Was Literalism Darwin's Downfall?

One of my favorite bloggers is RJS who blogs are regularly on McKnight’s Jesus Creed as well as on her own site. The most recent blog reviews Walter Moberly’s recent book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith .

In it, she reviews how Darwin had a rather wooden, literal theology ironically, and how that as well as his leaning towards design led to his gradual fall away from faith. Moberly writes,“Darwin’s grasp of theology was markedly different from his grasp of biology. …With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to see Darwin’s “orthodoxy” as representing an attitude towards the Bible that unsurprisingly led to his rejection of it in due course.”

RJS poses these questions, which I will put forth for consideration, " Is our faith founded on such claims as those Darwin came to discard, or is it founded on something stronger than these? Is it possible to read the Bible faithfully, but also open to a subtle and patient probing of the text and our understanding of it? "
link to blog, which is worth reading in full:


As I have said before, the problem with evolution is not the science, but the theology. If Darwin rejected Creation and Creationists rejected Darwin as the result wooden, unreflective understanding of the Bible, it is because they believe in a wooden, unreflective God.

The problem with wooden God is that it is not alive, and not flexible. God is alive and flexible. God is not Simple, God is Personal, God is Trinity, both One and Three, both Unity and Diversity. God is WHO GOD IS.

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The problem with creationism is that creationists read the Bible entirely on the literal level, as though it were some kind of science textbook. I like your phrase “wooden God” because I think that’s exactly the kind of concept fundamentalism of any stripe (not just the Christian variety) results in – almost a kind of mental statue rather than a vital – being your basic spaced-out mystic, I don’t even know what a good noun would be. I look at the Bible as mostly a stunning collection of historical legends interwoven with a good deal of myth and other poetry. Thus the best approach to reading it (to my mind) is the exact opposite of the literal-minded fundamentalist approach. (Something I’m only too familiar with, having grown up with it!) In other words, total openness to the deepest possible levels of meaning.

On the other hand, of course, there’s also what I like to think of as “science fundamentalism” aka “scientism” which is basically a dogmatic adherence to what has come to be called “physicalism” (essentially materialism on acid – belief that the physical world is it, that’s all she wrote, so to speak). Just as bad as (if not worse than) the religious variety. And speaking of which, as to Darwin, what downfall? His two great “competitors” in the evolution business were Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Russel Wallace. He way outstripped them both, as current evolutionary theory generally goes by the term “Neo-Darwinian”…

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One minor point about all this. And maybe it’s just me.

I have not read the piece that @jpm cites, but its thrust seems to be that Darwin’s faith was flawed, wooden, simplistic, whatever. And that this is part of why he lost his faith–if only he had better faith, faith like, you know, yours, then he’d have been better off. This perspective, in my opinion, borders on narcissistic. It not only judges another person’s belief, comparing it to some other set of beliefs and then disparaging it. That’s bad enough, to me. But then it judges the person for discarding that faith, concluding that the person is a failure both for foolishly embracing some inferior faith and then for leaving it.

Here’s how you might think of this (and talk about it) differently. Darwin had some version of faith, and then he changed his mind. He didn’t lose “the” faith. He lost his faith. Maybe that faith was merely inherited from the culture, or maybe it was held loosely to begin with, but it was his faith and then he discarded it. Consider giving Darwin, and others including me, the minimal respect of presuming that we knew what we believed, and why, and knew we had other choices, and nevertheless decided that Christian belief was not worthwhile. Consider giving Darwin, and me, some credit for knowing that there were/are scores/hundreds/thousands of other ways we could believe, but that we are not interested in bringing them on. Consider the possibility that people stop believing because they no longer find the whole thing credible, or inspiring, or even morally defensible.


The essay “What did Darwin Believe” at the Darwin Correspondence site might be useful https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/commentary/religion/what-did-darwin-believe
with links to many of Darwin’s letters and associated essays

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These articles are good. I didn’t see mention however of the additional fact that Darwin, prior to the Beagle was resigned to becoming a parish priest in the Anglican communion. The required subscription to the 39 Articles for clergy made him uncomfortable. And in addition to his struggle to reconcile the apparent cruelty in nature with a good God was the issue of eternal torment for those who disbelieve.

That’s a good piece that I read years ago. I recently also read The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen (reviewed here), which takes the approach that I prefer, which is to focus less on the beliefs of Darwin and more on who he seemed to be and how he seemed to relate, emotionally to belief and to others. It’s hard for me to picture a well-read, thoughtful commentator focusing in on Darwin’s “wooden” view of scripture after they have read Quammen’s book, or the letters, or a good biography. It’s tempting (and probably mostly accurate) to point out that this kind of talk is diagnostic of the evangelical mindset, and says next to nothing about Darwin or about faith.

I don’t think anyone who has actually tried to understand Darwin would answer ‘yes’ to the question that heads this thread. And those who are working on empathy, who respect the choices that their fellow humans make when considering gods and holy books and religions that marshal evil, would not refer to someone’s choice to reject their own faith as “downfall.”

If only evangelicals could see what they look like through the eyes of an unbeliever. The vast majority wouldn’t care at all. Some would, and I’m hoping some of them are reading this.


I didn’t get the impression from the first piece that it was blaming Darwin personally for this ‘wooden’ view. Rather that he was simply a product of the time for a man in Anglicanism. He admits to not being much of a theologian or having such interest. His time at Christ Church Cambridge was more of a fall back when medicine didn’t work out. The church just didn’t offer a less literal take on the matters that troubled him and I think that’s what the piece was getting at. It was the church’s wooden interpretation offered to him.

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I did. By painting the options as simple (just “literalism” and nothing else) and by ignoring what we know about Darwin’s own Unitarian background and his interesting relationship with Emma, the piece creates a crude strawman that fueled the title of this thread. Darwin conceived of common descent and natural selection, and was influenced by Paley, and spent his days in thought and experiment, and yet you think he just picked one “wooden,” “literalistic” view of the bible, despite his Unitarianism, leading to his “downfall”? This is ridiculous.

I said no such thing. Let’s not get personal friend.

Correct the book being reviewed so described Darwin’s views, not you. I will note that his autobiography was intended for his family not general consumption and he was very private about his views on religion (though I suggest reading the Barlow edition http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=F1497&pageseq=1 to get the context). Though many in his family were Unitarian including his wife, he also had Anglican clergymen in the family (his older first cousin Allen Wedgwood [who was also a double first cousin of his wife, Emma] and Allen’s younger brother, Robert). Charles had also trained for the clergy at Cambridge so would have known Latin and Greek and studied the New Testament and theology.

Thanks for the recommend, @Erp. I’ll give it a read when I can digest it all.

@sfmatheson is correct about the article having given it a re-read. I’ve read so much since my first perusal of it. It does lay it at Darwin’s feet for not applying the same “reflective” thought process to theology as to his natural observations. That said, there are no unitarian schools I’m aware of that he’d apply to. So I would think it quite sensible to believe a non-conforming unitarian in an Anglican environment would be regularly confronted with literalist teaching. And he did admit no need to take it any other way himself. I don’t personally fault him for that. I don’t know that until the famous Essays & Reviews were published there was much reason to think about it differently. But that’s just an educated guess.

There were some schools whose teachers were known to be Unitarian or otherwise dissenters but not universities (though Edinburgh did allow plurality of religion). Darwin did go to a local school run by a Unitarian, George Case, for his earliest formal schooling and attended Unitarian chapel with his mother and sisters until going to boarding school at age 9. That school, Shrewsbury School, was Church of England. Note that Darwin’s wider family did hang out with some very progressive thinkers on all sorts of issues. His uncle, later father-in-law, had been a patron of Coleridge. His brother was enamored of Harriet Martineau…

Darwin actually signed a joint letter to Frederick Temple in 1861 starting “We the undersigned have read with surprise and regret a letter in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other English Bishops have severely censured the volume of Articles entitled Essays and Reviews…”

It can be interesting delving into the letters at the Darwin project


That’s really quite an interesting connection. Now I’d be curious to know more about his unitarianism as to what type it was. I’m not all that familiar with it but it does seem that there was some varying attachments to the scripture as to degrees of literalism. Apparently some referred to others as Scripture-fundamentalist. Don’t know that it has much bearing in his particular case, but it does interest me nonetheless. Thanks again.

Well unitarianism in Britain did vary and did change over time. I don’t think Darwin considered himself a Unitarian (post his early childhood) or any single category and his wife despite being a Unitarian in belief went to the local Church of England parish church though refused to recite the creed. Darwin seems to have been very much in favor of allowing people to inquire freely (hence signing the letter). Darwin was involved in the local CoE church at Downe just not as a church goer (for instance helping handle the church and school finances) and was good friends with the minister, John Brodie Innes.

I suspect one can be just as puzzled by the religious beliefs of his double great nephew, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who despite being an atheist (early life) or agnostic (later life) also wrote music for hymns (check your church hymnal) and even a sung mass.


As I recall from my history, membership in the Church of England was a requirement at the time for full civil, legal and political rights. That’s probably got something to do with Darwin’s association with it…

I’m not sure why you think that’s “personal,” but I agree you did not write what I attribute to you. What you did write is consistent with the narrative that I am objecting to. You wrote that Darwin was only “offered” a simplistic view of the bible, by “the church.” This is probably an accurate portrayal of that church, but it paints (to me) a picture of Darwin that doesn’t square with who he seemed to be. He was intimately knowledgeable about a diversity of views on gods, the bible, human nature, and morality/ethics. A Victorian need not be a theologian, or even a theologically inclined layperson, to know that “literalism” was neither an exclusive nor a particularly good option for a thinking person.

My whole point, which seems to have been affirmed later in this thread, is that there is something ugly about talking about Darwin’s thought, and his choices, the way that Christians typically do, as exemplified in both the article mentioned in the OP and in the casual use of words like “downfall” to describe his choice to reject Christian faith.

Nearly 20 years ago, as a Christian scholar, I worked on an interesting little project to explore the correspondence Darwin had with Asa Gray. I titled my talk “Asa Gray: Darwin’s Defender or Darwin’s Fool?” because I thought the image of Asa Gray as the great Christian defender of evolution was missing some (to me) important aspects of the conversation between the two. Darwin was pretty open with Gray, and the picture I got from my study of their correspondence was very, very different from the silly trope of the OP. It seems to me that the problem of evil was a major problem for Darwin–it was to Asa Gray that Darwin made his famous objection about parasitic wasps and cats playing with mice (before eviscerating them alive was the unwritten next phrase). My impression was that Darwin in some sense “used” Gray, by enjoying some protection in the form of a stalwart Reformed Christian and world-famous scientist, while harboring his own doubts about Gray’s whole argument. In any case, I take it to be obvious that one need hardly be in the thrall of some simplistic “wooden” interpretation of the bible to find the problem of evil a challenging obstacle to belief in most versions of the Christian god.

@EvolvingLutheran, @sfmatheson, @Erp
Interesting discussion.

The question I am interested in is, What was Darwin’s understanding of God and how did it affect his understanding of evolution?

My guess based on all that I have read here and elsewhere would be that Darwin was a Deist, which would mean that he believed that God created the universe, but was not involved in the “life” of the universe after the creation. This would fit in well with Unitarian belief as I understand it and the Philosopher’s God.

I think that it was Dennett who created the dichotomy of a top down universe, Skyhook approach vs. a bottom up universe, “crane” (the manmade variety, not the natural variety.) Of course Dennett rejects the top down approach which he applies to God, and accepts the bottom up approach which he applies tp science and materialism.

For myself I think that both the top down and the bottom up are too simplistic, too wooden to accurately describe the world we live in. I would have been nice if Darwin would have been nice if Darwin would have come up with a holistic approach to describe evolution, but he did not, so his theory was incomplete.

May be he was wiser than I thought if he knew that Natural Selection worked, but was unclear how it worked. This is still the issue. While there is some responsibility on Darwin for giving us an incomplete theory, there is more responsibility on his followers for not re4cognizing the shortcomings of this theory and moving to complete it, rather than defending it as is as Dennett and Dawkins do. .

No, Dennett just used the metaphor of a skyhook versus a crane to distinguish “top down” in the sense of unanchored, presumably miraculous, influences from anchored, natural influences that are connected to previous things. In his metaphor, a crane is not manmade. It’s just something that sits on top of something else, that provides “lift” without the need for a magical skyhook.

I’m going to defer to those with more knowledge in that area.

And I’m going to add another question to the mix for @sfmatheson. I’d concur with the problem of evil issue including the matter of eternal punishment for the damned. But I’m hoping for a some better context if any is available for the quote attributed to him regarding his view of Scripture that he did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible. I’ve seen his sourced in a number of other non-partisan places. Given what you said about Gray, would this be an example of sincere struggle or one of going along in order to get along? Appreciate any insights.