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I’m a direct descendant of Darwin, but I have discovered the beauty of the Catholic faith

The author’s great-great-great grandfather is a New Atheist hero, but she is a Catholic apologist

By on Monday, 17 June 2013

A first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species (PA)

A first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species (PA)

‘Are you related to the economist?” People sometimes ask when they see my surname. I explain that, yes, John Maynard Keynes is my great-great-uncle – his brother Geoffrey married Margaret Darwin, my great-grandmother. “So you’re related to Darwin too?” Yes, he’s my great-great-great grandfather. Eyes might fall on the cross around my neck: “And you’re a Christian?” Yes, a Catholic. “How does a Darwin end up Catholic?”

The question genuinely seems to puzzle people. After all, Darwin ushered in a new era of doubt with his theory of evolution, and the Bloomsbury Group, of which Keynes was a part, influenced modern attitudes to feminism and sexuality. How can I be a product of this culture, and yet Catholic? The implication is that simple exposure to my ancestors’ life work should have shaken me out of my backwards error.

I’m a product of what Noel Annan called “the intellectual aristocracy”, the web of kinship uniting British intellectuals over the 18th to 20th centuries. In effect, a few families – united by location, shared values, and shared academic interests – enjoyed each others’ company and found spouses within a network of extended family and friends. That in itself creates a culture, and the culture of the “intellectual aristocracy” reflects its origins in freethinking dissent during the British Enlightenment: rational, scientific, academic, agnostic. Certainly this describes my immediate family circle, numbering several Fellows of the Royal Society, a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, some notable academics, and one “Distinguished Supporter” of the British Humanist Association.

The BHA likes to play up the intellectual credentials of its supporters: it implies intelligent people reject religion. My family represents, in microcosm, the kind of society we should be heading, towards according to the general narrative of Enlightenment philosophy: as we all become more educated, more enlightened by the power of reason, religion should decline. Among my family members religion is seen as an anachronism at best, a pernicious form of tyranny at worst. So where do I get it from?

Mum converted to Catholicism shortly after I was born, having been Anglican prior to that. My parents’ marriage was a mismatch of personalities and values. It was annulled soon after I came along. Mum worked full-time as a single mother, while raising my brother and me in the Faith, attending Mass at Blackfriars in Cambridge. Fortunately, she remained on terms with my father and the extended Keynes family. If there was any sense in which they saw my Catholic upbringing as indoctrination, or “child abuse” in the way Richard Dawkins has characterised it, I had no inkling of that, except perhaps once when my father asked me what sins a 10-year-old could possibly have to confess. He was a near contemporary of Christopher Hitchens at the Leys School, and a product of the same cultural forces that formed Hitchens’s brand of atheism.

By the time I was in my teens Mum had become a Buddhist. My brother rejected any form of organised religion that contravened his ethic of autonomy. My only link to the Church came through school, St Mary’s, Cambridge, which I left at 16 for college. Away from any contact with the Church, secular values prevailed and I drifted into agnosticism. It wasn’t until my mid to late 20s, while studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University, that life gave me cause to reassess those values. Relationships, feminism, moral relativism, the sanctity and dignity of human life: experience put them all under my scrutiny.

By this point Dawkins had sparked “the God debate” with The God Delusion, and my great-great-great grandfather’s theory of evolution by natural selection was being used to support New Atheism. Aware that Darwin himself said “Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind” and “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”, I followed the debate carefully. Did evidence for evolution necessarily imply atheism?

I was raised to know the evidence. In my grandparents’ home, scientific books and journals sit alongside fossils and family photos. Darwin scholarship is an ever-present topic of conversation at the dinner table. Visiting scholars point out the physical similarity between various family members and the man himself; one observed that Darwin and I share an identical mole on the upper left side of our noses, the exact same spot. Did this mean I had to be, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “dancing to the music of my DNA”?

I read central texts on both sides of the debate and found more to convince me in the thoughtful and measured responses of Alister McGrath and John Cornwell, among others, than in the impassioned prose of Hitchens et al. New Atheism seemed to harbour a germ of intolerance and contempt for people of faith that could only undermine secular Humanist claims to liberalism. Moreover, it could not adequately account for the problem of morality, discussed by C S Lewis in Mere Christianity, without recourse to an inherently contradictory argument.

Conflicts, tensions, irresolutions, contradictions: such inconsistencies can be enormously productive for a philosophical mind seeking to understand how and why arguments are undermined. They lead us to truth. If atheism’s claim to the intellectual high ground is bolstered by my ancestor’s characteristic ability to explore and analyse inconsistencies in the evidence, that same family characteristic led me towards a sceptical assessment of what can and can’t be known absolutely. My doctoral thesis concerned epistemology, a branch of philosophy relating to the nature and scope of knowledge, and empiricism, which emphasises the role of evidence and experience in the formation of ideas. In its concern with how we “make sense” of things – how abstract reasoning is based in bodily sense experience necessarily shaped by physical laws of nature – I apprehended an echo of the Catholic imagination.

Catholicism’s emphasis on physical devotions, enjoyed with childish simplicity when I was little, now made perfect sense. Having been “inside” Catholicism as a child I could choose it afresh with a mature and robust understanding of its role and teaching. I was, in fact, more free to choose than if I had been raised to discern faith – as secular Humanists would have it – at an age of reason.

My journey back to faith was as much a movement of the heart as a thoroughgoing intellectual inquiry. It had to be both: if my ancestors’ lives trouble faith then as their descendant I couldn’t but confront the issues head on. That I freely chose to be a Catholic after much thought and analysis, and wasn’t brainwashed into it, baffles my friends and family alike. I overheard one comment: “But she seemed like such an intelligent girl.” So when people ask “A Darwin and a Catholic?” what they’re saying is that I confound expectations. They expect an understanding of science and philosophy to be incompatible with religious belief. Inevitably, that makes me a target and people want to argue. It can feel unpleasant and unsought but abdicating responsibility for answering those difficult questions is not an option for a baptised Christian.

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire,” said St Catherine of Siena. I happen to be a Darwin, a Keynes, and a Catholic – and I can’t pretend not to be any one of those things. I can only embrace my calling in its complexity, and use what I’ve been given apologetically. Partly because apologetics has been thrust upon me by virtue of who I am and whose DNA I carry, and partly because it’s important to develop arguments that convince in a culture dominated by the ethic of autonomy I applied to Catholic Voices, which offers training to Catholics called to defend and explain the Church in the public square. Catholic Voices does vital work in speaking to a culture dominated by secular values, and in resisting attempts by the media to frame Catholic speakers in certain ways.

The only other Catholic traceable within my family was an apologist too, a Jesuit called Fr John Keynes, author of A Rational Compendious Way to convince without any Dispute, all Persons Whatsoever dissenting from the True Religion (1674). It’s not quite as snappy a title as On the Origin of Species. Even less so than The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. If I’m to pick up Fr John’s mantle in an era of Twitter and 24-hour news, I’d better work on making it snappier.