Darwin letter should settle all doubts about his lack of religious faith

Charles Darwin came from a family of skeptics and freethinkers and although at one point he studied for the clergy, it was clear that he was never that religious and his research into the origins of species frayed even that weak link and he moved away from the biblical theories of special creation that were dominant at the time and became an unbeliever as a young adult.

But during his lifetime, he was cagey about his lack of belief in god or his disassociation with Christianity. He was averse to conflict and may have felt it better to not let his personal beliefs about god create a controversy and overshadow his important scientific work. Furthermore, his wife was very devout and theirs was a loving relationship and he knew that his lack of religious faith troubled her deeply and he likely wanted to avoid the subject altogether.

But in 1880, Darwin replied frankly to a young lawyer named F. A. McDermott, who inquired about his faith and promised he would not publicize the answer. Darwin’s response was blunt:

Dear Sir,

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.

Yours faithfully

Ch. Darwin

As the article says:

For decades Darwin had avoided publishing his ideas about evolution in order to shield his family, especially his religious wife, from any hint of scandal. On this letter to McDermott, he scrawled the word “private” across the top, a significant addition considering the provocative content. Even at the age of 71, he was wary of expressing his true thoughts about his faith. “Darwin never flaunted his disbelief, but he never denied it,” said David Quammen, author of The Reluctant Mr Darwin and editor of the illustrated edition of On the Origin of Species.

The lawyer kept his end of the bargain and the letter was not revealed for more than 100 years.

The letter, written less than two years before Darwin’s death, should settle any doubts on the matter of whether Darwin was a believer, that were fostered using the common tactic of unverifiable deathbed conversions, something that are imputed to all manner of prominent atheists.

After Darwin’s death in 1882, rumours of a deathbed conversion circulated. This letter, written less than two years before, defends against such claims.

“There has been fog and falsehood and wishful thought surrounding the subject of Darwin’s religious belief, or lack of it, for more than a century,” said Quammen. “The McDermott letter of 1880, a real historical document, reaffirms all the other genuine evidence we have about Charles Darwin’s rigorous, courageous agnosticism throughout the second half of his life.”

I doubt that this will stop religious believers though. Just as Albert Einstein’s letters, one written just a year before his death, emphatically rejecting any belief in any kind of personal god has not stopped religious people from trying to claim him as one of their own, so it will be with Darwin.


  1. says

    I had the joy once of overhearing a couple of people visiting the Tyrell Museum talking about Darwin’s deathbed denouncing of his theory, so unfortunately this likely won’t have any effect.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    Minor nit: evidence that he was not a believer two years before his death is not especially good evidence against a deathbed conversion, which (a) by definition happens at the point of death (or the expectation of death), and (b) presupposes that he was not a believer prior to said deathbed conversion.

    If he professed himself a believer two years before his death, it would be evidence against a deathbed conversion, because it would suggest that he had already been converted prior to reaching his deathbed. This letter, on the other hand, at most proves that he satisfied the main prerequisite for a deathbed conversion: not already being a believer.

    It does prove that he was not a believer, late in his life, and suggests that he was not the agnostic that more moderate Christians like to paint him as, but an out-and-out unbeliever.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Technically, Darwin’s letter could be tightly interpreted as a rejection of certain points of Christian doctrine, and not a full-on embrace of atheism. Note he does not explicitly reject the existence of God, for example.

    RE Tabby Lavalamp #1: Tyrrell Museum:
    The town where dinosaurs and Jesus mingle

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Reginald @3 is quite right. My response to this kind of thing is “so what?”. If idiots want to claim someone as their own, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to change them. See climate change. And if Darwin was an agnostic, atheist or deist, what bearing does that have on his work? See Newton.

    Abdus Salam was a believer. Steven Weinberg most definitely isn’t. So what?

  5. moarscienceplz says

    If fundie xians would spend all that time and energy on studying the science discoveries of Einstein and Darwin, rather than trying to renovate them as non-rational faith-heads, the world would be a lot less nutty.

  6. starskeptic says

    Apparently the woman who originally started this rumor was some hundred yards away from the room Darwin died in -- so unless he was shouting out on his death-bed…

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