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Darwin on beliefs

14 February 2014

These were his study, too, says Andrew Davison

Wonder: one of Nancy Tillman's illustrations for Let There Be Light: The story of creation retold by Desmond Tutu (William Collins, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-007-55258-0)

Wonder: one of Nancy Tillman's illustrations for Let There Be Light: The story of creation retold by Desmond Tutu (William Collins, £7.99 (£7.20); 9...

The Evolving God: Charles Darwin on the naturalness of religion
J. David Pleins
Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT798 )

J. DAVID PLEINS sets out to do one thing, and he does it very well. He presents, and discusses, Charles Darwin's thought about God and religion.

This goes far further than addressing the chestnut whether, and at what stage, Darwin was a Christian believer, a more general theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, although that question is discussed carefully. Indeed, like the rest of the book, it is addressed with meticulous reference to primary texts: principally letters and notebooks, supplemented by accounts of conversations documented by others.

Darwin, as he emerges from these pages, is confirmed as a thinker of stature. His framework for reflection on religious matters was an evolutionary one - he was concerned with the evolution of religion and belief in God - as we might expect from evolution's pre-eminent theorist. Plein's book, then, gives us an account of both Darwin's evolving religious views and his thoughts about the evolution of religion. (Despite the misleading title, there is no sense here that God evolves.)

Pleins points out that controversies concerning physical evolution, sparked by The Origin of Species, during Darwin's lifetime and all the more in recent decades, have obscured our sense of the extent and significance of Darwin's work on the evolution of culture, belief, and ethics. Put simply: we would do well to remember that, after Origin, Darwin went on to write The Descent of Man. True enough, but, by sifting through the documentary evidence, Pleins shows that Darwin's interest in the evolution of belief and human society extended across much of his life, both before Descent and after. We also see that he read widely in this subject.

The provocations for Darwin's deep pondering on the evolution of religion are narrated skilfully. Darwin's travels, in particular, put him in a peculiarly privileged position here. For example, Darwin had first-hand experience of the religious life of what were then deemed "primitive cultures", on some occasions getting to know indigenous peoples well. He also saw some of the most extreme possible examples of what nature can present to evoke a religious response, from sublime grandeur to terrible suffering. He witnessed, for instance, the effects of an earthquake at first hand.

The place of death and suffering in natural history also deeply informed his more doctrinal, less anthropological, rumination on theological matters. Even the simple fact that Darwin spent so much time in Roman Catholic countries in Latin America is significant. For an Englishman, this was a provocation to realise that religious life is not monochrome.

Pleins's conclusion, which argues that one can be an evolutionist and a religious believer, is worth while but feels a little tacked on. At the heart, however, lies a sensible plea for contemporary debates to be as informed and thoughtful as Darwin's own - and as potentially eirenic: Darwin and his local parson got on famously, not least in common work on social projects. Darwin has more to offer contemporary religious thought than even his magisterial work on physical evolution would suggest.

The Revd Dr Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, and becomes the University's Starbridge Lecturer in April.

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