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Darwin and the British Secularist Tradition

Neil Thomas
Photo: Statue of Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, England, by en:User:Cj1340, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

One unwelcome result of the publishing success of the Origin of Species for Darwin was that its author had come to appear to some militant secularists as the unofficial patron saint of their own cause. The predominantly working-class radical movement simply styled Secularism, which had its origins in earlier decades of the 19th century, had been gathering steady momentum since the early 1850s.1 On one occasion in the late 1870s two of its leading lights, Charles Bradlaugh (pictured above, the first atheist member of the British parliament) and his associate Dr. Edward Aveling, a young biology professor, came to solicit the by now venerable Darwin’s support for their cause. Darwin was never less than polite to both, having extended to them the invitation to join him at his country home at Down House, but finally felt obliged to turn down both men’s requests that he endorse their enterprise.2 In contradistinction to the era following the author’s death, when persons can at will arrogate to themselves the Darwinian name in order to push their own interpretations and agendas, Darwin did at least in his own lifetime have the chance to turn down the self-interested appeals to him made by more aggressive secularists (Bradlaugh was a burly London East Ender who rather relished his frequent skirmishes with the police authorities).

Darwin’s reasons for refusing to lend the two petitioners his intellectual patronage were various. He maintained to the end of his days a residue of his earlier Christian faith and in later years was still apt to call himself a theist. He continued to harbor a nagging suspicion that there might be, in Thomas Huxley’s phrase, a “wider teleology” in nature’s processes far exceeding the naturalistic bounds of natural selection. Furthermore, on purely ethical grounds he felt that people should not be bludgeoned into changing their ideas. Also, in a kind of “not in front of the servants” reflex characteristic of the English upper classes (a sentiment which persisted right up the notorious trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the early 1960s) he felt that ordinary people might not yet be ready to hear the revolutionary truth of natural selection. Here, noted James Moore, “spoke the parish naturalist seeking not to disturb the social equilibrium.”3

In that regard, his anxieties were not entirely misplaced, for grassroots secularism had been closely linked with political radicalism ever since Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791-2) had laced ideals of political emancipation with extended critiques of Biblical anomalies worthy of the German Higher Criticism (except that Paine’s criticisms were couched in a rather more defamatory linguistic register). Paine, later to be driven into exile, was widely seen as a public enemy who had defended not only the French Revolution but also the American Revolution which only a century earlier had deprived Britain of its most valued overseas colony. The conservative bourgeois Darwin was then understandably wary of having his name linked with persons potentially capable of political insurrection. 

The arresting historical vignette of Darwin’s fraught meeting with Bradlaugh and Aveling at his country retreat would doubtless make for a good TV docudrama, but of far greater significance historically is the fact that this single episode shines a light on wider societal trends not always sufficiently heeded in discussing the reception of Darwinism, namely, those associated with the already well-established British secularist movement. 

Grassroots Challenges to Anglicanism

In examining the subject of Darwin’s philosophical precursors, much is conventionally made of two poems originally conceived about a decade before the publication of the Origin of Species, namely, Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach,” where Arnold imagined the melancholy withdrawal of the tide of (Christian) faith, and that of the poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” where grief for a deceased friend is broadened in scope to encompass the theme of the Victorian crisis of faith in a broader perspective. Such fine-feeling products of literary high culture are rightly adduced as important adumbrations of that greater loss of faith to be induced by people’s later acquaintance with Darwin’s work. Yet it should also be pointed out that other, more important harbingers of future events were in a sense hiding in plain sight (from many modern historical accounts, at any rate) in the thought and writings of denizens of less exalted echelons of society, as Timothy Larsen makes clear in his Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford: OUP, 2006, reprinted 2013), a work to which I will make frequent reference in what follows.

As Larsen documents, there had already been an atheistic newspaper in circulation from the early 1840s called The Oracle of Reason staffed by several “transmutationists” who accepted many pre-Darwinian speculations about evolution long before Darwin came on to the scene and even before the publication of that work widely seen as a prelude to Darwin’s Origin of Species, Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844. There was also a weekly penny periodical, The Plain Speaker, which ran for a short time in 1849, plus a whole host of secular societies nationwide. One of the secularists chronicled by Larsen, the indefatigable John Henry Gordon, is on record as presenting papers in 1861 to secularist societies in Leeds, Bramley (Greater Leeds area), and at a south London branch in 1862.

The movement was then not just a metropolitan phenomenon, and reference was routinely made to “the Northern circuit” of speaking engagements arranged for speakers. In the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was considerably less London-centric than is the case today and it was widely acknowledged that most important working-class movements and initiatives had originated and become widely diffused over what are now somewhat ruefully referred to as the old industrial heartlands (the equivalent of the American Rust Belt).

Learned Autodidacts

John Gordon and other speakers at such events were exceptionally well informed across a whole range of disciplines. Adrian Desmond pointed out some decades ago in his Politics of Evolution that many new ideas in this period were typically introduced not by conservative Oxbridge dons but by medical and scientific radicals. As Larsen remarks with regard to another prolific speaker, Thomas Cooper, “if in 1850 any Britons wished to have a serious encounter with the latest modern Biblical criticism, they would have been better off going to hear Cooper lecture than attending any British university.”4 This was an era in which formal higher education was the preserve of privilege and wealth, an exclusion which, however, spurred many enquiring minds to alternative, autodidactic expedients.

Although Darwin ostensibly provided a better explanation of evolutionary developments than predecessors in the form of what he touted as the vera causa of “natural selection,” in reality his ideas were no more extreme than ones long in circulation in the radical press and aired at the secularists’ public meetings. The English upper class’s virtual monopoly on higher education proved no impassable barrier to enquiring minds with access to public libraries and the pooling of collective knowledge facilitated by local learned societies. Many radicals had absorbed ideas from the System of Nature of the French materialist philosophe Baron d’Holbach (translated into English in 1797), and Erasmus Darwin’s ideas of evolution had been more or less common knowledge since the end of the 18th century.

The relative chronology is important here because the so-called plebeian writers and speakers were well ahead of the curve in their readiness to accept and promote “advanced” forms of intellectual speculation. An illuminating example of this chronological priority, discussed by Larsen, concerns the loss of faith suffered by Sir Leslie Stephen in the 1860s when he was no longer able to accept as literal truth the Biblical account of the flood and Noah’s Ark.5 Remarks Larsen,

From the perspective of plebeian radicals, what is surprising about this [loss of faith] is not the critique [of the Bible] but rather the late date. One could have gone to a freethinking hall decades earlier and heard a careful catalogue of reasons why the account of the flood, on a standard, literalist reading, could not be squared with what was known of geology, and how it was filled with a wide range of absurdities.6

“Like Christmas for Ex-Christians”7

The above chronology of events shows clearly that the “plebeians’” skepticism about the truth of Biblical revelation must have begun some decades before the publication of the Origin. For such radicals, the Origin must have represented not so much a surprised “Aha!” moment as a more confirmatory “Aha — I TOLD you so!” In other words, they will have welcomed the Origin as scientific vindication of a religious skepticism they had come to by a different route. Even if, like Thomas Huxley, one did not at the time think that the theory of natural selection made sense in purely scientific terms, it would certainly have provided many people with a very convenient confirmation of their disbelief (provided of course they were willing to abstain from questioning Darwin’s scientific postulates too closely!). The radicals must then have viewed the publication of the Origin as something of a very welcome deus ex machina in that here was Darwin wheeling out unheralded support for their cause, support which they could not have anticipated receiving in their wildest dreams before 1859. Arguably and somewhat perversely, Darwin’s most noteworthy contribution to what may be termed the forward march of ideas may be viewed as having been not so much to biology (the first reviewers were almost universally scathing) but to the cause of secularism. This of course was an unintended consequence and an unwanted “achievement” which we know from the riven state of Darwin’s mind in later age that he will have found deeply uncongenial.

Tomorrow, “Darwin, Group Think, and Confirmation Bias.”


  1. For details see Edward Royal, The Infidel Tradition: From Paine to Bradlaugh (London: MacMillan, 1976) and for a detailed contextualization Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine and Reform in Radical London (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992).
  2. On Darwin’s distinctly awkward dealings with both men see James Moore, The Darwin Legend (London; Hodder and Stoughton, 1994), pp. 23-9.
  3. Moore, The Darwin Legend, p. 28.
  4. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, pp. 82-3.
  5. See Noel Annan, Leslie Stephen, the Godless Victorian (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 45. Cf. also Larsen, pp. 247-8.
  6. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, p. 248.
  7. The phrase is that of Jennifer Hecht, Doubt: A History (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 407.