- Autograph letter signed, to James Grant. Down Beckenham, March 11, 1878.
- paper, ink
Darwin in a detailed and thoughtful response to a curious young reader, a James Grant, who, on March 6, 1878, asked: "...I would... be much obliged to you if you would, in two or three words, simply tell me if your doctrine of the descent of man destroys the evidence of the existence of a God looked at through nature’s phenomena." Darwin's response in full: "March 11, 1878. Private.
I should have been very glad to have aided you in any degree if it had been in my power. But to answer your question would require an essay, and for this I have not strength, being much out of health. Nor, indeed, could I have answered it distinctly and satisfactorily with any amount of strength. The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me, is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy.
I have touched on one point of difficulty in the two last pages of my “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,” but I am forced to leave the problem insoluble.
No man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires.
Dear Sir, yours faithfully, Ch. Darwin. "
Darwin's religious beliefs had been the subject of debate since the publication of his earth-shattering work On the Origin of Species in 1859, and many assumed him to be an atheist after reading the book. This assumption was so wide-spread, that many people, including the correspondent of the present letter, were reluctant to read On the Origin of Species for fear that it would threaten their faith. Darwin's wife Emma was religious, and the pair often discussed questions of Christianity openly together; Charles never hid his uncertainties from Emma, but as far as we know, he never professed atheism to her or anyone else. Over time, Emma became more devout in her religious beliefs, particularly after the devastating death of their eldest daughter Anne at the age of ten (two others died in infancy), and out of love for Emma, Charles avoided speaking on questions of religion. Two years after the present letter was written, Darwin stated in a letter penned to the atheist and staunch Darwinian evolution spokesperson Edward Aveling "It has ... always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion." It is not surprising to note that Darwin's beliefs regarding the existence of God were very similar to the beliefs held by Einstein - the two, like many others who choose to base their beliefs on empirical evidence, both denied being atheists, and Einstein is often quoted as saying "I am not an atheist.... the problem involved is too vast for our minds." Darwin too denied being an atheist stating "In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more & more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." The two did however express a disbelief in religion and the bible, with Einstein saying in a letter to philosopher Gutkind in response to his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt: "The word God is for me nothing more that the expression and the product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish...the Jewish religion, like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition..." The letter sold at auction in 2008 for £170,000.
Letters that deal so directly with the theological implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection are exceptionally rare, and the present letter is one of only two to have ever come to auction. The other, which sold at Bonhams in 2015 for $197,000, very directly shows that Darwin and Einstein shared the same beliefs in regards religion and the Bible, as he states "...I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God."