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Darwin, Lyell, and a Tale of Two Faiths

Neil Thomas
Charles Darwin statue Shrewsbury
Photo: Statue of Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury Library, by Bs0u10e01 / CC BY-SA.

On Friday I compared the views of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin regarding the interpretation of their findings, respectively in geology and biology, springing from their different understandings of faith. (See “Darwin, Lyell, and Demythologization.”) Darwin found himself in the unhappy position of having his own faith undermined by what he saw as the non-directed and godless processes both of geological and biological evolutionHe was at the same time beset by scriptural doubts. He thought the Old Testament with its Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign of future hope, and other such marvels was presenting a manifestly false picture of the world’s history. The narrative discrepancies in the New Testament Gospels had an equally unsettling effect on him. Miracles of any sort he regarded as incredible in the light of what science had discovered about the unvarying laws of nature. He was especially offended by the idea of eternal hellfire since he concluded that this would condemn his free-thinking father, brother, and many of his friends to undeserved torment in the afterlife. Ultimately his doubts spread to encompass the truth status of Christian revelation in the widest sense.

Nick Spencer has observed that Darwin’s faith had from the start been more rooted in the dogmas and externals of the Christian faith than in an inward experience of the divine.1 In modern parlance, his faith might be termed a form of Christian literalism or fundamentalism rather than an experience of personal transformation. Lyell’s faith on the other hand was of a quite different order. Accepting the fact that science of whatever stripe was unable to penetrate into the deeper mysteries of life, his geological studies never caused him to waver from his position of staunch Anglican churchmanship. His Christian faith remained a thing apart from and unaffected by his professional work and he “had no difficulty thinking that the universe was far older than conventional religion asserted.”2 For Lyell this did nothing to undermine the spirit of his Christian faith as the term spirit had been developed in later 18th- and early 19th-century theological thought.3

Lyell felt that Darwinism did not and in the very nature of things could not provide convincing answers to the problems it claimed to solve because the existential questions Darwin attempted to confront and adjudicate on lay beyond the proper domain of empirical science and its delimited methodological parameters. Lyell might perhaps be imagined as an early exponent of what Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould would later formalize in his conception of the “non-overlapping magisteria” of religion and science (= distinct specialisms with their own epistemological boundaries). Furthermore, in his relaxed attitude to what he took to be the superimposed accretions of Biblical mythology, Lyell found himself in increasingly numerous and sophisticated company among the elite of English society since “doubting the veracity of the Bible was almost a pastime of Victorian intellectuals.”4 So that even in the earlier decades of the 19th century few British naturalists believed in the story of a universal flood because they had begun to interpret Genesis allegorically. Indeed, many of Darwin’s friends and colleagues, such as Sedgwick and Henslow, even the pious skipper of the Beagle, Fitzroy, were open to metaphorical readings of the Pentateuch. Darwin himself, on the other hand, remained stubbornly behind the curve of such developments in Christian thought.

Miracles: An “Antecedently Improbable Embarrassment”

Of particular relevance to the Lyell/Darwin nexus of concern was an essay contributed to that avant-garde collection of theological articles with the deceptively anodyne title of Essays and Reviews (1860).5 One essay by academic and future Bishop of Carlisle Harvey Goodwin pointed to the fallibility of Mosaic cosmology, by which he meant what he regarded as the mythological accounts of the Creation, Garden of Eden, and other mirabilia associated with the Pentateuch. Clearly influenced by Lyell’s geological work in the 1830s, Goodwin redefined (or “demythologized”) the Biblical six days of creation allegorically, not as units of 24 hours but as geological eras. Genesis should not, argued Goodwin, be read as if it were a specialist’s geological account. In line with this new way of thinking, another of the essayists, Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, wrote of Biblical miracles as being an “antecedently improbable embarrassment” to modern readers, advocating a reading of the Bible which “did not go out of nature and beyond reason.” People’s faith, he averred, should be strong enough to endure without meretricious miracles. Goodwin and Powell clearly saw themselves as mouthpieces for a form of progressive revelation which had advanced a long way from an older position of Biblical literalism.6

Lyell and Theology

Lyell himself did not contribute formally to the Essays and Reviews, but Goodwin’s essay is a clear example of the geologist’s immense influence on the churchmanship of his day. Indeed, given the strong association of the data of the Bible with geology for churchgoers in the earlier 19th century, it is clear that Lyell was in all but name engaged in the project of demythologization more than a century before Bultmann, albeit of course primarily in the interests of geological rather than theological understanding. Yet the theological implications of his Principles of Geology were clear enough: reading Lyell would for example have made it abundantly clear to all but confirmed Biblical literalists that the world was not made in six days but rather evolved over countless millions of years.

Orthodoxy and Modernism

Darwin and Lyell then may be viewed as standing on either side of the fault line that divided and to some extent continues to divide the Christian world to this day. On the one hand we have Lyell representing an important straw in the wind blowing in the direction of future liberal developments in theological thinking. Darwin by contrast remained caught up in old ways of thinking opposed by Lyell and later thinkers in the progressive trend which eventually led to Bultmann and the many theologians who took their cue from Bultmann in the later decades of the 20th century. I refer here to such figures in the British context as Bishop John Robinson in his Honest to God7 from the 1960s or, some decades later, to Bishop David Jenkins in his Bultmann-inspired rejection of precise dogmas and miracles such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, walking on water, all of which he glossed as the exuberant result of Jesus’ early followers’ faith. In an interview with Philip Whitehead for the BBC’s Credo program in the 1980s, Whitehead summed up Jenkins’s thinking in the following terms (which Jenkins endorsed): 

Churchmen like Professor Jenkins stand by the idea of Jesus as God because of their faith nourished by personal experience of God’s close involvement with the world, of which they see Jesus as the ultimate revelation. However, instead of casting out those who regard Jesus not as God but as a mortal human being acting as God’s agent, churchmen like the Bishop-Elect of Durham are prepared to welcome them as Christians. And that is a big change indeed for the Church of England.8

Fundamentalism and Postmodernity

As the result of the increasing trend towards demythologization, most modern theologians now tend to regard the Bible as an important spiritual guide but one to be consulted critically with regard to its seemingly mythological features and with an appropriate awareness of the human fallibility of its original compilators. Those who, adhering to an older Christian orthodoxy, demand yes or no answers in questions of spirituality inevitably tend to be alienated by this approach, and it appears that it was Darwin’s lack of theological sophistication which ultimately led him to the position of doubt which was to so torment him throughout his life. This was in fact pointed out to him at the time by his wife, Emma, when she counselled him not to expect the same standards of literal truth in religion as he sought in science. Her words, however, failed to convince her husband any more than it is likely that they would convince Darwin’s most indefatigable modern disciple, Richard Dawkins.

Just as Darwin’s faith foundered on Biblical miracles and the doctrine of eternal hellfire, Dawkins’s early faith lapsed when he was confronted by the same array of supernatural claims, alongside his aversion to the doctrine of Original Sin.9 Dawkins to this day still holds out against those who have pleaded with him to “get with the program” of 21st-century thinking on these issues. His aggressive positivism and firm insistence that there is such an entity as inalienable truth (to which he bears witness) are regarded by his critics as an outdated residue of older 19th-century thinking and a consequential failure to keep pace with intellectual trends of the 20th and 21st centuries.10 Others might view his intransigence as an inability to understand and empathize with the quintessential core of Christianity.


  1. Spencer, Darwin and God (London: SPCK, 2009), p. 43.
  2. Robert Reiss, Sceptical Christianity: Exploring Credible Belief (London, 2009), p. 29.
  3. Already in the previous century the German dramatist Lessing had opposed Biblical literalism and drawn a firm distinction between the letter and spirit of the Bible (“Der Buchstabe ist nicht der Geist”). See Henry Chadwick, Lessing’s Theological Writings (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1957).
  4. Spencer, Darwin and God, p. 42.
  5. A group of liberal churchmen and thinkers came together to publish essays influenced by what was then termed the German Higher Criticism. Those essays revisited the disparate textual traditions on which the Bible came to be based “with no presumption of inerrancy,” to use the phrase of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who early on saw the Bible as having rested on inspiration and yet “an inspiration guided by fallible human hands.” See Josef Altholz, Anatomy of a Controversy: The Debate over “Essays and Reviews” (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994).
  6. It might be noted that medieval theology embraced allegorical and metaphorical readings of the Bible under the rubric of what was termed the four-fold exegesis of Scripture and that even some early Church Fathers did not view the days in Genesis 1 literally as units of 24 hours. See David Knight, Science and Spirituality: The Volatile Connection (London; Routledge, 2004), p. 60.
  7. See the essays in Honest to God: Forty Years On, edited by Colin Slee (London: SCM, 2004).
  8. See David Jenkins’s autobiography, The Calling of a Cuckoo (London and NY: Continuum), 2003, p. 33.
  9. See Ransom Poythress, Richard Dawkins (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2018) and Dawkins’s An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist(London: Bantam, 2013), pp. 139-40.
  10. Richard Harries has pointed out how Dawkins’s scientific formation disallows any accommodation with “postmodernism and those who emphasize the cultural relativity of all views.” See Harries’s essay, “A Fellow Humanist,” in Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 236-42, citation p. 240.