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What is the "God of the Gaps"?

Updated on December 17, 2017
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 27 years.

When atheists accuse theists of creating a "God of the Gaps," they are accusing them of offering God as an explanation for what we cannot currently explain by the enterprise of science.
When atheists accuse theists of creating a "God of the Gaps," they are accusing them of offering God as an explanation for what we cannot currently explain by the enterprise of science. | Source


What is "God of the Gaps"? If you have been in a science class in high school or in college, you probably heard a science teacher stand up and say something like the following:

In the past men were superstitious; they believed that the gods caused things to happen. Among the Nordic gods, Thor rode his chariot across the clouds and that’s what caused thunder. Zeus hurled thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus. These ancient peoples exercised a “god-of-the-gaps” approach to thinking. No matter what happened, their god caused it. If a person got the plague, their god caused it; if they were healed from their plague, their god caused that too. If the plague never came, they were spared by their god. The answer for why things happen or don’t happen is that their god did it. As science makes more discoveries, the need for God becomes irrelevant. However, religious people still plug the holes in our knowledge with these ignorant statements.

Have you ever heard comments like those above? According to some atheists, religious people offer "God" as a plug to fill the gap of ignorance when a naturalistic explanation is not forthcoming. Atheists say that offering God in this fashion is to offer a "God of the Gaps" (There are other ways in which the expression "God of the Gaps" is used and you can read about those here). Atheists have created a variation of the “God of the Gaps” to attack the theistic explanation of causation. According to science lecturer Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the God of the Gaps is a God that is an "ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance." Below I give several reasons why we should reject this attack.

Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has been a modern popularizer of using "God of the Gaps" in an attempt to advance his views on atheism.
Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has been a modern popularizer of using "God of the Gaps" in an attempt to advance his views on atheism. | Source

What's Good for the Goose

When atheists attack theistic modes of explanations, using the pejorative "God of the Gaps," we need to understand that the atheist uses the same mode of reasoning. Whenever any final explanation of causation is sought, atheists regurgitate the response that “evolution did it” or perhaps they will say “Nature did it.” We could call this mode of explanation the "Evolution of the Gaps."

The problem with this approach is that “Nature” or “evolution” are themselves in need of an explanation. They cannot be offered as explanations for first causes. Another problem with "Evolution of the Gaps" is that evolution is effete: it has no power to do anything. We need some power that is outside evolution to bring the process of evolution into existence. A thing cannot be itself and the thing that it creates at the same time, so we can't use "Nature" or "evolution" to explain how nature or evolution came into existence.

What We Know and What We Don't

"God of the Gaps" is an accusation and a short-sighted one: When the theist offers “God” as an explanation, he’s not using God to plug his ignorance. Rather, he’s saying that there's evidence that supports an intelligence or a creative mind. When I say that the universe must have begun to exist, that is based on scientific and philosophical evidence. When I say that “intelligence” is the best explanation for why life exists, that's based on what we continue to find out about DNA, for example.

The reality is that God is being offered as an explanation, not based on what we don’t know, but rather based on what we do know (Even atheists, like Richard Dawkins, admit that the universe appears designed). Theists offer God as the best explanation for the beginning of the universe, for its fine tuning, and for the existence of objective morality for example. The geneticist Francis Collins is right when he says that "There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on a temporary lack of knowledge."

Science Lecturer Neil deGrasse Tyson Offers a Common Explanation of God of the Gaps

The Nature of Explanation

For atheist to offer straw-man arguments like God of the Gaps belies their confusion over the nature of explanation. Atheists assert that theistic explanations are inadequate because they assume that the only acceptable explanations are naturalistic ones. The problem is that the claim that “The only true claims are those derived from science” is not a scientific statement. As a truth claim, it’s not a statement of science; it’s a statement about science. Hence the statement is nonsense.

Besides its self-contradiction, such a view is not consonant with our ordinary experience of inquiry. We accept varying explanations all the time in explaining some event. For example, if I’ve got a can of paint thinner and some paint brushes, and my wife enters the garage and asks, “What’s going on”? It would be silly for me to say something like, “Well, Dear, the paint thinner acts as a solvent and acts to break down the chemical properties of the paint, and….” Now, my response might provide a scientific explanation, but my wife was not asking for a scientific explanation. She wanted to know what I was doing. Here, her question had to do with that causation that is due to agency, and not with the chemical reaction of paint to paint thinner.

When we discuss the act of invention, it's a common explanation to ascribe the creative act to intelligent agency, and not merely to material causation.
When we discuss the act of invention, it's a common explanation to ascribe the creative act to intelligent agency, and not merely to material causation. | Source

But our naturalist friend might say, “But isn’t the scientific explanation the most important one”? Not necessarily. Explanations are linked to the questions that are being asked. Sometimes, a scientific explanation could get in the way of progress, rather than facilitate it. If I left my paint and paint thinner near an open flame, and my wife asks the same question, “What’s going on”? She doesn’t want a scientific explanation. Rather, she probably wants to know why I have created a dangerous situation by leaving flammable materials near an open flame. Offering the scientific explanation at that moment may in fact divert from creating a safer situation. Knowing why the paint thinner is combustible is important, but it may not provide the vital information that is needed at a critical moment. We need to know who created the dangerous situation so that we can act to rectify it.

When we ask questions like “How did that car get here”? Today, it’s very common for us to say that “John parked it there.” When asking the question in a historical context, it’s common to say things like “we can thank Henry Ford for the American car” or “we can thank the Wright Brothers for the airplane.”

When we say that “God did it” we're no more appealing to ignorance than when I reference Henry Ford or the Wright Brothers. It’s just that the nature of the explanation is different. Offering materialistic causation is an important type of explanation, but it’s not the only kind. Simply discussing how the paint thinner and paint chemically react or explaining the assembly line process for the car are needed explanations, but they are inadequate explanations to account for the totality of human experience.

Why Intelligent Design (ID) is Not an Argument from "God of the Gaps"

Out of the Mouth to Babes

The same explanation that we often give children that “God did it” is really the simplest, yet most profound explanation . The airplane—well, it all goes back to the Wright Brothers on those sand dunes at Kitty Hawk. As for the universe, it all goes back to God.

In summary, atheists have created a straw man, God of the Gaps, to discount theistic explanations of agency and causation. Naturalists do no better by offering us "Evolution of the Gaps" or "Nature of the Gaps." Besides, increasingly, God is offered as an explanation for what we do know and not on the basis of what we don’t. Naturalistic explanations are inadequate to address the totality of human inquiry. Sometimes they’re helpful; sometimes they’re not.

© 2014 William R Bowen Jr


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