The God of the Gaps Fallacy

The fallacy of the "God of the gaps" underlies many arguments for the existence of God. It is one of the oldest and most common mistakes among religious believers.

Essentially, those who use the "God of the gaps" argue that gaps in human knowledge are evidence of God's existence. We cannot explain something, therefore this must be supporting evidence for God.

Human ignorance was the original basis for the development of religion, so it makes sense that appeals to ignorance should figure prominently in the justification for belief in God.

God of the Gaps

Since every question must have an answer, adherents of the "God of the gaps" fallacy point to unanswerable questions as questions that only a God could answer. Questions about the stars and planets, how animals reproduce, why there is a drought this year, what causes the tides, and so on, are answerable by science, reason and other human tools. But what about questions that we can't seem to answer? God or the supernatural is the only explanation available.

The fact that there are limitations to our knowledge indicates that there is something bigger out there, some kind of larger intelligence at work in the universe. It is that entity that fills in the gaps. This is the basis for believing in God.

The problem is, just because one believes that God is the only answer doesn't mean it's true. There may be other answers they are unaware of, or unwilling to accept. Many seemingly mysterious or "unanswerable" questions actually have been answered through science and naturalism.

God of the Gaps and Morality

For example, many religious people ask "Why do we have a moral instinct?" This seems like a good potential reason to believe in God because the answer is not immediately obvious. (Of course, the answer to almost any significant question is never immediately obvious.) So religious believers conclude that, since there is no material or scientific explanation for human morality, God must have done it. They believe that God created humans with a very specific kind of moral temperament.

But the fact is, there is a scientific explanation for morality. Over time, people that felt a sense of belonging and commitment to their fellow community members, and sought to help them more than harm them, survived and prospered. Communities populated by backstabbing, untrustworthy and self-centered people prospered much less. In times of crisis, they would not be able to hold together and overcome. And in times of prosperity, the self-centered tendencies of the population would quickly diminish any surpluses.

So, over many years of population growth, the qualities and traditions of people that were nicer to each other--in other words, people who were more "moral"--became more common. As a result, almost all human beings today have a strong moral instinct. Communities of moral people have a clear and distinct advantage over communities of immoral people.

God of the Gaps and Creationism

Another example of "God of the gaps" is in arguments for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in schools, or to "teach the controversy." The thrust of this argument is that since evolution is not one hundred percent certain, another competing theory for the development of life (namely, creationism) should be taught alongside it. The gaps and shortcomings in the theory of evolution are used as justification for teaching a God-based theory of the development of life, or at least mentioning it.

Creationism and its current popularization "intelligent design" are unscientific, and do not belong in a scientific discussion regardless of the shortcomings of any theory. Nobody argues that our ignorance of the human brain justifies teaching students that magical sprites and spirits might be at work inside our heads.

But aside from that, the fact is that the theory of evolution has gotten stronger every decade since its inception. Arguments that creationists made 100 years ago against evolution have now been answered or resolved, and creationists must continually fabricate new controversies and/or focus on ever-narrower and insignificant shortcomings. Every year more information and more evidence is attained by scientists around the world, further supporting and substantiating the theory of evolution. The gaps continue to close, and the God of creationism becomes smaller.

Problems with the God of Gaps

Assuming that there is an actual gap in human knowledge on some topic, this still does not constitute proof or evidence for the existence of a God. The fact that we do not understand something or are not aware of something does not mean that God exists, any more than it means that Zeus, Apollo, mermaids, unicorns, hobbits or any other possible creature exists.

The gap in knowledge may be fillable by a naturalistic or reason-based explanation that has not been discovered yet. Examples might be some kind of physical force, a chemical reaction, a mistake in our understanding, a lie, an unrecorded historical event, or even intelligent extraterrestrial aliens.

And, assuming supernatural explanations are possible, the gap may be fillable by some kind of supernatural entity other than God--angels, ancestor spirits, a universal life energy, the Force, nature gods, or anything else imaginable. There are countless explanations that must be overcome before God becomes a viable option for explaining a mystery.

Source

"We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Gaps in God

The fallacy of the God of the gaps has been used for thousands of years. Of course, in earlier times the gaps in human knowledge were very different, and much larger. People did not understand things that today are easily explainable by a schoolchild. These gaps diminished over the centuries with new knowledge, and God has become smaller as a result.

Today, there is scarcely a single question that God is needed to answer. Even more esoteric questions like "why are we here" or "what is the purpose of life" are considered by more and more people to be answerable without appeals to God. Secular philosophies and belief systems have become more popular and more viable.

Moreover, even among spiritual or religious individuals, who might be interested in a God-based explanation, God is used less and less. These individuals are turning to different kinds of supernatural or spiritual explanations, whether polytheistic, pagan, or pantheistic in nature. Many hold supernatural beliefs that ignore the concept of "god" altogether and opt instead for a universal "life force" of some kind.

The concept of a God of the gaps, seemingly helpful to traditional theism, has ultimately sowed the seeds of God's destruction.

Physicist discusses the God of the Gaps

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Comments 26 comments

nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

"Human ignorance was the original basis for the development of religion,"

Source?


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

There are many sources for that statement. History, psychology, sociology, the personal experience of many people around the world and through history, and so on. Take your pick.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

Fair enough. I therefore assert that you are incorrect and I refer you to the same set of sources.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Well that's a obviously a much larger discussion, which I am happy to have. I'll just give you one simple fact to mull over that supports my conclusion: religiosity directly declines with educational attainment.

High school dropouts are more religious than HS graduates, who are more religious than college dropouts, who are more religious than college graduates, who are more religious than graduate school alumni.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

So... the PhDs at Liberty University are dumber than the PhDs at UVA?

Anyway, it's not a much larger discussion, it's an assertion you made without support and to paraphrase a famous atheist: “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

I wouldn't be surprised if they were. (Kidding... sort of.)

But those are general trends. It's not about specific individuals. Someone like Bill Gates, who is a college dropout, is probably much smarter than many college grads. But in general, smarter people have more educational attainment.

There is plenty of proof. I just did not go through the trouble of listing every single one of the hundreds of studies, surveys and pieces of evidence that support that statement, because it's not necessary, and I sensed you were not very serious about pursuing such a discussion with an open mind. And I suspect I was right.

Nevertheless, here is one. The religiosity by educational attainment is from a Gallup study: http://www.gallup.com/poll/109108/belief-god-far-l...

It actually specifically deals with belief in God, which is obviously directly tied to religiosity.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Secularist10 - please explain how high school dropouts are more religious than high school graduates - especially since the highest dropout rates are in sin-riddled Detroit.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Say--just look at the link I gave in my previous comment. It has the education data I referred to.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

'Say--just look at the link I gave in my previous comment. It has the education data I referred to.'

Repeat after me... "Correlation is not causation."

Science 101.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Nicomp:

Repeat after me: "Secularist did not say anything about causation."

Reading 101.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

Ummm... sorry. You posted the link to the Gallup study. Maybe you should read your own posts. ;)


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

I did. Go back and check it out.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

Happy to explain it to you... you cited the Gallup study in order to 'prove' that so-called religiosity declines as education increases. Since you and I agree that correlation is not causation, the point is moot.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Religiosity does decline as education increases--that is precisely what a correlation means. I cited the correlation as supporting evidence for the idea that religion comes largely from ignorance.

I never said the correlation single-handedly "proves" anything, other than its own existence. It is one piece of supporting evidence. I specifically said it was one piece of evidence among many.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

... and the murder rate declined as the use of Internet Explorer decreased:

http://gizmodo.com/5977989/internet-explorer-vs-mu...

Correlation means absolutely nothing. You want to say causation, but you know you can't because I called you on it. We all make that mistake once in a while.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

LOL, you guys!

The most educated population in the US is in the Northeast. They have the most prestigious universities, the highest standard of living, and the lowest divorce rate. Yet, they have one of the greatest number of people who believe either in God or a Higher Power. So that still doesn't answer my question as to why Detroit, which consistently has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the US and the highest dropout rates (only 24% of high school students there graduate!) is correspondingly devoid of spirituality.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Nicomp:

I suggest you stop trying to read people's minds. You're not very good at it. I know the difference between correlation and causation very well, and I have always been precise on that point in all of my hubs. Correlation means nothing? Not to anybody trying to understand relationships among factors in a complex world.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

Say:

You are correct that the Northeast has the most educated population. However, it most certainly is not the most religious. I'm not sure about belief in God specifically, but just believing in God in and of itself was never really my point. The point was religiosity, devoutness, devotion, religious belief as a part of one's daily life. On that count, New England is the least religious region in the country:

http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/state-states-imp...

And the Northeast in general is at least as secular as the West coast.

So that actually is consistent with the aforementioned negative relationship between education and religiosity nationally.

"... why Detroit, which consistently has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the US and the highest dropout rates (only 24% of high school students there graduate!) is correspondingly devoid of spirituality."

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "spirituality." But Michigan ranks as "average" in religion in daily life, for what it's worth. I can probably find some info on Detroit specifically.

But regardless, there are exceptions to every rule, which is why we look at overall correlations and general patterns and relationships. An individual case may buck the trend. We need to look at all the data to come to a conclusion, not just an isolated case.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Secularist10 - check out this site:

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Politics/worst-citi...

While none of these cities are in the Los Angeles area, I will add that Lynwood in the 1980s had a 50% high school dropout rate. In contrast, the Adventist school there, Lynwood Academy, not only had an almost 100% graduation rate, 80% of the students went to college. BTW, this was a black school.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Also - Lynwood Academy closed because the city took back their building (which the Conference did not own), destroyed it, and turned it into a city park. This goes to show urban decay is caused by indifferent politicians who don't want to see positive change - even when the church is doing it.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

I certainly won't disagree with political leaders' complicity in urban decay.

In any case, the article is interesting. I had a big spiel prepared breaking down stats by city, but there's too much to do and to explain so maybe I will go in-depth into that in another hub. I'm finding some interesting stuff.

It's hard to find comprehensive data of the kind we're looking for by city (which is one reason why I want to do that in another hub). But the state-level info is more readily available.

So, going back to the states in the Gallup survey I linked above, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Maryland all rank "average" according to Gallup in terms of the importance of religion in daily life. And as for Atlanta, Georgia ranks among the "most religious." None of these states are in either of the least religious categories.

More interestingly, here is a map with the graduation rates by state:

http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?mea...

Compare it to the religion map from Gallup. You will see that the Southern states rank among the most religious in the country, and rank among the lowest HS graduation rates. By contrast, New England states are among the least religious, and among the highest HS grad rates.

There are many, many other factors at play of course (job opportunities, education policy, poverty, crime rates, etc). Which is why the relationship is not perfect. But there is a relationship there. And again, this is only high school graduation. Not college attendance, postgraduate degrees, or many other measures of education.

It's interesting you point out that Lynwood was a "black school" because intuitively you know that black Americans tend to underperform in education. That's precisely what makes an experience like Lynwood unusual--because it goes against the trend. That's my point. The key is the trends and the overall patterns, not an individual case.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

Secularist10 - two stereotypes regarding blacks are: 1) they're more religious, and (rather, or) 2) they're more prone to violent crime. I say OR because the two don't go together; blacks who aren't religious are more prone to violent crime. In fact, Rosa Parks, a few months before her death, was mugged by Detroit gangsters! They probably didn't know she was a leader in the Montgomery bus boycott led by the highly educated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

I was fortunate to attend Golden Gate Academy, a black Adventist school in Oakland. There were no teen pregnancies in my class, everyone graduated, and most of us went to college. To this day, I'm surprised by how ignorant some of my co-workers are; they never learned basic things I was taught in high school.

Check out these sites:

http://privateschool.about.com/od/choosingaschool/...

http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/inde...

A former roommate of mine attended Catholic school a short while. He complained about it, but admitted the teachers there cared more than public school teachers. This backs up these links.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

"blacks who aren't religious are more prone to violent crime."

Do you have any data or sources for this statement?

Regarding graduation rates between private and public, just look at this from your own link (about.com):

"The reason why most private high schools do well in this area [graduation rates] is that they are generally selective. They will only accept students who can do the work."

If I only accept overachievers into my school, it stands to reason that I will have better student performance than a school that is forced to accept everybody! So that does not challenge my argument at all.

Regardless of all this, none of this counters my basic position that religious devoutness is correlated with less educational attainment. The fact that a subset of religious people (those that go to Catholic high schools for instance) have a higher graduation rate than the general public, is separate from the trends of the *overall* religious population.

To make it clearer: hypothetically, imagine that all high school grads were from Catholic schools. Then all HS grads are Catholic, but it does not therefore follow that all Catholics are HS grads. Analogously: all mothers are women, but not all women are mothers. Mothers are a *subset* of women.

Another analogy: in Medieval Europe, all educated people were Christian (priests, scribes, etc). Yet the *overall* rates of education were abysmal. The vast majority of people were illiterate. And yet they were all Christian.

To counter my position you would need to find data that shows that less educated people tend to be less religious on a national level. So far nothing you have shown speaks to that. And I have plenty more data on the national and global level that bolster my argument.


Say Yes To Life profile image

Say Yes To Life 3 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

" 'blacks who aren't religious are more prone to violent crime.'

Do you have any data or sources for this statement?"

Here it is. This link describes why kids join gangs.

http://www.violencepreventioninstitute.com/youngpe...

And this one describes one of many churches doing something about it:

http://www.brothersandsistersoflove.com/

Then consider far more famous ones, like Mother Teresa.

"The reason why most private high schools do well in this area [graduation rates] is that they are generally selective. They will only accept students who can do the work."

Not necessarily! I wasn't given any special test before attending Golden Gate Academy. Nearly all kids who were expelled were because of behavioral problems; I've heard of only one instance where academics were involved (the kid was refusing to do his work). Personally, I think that's justified; why should his parents pay good money for him to slack off?

"in Medieval Europe, all educated people were Christian (priests, scribes, etc). Yet the *overall* rates of education were abysmal. The vast majority of people were illiterate. And yet they were all Christian."

Before mass printing allowed for virtually everyone to own books, education was a priviledge for a lucky few. People from all religions all over the world, not just European Christians, had to join the clergy to be educated. Their job, in turn, was to guide the masses. This left plenty of room for corruption, but technology has saved us from that - not that many people are taking good advantage of that, but is that religion's fault? Actually, it was the Catholics who established the first network of schools, hospitals, and orphanages throughout Europe. Before that, sick people were cared for at home, at the mercy of their ignorant family members, and orphans wandered the streets like wild dogs.

Religion is not perfect - but it's better than the alternative.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

"Here it is. This link describes why kids join gangs."

There is not a single thing in that article that says or indicates that blacks who aren't religious are more prone to violent crime. I certainly do not see any data or statistics. The word "religion" or "church" does not even appear anywhere on that page. Therefore I can only assume that you pulled that statement from nowhere.

The only thing you could say is that church attendance or religious activities give kids something to do, making them less likely to get into trouble. But that is an argument for activities generally (sports, arts and crafts, etc), not for religious service attendance specifically.

"I wasn't given any special test before attending Golden Gate Academy."

You don't necessarily need to take a test. They can just look at the student's grades. Each school is different. But the vast majority of private schools have high standards for accepting students, that is the most important reason why they have better performance.

"Actually, it was the Catholics who established the first network of schools, hospitals, and orphanages throughout Europe."

Of course they did. The Catholic Church enjoyed a monopoly on social power and authority, in alliance with the armies of the secular monarchs. If I had a violence-enforced monopoly on spiritual, economic and social life, I would be able to do anything, lol!

Note that when that monopoly was broken--first with the Reformation, and later with the rise of secularism and the decline of religion generally--suddenly the church did not play such a prominent role in science, education or medical research anymore. Today the churches are still around, and yet they do not contribute almost anything in the realm of education or learning; proportionally, secular laboratories, universities and research centers play a FAR greater role.

"Religion is not perfect - but it's better than the alternative."

To the contrary, when the West was steeped in religious devotion during the Middle Ages, there was tremendous violence, backwardness, oppression and disease. As religious rigidity declined (beginning with the Renaissance, and continuing in waves to today), the prosperity of the West increased markedly, as did political freedom.

Today, when Western society is at its LEAST religious in history, it is also at its most peaceful, healthiest, and most prosperous.

The facts and data are all there for you to see, whether you accept them or not is up to you.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 3 years ago from New York City Author

I have written a hub on the relationship between religiosity and crime rates in major American cities: http://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Religion-a...

What we see is that less religious cities do not tend to have more crime.

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