In the summer of 2006, I had the fortune to visit the home of Charles Darwin, thanks to the thoughtfulness of my sister and brother-in-law who we were visiting in London for our holidays.
Down House, tucked away in the Kentish countryside, has changed little since Darwin’s time. The main floor has been restored to the condition it was in when Emma, Charles’ wife, died. The upper level is a museum with displays of his life, his travels and his ideas. Outside, the garden and his research greenhouse are kept up, as well as the famous Sandwalk, the “thinking path” where he took his daily strolls.
It was a sort of pilgrimage for me, visiting the home of the humble scientist and father. Here, at Down House, one of the greatest ideas of the western world was developed. It was here that he laboured over his ideas on natural selection, and it was from here, pushed by a letter from Alfred Wallace, that he finally released his ideas to the world. On the 24 of November 1859, The Origin of Species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, was published, and humanity’s view of their place in the scheme of life and the universe was changed forever.
My own background is one of faith, the faith of my parents, the protestant beliefs of the Dutch reformation which is at the root of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The CRC was formed because “The Reformed Church in the Netherlands began to show its share of moral decay and of theological liberalism – the latter largely spurred on by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that idolized human reason at the expense of Bible-based faith.“ (From the CRC web page, accessed 3 August 2022) In other words, until I left home at the age of 18 my life was one where faith had a greater hold than reason. It would take several years from that point to lose my all my faith in Christianity.
However, the origins of my loss of faith began, rather innocently, almost a decade earlier. Since about the age of 8, an interest in Nature began to develop. In Canada in the 1960s (and before I discovered books) Walt Disney documentaries and Jacques Cousteau expeditions held my attention. However, the real turning point for me was the destination of the latest family migration – we were off to South Africa.
Africa! That word: how it rang and resonated in the imagination of a 9-year-old child! Images of Daktari, Born Free, and Tarzan … who would not be filled with expectation and excitement? In 1969 the family moved to the Republic of South Africa and a new stage of life began.
In South Africa a solid love of nature and wildlife took hold. At the time it was a TV-free nation, so radio, books and libraries became my sources of learning and entertainment. For a few years we lived on the veldt, and later near the Indian Ocean, so we had many opportunities to experience some of South Africa’s wildlife at first hand. I was also a denizen of school and public libraries. My mentors were a variety of authors, including Gerald Durrel, David Attenborough, Jacque Cousteau, the photographers Eric Hosking and Heather Angel, as well as the fiction of Willard Price. National Geographic was my magazine of choice then, and I looked forward to each new edition eagerly. Thus, as I grew into my early teens, most of my pleasure was found in books and the natural world.
But this was still a long stride from my learning about Darwin. At age 16 I returned to Canada with the family, (minus our sister, who had taken a different path), and we naturally reconnected with the local Christian Reformed Church. As a good Christian family, we attended services every Sunday, and I joined, for a brief time, the CRC catechism classes. It was at this point my first doubts about the church began to set in. It was a community of faith for sure, but it often felt more like a Dutch social club. The CRC youth were no better or worse than the students I went to public school with. I could find no friends among the faithful.
When I moved away from the family to live alone at age 18, my Christian faith seemed to briefly strengthen. I read C.S Lewis and other Christian authors avidly and began some attempts at Bible study. I began to see conflicts, contradictions and downright fallacies in “the word of God” that I had not noticed before. As I expanded my reading, I became aware that there was a whole field of historians that were examining the Bible with the same integrity with which scientists studied nature, and they too were finding discrepancies. Indeed, I found out that critical Biblical studies have gone back at least as far as the Enlightenment. I remember once, questioning the pastor of my parent’s church, during a visit on a Sunday. During the conversation, I was able to bring forward one of the issues I had found. (I can no longer remember the issue; it may have been the two varying accounts of the creation). He answered honestly, that it was something mentioned in his theological studies, but he offered no explanation for the discrepancy. I was amazed. The conversation moved on, and I was left unsettled. Was there a whole generation of ministers out there preaching biblical inerrancy, the Bible as God’s inspired word, without error or fault, while knowing there was much to contradict it? And why was the flock so docile and unquestioning? I dropped out of catechism, and began to decline attending church with family.
I won’t list all the issues I found with the Bible at that time, much of which can now be found online. However, I looked into other religions and began to see a common trend: they all had their own rituals, prayers, charity and taboos; they all involved some sort of leaps of logic. They were all part and parcel of cultural communities of faith, as was the CRC. You didn’t find faith through reason, you merely accepted it because you were born into that religious community, or you were convinced of it due to some sort of emotional need. More chips fell off my pillar of faith.
Another reason I began to doubt revolved around the character of Christ himself, as revealed in “God’s word”. Why send 2000 pigs to their doom? Why curse the fig tree for not bearing fruit? Why did his prophecies for the timing of his second coming fail? Is nothing really impossible for those of even a little faith, the faith the size of a mustard seed? Was he the Messiah, or did he just think he was the Messiah, or are these just ideas inserted at a later time, after the crucifixion? Did he believe he was god?
Why would a good god permit so much suffering on earth? Why did the Christian God threaten with the punishment of eternal hellfire? Why are prayers, which are often made with compassion, greeted with silence? Simple objections, that Christian’s will respond to with ideas of freewill, choices, a better life afterwards, blah blah blah…but when you try to understand, for instance, the over 16 million lives (16000000+) that perished in the Nazi Holocaust, most of whom were desperately praying, and over 6 million whom were “God’s Chosen People”; how then can you find solace in faith and the idea of a loving God? In my mind, faith in such a God began to appear more than absurd, it was obscene.
19 “Again I (Jesus) say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”Matthew 18, NKJV.
My doubts about Christianity increased when I looked more closely at the church of Christ. I don’t have to rehash the history of the church and the harm it has often done. It is enough to look at the present: see how the orthodox church is supporting the murderous despot Putin, while conservative Christians in the United States continue to boost the anti-democratic, gun-loving Republicans and the would-be despot Trump. Look at how Christians are often the driving force behind the hatred of the non-heterosexual population… where now is the good God? I don’t deny that some Christians and some churches have done good in the world, but that goodness seems to be independent of any real influence by a god.
Working and living in the city, my ties with nature were limited to weekends and holidays. I continued to read books and watch TV documentaries on nature and the environment. Evolution was often mentioned but I did not examine it. I enjoyed watching David Suzuki’s, The Nature of Things on CBC, and he often spoke of how species were adapted to their environment. I sent him a letter, praising the show, but questioning his constant referencing of evolution. Unfortunately, I have mislaid the postcard that he responded with, but he thanked me for my letter, and said words to the effect of, that evolution was well established science. Evolution happens, species change.
It had come to the point that I simply had to face the subject. I came across an illustrated copy of The Origin (abridged and introduced by Richard Leakey, Rainbird Publishing 1979) and I began to earnestly attempt to understand Darwin’s theory.
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by Charles Darwin. Using evidence gathered from his voyages on the HMS Beagle and supported by his own research and his prodigious correspondence with other scientists and professionals, Darwin was led to the conclusion that species are changeable and natural selection is one way they can change. The facts are plain to any of us who observe our pets: individuals (in populations of a species) can vary, and these variations are inheritable. Added to this, he observed that all life produces more offspring than can possibly survive and that the survivors will pass on the beneficial traits of survival to their offspring. He anticipated most of the arguments against his theory and presented his evidence against those apprehensions. I have since read the unabridged book, and I have enjoyed it as well. It was, and is still, a well-rounded and simply written book that any layman could read.
When the book was released in 1859, it had many detractors among theologians as well as prominent scientists such as Richard Owen and Louis Agassiz, but he also gained the support of other scientists like T.H. Huxley and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. When I read his book, (and with an elementary understanding of genetics) I could see how logical and how beautiful his argument was. It was to be the final nail in the coffin of my already tenuous faith in God, which was founded on the Bible being God’s word. Darwin’s argument, while not intended to do so, had for me, effectively and finally disembowelled the sacredness of scripture.
Since publication, science has continuously bolstered most of Darwin’s arguments, yet still there are still many creationists in a handful of faiths that continue to deny the science because it weakens the sacredness of their holy books.
Today I am an agnostic that lives like an atheist. I see no evidence of a god at all, never mind a god that is worthy of worship. Yet I am not blind to my own history, and I cannot deny my Christian cultural upbringing, for good or ill. The Bible can still be a source of wisdom, remembering that it is an ancient, man-made collection of spurious documents. If you filter it more strenuously then the fundamentalists, it may even provide surprisingly recognisable advice, and the quote selected below is a fitting way to end this post…
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.Ecclesiastes 3:19
(Adapted from a post at my defunct blog, A Natural Selection, 24 Feb. 2007)