Some Christians Protest Darwin's Birthday. Is Their Antagonism Misplaced?

In an interview, one of the authors of Darwin's Sacred Cause argues Darwin was motivated by his faith.


Not everyone is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Some are protesting. A Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis is holding anti-Darwin conferences on the East and West coasts this month, aimed at helping Americans "understand that Darwinian evolution is wrong and that it has undermined the Christian faith and has fueled social ills like racism and abortion." Faith-based opposition to Darwin is hardly consigned to the religious fringe. A recent Pew survey found that fewer than 10 percent of evangelical Christians believe life evolved through natural selection. Secular Americans were the only respondents who voiced majority support for the theory.

A new book, Darwin's Sacred Cause, argues that Christian antagonism toward Darwin is misplaced. Acclaimed Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore portray a Christian Darwin who was driven by his faith-based opposition to slavery to prove the common origin of the human race. A theory of common human decency, Darwin believed, would undermine a key precept of the slave trade: that blacks comprise an inferior race separate from whites. Moore talked to U.S. News this week. Excerpts:

You write that Darwin hailed from an actively abolitionist family but that he was quieter about his antis lavery views than most of them.

You could say that he was more outspoken in that he made a lot bigger noise than they did, because he published Origin of Species and we're talking about him today. But Darwin was personally reticent. He followed events in the United States very keenly, but his abolitionism—and I think it's fair to say abolitionism—took the form of undermining the ideological foundations of race segregation and slavery—or, as people have come to call it today, scientific racism—by showing the common descent of all races. Why do you call Darwin's antislavery views a "sacred cause"?

The phrase "sacred cause" is Darwin's. He didn't mean it was a spiritual, otherworldly pursuit. It was a sacred cause because it had already been called a sacred cause among English abolitionists. The word came up so many times that we had to purge it from our book—sacred this and sacred that. The tradition that Darwin belonged to, Unitarianism, taught that all believers die and are resurrected at the end of time to face the final judgment and to live forever in perfected creation. There was no heaven or hell in a sense, only a future state or perfection. Darwin's end was never about getting people off a sinking ship and into a spiritual realm where everything was perfect. Darwin and his family were interested in perfecting this world.

The unity of his faith and his humanitarianism was instilled in him from his youth. Darwin acquired his foundational belief in the brotherhood of all humans of all races when he was baptized, at 9 months. Even when he couldn't believe all the things he had been taught—he certainly gave up belief in Adam and Eve and, eventually, in the Bible as a moral authority—the unity of the human family was his bottom line.

How religious was the young Darwin?

When Darwin goes to Cambridge, he is expected to become an ordained clergyman in the Church of England. At Cambridge, he mixed with men whose theological views were indistinguishable from modern-day American fundamentalists: belief in the Bible, even if not as a textbook of science, and Adam and Eve. When he embarked on the Beagle voyage [his global fact-finding mission], he said he was so in captivity to the word of Scripture that he was able to quote the Bible as a moral authority. He was so priggish that his shipmates laughed at him for it. How did a religious idea like the brotherhood of man meaningfully influence Darwin's scientific quest?

Science always begins with certain assumptions. Darwin took certain things for granted, like laws of nature, regularities established by God. Laws of creation, that's what Darwin wanted to find. Another thing Darwin took for granted was the brotherhood of man. It was the air he breathed. It would be immoral for him to believe otherwise. The really key statement that Darwin makes in his notebooks is where he says, "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals." What that brings together is a moral, theological, and scientific judgment.