Why is the existence of God beyond the scope of science for Darwin?
Darwin’s Origin of the Species ends with the following sentence:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
I was rather surprised—and pleased—to find that Darwin does not immediately couple his theory of evolution with atheism. In this last sentence, he even alludes to life as being initiated by the Creator. There are several conclusions I can reach from a cursory glance at this ending:
First, Darwin is writing to lay people. Before this time, he had produced other scientific works, but none were directed to the common people. The Origin of the Species was meant to be read by the unscientific masses, and when Darwin published the book in 1859, most of the West was still Christian. To publish such a theory and not still attribute existence to God would have severely damaged the reception of the work.
Second, Darwin never claims to know the source of all life. He writes in his conclusion, “It may be asked how far I extend the doctrine of the modification of species. The question is difficult to answer…it does not seem incredible that…all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth may be descended from some one primordial form.”
Notice here that while Darwin postulates that all life may have descended from one original species, he makes no move to claim that this species sprang into existence of its own volition. He does not cite the big bang theory. In fact, he states, “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.” Darwin simply steers clear of the original source.
The existence of God is outside the scope of Darwin’s work. Darwin understands that speculating on the original source is a question of Why and not of What. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis states:
But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question…The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. (Book 1, Chapter 4)
Science is an observational practice. This means that it is relegated to answering the question What? It cannot move to answer the question Why?—that is the job of religion. Darwin very wisely sticks to answering What? He observes that species gradually change over time, and conjectures that perhaps they modify from one species to another over longer periods of time. But he stays away from guessing at the original source of all life, because that would be answering Why life exists.
Atheists have since encompassed the source of all life in the theory of evolution, which moves the theory from the realm of science to that of religion. Darwin never made that claim. At one point, he comments, “My conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection…I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.”
However Christians may disagree with Darwin, we cannot rebuke him for denying the existence of God. He never did it.