my history properly, you joined the crew of a ship called the Beagle in 1831 (Bowlby 125). Were you able to complete your ordination before you left to see and study the world?

CRD: Actually, no; despite my father’s wishes, I eventually decided against a career as a clergyman (Browne 321).

DC: Was this decision based upon a change in your religious beliefs?

CRD: No, my religious beliefs in those days had not been lost or altered to any large degree. I simply found that my interests were leading me in the direction of science. This was not a rejection of Christianity—I still held to the natural theological beliefs that I had found so persuasive during my time at Cambridge—but was simply a change in vocational goals (Browne 321-322).

DC: Despite your career change, it sounds to me like you were a very devout believer during this time. Did your experiences on the Beagle serve to change this?

CRD: Before I answer your question, let me clear up a misconception: while my views at the time were quite orthodox—so orthodox that my acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible became, at times, an amusement to many of my Beagle shipmates (Darwin 85)—it would not be right to say that “religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me” (Darwin 91). For the most part, I followed the beliefs that were common in the predominantly Christian society I lived in, but, to me, religion was more about the acceptance of intellectual truths than it was about devotion (Keynes 47). So, despite my orthodox beliefs, devout was never an accurate description of my religious state (Bowlby 228). Getting back to your question about my time on the Beagle, I would have to say that, while my beliefs at this time began to change and slacken somewhat, they were not in a state of complete wavering. I slowly came to believe that the Old and New Testaments could not be taken as literal, authoritative historical documents. During this period, it was also starting to become difficult for my developing scientific outlook to accept any idea without evidence. I began to question the existence of miracles and had difficulties with the idea that unexplainable phenomena should be accepted simply on authority. Despite all of these doubts and shifting views, I still attended church services regularly while on the Beagle and considered my faith to be genuine, if conflicted (Browne 324-326).

DC: I think I can see where this line of thought may be leading. Did you end up losing your faith? If so, when and how did it happen?

CRD: I did end up rejecting the Christianity, but how this came about is not an easy matter to explain. My religious faith was something that I was very reluctant to give up, but despite some effort on my part to maintain it, my beliefs gradually left me (Desmond 623). I have already told you of the niggling doubts I had developed about accepting divine revelation and miracles, but these uncertainties were only the beginning. In the years following my return to England, while I was beginning to fashion theories from the observations and evidence collected during my voyages, my newly forming views on the nature and origin of species—including humans—led me “along the path of disbelief” (Browne 397). Contrary to my earlier views, I was beginning to regard the marvelous adaptations found in nature—which Paley had attempted to use to prove the existence of a benevolent God—as the products of natural selection, not divine design (Darwin 87). My thinking was beginning to change radically; in one moment of mischievous materialistic musing, I even speculated that affection and belief in God were simply products of purely natural forces (Desmond 250). As my doubts about Christianity grew, “I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me [of the truth of Christianity]. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete (Darwin 86-87). I realize that this is rather long-winded and convoluted answer to your question, but such is often the case with the truth. If you really must have a more simple answer, I will say this: I finally gave up my belief in Christianity in 1849 because I could find no evidence to support it (Keynes 134).

DC: Would I be correct in concluding that this disbelief is the position on which you settled?

GRD: Yes, after I finally rejected Christianity, I never again wondered if this decision had been the correct one (Darwin 87). In all honesty, “I can 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” (Darwin 87). Although I have heard it said that, while on my deathbed, I repudiated my evolutionary ideas and converted back to Christianity, this is only a legend; there is no truth to it (Clark 198-199).

DC: I realize that this may be a difficult topic for conversation, but could you tell me what kind of impact the death of Annie, your daughter, in 1851 (Britannica 997-981) had on your religious views?

CRD: As I have told you, my faith, by all reasonable standards, had ended two year previously, but Annie’s death was a resounding and painful punctuation to that ending. After she died, I could no longer believe in any sort of sense of cosmic justice, and the emptiness of Christian belief became evident to me (Desmond 384-387). I began to view God—in whose existence I continued to believe—not as a being of endless benevolence, but as a “shadowy, inscrutable and ruthless figure” (Keynes 243).

DC: It seems to me that an experience as traumatic as the death of a young child could very well drive a person to atheism; after rejecting the existence of the Christian God, did you ever give up your belief in the existence of any sort of deity?

CRD: I can say that I have “never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God” (Desmond 636). There seem to be some good arguments to be made for the existence of God—not the least of which being the “extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving of this immense and wonderful universe [. . .] as the result of blind chance or necessity” (Darwin 92). But at the same time, the conclusion that the origin of the universe must have some sort of intelligent First Cause has been, at times, difficult for me to fully accept. While we seem naturally inclined to accept the First Cause argument, I feel that there could be good reasons why the intuitive expectations of our brains—which developed over time from a much more primitive state—should not necessarily be trusted as accurate guides in these matters (Darwin 92-94). For this reason, I fear that the question of God’s existence may remain permanently unanswered and that I “must be content to remain an Agnostic” (Darwin 93-94).

DC: Mr. Darwin, I want to thank you for your willingness to share your thoughts with me. I can see now why your views on religious matters have been referred to as “complex and ambiguous” (Miller, 287), but I feel that I now have a better understanding of your views and how they came to be what they are. Based upon what you have told me, it seems that your religious beliefs evolved quite a lot over the course of your life; equally, it appears that your scientific outlook played a large role in shaping the course of this evolution.

CRD: Yours seems to be a fair assessment of the matter. I did not go about my life’s work with the goal of discrediting religion, but in the end, I was forced to give up my Christian faith based upon my perceptions of the scientific evidence (Clark 57). I am truly glad if my explanations have been of some assistance to you; although, I must admit to being rather mystified at your interest in these matters, as I have always felt that my personal beliefs were “of no consequence to any one but myself” (Desmond 635).

DC: If I could just keep you for another moment, I would like to ask one final, self-indulgent question. Having returned from the grave, you must know the answer: Is there life after death?

CRD: Ah! If I could be granted any wish, it would be the chance to stay here and write a book answering that very question. What a commotion I could make! The controversy that Origin stirred would pale in comparison to what I could say now! Alas, there are some things that simply cannot be comprehended by living minds. Besides, my time has passed. For now at least, the great mysteries of life will have to remain mysterious.
After Darwin finished saying this, we both knew that our conversation—and his short return the land of the living—had come to an end. I led him back to his cot and, as I reversed the procedure, I saw again that fleeting glimmer of consciousness in his eyes and watched it disappear as I pulled the last switch. Could human consciousness be merely the natural product of an incredibly complex brain, or was there something far more incomprehensible at work? To this question I had no definite answers. I only knew that a great man was gone.

Works Cited

Adon, Cyril. Charles Darwin. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2002.

Bowlby, John. Charles Darwin: A New Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990.

Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Burkhardt, Frederick and Sydney Smith, Eds. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

“Charles Darwin.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005 ed.

“Charles Darwin’s Views on Religion.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Feb. 2006.
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 April 2006.
Clark, Ronald W. The Survival of Charles Darwin. New York: Random House, 1984.

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882. Ed. Nora Barlow.
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958.

Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist.
New York: Warner Books, 1991.

Keynes, Randal. Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution. New York: Riverhead
Books, 2001.

Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God: A
Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution
. New
York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

“Nonconformist.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005 ed.

“Unitarianism.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005 ed.


Ta Cousine Jill said...

Very interesting, David!

D.W. Congdon said...

What's interesting is that Darwin has a floor "panel" (insert more appropriate word) honoring him at Westminster Abbey. I myself stepped across it while I was there for Wheaton in England.

Dave said...

Not only that, but he's actually buried at Westminster, next to Newton, I believe.