On this “Darwin Day,” commemorating the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809, we address the issue of Darwin’s own belief in God, given his authorship of the famed Theory of Evolution.

Darwin was raised Unitarian, but attended schools aligned with the Anglican (English) Church. He attended Cambridge University on his way to becoming an Anglican parson. At Cambridge, he took courses in natural history which piqued his interest. Many clergy members were naturalists, as natural science was seen as a manifestation of the wonders of God’s creation. Darwin was particularly drawn to the works of the Reverend William Paley who advanced a theory that nature proves the existence of a Creator, but also maintains that evil is independent of God. Darwin wrote of Paley’s Natural Theology, “I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more. I could almost formerly have said it by heart.”

Before embarking on life in the clergy, Darwin joined the H.M.S. Beagle on its journey around the world from December 1831 through October 1836 to survey natural phenomena around the globe. After the voyage, Darwin wrote in his autobiography that during the trip he was orthodox in his belief in the veracity of the Christian Biblical narrative, but over time he became skeptical.

By early 1837, when Darwin began writing about his famous theory on the evolution of the species, he viewed his ideas as a departure from the traditional dogma with which he was raised. Paley’s theory on theodicy (why bad things happen to good people) proved unconvincing to Darwin. Darwin stopped attending church in 1849, although his wife and children did continue their affiliation.

After the 1859 publication of Darwin’s magnum opus, “On the Origin of the Species,” many reviewers highlighted the compatibility of Darwin’s theory with the belief in God, while others saw it as proof that Darwin was an atheist. The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Darwin never shut the door on the existence of God describing himself as “agnostic.” He consistently refused to allow his writings and theory to serve as proof for atheism, although he did admit that he no longer believed in the Biblical account of a Divine revelation or in the Christian views of Jesus. Darwin wrote “In most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” In Darwin’s posthumously published autobiography, he addressed his receding belief in orthodox Christianity. This chapter, initially excised by Darwin’s wife and son, was published in 1958 by Darwin’s daughter Nora Barlow.

Judaism’s Oral Tradition that accompanies and explains the Biblical text, can accommodate the theory of evolution more comfortably than many Christian denominations. Jewish theology can draw on literature and opinions that allow for some nuance in the creation narrative, which, without commentary, is very cryptic.

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