There’s been a highly publicised conference at the Vatican about evolution. There are good and sensible things being said there, and silly ones.
The good and sensible things are that nobody questions that evolution occurs, and it is asserted that faith and science cannot conflict (which means, therefore, that faith will have to adapt to science, since science changes only in response to the evidence).
The less sensible things are that evolution is not the cause of atheism, and that those, specifically mentioning Dawkins, who claim that it does are being “scientistic”, that is, practising scientism. This is the view that science licenses broad metaphysical conclusions over and above the metaphysics of its specific theories.
While I do disagree with Dawkins that science makes atheism more likely, I have not seen him say explicitly that science shows there is no God. If he had, he’d be roundly laughed at, the way the reverse claims are (think: Deepak Chopra. It’s OK, I’ll wait until you catch your breath… ready now? Good).
But in one of the most quoted and misunderstood passages of all time, Dawkins said
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. [The Blind Watchmaker, page 6]
Strictly and carefully read, Dawkins is 100% correct. An atheist before there was an explanation of apparent design in the natural (that is, biological) world could only say that there had to be some kind of account of which we do not know, yet. Kant a century before Darwin went so far as to state with typical Teutonic authority that “there will never be a Newton of a blade of grass”:
Now if this proposition, based on inevitably necessary maxim of our judgement, is completely satisfactory from every human point of view for both the speculative and practical use of our reason, I should like to know what we lose by not being able to prove it as also valid for higher beings, from objective grounds (which unfortunately are beyond our faculties). It is indeed quite certain that we cannot adequately cognize, much less explain, organized beings and their internal possibility according to mere mechanical principles of nature, and we can say boldly it is alike certain that it is absurd for men to make any such attempt or to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered. [Critique of Pure Reason, §75, 400)
So Darwin’s a posteriori theory of function and design by natural selection is in fact just what Dawkins said – a mechanical account of what had been a real stumbling block before Darwin.
This is not an argument from evolution to atheism. Atheism is a position one reaches for a multiplicity of reasons, and whether or not living things evolved by natural selection are, I warrant, far from being the major reason (the problem of evil, and the logical difficulties of infinite beings would have a far greater impact, I suspect). But if you are an atheist, and you want to make sense of the apparently teleological world, Darwin does indeed make it possible to be intellectually fulfilled.
It is noteworthy that the false reading of Dawkins is being promoted by the Catholic hierarchy. It no doubt helps them, both politically with their audience and personally, to think that he says that evolution proves there is no God. I have no doubt that Dawkins thinks – indeed he said as much in The God Delusion – that evolution reduces the likelihood of there being a God, and this is true given that prior to Darwin, the teleological nature of living things was touted as a reason for thinking their was a God. But he never, so far as I can see, asserts what he is supposed to assert. I’ve been critical of Dawkins before, but let’s not overstate our case.
So by all means assert that evolution is not responsible for atheism. It’s true in one way. By all means the Church should accept the reality, and I mean the complete theoretical story, of evolution. Nice to see the Church knock both ID and creationism in a semi-official capacity. But let’s not start accusing folk of things they do not say.