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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
THE AGNOSTICS
Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos

CHARLES DARWIN

Pete Navarro

Charles Robert Darwin, born February 12, 1809- April 19, 1882, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. Darwin considered himself a freethinker, despite coming from an Anglican background, stating that “science has nothing to do with Christ, but man's caution in admitting evidence”.

Darwin proposed that all species of life come from a common ancestry and his theories of evolution have become the foundations of scientific theories. In collaboration with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced the theory of branching evolutionary patterns as natural selection, which most species exist due to selective breeding as a means for survival.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

Darwin published his work on evolutionary theory in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species that identified that genetic modifications was the cause for evolution and diversity in nature. This, however, made many scholars, scientists, students, and religious believers' question Darwin's views of Christianity and religious faith. Darwin was very reticent about his personal beliefs and was reluctant to discuss the views of others.

Most of his works are very reserved or silent about his views on religion. His Autobiography contains a brief discussion of his views of religion, more so as a gradual change from Anglican Christianity to agnosticism. This, however, was written much later in his life and intended for close relatives and small social circles. Therefore, it should be read as a neutral account of his development of thought and more prominent evidence can be found within his correspondence in letters.

Letters are an important medium to establish Darwin's personal beliefs and explore the religious implications of his work. Young naturalists, skeptical writers, clergymen, and educators wrote to him about his religious views, often seeking direction for their own. In December of 1866, Darwin received a letter from Mary Boole, a spiritualist writer who had become a widow and sought reconciliation with the theory of evolution by natural selection with some form of religious beliefs. Boole writes, “Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection to be inconsistent … with the following belief: That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being …that the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect?”

When Darwin is asked about certain points of belief, they are neither clear nor direct to Boole, merely stating that Darwin was not the authority on religion and that he should not be called upon the ideas of beliefs. Darwin acknowledged that questions of God and his existence go far beyond scientific investigation: “These as it seems to me, can be answered only by widely different evidence from Science, or by the so called 'inner consciousness'.”

Darwin neither dismissed evidence nor dictates his own feelings but this does provide an insight to his own thoughts. One letter in response to John Fordyce, an author of works on skepticism, Darwin writes:

“judgment often fluctuates…. Whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term … In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. — I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, — that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Here, Darwin states that he has never been an atheist. Is there a God? Is he a theist? He suggests that these terms are too vague and could mean a multitude of things. Merely stating that his form of judgment is in constant flux. Darwin used the word “agnostic” not as a means of disbelief but as a form of fundamental uncertainty. Implying that there are limits to scientific knowledge; there are questions that can be answered by science, and questions that cannot. A point Darwin made visible with his response with Boole.

Darwin's own letters to his wife Emma have not survived the test of time, but what the couple has discussed in Emma's letters help to elaborate what they discussed. For example,

“My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain … my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you.”

Here, Emma believes in an afterlife and expresses great apprehension between reasoning and feeling. Brought on by separations of belief and demonstrating the typical Victorian style wife, Emma supported her husband despite his questioning belief. Furthermore, the couple does express mutual affection for one another, and Darwin does not belittle religion. Thus, the larger worldviews of his beliefs are mainly kept within himself. Unitarianism was an important religious tradition in the Darwin and Wedgwood families. Both Emma and Darwin read various works of Unitarian and liberal Anglican authors that were widely read within this period and which formed the subject of much debate of the Anglican creed.

Sworn belief in the articles of the Anglican church was a requirement for students as well as those of holy accords. Some of the biblical commentary written in Emma's letters convey appreciation of doubt in seeking truth. In a letter to Darwin, months after their marriage, Emma writes, “The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong”.

Emma perceives that the pursuit of science will conflict with society's overall view of faith by using examples from the Bible to voice her concerns to her husband. Darwin used the Bible as a guide for moral conduct and raised questions about belief itself. In contrast, Emma integrated her beliefs into her marriage; however, these religious differences were not suppressed by Darwin, rather the subject of belief and of doubt was an ongoing discussion and debate for years. Like most of the contemporaries of his time, Darwin abandoned Christianity on the grounds of moral indifference. Arguing, why should one believe in a God that permits pain in suffering in humans and animals alike? Darwin points out, “That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement.” Rejecting this human-centric view, Darwin argues that “the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement.” Therefore, “against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, . . . the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection”.

Darwin does not dismiss the religious ideals but raises the question about a non-moralistic God. He pointed out that the scientific approach to understanding presented more truth than the acceptance of religious orthodox. This “evasion in the name of truth”, plagued religion and its defenders as immoral during the time of religious revival, placing Darwin into the religious and scientific debates of his own time.

Darwin is often portrayed in most of his works as “avoiding scientific and social controversy”, allowing others like T.H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, and Alfred Wallace to convey controversial debates to the voice of science. Darwin became delighted in the debates that arose and argues, “I may add that as we daily see men arriving at opposite conclusions from the same premises it seems to me doubtful policy to speak too positively on any complex subject however much a man may feel convinced of the truth of his own conclusions”. Arguing that truth can be complex, and anyone can succumb to self-belief without being forced into conviction. Rather with openness and confessed ignorance should become the voice of science. Much of this ideology Darwin incorporated in his work and expressed within his inner circles. However, this cautious style approach in his work would lead to critics doubting Darwin and view it as a sign of weakness.

Darwin's correspondence within his letters show that his religious beliefs changed over the course of his life and never reached a fixed position. His agnosticism should be a form of uncertainty to the existence and nature of God. Darwin's reluctance to discuss religious matters stemmed from his strong views that science and religion rest on different platforms of evidence, and that his scientific expertise did not make him the authority on religious discourse. Throughout his discussions with Emma about religion and science, to his publications on evolution, to other correspondence, it is obvious that Darwin was committed to conscientious doubt and critical inquiry in both science and religion.

For Further Reading

1. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

2. Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication

3. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin

FROM THE INTRODUCTION | DAVID LANE

Davide Lane (ed.), The Agnostics

Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of “unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, “What is this?” Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?” Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, “Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood.”

Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, “And wood is made of what?” “It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, “But what is a molecule made of.” By this time, we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring). The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter?

Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, “I don't know.” Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished astronomer put it, “Something unknown is doing we don't know what!”

To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.




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