Many of the great minds of science have been fascinated with ultimate questions of God and creation, taking strong stands for or against belief. This Beliefnet series runs regular thumbnail sketches of how prominent scientists, past and present, have thought on the subject.

     CharlesDarwin. Was he an agnostic, an atheist, a deist (which in his time meant, roughly, believing in nature as a god) or a closet churchgoer? Many commentators have received his work as a calculated attack on belief, though Darwin said, "I had no intention to write atheistically" and often expressed discomfort with the idea that others saw him as a warrior against the clerics, preferring to be seen as strictly a biologist.

     In young life Darwin appears to have practiced in the Anglican faith with an unknown degree of enthusiasm, but from age 30 or so on, rarely was seen near a church: indeed, rarely left his home and garden for any purpose. Darwin's adored daughter Annie, whom her father fancied would someday be the greatest scientist in the family, died at age 10 of a childhood disease, with Darwin weeping uncontrollably by her side. After that Darwin seemed incapable of conceiving of a merciful God, saying, "There seems to me to be too much misery in the world." Of the divine being, Darwin wrote the following, which might as well be the manifesto of agnosticism: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can." Evangelicals sometimes assert that Darwin called out to Jesus from his deathbed and asked to be reunited in heaven with Annie, but the evidence on this point is mixed at best.

     Whatever Darwin believed, he composed as strong an argument for compassionate secular ethics as has ever any philosopher: "As man advances in civilization, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to all men of all nations and races."

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