What Charles Darwin Can Teach Us about Young Adults Leaving the Church

I recently read Nick Spencer’s book Darwin and God, which is not so much about evolutionary theory, but uses Darwin as an example of the way so many prominent Brits lost their faiths during the Nineteenth century. Despite Darwin living so long ago, and in such a different culture, there are some strong parallels between Darwin’s eventual loss of faith and the phenomenon of young adults leaving faith today. 

Spencer’s book is born out of his exploration of the recently released personal letters of Darwin, which open up many of his private thoughts. For the first half of his life, Darwin was a religious man, he even considered becoming an Anglican minister. During his famous journey on the Beagle, Darwin read the Greek New Testament daily, and attended religious services on the vessel. Well after the release of Origin of the Species, Darwin continued to view himself as a Christian, reading theology, and adhering to the 39 articles of faith.

Spencer notes that whilst Darwin’s theory did undermine his faith, his personal letters and notes, reveal that it was Darwin’s encounter with personal and social suffering that would lead him to disbelief. Following the trend amongst the British aristocracy, to mimic the royal family, and marry within families, Darwin married his first cousin. This move probably lead to the ill health and eventual death of three of his children. This terrible loss, especially of his favourite daughter in gut wrenching circumstances, was the nail in the coffin of Darwin’s faith.

But Spencer, notes that Darwin was not just rejecting Christianity carte blanche, but rather the comfortable, and sterile Christianity of the nineteenth century aristocracy. Spencer writes,

‘It was a faith that was very much of its culture: civilized, ordered, comfortable, decent.’

It was a faith that had little room for suffering and a broken creation. Rather it offered a rationale for a the social positioning of the British aristocracy. It was theology and faith practiced in an affluent bubble, a contained ‘happy world’. It was a culture heavily influenced by Deism, which viewed God as distant, operating outside of the world, something like the caricature of a distant Victorian Father. Once Darwin entered deeply into grief and suffering, leaving the bubble, his faith and his view of God could not survive.

As I read Spencer’s book and though of the similar loss of faith that so many Young Adults, I could not help but think of what kind of Christianity they were walking away from. Spencer comments that Darwin was walking away from a cold, detached intellectual faith that did not touch the heart. I don’t think that this is the case for young adults today, many who have been raised in a faith which swings to an opposite polarity, in which feelings dominate, yet which like Darwin’s view of faith, still sees the world as a ‘happy place’, in which God is distant, not so much like a detached father, but more like a

permissive mother. A mother who hands you a fifty, and lets you do what the heck you want because she is too busy playing Farmville on Facebook.

Just like Darwin, when young adults reach adulthood, and the inevitably of suffering arises, or they simply realise that they are not going to get what they want, and that the world is not a comfortable happy place, faith is ditched. But again, we must ask what kind of faith is being ditched? Reflecting on Darwin’s loss of faith Spencer writes,

“Given the nature of the…Christianity with which he grew up, that decision should not surprise us…it offered no resources for dealing with suffering…Such Christianity was more philosophical than theological…Put bluntly, as soon as Christianity moved away from the foot of the cross and lost sight of the crucified God, it became defenceless against accusations of suffering and injustice.”

Despite the differences between Darwin’s cultural Christianity of intellectual detachment, and our cultural Christianity of therapeutic individualism, the solution remains the same. It is the story of a God, who did not remain hidden and distant, but who came to earth, who took suffering and sin upon his shoulders, who sits besides us in our grief. A God who knows what it feels like to hurt, to be beaten, and rejected. Preach and share that story, stay close to the foot of the Cross and it is hard to go wrong.


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