Darwin has a go at the Catholic church

Freedom of thought will best be promoted by that gradual enlightening of the human understanding which follows the progress of science. I have therefore always avoided writing about religion and have confined myself to science.

Charles Darwin, 1880
The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (F. Darwin, Ed.)

(…but see comments below!)

Although Darwin undoubtedly did avoid writing about the thorny, old subject of religion, he did occasionally make passing comment on the subject, such as in this passage from The Voyage of the Beagle:

A strong desire is always felt to ascertain whether any human being has previously visited an unfrequented spot. A bit of wood with a nail in it, is picked up and studied as if it were covered with hieroglyphics. Possessed with this feeling, I was much interested by finding, on a wild part of the coast, a bed made of grass beneath a ledge of rock. Close by it there had been a fire, and the man had used an axe. The fire, bed, and situation showed the dexterity of an Indian; but he could scarcely have been an Indian, for the race is in this part extinct, owing to the Catholic desire of making at one blow Christians and Slaves.

In their book Darwin's Sacred Cause, Desmond and Moore claim, with more than a little supporting evidence, that Darwin's abhorrence of slavery heavily influenced his scientific thinking. It was certainly a subject very close to his heart—which perhaps goes some way to explaining his uncharacteristic dig at religion in the above passage.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…


  1. Ooh! That's interesting. I don't know, is the honest answer. One to look into, I think. I suspect the quote from the letter you refer to is an entirely separate quote. Darwin must have had to clarify his position on religion many times, so it wouldn't be surprising if he used similar/stock phrases.

  2. I've been doing some more research. This isn't the first time I've used the Darwin quote at the top of this post, so I struggled to remember where I originally pinched it from. Turns out it was from this essay by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould cites his source for the quote as: F. Darwin, Ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (Murray, London, 1888), vol.1, p. 304.

    The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin actually came out in 1887. p.304 is indeed the opening page on the chapter about Darwin's religious views, but it doesn't contain anything like the quote given by Gould (and copied by me)—not even the phrase "freedom of thought". So either Gould was mistaken, or he was working from a different edition of the book.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

    I suppose I'm going to have to amend my previous posts which use this quote now!

  3. That's weird, I'm not finding the quote you use in any Life and Letters on Darwin Online nor Google Books.

    I'm almost tempted to think that someone changed "the gradual illumination of men's minds" to "that gradual enlightening of the human understanding" somewhere - before Gould - and it stuck.

  4. We've been searching the same places! Must admit, I had pretty much come to the same conclusion as you. Gould was too much of a Darwin groupie to get a quote wrong!

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