Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion

It’s comforting, in a way, to sit down with a good story. It helps build a wall against the troubles of the here and now, offering a pleasant escape into a distant country of mind.

In that spirit, I offer you this account of what is generally known as the “Lady Hope story”, from Pastor Grant Swank of New Hope Church in Windham, Maine: Darwin: ‘I was a young man with uninformed ideas’.

He was sitting up in bed, wearing a soft embroidered dressing gown, of rather a rich purple shade.

Propped up by pillows, he was gazing out on a far-stretching scene of woods and cornfields, which glowed in the light of one of those marvelous sunsets which are the beauty of Kent and Surrey. His noble forehead and fine features seem to be lit up with pleasure as I entered the room.

He waved his hand toward the window as he pointed out the scene beyond, while in the other hand he held an open Bible, which he was always studying.

“What are you reading now?” I asked as I seated myself beside his bedside. “Hebrews!” he answered — “still Hebrews. ‘The Royal Book’ I call it. Isn’t it grand?”

Sigh. I can almost hear the birds singing in the hedgerows. It seems a shame to puncture such a lovely thought bubble with hard-nosed observations like those of Simon Yates and PZ Myers.

8 Responses to “Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion”

  1. Steve Says:

    There is no contradiction between faith and science. Furthermore, Darwin’s personal faith (which was publicly agnostic) has no bearing on the matter.

    Regardless, it also seems clear that the Christians in these tales have little regard for the truth.

    I love Jesus, but His followers give me great difficulty.

  2. knarlyknight Says:


  3. onan Says:

    The more interesting point is that even if Darwin had indeed recanted and converted on his deathbed, it wouldn’t matter.

    Darwin wasn’t a god, or a prophet. He observed and pointed out some things that were already true. He did not cause them to be true; his statements did not actually change the reality of anything. We don’t believe them out of faith in him, but because they’ve been borne out by experimentation.

    So if he were to have also observed and stated some other things that were not true, his statements would again not change reality, or even the accuracy of his previous observations.

    I’ve actually found it amusing before that the deathbed conversion story implies that (at least some) theists are genuinely incapable of understanding the idea of believing something based upon evidence rather than faith.

  4. ymatt Says:

    I think you’re partially right (I have in the past been preposterously accused of treating science as my “faith”), but I think it has more to do with the nature of faith itself. If you believe something is true by faith, then conflicting evidence isn’t data, it’s definitionally falsehood. The deathbed conversion story is compelling to believers because it shows that the biblical truth won over this peddler of falsehood in the end.

    Another example is an email forward that’s floated around for ages about NASA finding a 1-day “error” in some sort of planetary position calculation that they couldn’t explain, with somebody piping up to point out that there’s a bible passage about (if I remember correctly) the sun standing still in the sky for a day. This was forwarded to me to illustrate that when biblical faith and science collide, the bible “wins” because it is obviously true. Of course the story has to bearing on the accuracy of science itself, since such an error would simply become more data requiring modification to theory (and the story itself is completely made up anyway). It’s simply about backing up the inherent truth of the belief.

  5. knarlyknight Says:

    Darwin was just one guy who set down some cool ideas…

  6. shcb Says:

    But Steve said Darwin was agnostic, as am I. so why can’t the two coexist? My personal feeling is there is an afterlife but it isn’t the God afterlife religions believe in. My belief is that the afterlife is simply the next dimension of science, it is completely understandable if you could just get the data, well getting the data isn’t hard, it’s the reporting back that we have a slight problem with.

    Without going into details I had a vision that let me relive my mother’s death a day or two after she committed suicide, my middle daughter had the exact same vision the same day. I also got a brief moment reliving my cousin’s death, he was killed in a helicopter accident. And one last one, a few weeks after my grandfather died I was going through some financial difficulties and standing on the deck one evening I felt someone put their hand on my shoulder, nothing more. So I believe there is something out there, but being a man of science and observing nature all my life I don’t think it is as cut and dried as a boss man God and a well defined army of saints and angels.

    Who knows who is telling the truth here, but it could have been that he had said something to her (the daughter may be lying) that was agnostically religious, and she just spiced it up a bit. Why can’t someone be scientific 6 days a week and religious on the 7th?

  7. J.A.Y.S.O.N. Says:

    I think that’s the thing though, like almost everything else these days talking about religion and science becomes an all or nothing win/loss type of argument.

    Taking two sides of this argument, the fundamentalist, evangelical American Protestant religions that believe in literally Biblical inerrancy and the atheists who exist largely in response to them, as typified by Richard Dawkins; you’re dealing with two sets of people who fundamentally believe that their way of doing things is the correct way and the existence of the other side constitutes a threat to that way of life and a genuine harm to society.

    To be cynical, at least on the part of the churches now, there’s also a lot of money at stake.

    I think Matt is right though, talking about the deathbed conversion represents a lack of understanding of the scientific thought process on the part of the evangelicals. To them it’s like the he’s repudiating a false religious doctrine.

    I read in Wired some years back about a priest in the Vatican who was a trained astronomer, he thought the increase of scientific knowledge brought more glory to God as we discovered how increasingly awesome he creation is.

    shcb, I agree personally, but this is how I feel politically. Why can’t I be a libertarian on social issues but a regulator capitalist on financial? If only starting your own political party was as viable as starting your own church.

  8. shcb Says:

    you can, I think most people are, I’m not opposed to abortion, I am for legalizing drugs and in favor of stem cell research “to a point” on all the above.

    We have a two party system for some valid reasons so we have to make an a or b choice in the voting booth but that doesn’t mean we are tied to the platform on every issue. and it doesn’t mean you can’t be an opponent of your party on an issue or two.

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