Darwinism and the Elimination of God ?
Before Darwin, Dawkins argues, it was possible to see the world as something designed by God; after Darwin, we can speak only of the `illusion of design.' A Darwinian world has no purpose, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. If the universe cannot be described as `good', at least it cannot be described as `evil' either. `The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.' 
Yet some insist that there does indeed seem to be a `purpose' to things, and cite the apparent design of things in support. Surely, such critics argue, the intricate structure of the human eye points to something that cannot be explained by natural forces, and which obliges us to invoke a divine creator by way of explanation? How otherwise may we explain the vast and complex structures that we observe in nature?
Dawkins' answer is set out primarily in two works:The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. The fundamental argument common to both is that complex things evolve from simple beginnings, over long periods of time.
Living things are too improbable and too beautifully `designed' to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin's answer, is by gradual, step-by-step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successful change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process.
What might seem to be a highly improbable development needs to be set against the backdrop of the huge periods of time envisaged by the evolutionary process. Dawkins explores this point using the image of a metaphorical `Mount Improbable'. Seen from one angle, its `towering, vertical cliffs' seem impossible to climb. Yet seen from another angle, the mountain turns out to have `gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands.'
The `illusion of design,' Dawkins argues, arises because we intuitively regard structures as being too complex to have arisen by chance. An excellent example is provided by the human eye, cited by some advocates of the divine design and direct special creation of the world as a surefire proof of God's existence. In one of the most detailed and argumentative chapters of Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins shows how, given enough time, even such a complex organ could have evolved from something much simpler.
It's all standard Darwinism. What's new is the lucidity of the presentation, and the detailed illustration and defence of these ideas through judiciously selected case studies and carefully crafted analogies. In that Dawkins sees Darwinism as a worldview, rather than a biological theory, he has no hesitation in taking his arguments far beyond the bounds of the purely biological. The word `God' is absent from the index of The Blind Watchmaker precisely because he is absent from the Darwinian world that Dawkins inhabits and commends. The evolutionary process leaves no conceptual space for God. What an earlier generation explained by an appeal to a divine creator can be accommodated within a Darwinian framework. There is no need to believe in God after Darwin.
If Dawkins is right, it follows that there is no need to believe in God to offer a scientific explanation of the world. Some might draw the conclusion that Darwinism encourages agnosticism, while leaving the door wide open for a Christian or atheist reading of things - in other words, permitting them, but not necessitating them. But Dawkins is not going to leave things there: for Dawkins, Darwin impels us to atheism. And it is here that things begin to get problematic. Dawkins has certainly demonstrated that a purely natural description may be offered of what is currently known of the history and present state of living organisms. But why does this lead to the conclusion that there is no God? A host of unstated and unchallenged assumptions underlie his argument.
We shall explore one of them: the fundamental point that the scientific method is incapable of adjudicating the God-hypothesis, either positively or negatively. The scientific method is incapable of delivering a decisive adjudication of the God question. Those who believe that it proves or disproves the existence of God press that method beyond its legitimate limits, and run the risk of abusing or discrediting it. Some distinguished biologists (such as Francis S. Collins, director of the Human Genome Project) argue that the natural sciences create a positive presumption of faith; others (such as the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould) that they have negative implications for theistic belief. But they prove nothing, either way. If the God-question is to be settled, it must be settled on other grounds.
This is not a new idea. Indeed, the recognition of the religious limits of the scientific method was well understood around the time of Darwin himself. As none other than `Darwin's Bulldog', T. H. Huxley, wrote in 1880:
Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word `Agnostic' to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with utmost confidence.
Fed up with both theists and atheists making hopelessly dogmatic statements on the basis of inadequate empirical evidence, Huxley declared that the God-question could not be settled on the basis of the scientific method.
Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. . . Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.
Huxley's arguments are as valid today as they were in the late nineteenth century, despite the protestations of those on both sides of the great debate about God.
In a 1992 critique of an anti-evolutionary work which posited that Darwinism was necessarily atheistic, Stephen Jay Gould invoked the memory of Mrs McInerney, his third grade teacher, who was in the habit of rapping young knuckles when their owners said or did particularly stupid things:
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God's method of action).
Gould rightly insists that science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. The bottom line for Gould is that Darwinism actually has no bearing on the existence or nature of God. For Gould, it is an observable fact that evolutionary biologists are both atheist and theist - he cites examples such as the humanist agnostic G. G. Simpson and the Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky. This leads him to conclude:
Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs - and equally compatible with atheism.
If Darwinians choose to dogmatize on matters of religion, they stray beyond the straight and narrow way of the scientific method, and end up in the philosophical badlands. Either a conclusion cannot be reached at all on such matters, or it is to be reached on other grounds.
Dawkins presents Darwinism as an intellectual superhighway to atheism. In reality, the intellectual trajectory mapped out by Dawkins seems to get stuck in a rut at agnosticism. And having stalled, it stays there. There is a substantial logical gap between Darwinism and atheism, which Dawkins seems to prefer to bridge by rhetoric, rather than evidence. If firm conclusions are to be reached, they must be reached on other grounds. And those who earnestly tell us otherwise have some explaining to do.