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Charles Darwin and Attitudes to Religion

26 February 2021

3 mins

by Robyn Burnette Mayson

When I first approached the topics of science and religion in 19th Century Victorian Britain, I was under the impression that these subjects were wholly disparate and conflicting. However, after beginning my research, I began to understand that this was far from the case and I therefore believed it was important to highlight this as a stereotype.

My essay argues that science and religion in Victorian Britain actually co-existed harmoniously at one point, and that publications such as Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), were not as revolutionary as portrayed. If Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species had not completely changed the perspective on the battle between science and religion, I had to discover why it was so controversial.

To begin with, I familiarised myself with the religious climate during the period, and I found that Josef Altholz’s The Warfare of Conscience with Theology was particularly helpful. My essay shows that although there were particularly deep-rooted beliefs surrounding the creation of man, the universe, and the divine order of the Church, religious insecurity was not rare, and scientific advances were increasing.

One of the most important parts of my essay discusses the way in which scientific discovery was first used in favour of religion. Many believed that revelations about natural phenomena and laws of nature were simply further proof of the existence of a divine architect. This is something that many, including myself, were unaware of before studying this topic, and I felt that it was important to include because it shows that the rise of science did not entirely consume and corrupt religious practices and institutions.

I then moved on to researching the implications of publications such as Darwin’s Origin of Species. I wanted to clarify that the reason for its revolutionary reputation was not because Darwin swept the beliefs of the Church away, but because he challenged the creationist ideology and gave light to theories such as descent through modification (natural selection). This was controversial because it insinuated that man had descended from primates and therefore lowered humans to the animal realm.

The advantages of studying a figure such as Charles Darwin to further understand the relationship between science and religion in Victorian Britain was that I tailored my research to a specific topic which enabled me to ask and answer unique questions. This made writing and researching this topic particularly fascinating.

Biography: My love for history came from living in complete disbelief and awe that there was an entire existence before me. I couldn’t believe that the course of life meant that the rich painting of humanity’s history was simply just a story to me, whereas for some, it was a colourful and lived reality. I felt like it was almost a duty to understand and study it. History in all forms is accessible to everyone, whether through studying the history of your own home or village (something I love doing), or even just watching a period film or documentary- all of which allow us to envision the past through the lens of the present.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

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