Auctioned letter by Darwin made recent headlines but his lack of faith is very old news

It was recently reported that a letter Darwin had written in November of 1880 revealed (to quote the headline, itself quoting the letter), “I do not believe in the Bible,” thereby ending all ambiguity about Darwin sitting on the fence between faith and unbelief. The letter entered the news because it sold for the more-than-handsome sum of $197,000 at an auction in New York.

The letter was written in response to an inquiry by one Francis McDermott whose reading of Darwin’s work had obviously been edging him toward his own fence. “If I am to have pleasure in reading your books I must feel that at the end I shall not have lost my faith in the New Testament,” wrote McDermott. “My reason in writing to you therefore is to ask you to give me a Yes or No to the question Do you believe in the New Testament.”

Darwin’s reply, and a short one it was: “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.”

But this is only news if we have accepted the usual stories—indeed, myths—about Darwin’s alleged struggle between faith and doubt. The usual story we’ve been fed is that he was a faithful Bible-believing Anglican until he discovered incontrovertible evidence for evolution on his 1831-1836 journey on the HMS Beagle (mythical option 1), or until spiritually broken by the death of his beloved daughter Anne (mythical option 2).

The truth is that Darwin’s unbelief was a family inheritance, as was his adherence to a godless account of evolution, reaching back through his father, Robert, to his grandfather, Erasmus. Charles could have written that letter long before he ever set foot on the Beagle.

Erasmus Darwin, Charles grandfather, set the tone for the generations of Darwins to come. He was an enlightenment skeptic of Christianity, a Unitarian bending happily toward atheism, who wrote a bestselling book—an international blockbuster of the day—setting forth a theory of evolution, Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life (1794). The Darwin name was famously connected to evolution over fifty years before Charles would publish his own version of evolutionary theory in The Origin of Species. While Erasmus died before Charles was born, Charles read Zoonomia long before he sailed away on the Beagle (in fact, we know that he read it before 1826).

Erasmus’ son, Robert, followed firmly in his father’s footsteps as a skeptic, although for social purposes kept his advocacy of evolution private. Robert chose as the family crest three scallop shells, emblazoned with the motto, E conchis omnia, or “all things from shells,” a tight statement of Robert’s view that, contrary to the biblical account of creation, everything including human beings had come about through natural transmutation (the trendy name for evolution at the time).

Charles Darwin studied with radical transmutationist, Robert Grant, during his second year at medical school (1826-1827). Grant was a great admirer of Erasmus’s evolutionary treatise, and both he and young Charles Darwin had read Lamarck, another early evolutionary thinker. Charles was also a happy member of the Plinian Society, a student group that regularly heard and debated the most recent radical materialistic views that called into question everything about Christian orthodoxy.

But Darwin flunked out of medical school, and his frustrated father set him up to become a country Anglican parson—not because Charles or Robert were believers, but because that’s where the upper class sent ne’er-do-well sons so that they would at least have a “living.” For Charles, it was a chance to be a paid naturalist, delivering tepid sermons while spending most of his time chasing beetles through the countryside (the passion that undermined his performance at medical school).

It is precisely here that Darwin himself confuses us about the real state of his belief. He famously wrote in his Autobiography about his switch in careers from doctor to parson-to-be, that “as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.” So, we are led to believe, it was off to be a priest in 1828, faith intact!

To ask the obvious, knowing Charles Darwin’s skeptical background, both his family’s and his own, how seriously can we take his claim that he was a biblical literalist? How likely is it that, against the current of his own grandfather and father, he was swimming toward Christianity, rather than politely away from it when he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge at the beginning of 1828?

One has legitimate doubts about Darwin’s veracity. But even if he momentarily lapsed into biblical literalism during his short stay at Christ’s College, there can be no doubt that by the time he got off the HMS Beagle, he had returned to a purely materialist account of evolution modeled on his grandfather’s and father’s, as is clear from his “M Notebook” of 1838.

As to religion, in the “M Notebook” Darwin scribbled, “It is an argument for materialism, that cold water brings on suddenly in head, a frame of mind, analogous to those feelings, which may be considered as truly spiritual.”

Charles Darwin penned that thought 21 years before he published his Origin of Species, and 42 years before the allegedly revelatory letter of 1880 announcing to poor Francis McDermott that “I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”

Eight years before Darwin wrote that letter to McDermott, he published his Descent of Man (1872), in which he quite openly provided an evolutionary explanation of human rationality, morality, and religion entirely from the random variation and natural selection of traits seen in other animals. If there was any doubt about where Darwin stood in relation to the Bible and Jesus Christ before that, there could be, and should be, none thereafter.

And that’s why the letter of 1880 is no news.