Darwin’s Great-Great-Grandson Originally Wanted To Be a Saint. Here’s Why He Ultimately Turned to Atheism

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Nov. 9 2011 4:32 PM

An Atheist’s Evolution

Why Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson stopped believing in God.

Matthew Chapman is an English journalist, screenwriter, and director.
Matthew Chapman, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, is an English journalist, screenwriter, and director

Photograph by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.

Matthew Chapman will argue for the motion “the world would be better off without religion” at the Nov. 15 Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate in New York. Read more about the debate here. Find out why Chapman’s opponent, Dinesh D’Souza, thinks a world without religion would be miserable here.

People usually assume I’m an atheist because I’m Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson. This is less than half the story. I was born into a family that went to church, and attended schools that mandated daily prayers. Sometimes a hymn or carol would move me, but mostly the whole thing left me cold—until I was 7 and had a transcendent religious experience. I describe it in my book Trials of the Monkey—An Accidental Memoir and am including an excerpt below. To give it some context: My parents’ marriage was in turmoil and they’d sent me to a prep school where small boys were caned (sometimes in public) and molested (always in private). Sometimes the two were combined: a light caning (usually just after prayers) followed by a supposedly comforting molestation. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” as fundamentalists like to say, though in this case there was more than one rod in play and none were spared.

It was a confusing time. I had already embarked on what became a long period of delinquency or rebellion, depending on your viewpoint. But first there would be a respite for a religious phase. As I’m sure is often the case, several factors were involved.

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At the age of seven, I started to pray every night. This began because our house was tall and dark and if I told my parents I wanted to pray, they'd come up with me when I went to bed. Once they were there, the longer I prayed, the longer they stayed.

Perhaps there was another reason too, of which I was not then aware. Christianity is perfectly designed to provide a replacement family—God, the father, Mary, the mother, Jesus, the brother—and at this time I feared my own family was about to self-destruct.

Although my mother and father had their doubts about this sudden religiosity, I was becoming such a wicked boy they wanted to encourage any urge toward goodness even if it might not be genuine, and so they dutifully trudged up the stairs to pray with me. Dredging about in newspapers and magazines, I located an endless and astonishing vein of human misery from which to mine the elements for my nightly pleas. I then became so moved by my descriptions of these sorrows that before long I began to think I'd like to offer my life in service to the poor wretches of whom I spoke. What had started out as fakery became authentic.

I had thought of becoming either a naturalist, a gigolo, or a sailor. Now I began to think I'd take a shot at sainthood. I dreamed constantly of being a missionary, not in an evangelical way but in the sense of being where I was needed, as a worker in a leper colony, say, or among the maimed and dying. Usually I was in Africa, sometimes India. I had no wife or children. God’s love (I saw it almost as a friendship) and the adoration of those for whom I'd given up my life, was more than enough. It was a glorious dream.

I still vividly remember the internal glow evoked by faith. I say it was a glorious dream—but it seemed real. How could I see these images of God—how could I talk to God—if he did not exist? What I saw when I closed my eyes was as real as what I saw when I opened them—and a lot less disturbing.

I thought I should begin my ascent to sainthood by reading the Bible cover to cover. I was a slow reader, but eventually I reached Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament and of the Hebrew Bible. When I got to Chapter 20, Verse 13, I came across this: “If a man lieth with a man as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.” I was a little taken aback. At that time, the only truly civilized and loving couple I knew was my gay uncle and his partner. Yet here was God speaking directly to Moses and basically saying, “Kill them.” My uncles!? Why? It made no sense. I ploughed on through the Old Testament but with a growing suspicion that the God I was reading about was not just narcissistic, misogynistic, and genocidal, but completely and utterly insane.

By the time I was 9, I discovered that my uncle and his partner would face long prison sentences if their homosexuality was revealed. It was clear that this legalized homophobia came mainly from Leviticus 20:13 because the verse was often quoted by both politicians and the clergy. It’s still quoted by many Christian sects and violence is only its most obvious consequence. I will leave for another time an account of the ways in which the lives of my two uncles, for that is how I think of them, were restricted and diminished by this church-state cruelty. Or you can read my Uncle Ben Duncan’s illuminating and moving book, The Same Language, which is about life as a gay man in England at that time.