Monday, 15 September 2008

Disingenuous: C of E on Darwin

The religious biography that the Church of England presents of Charles Darwin (1809-82) by Malcolm Brown is disingenuous and Anglican-biased. It fails to admit the connection Darwin had with Unitarianism. I wonder why that might be?

This is the passage from the main opening webpage provided by the Church of England website on Darwin:

What is extraordinary is that Darwin was surrounded by the influence of the Church his entire life. Having attended one of the best Church of England boarding schools in the country in Shrewsbury, he trained to be a clergyman in Cambridge; was inspired to follow his calling into science by another clergyman who lived and breathed botany; and married into a staunch Anglican family (see the section Darwin and the Church).

Despite this exposure to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Darwin showed his human side by slowly losing his personal Christian faith...

I call these statements Constipated Anglicanese: they ignore the complexity of influences in Victorian society for one of its intellectuals under the influence of strong families, where Josiah Wedgwood was grandfather to both Charles and his wife Emma - and he was a Unitarian, and it was that religious connection that brought the Darwins and Wedgwoods closer together again in the marriage of Charles and Emma.

The Shrewsbury Unitarian chapel commemorates the connection in his early boyhood attendance. Darwin's mother, as a Unitarian, took him to that church, but she wanted the boys in particular christened in the Church of England. In those days the Church of England was the only clearly established route to social and educational progress (leading universities were not open to dissenters). However, he went to school run by the Unitarian Minister, Rev Case.

Emma's Unitarianism was identifiably Christian, which Darwin sought to protect, but still one that promoted conscience and feeling over scriptural authority.

The Darwin Correspondence Project shows the nature of the Unitarianism as a basis for Emma's views. Her beliefs came about through study and questioning. Anglicanism provided respectability (and means to progress), but Unitarianism provided much reading material, initial and other schooling, and socialising with leading Unitarian clergymen, such as James Martineau and John James Taylor. A key person in the family for them meeting these Unitarians was Charles Darwin's brother Erasmus, and Emma's brother, Hensleigh Wedgwood (with his wife Fanny).

As an adult Charles Darwin was not a Christian, nor a Unitarian, but purely agnostic and who regarded religion as needing a different from of evidence from science. Such was consistent with the views of James Martineau, John James Taylor, and Francis Newman, the brother of John Henry Newman and often forgotten today - Newman himself went from Evangelicalism via Unitarianism to agnosticism.

Emma had a habit of getting the family to turn round in silence to face the rest of the congregation when the congregation stood in an Anglican Church to recite the trinitarian creed.

Unlike the argument given on Church of England website, which is a more recent and general view of absence of a clash between science and religion, Darwin did see a clash between the result of his studies and the beliefs drawn from the Bible and the Christian traditions. He did want to accommodate religion briefly, such as Charles Kingsley's view about a deity setting forward primal forms of evolving life: however, he did not publish directly about religion, and his autobiography is brief about religion and intended a short personal history related to his family.

For the Victorians and surely at a basic level, the Bible includes the kinds of statements that are subject to scientific verification, and which are found lacking. The earth was created in six days, it is flat, it does not move, and there was placed a first man who produced the first woman; it includes statements of the ages of people that are impossible and in the New Testament it has a three decker universe, a belief in last days, and that a virgin did give birth. Now such statements may not be scientifically credible and have a deeper mythic meaning, but they are nevertheless statements that are potentially open to falsification. If you take the Martineau or Emma Darwin view, then the book is as one example of a higher meaning of religion accessed by religious conscience and feeling, which does mean that religion is subjected to a different form of investigation that that provided by science. One can say now that the Bible is history-like, science-like and biography-like in its various accounts.

All this is far from the impression of this section of the Church of England website, who sees Darwin as losing his faith despite being Anglican in upbringing and in an Anglican family, with a view that science and religion need not clash at all. The website section is a travesty to history and to Charles Darwin.

Darwin Correspondence Project, Belief: historical essay: 'What did Darwin believe?' in Darwin Correspondence Project, URL:, homepage at,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/, Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, and elsewhere (Accessed 15 September 2008, 17:10).

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