This year marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution has caused as many religious arguments as it has scientific ones. So was his intention really to support an atheist worldview? Or was there more to his faith journey than that?

Most people have an opinion of Charles Darwin. For some, he is a scientific Moses leading his people out of the intellectual slavery of superstition. For others, he is modern Manasseh, leading his people astray with a theory that led to materialism, atheism and genocide.

Neither picture is remotely correct.

Darwin was a rather ordinary man. He was born in 1809 into a wealthy, Whig family which had strong scientific and abolitionist credentials. Educated in Shrewsbury, he then attended Edinburgh University where he studied medicine. He never took to it and his father, worried he was drifting into a life of country sports and parties, encouraged him to take Holy Orders.

The little we know of Darwin’s religious faith at this time suggests it was rather lukewarm. “Dear Charles I hope you read the Bible,” his sister Caroline chided him, “and not only because you think it wrong not to read it.” “I often regret myself that when I was younger and fuller of pursuits and high spirits I was not more religious,” she confided.

To his credit, Darwin paused before ordination. He took some time to read a few weighty theological tomes before declaring himself ‘orthodox’ and taking the plunge.

The nature of that ‘orthodoxy’ is very important. For the young Darwin, Christianity was primarily a series of facts and theories to be demonstrated. Moreover, that demonstration rested heavily on nature, specifically the ordered, benign ‘natural theology’ of the time.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this orthodoxy, Darwin’s Christianity seems to have been no more secure when training for Anglican orders than it had been in Edinburgh. His friend and fellow-ordinand, JM Herbert, recalled “an earnest conversation” with him “about going into Holy Orders”. During the ordination service the Bishop would ask candidates, “Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit?” Herbert remembered Darwin asking him whether he could “answer in the affirmative” when thus asked. Herbert replied that he could not, to which Darwin replied, “Neither can I, and therefore I cannot take orders.”

The Beagle

He did not need to face the decision. When, in the summer of 1831, the opportunity to travel the world on the surveying ship HMS Beagle presented itself, Darwin seized it.

The next five years were pivotal in his life. Although still ‘orthodox’ at the time, he encountered things that shook him. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions seemed to suggest the earth was not tailored to human needs in quite the way that comfortable, Anglican, natural theologians said it was. The tribes he encountered on the Tierra del Fuego in South America were shockingly barbarous, suggesting that the line between humans and other species might be thinner than everyone at the time assumed. And his observations on the nature and location of living and fossilised creatures set him thinking about the fixity of species.

Losing his religion

That thinking continued when he returned to England, and in 1836-39 he formulated the theory that was to become The origin of species. It is during this period that his autobiography locates his loss of faith, citing three main reasons: doubts about the Bible (“no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos”); moral objections (the Old Testament writers “attribute to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant”); and philosophical problems (“the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become.”)

Although Darwin undoubtedly did experience these doubts in his 30s and 40s, it seems likely that he concentrated them into a few years in his autobiography, years that coincided with an intense and destabilising period of intellectual speculation.

That speculation, which he recorded in a series of notebooks, saw him questioning all the received wisdom of his day: that God had made every species independently, that humans and other species were totally unrelated, that morality was somehow implanted with the soul into humans.

These were big questions and radical ones. The only people raising them in public tended to be revolutionaries who wanted to overturn the established social order.

Darwin was no revolutionary. Nor was he an atheist. At the time he was a theist with strong Christian inclinations, and his notebooks show him struggling to accommodate his new ideas with his old beliefs. There is no sense of him using evolution to bury God, still less of dancing triumphantly on the grave. Writing many years later and referring to a famous Oxford divine, Darwin told a correspondent, “Dr Pusey was mistaken in imagining that I wrote the Origin with any relation whatever to theology.”

The problem of pain

Nevertheless, evolution did rock his faith – although not in the way that is often assumed. It wasn’t that it challenged the literal reading of Genesis 1. Geologists, usually ordained Anglican ones, had been doing that for years. It was more that it destroyed the comfortable, ordered natural theology of his youth and brought to the fore the problem of suffering.

Where William Paley, the most influential natural theologian of the time, saw “a happy world” teeming with “delighted existence”, evolution revealed a harsher picture, a “dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods and smiling fields.”

In truth, there were theological resources to deal with this. For example, some years earlier John Wesley, following St Paul, had observed in a sermon on ‘The General Deliverance’:

“How true then is that word, ‘God saw everything that he had made: and behold it was very good!’ But how far is this from being the present case! In what a condition is the whole lower world! – to say nothing of inanimate nature, wherein all the elements seem to be out of course, and by turns to fight against man…Well might the Apostle say of this: ‘The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.’ This directly refers to the brute creation in what state this is at present we are now to consider.”

But this was not the tradition in which Darwin had been raised. When William Paley’s world collapsed, so did Darwin’s faith. In truth, ‘collapse’ is the wrong word. ‘Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate,’ he wrote in his autobiography. When writing his first sketch of The origin of species, in 1842, he weighed up suffering on one hand and ‘the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals’ on the other, and seemed to conclude that, on balance, the good outweighed the suffering. It was a conclusion that he seemed to hold until his death, writing in his autobiography many years later:

‘Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world, that they doubt, if we look to all sentient beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness; – whether the world as a whole is a good or a bad one. According to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails.’

Death of a daughter

But this was a theoretical answer and a few years after sketching out The origin, the issue ceased to be theoretical. Annie, his eldest daughter, had long suffered, like her father, from illhealth. Darwin took her to Great Malvern in 1851 for watertreatment, before returning home to his heavily pregnant wife.

He was soon summoned back urgently. Annie had contracted a fever. Darwin returned instantly, to be faced with a changed child. “You would not in the least recognise her,” he told his wife, “with her poor hard, sharp pinched features; I could only bear to look at her by forgetting our former dear Annie.”

The following week was the worst of his life. Unable to eat, Annie slowly wasted away. She showed signs of recovery, and then faded. The doctors remained quietly confident. Darwin sat, holding her hand, alternately overjoyed then distraught. Eventually, she died, aged ten.

Most Victorian families lost children – Darwin himself lost two others in infancy – but Annie was his favourite and he had witnessed every last, degrading moment of her short life. The experience nearly destroyed him. It certainly destroyed his faith. He wrote a short, painfully moving account of her life, and then never spoke about her again.

Agnostic to the end

Darwin remained what he called a ‘theist’ for many years, although he was, in reality, closer to being a deist, believing in a God who created the universe and then withdrew into silentindifference. This was the state of mind in which he wrote The origin of species, as well as its ‘sequel’, The descent of man.

He was delighted that close friends, like Thomas Huxley, were willing to defend his theory against religious (and scientific) critics, often in very robust terms, but he took pride in the fact that he himself had never “published a word directly against religion or the clergy.” Moreover, he had little interest in religious controversy. “Why should you be so aggressive?” he asked the atheist Edward Aveling pointedly. “Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind?”

Towards the end of his life his theism wavered, and in his last years he became happiest with the (new) label of agnostic. This wasn’t apathy. Indeed, he wrote more about God, purpose and design in the last two decades of his life than he had in the first five.

Rather, it was a convinced agnosticism. Darwin didn’t know whether God existed. Moreover, he didn’t know whether you could know. If humans were evolved from other primates, he wondered, could you really trust their ability to ascertain such truths?

‘Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?’

This is still a live debate within philosophical circles, with the highly respected American Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga using it as a cornerstone of his argument against naturalism.

Reason and feeling

Interestingly, Darwin was alert – at least in theory – to the idea that “reason may not be the only instrument for ascertaining [Theism’s] truth.”

The problem was that reason – and a very narrow form of reason based on repeatable experimentation – was what he had dedicated his life to. It had taken a heavy toll. Although as a young man he had taken “great pleasure” from poetry, art, music and landscape, the older he grew, the more his aesthetic sensibilities dried up.

‘I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.’

It is curious to speculate whether his self-confessed lack of “religious sentiment”, his lack of “faith in the so-called intuitions of the human mind,” and his doubts about whether our sense of the sublime actually said anything true about the world were all linked.

The likelihood was that they were, as his devout and dearly loved wife of 40 years, Emma, suggested in a letter written to him before they were married.

‘May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.’

These were prescient words. If, as she later wrote to him, ‘it is feeling and not reasoning that drives one to prayer,’ it was clear that Darwin could never pray.

When he died in 1882 he was buried (against his wishes) in Westminster Abbey. Some complained at the honour paid to a controversial, agnostic scientist, who had been the cause of so many crises of faith.

But many more recognised that it was a suitable honour for a man who was not only a brilliant natural scientist but an unfailingly courteous, thoughtful and decent human being.

'Darwin and God' by Nick Spencer published by SPCK is out now

5 things you probably didn’t know about Charles Darwin:

• Darwin’s first published article was a defence of missionary work in the Pacific.

• Darwin was a lifelong opponent of slavery, calling it a “scandal to Christian Nations”.

• Darwin was a vigorous opponent of contraception, refusing to appear as a witness defending two atheists who were advocating birth control in 1877.

• He was an honorary member of the South American Missionary Society.

• He had a high opinion of (some) evangelistic work, telling a local evangelist, James Fegan, “Your services have done more for the village in a few months than all our efforts for many years.”