Darwin 'I don't believe the Bible' letter sells for record price

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species book challenged Victorian faith.Reuters

A letter in which Charles Darwin appears to confirm his atheism fetched $197,000 (£126,000) at auction yesterday

The sum was nearly three times the guide price and three times the previous record of $59,142 for a four-page letter that Darwin had sent to his niece.

Dated November 24, 1880, the letter was written in response to an enquiry from a Christian lawyer, Frederick McDermott.

McDermott wrote to Darwin saying that he would like to read his books, but that "I am a busy man & not at all a clever man, and if I am to have pleasure in reading your books I must feel that at the end I shall not have lost my faith in the New Testament". McDermott asked for a "yes or no" answer as to whether Darwin believed in the New Testament, adding: "So [if] you will write on the back of this page Yes or No you will be doing a real kindness which I will certainly not abuse by sending a paragraph to the theological papers headed 'Mr Darwin on the New Testament'."

Darwin answered, perhaps rather curtly but with more than McDermott had asked for, "'I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God."

Darwin's religious views were of considerable interest during his lifetime as his On the Origin of Species appeared to challenge the biblical account of creation in Genesis. He is often claimed as a champion by atheists, but was an orthodox Christian for the first part of his life before moving to an agnostic position.

In his Gore lecture on the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, Nick Spencer said Darwin was "never, even in his wildest fluctuations, an atheist full stop". However, he did not believe in a special Christian or biblical revelation, which he states in his answer to McDermott.

Spencer also says Darwin "was a man who has been hijacked for the cause of modern atheism in a way that he would have been profoundly uncomfortable with".