Leslie Stephen, “Darwinism and Divinity” (1872)

The scientific, religious and moral synthesis that constituted progressive Christianity in nineteenth-century America was vulnerable to any argument that called into question God’s design of the universe or a more or less literal understanding of Genesis. Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), an English writer and editor, was one of those who publicly called the premises of the synthesis into question.

The father of Virginia Woolf, Stephen in his own time was most famous for his two volume History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). At one time an Anglican clergyman, Stephen eventually renounced his religious belief, declaring himself an agnostic. His travels to the United States allowed him to become friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes and other leading American intellectuals. His essay “Darwinism and Divinity” first appeared in Britain but was republished in the United States in 1872 in the Popular Science Monthly, perhaps the leading journal in the United States spreading the new thinking that Stephen embraced fully and worked hard to propagate.

In dense prose, “Darwinism and Divinity” presented a complicated, clever argument. It began by saying that Darwinism posed no threat to traditional religion, especially biblical religion, and the traditional morality with which it was allied. It matters little, Stephen argued, how humans got where they are. What matters is what they are now. Our reasoning capacity may have originated in a slime mold, but that did not make it now any the less a reasoning capacity. Stephen then took up objections to Darwinism, particularly the notion that humans differed in kind, not just degree, from other beings. Stephen argued that the differences were only in degree: animals reason and show a moral sense. Thus it was plausible to think that human life had originated in much simpler, subhuman forms. The origins of something, however, did not determine what that thing was. “[P]roperty is not less sacred . . . because it may have originated in mere physical force.” Traditionalists need not be alarmed, then. What something is, its essence in traditional terms, can survive examination of how it came about.

Precisely at this point, however, Stephen began to explain how human thinking changes. A long paragraph ends with the announcement that Darwinism is merely one example of a profound shift in human thinking, a change to a historical method, to understanding everything solely with reference to its history, a change comparable to the Copernican revolution in astronomy.

At this point in his essay, Stephen did not consider any of the logical issues with the revolution he was championing. For instance, is all human thinking subject to or an example of the historical method? If not, then the revolution might not be as grand as he supposed. If it is, then could he be sure that his thinking on any of the questions he addressed was definitive? Might an entirely non-historical understanding of the world emerge from nowhere to dominate human thought? In any event, whatever may be the case logically, is it true politically and rhetorically that if property is thought to have originated in force it does not affect our current sense of the just distribution of that property? Is it true that traditional morality, the morality conveyed in Beecher’s sermon on civil liberty, will not change if the view that there is a sharp difference between the animal and the human changes?

Having announced the revolution, and without addressing some of the important questions it raised, Stephen then explained how new ways of thinking gained acceptance and power over men’s minds. Traditionalists take on the new terminology. Over time, old ideas expressed with new terms become new ideas. Stephen thus explained the purpose of his own article and all of his other popularizing of the new thinking: make new terms acceptable to the traditionalists, so that acceptance of new ideas will follow.

Displaying its popularizing purpose, “Darwinism and Divinity” concluded by asserting that Darwinism “does not threaten . . . the really valuable elements of our religious opinions.” All it required of believers, Stephen wrote, was that they give up – or prepare to reinvent – such ideas as providence, the immortality of the soul, and heaven and hell, none presumably in Stephen’s view permanently valuable elements of religion.

Stephen and Thomas Jefferson both wanted to rationalize religion, but differed in their motivations for doing so. Jefferson wanted to leave in a rationalized Christianity only its moral teaching because he thought a politics that was both free and decent was not otherwise possible. Removing the miraculous from religion would remove the power of kings and priests from politics. Stephen wanted to rationalize religion and morality to make them conform to scientific understanding. Stephen left open the question of whether the new scientific understanding was compatible with traditional morality. Perhaps only what science thought were the valuable elements of that morality would survive. Jefferson believed that morality had a basis in human life independent of what science taught. This was why a plowman could decide a moral issue as well as or better than a professor.[1]

Published 13 years after The Origin of Species, seven years after the end of the Civil War, “Darwinism and Divinity” shows how early and how well the intellectual ground was prepared for the progressive politics and political revolutions of the 20th century. Particularly telling in this regard is the authority Stephen granted science and the condescension he showed for the less enlightened.


[1] Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 902.


Darwinism and Divinity[1]

Leslie Stephen

We are going through that change in regard to Mr. Darwin’s speculations which has occurred so often in regard to scientific theories. When first propounded, divines regarded them with horror, and declared them to be radically opposed not only to the book of Genesis, but to all the religious beliefs which elevate us above the brutes. The opinions have gained wider acceptance; and, whatever may be the ultimate verdict as to their soundness, it certainly cannot be doubted that they are destined profoundly to modify the future current of thought. As Darwinism has won its way to respectability, as it has ceased to be the rash conjecture of some hasty speculator, and is received with all the honors of grave scientific discussion, divines have naturally come to look upon it with different eyes. They have gradually sidled up toward the object which at first struck them as so dark and portentous a phenomenon, and discovered that after all it is not of so diabolic a nature as they had imagined. Its breath does not wither up every lofty aspiration, and every worthy conception of the destiny of humanity. Darwinists are not necessarily hoofed and horned monsters, but are occasionally of pacific habits, and may even be detected in the act of going to church. Room may be made for their tenets alongside of the Thirty-nine Articles, by a little judicious crowding and rearrangement. Some of the old literal interpretations of the Scriptures must perhaps be abandoned, but after all they were in far too precarious a position already to be worth much lamentation. . . . It is permissible to believe either that man was made by a single act of the creative energy, or that a pair of apes was selected and improved gradually into humanity, as, if the comparison be admissible, human processes may gradually form the carrier-pigeon out of his wild congeners. We must, indeed, hold that the operation was miraculous; and as the tendency of scientific inquiry is to banish the miraculous, we may say that there is still a fundamental opposition between the teaching of the Church and Mr. Darwin. When we consider how easily the word “miraculous” may itself be rarefied until no particular meaning is left, we may doubt whether this opposition may not be removed; the verdict of science as to the mode in which the phenomena succeeded each other might be accepted, though there would be a difference of opinion as to the efficient cause of the change, and thus a kind of compromise might be effected between the rival forces.

Meanwhile, whatever the validity of this and similar artifices, it may be worthwhile to consider a little more closely what is the prospect before us. Let us suppose that Darwinism is triumphant at every point. Imagine it to be demonstrated that the long line of our genealogy can be traced back to the lowest organisms; suppose that our descent from the ape is conclusively proved, and the ape’s descent from the tidal animal, and the tidal animal’s descent from some ultimate monad, in whom all the vital functions are reduced are reduced to the merest rudiments. Or, if we will, let us suppose that a still further step has been taken, and the origin of life itself discovered, so that, by putting a certain mixture in an hermetically-sealed bottle, we can create our own ancestors over again. . . . What is it that we have lost, and what have we acquired in its place? It is surely worthwhile to face the question boldly, and look into the worst fears that can be conjured up by these terrible discoverers. Probably, after such an inspection, the thought that will occur to any reasonable man will be: What does it matter? What possible difference can it make to me whether I am sprung from an ape or an angel? The one main fact is that, somehow or other, I am here. How I came here may be a very interesting question to speculative persons, but my thoughts and sensations and faculties are the same on any hypothesis. . . . Our affections and our intellectual faculties are in existence. They are the primary data of the problem, and as long as we are conscious of their existence we need not worry ourselves by asking whether they began to exist by some abrupt change or gradually rose into existence through a series of changes. There is still quite as much room as ever for the loftiest dreams that visit the imaginations of saints or poets. The mode in which we express ourselves must, of course, be slightly altered; but, so long as the same instincts exist which sought gratification in the old language, we need not doubt but they will frame a new one out of the changed materials of thought. The fact that religion exists is sufficient demonstration that men feel the need of loving each other, of elevating the future and the past above the present, of rising above the purely sensual wants of our nature, and so on; the need will exist just as much, whether we take one view or other of a set of facts which, on any hypothesis, happened many thousands of years before we were born, and in regard to which a contented ignorance is far from being an impossible frame of mind. One can understand, after a little trouble, how it was that at a particular period of history people fancied that disinterested love would leave the world, and a moral chaos be produced, if it should be made to appear that it was not literally true that we are all descended from a man who was turned out of a garden for eating an apple. The infidels who assailed, and the orthodox who defended that dogma, really believed that it was an essential cornerstone in the foundations of all religion, which, once removed, nothing but a universal crash could follow. Even the statement that it might possibly be an allegory instead of an historical record nearly frightened our prosaic ancestors out of their wits. Remove one brick from the cunningly-adjusted fabric of orthodoxy, prove that a line of the Hebrew Scriptures was erroneous, and God would vanish from the world, heaven and hell become empty names, all motives for doing good be removed, and the earth become a blank and dreary wilderness. In remote country towns and small clerical coteries some vestiges of this cheerful opinion still linger. Most men have grown beyond it, and have found some broader basis for their hopes and aspirations. And yet, when one comes to think about it, is not the alarm which has been caused by the statement that Adam was the great-grandson of an ape equally preposterous? Why should it have so fluttered that dove-cotes of the Church? If science could have proved the divines to be apes themselves, there would have been some ground for vexation; but that was obviously out of the question, and their alarm would only prove that they were drawing some very unwarrantable inferences, or else by association of ideas had become unable to distinguish between the essence and the remotest accidental accompaniments of the faith. What interest can the highest part of our nature really take in a dispute as to whether certain facts did or did not occur many ages ago? The prima-facie presumption is, certainly, that any change in our opinions would affect rather the external imagery than the faith which it embodies. One would say at first sight that religion is not more likely to leave the world because we have new views as to the mode in which the world began, than poetry to vanish as soon as we have ceased to believe in the historical accuracy of the account of the siege of Troy. Man possesses certain spiritual organs, whose functions it is to produce religion. Religion could only be destroyed by removing the organs, and not by supplying them with slightly different food.

The precise nature of the fears entertained by the orthodox is revealed by the arguments generally brought to bear against the new doctrine. There is, for example, what may be called the metaphysical argument, which, in one form or another, seems to be regarded as important. It is substantially an attempt to prove that the gap between the brute and the human mind is so wide that we cannot imagine it to be filled up by any continuous series. It is argued at great length that instinct differs from reason not in degree but in kind, or that brutes do not possess even the rudiments of what we call a moral sense. . . . The distinctions, indeed, which have been drawn seem to us to rest upon no better foundation than a great many other metaphysical distinctions: that is, the assumption that, because you can give two things different names, they must therefore have different natures. It is difficult to understand how anybody who has ever kept a dog, or seen an elephant, can have any doubts as to an animal’s power of performing the essential processes of reasoning. We have been saying in thousands of treatises on logic, All men are mortal: Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal. The elephant reasons: All boys are bun-giving animals; that biped is a boy; therefore I will hold out my trunk to him. A philosopher says, The barometer is rising, and therefore we shall have fine weather; his dog says, My master is putting on his hat, and therefore I am going to have a walk. A dog equals a detective in the sharpness with which he infers a general objectionableness from ragged clothes. A clever dog draws more refined inferences. If he is not up to enough simple arithmetic to count seven, he can at least say, Everybody is looking so gloomy that it must be Sunday morning. . . . [B]ut to found a distinction of kind between his intellectual performances and those of man upon that circumstance, seems to be as unreasonable who cannot count five, and that of the philosopher who can use mathematical symbols. The power of abstraction has been carried a step, and a very important step, farther in each case; but there is no more cause to suspect the introduction of an entirely new element in one case than the other.

The condemnation of the poor brutes as non-moral (if we may use such a word) seems to be still more monstrous. We need not speak of exceptional stories, such as the legend in a recent French newspaper of the sensitive dog who committed suicide when deserted by his friends; but who can doubt that his dog has something which serves as a very fair substitute for a sense of duty? . . . To deny virtue to the bird would be to deny it equally to the savage, who has movements of generosity and self-devotion, though it has never occurred to him to speculate on moral philosophy. There is, of course, a difference between the virtue which merely results from the spontaneous play of unselfish instincts, and that which includes a certain list of definite propositions on the subject formed by reflection and observation. But where the first is present, even in a high degree, it is not difficult to account for the gradual development of the second.

The argument, however, has another fatal weakness, if it intended to raise a presumption against the possible passage from apehood to manhood. . . . If reason be radically different from instinct, yet reason may be present in some creatures in a merely rudimentary form. The question, indeed, does not admit of argument. We always have before our eyes a perfect and uninterrupted series. The child of six months old is less intelligent than a full-grown dog; and if we would imagine the development of man from monkey, we have only to suppose the first monkey to be the equal of an average baby (say) of one year old, the monkey’s son to be equal to a baby of a year and a day, and so on. We may thus proceed by perfectly imperceptible stages, and in the course of three or four thousand generations we shall get a man-monkey fully equal in intelligence to the average Hottentot. . . . Indeed, it is impossible to see why – except from fear of certain conclusions, which is not a logical ground for dissent – the possibility of a passage from brute to man should ever have been denied on a priori grounds. Whether the theory is confirmed or confuted by observation is an entirely open question; but it is strange that it should be pronounced impossible when we are ready to admit infinitely greater changes. If you can imagine a monkey to have been developed from a sea-anemone, an animal from a plant, or living from inorganic matter – and none of these changes, however little reason we have to believe in their actual occurrence, are supposed to be obnoxious to any insurmountable objection a priori – why can we not admit that a monkey may possibly become a man?

. . . Is, then, the alarm which has been excited in men’s minds totally unreasonable? In one sense it would seem to be so. The speculations of which we have been speaking are absolutely harmless to anyone who holds – as surely every sincere believer ought to hold – that religion depends upon certain instincts whose existence cannot be explained away by any possible account of the mode by which they came into existence. Property is not less sacred in the eyes of a reasonable man because it may have originated in mere physical force; nor religion because it first dawned upon mankind in the vague guesses of some torpid brain, which fancied that a bigger Caliban was moving the stars and rolling the thunder. But it may be true that the new theories will transform the mode in which men interpret the universe to themselves, and will therefore destroy some of the old formulae which involved different perceptions. To those who have succeeded in persuading themselves that any set of Articles constructed some centuries ago were to be final and indestructible expressions of truth, the prospect may certainly be distressing. There may, indeed, be no positive logical irreconcilability between orthodoxy and Darwinism. A little more straining of a few phrases which have proved themselves to be sufficiently elastic, and the first obvious difficulty may be removed. The first chapter of Genesis has survived Sir Charles Lyell; it may be stretched sufficiently to include Mr. Darwin. But in questions of this kind there is a kind of logical instinct which outruns the immediate application of the new theories. The mere change of perspective does much. When the sun was finally placed in the centre of the heavens instead of the earth, the few texts which apparently opposed were easily adapted to the new theories. But there was a further change of infinitely greater importance, which, though not so easily embodied in direct logical issues, profoundly modified all theological conceptions. When people began to realize the fact that we live in a wretched little atom of a planet dancing about the sun, instead of being the whole universe, with a few starts to save candle-light, the ancient orthodoxy was shaken to its base. It is impossible to read the controversies which marked the great intellectual revolt of the last century without seeing how much men’s minds were influenced by the simple consideration that Christians were a small numerical minority of the human race, and the habitation of the race a mere grain of dust in the universe. The facts were more or less known before, and were not capable of furnishing syllogisms absolutely incompatible with any orthodox dogma. And yet the mere change in the point of view, working rather upon the imagination than the reason, gradually made the old positions untenable. A similar change is being brought about by the application of that method of which Darwinism is at present the most conspicuous example. Possibly the change may be of greater importance. Certainly it is of far too great importance to be more than dimly indicated here. Briefly it may be described as the substitution of a belief in gradual evolution for a belief in spasmodic action and occasional outbursts of creative energy; of the acceptance of the corollary that we must seek for the explanation of facts or ideas by tracing their history instead of accounting for them by some short a priori method; and thus of the adoption of the historical method in all manner of investigations into social, and political, and religious problems which were formerly solved by a much more summary, if not more satisfactory method.

It is curious to remark how the influence of new methods penetrates the minds of those who would most strenuously repudiate some of the results to which they lead. . . . A butterfly which precisely suits the palates of certain birds would be speedily exterminated if it were not for an ingenious device. It cleverly passes itself off under false colors by imitating the external shape of some other butterfly, which the bird considers as disgusting. . . . A very similar variety of protective resemblance may be detected in the history of opinions. The old-fashioned doctrine remains essentially the same, but it changes its phraseology so as to look exactly like its intrusive rival. . . . Just as the skeptic rashly fancies that he has brought matters to a conclusive issue, the theologian evades his grasp by putting on the external form of the very doctrines which he has been opposing.

Thus, for example, Dr. Newman argues in the “Grammar of Assent” for the doctrine of the Atonement, on the ground (among others) that a similar belief is found to exist in all barbarous nations. It may seem strange, he goes on to say, that he should take his ideas of natural religion from the initial and not from the final stage of human development. His “answer is obvious,” and it comes shortly to this, that our “so-called civilization” is a one-sided development of man’s nature, favoring the intellect, but neglecting the conscience; and that, therefore, it is “no wonder that the religion in which it issues has no sympathy with the hopes and fears of the awakened soul, or with those frightful presentiments which are expressed in the worship and the traditions of the heathen.” In simpler times the resemblances between the heathen and the orthodox religion would have been indignantly denied, or regarded as diabolic parodies. Now, the Catholic divine is as ready as the philosopher to trace out the analogy, though he puts a different interpretation upon it. . . . It is clear that modern tendencies have penetrated into the hostile camp. It is the much-abused philosopher who has taught us to take a new interest in the lower religions of the world instead of summarily rejecting them as the work of devils. . . . But no agent is so powerful in bringing about the change as the subtle and penetrating influence of a new method. . . . The popular belief has hitherto been that, unless you could prove the contrary, it would be reasonable to suppose that the transition from monkey to man involved a sudden leap. If it came to be the popular belief that, unless you could prove the contrary, men must be supposed to have developed out of monkeys by the forces now at work, the imagination would outrun the reason. It would be assumed that a religion was the growth of that stage of development at which the human intellect had arrived, and not the work of a series of sudden interferences. Christianity would be a phenomenon to be studied like others by the investigation of the conditions under which it arose, and the advocates of a theory of supernatural intervention would have to encounter a set of established beliefs instead of finding them in their favor. This is the imperceptible intellectual influence which gradually permeates and transforms the prevalent conceptions by a process which is as irresistible as it is difficult to define by accurate formulae. Religious instincts, we rightly say, are indestructible; but the forms in which they may be embodied are indefinitely variable, and no one can say how fast and how far the influence of a change worked in one department of thought may gradually spread by a silent contagion to others apparently removed from it.

Thus, admitting to the fullest extent that Darwinism not only does not threaten, but does not even tend to threaten, the really valuable elements of our religious opinions, it is quite consistent to maintain that it may change the conceptions in which it is impossible to assign any limits. Darwinism, for example, does not make it more difficult to believe in God. On the contrary, it may be fairly urged that any theory which tends to bring any sort of order out of the confused chaos of facts which we have before us, makes it so far more easy to maintain a rational theism such as is now possible. It helps us to form some dim guess of whence we are coming and of whither we are going – to see, as it were, an arc of the vast orbit in which the world is revolving, instead of being limited to an infinitesimal element, lost at each extremity in hopeless darkness. But it is true that it weakens that conception of the Creator which supposes him to intervene at stated periods, in order to give an impulse to the machinery. How deeply that change may affect all manner of theological conceptions it is unnecessary to consider. There is another doctrine which seems to be more nearly affected; and probably, though we seldom give open expression to our fears, it is this tendency which is really the animating cause of the alarm which is obviously felt. Does not the new theory make it difficult to believe in immortal souls? If we admit that the difference between men and monkeys is merely a difference of degree, can we continue to hold that monkeys will disappear at their death like a bubble, and that men will rise from their ashes? So vast a difference in the ultimate fate and the intrinsic nature of the two links should surely correspond to a wide gap in the chain. . . . The orthodox may be excused for trembling which they see that central article of their faith assailed, and are in danger of being deprived of the great consolations of their religion – heaven and hell. . . . [W]e can see no reason why our new conceptions of the facts – assuming that they establish themselves – should not be accommodated to a spiritual form of belief. After all, it will be hard to convince men that because thought and feeling arise from certain combinations of matter, therefore they are made of matter. But we pause at the threshold of such speculations.

There is, however, one other thing to be said, and it may be said plainly and without irreverence. After all, why is the belief in immortality so essential to the happiness of mankind? . . . Men are virtuous, it is sometimes said, because they believe in hell. Is not this an inversion of the proper order of thoughts? Should we not rather say that men have believed in hell because they were virtuous? There has been so general a belief that vice was degrading, and was to be discouraged by the strongest possible motives, that even the material part of mankind have exhausted their fancy in devising the most elaborate sentiments to express the horror with which they regarded it. It is painful to dwell upon the pictures of hideous anguish which the perturbed imaginations of past generations have conjured up and regarded as the penalties which the merciful Creator had in store for imperfect creatures placed in a state where their imperfections could not fail to lead them into error; but there is this much of comfort about it, that at least those ghastly images were the reflections of the horror with which all that was best in them revolted against moral evil. It is needless to say how easily those conceptions might be turned to the worst purposes, and religion itself be made an instrument not only for restraining the intellects, but for lowering the consciences of mankind. For our present purpose, it is enough to remark that a similar reflection may convince us that, whatever changes of opinion may be in store for us, we need not fear that any scientific conclusions can permanently lower our views of man’s duty here. The belief in immortality, diffused throughout the world, was not, more than any other belief, valuable simply on its own account. It was valuable because it enabled men to rise above the selfishness and the sensuality which otherwise threatened to choke the higher impulses of our nature. But it was the existence of those impulses which gave it its strength, and not any of the metaphysical arguments which can only appeal to a very few exceptional minds. Religions thrive by a kind of natural selection; those which do not provide expression for our best feelings crush out their rivals, not those which are inferred by a process of abstract reasoning. To be permanent, they must bear the test of reason; but they do not owe it their capacity for attracting the hearts of men. The inference, therefore, from the universality of any creed is not that it is true, for that would prove Buddhism or Mohammedanism as well as Christianity; but that it satisfies more or less completely the spiritual needs of its believers. And, therefore, we may be certain that, if the various tendencies which we have summed up in the name of Darwinism should ultimately become triumphant, they must find some means, though it is given to nobody as yet to define them, of reconciling those instincts of which the belief in immortality was a product. The form may change – we cannot say how widely – but the essence, as every progress in the scientific study of religions goes to show, must be indestructible. When a new doctrine cuts away some of our old dogmas, we fancy that it must destroy the vital beliefs to which they served as scaffolding. Doubtless it has that effect for a time in those minds with whom the association has become indissoluble. That is the penalty we pay for progress. But we may be sure that it will not take root till in some shape or other it has provided the necessary envelopes for the deepest instincts of our nature. If Darwinism demonstrates that men have been evolved out of brutes, the religion which takes it into account will also have to help men to bear in mind that they are now different from brutes.

[1] Popular Science Monthly 1 (June, 1872), 188–202.

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