Charles Darwin was not an atheist in the conventional sense. He believed that God was responsible for the First Cause. And yet, Charles Darwin is a poster boy for atheists nowadays.
We run into these situations again and again – Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of United States of America, wrote at lengths on freedom, equality and liberty and yet he had slaves in his household. Abraham Lincoln, who waged war against the Confederates, thus abolishing slavery in the South, was not ready to concede Blacks were equal to Whites. Isaac Newton, who discovered Universal Law of Gravitation, thus setting the trend for removing God from affairs of Man, was a firm believer in God.
Liberalism or Atheism or any such progressive thinking is different in different times. Thomas Jefferson may be a liberal thinker for his times but when we look into the past and measure his liberalism from our yardstick he fails the test. Charles Darwin or Einstein may not qualify as atheists from our standpoint and yet they were closer to atheists of their times. When Judaism came on board, atheists were non-believers of God of Moses. When Islam came on board, atheists were believers of other religions – like pagan religions and other unknown religions. During Spanish Inquisition, Protestants, Jews, and non-believers in God were all put in the same league and called atheists.
Charles Darwin believed in a Creator. He may not have expressed enthusiasm for Christianity as it is practiced, but he still believed that a Divine Creator existed who have might have started it all, set the laws in motion and let the Universe take care of itself without intervening further.
The way Theory of Gravitation had an effect on humanity much beyond what Newton comprehended Origin of Species has an effect much beyond what Darwin stands for in his personal life. Many such great scientists are still human, mortal, time-bound, looking at the world from their narrow window of their time on earth. Some of them displayed idiosyncrasies which are completely irrelevant to Science. And if they are unimportant to Science they are not included in Science. Newton refused to admit certain results his own theories proved, even Albert Einstein turned out to be smaller than his own theory refusing to accept the byproduct of his own theories. What is important is what they have contributed to – in unraveling Nature – giving us a tool to understand the laws of Nature and how it worked, without resorting to miracles, divine intervention and omnipotence of God.
Would Darwin be an atheist if he was alive now? Can’t say! May be, may not be. Would he have come up with Theory of Evolution if he was born elsewhere, in another time, as someone else? Can’t say! Such speculations are irrelevant. His being an atheist or theist has no impact on what he discovered. If it was not Charles Darwin, some other scientist or a series of scientists would have come up with that theory in the next few decades. If the other scientist happens to be gay, atheist, murderer, communist, woman, it doesn’t make much difference to the overall contribution to Science.
What is important is how that theory fits into grand scheme of things. Does it make sense? Not to a narrow set of whimsical and fanatic individuals but to everyone who has studied that topic in great detail irrespective of their political, social, ethnic, or sexual identity?
In that respect, Darwin gave atheists a tool to make their case. His theories have implications far greater than what Darwin imagined in his lifetime – though he had a hunch that he was up against religion in many ways. His Theory of Evolution is how Nature works, and that’s the beauty of it – which is universal – at least as far life on this planet is considered. And that theory gives more credence to atheists than to theists and therefore Darwin remains a darling to atheists, and an anathema to theists.