God of the Gaps

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God of the gaps is a theological perspective in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence. The term was invented by Christian theologians not to discredit theism but rather to point out the fallacy of relying on teleological arguments (argument from design) for God’s existence. Some use the phrase to refer to a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy (in which ignorance stands for ‘lack of evidence to the contrary’).

The concept, although not the exact wording, goes back to Henry Drummond, a 19th-century evangelist lecturer, from his Lowell Lectures on ‘The Ascent of Man.’ He chastises those Christians who point to the things that science cannot yet explain—’gaps which they will fill up with God’—and urges them to embrace all nature as God’s, as the work of ‘… an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.’ (Immanence here is related to pantheism, the belief that God and the universe are equivalent.)

During World War II German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terms in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison. Bonhoeffer wrote, for example: ‘…how wrong it is to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.’

In his 1955 book ‘Science and Christian Belief’ British theoretical chemist Charles Alfred Coulson wrote: ‘There is no ‘God of the gaps’ to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.’ He concluded: ‘Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all.’ Coulson was a mathematics professor at Oxford University as well as a Methodist church leader, often appearing in BBC religious programs. His book got national attention, was reissued as a paperback, and was reprinted several times, most recently in 1971. It is claimed that the actual phrase ‘God of the gaps’ was invented by Coulson.

The term was then used in a 1971 book and a 1978 article, by American scientist Richard Bube. He articulated the concept in greater detail in ‘Man come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps’ (1978). Bube attributed modern crises in religious faith in part to the inexorable shrinking of the God-of-the-gaps as scientific knowledge progressed. As humans progressively increased their understanding of nature, the previous ‘realm’ of God seemed to many persons and religions to be getting smaller and smaller by comparison. Bube maintained that Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ was the ‘death knell’ of the God-of-the-gaps. Bube also maintained that the God-of-the-gaps was not the same as the God of the Bible (that is, he was not making an argument against God per se, but rather asserting there was a fundamental problem with the perception of God as existing in the gaps of present-day knowledge).

The term ‘God of the gaps’ is sometimes used in describing the incremental retreat of religious explanations of physical phenomena in the face of increasingly comprehensive scientific explanations for those phenomena. Presbyterian minister and Old Testament scholar.R. Laird Harris writes: ‘The expression, ‘God of the Gaps,’ contains a real truth. It is erroneous if it is taken to mean that God is not immanent in natural law but is only to be observed in mysteries unexplained by law. No significant Christian group has believed this view. It is true, however, if it be taken to emphasize that God is not only immanent in natural law but also is active in the numerous phenomena associated with the supernatural and the spiritual. There are gaps in a physical-chemical explanation of this world, and there always will be. Because science has learned many marvelous secrets of nature, it cannot be concluded that it can explain all phenomena. Meaning, soul, spirits, and life are subjects incapable of physical-chemical explanation or formation.’

The term God-of-the-gaps fallacy can refer to a position that assumes an act of God as the explanation for an unknown phenomenon, which is a variant of an argument from ignorance fallacy. Such an argument is sometimes reduced to the following form: There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world. Therefore the cause must be supernatural. One example of such an argument, which uses God as an explanation of one of the current gaps in biological science, is as follows: ‘Because current science can’t figure out exactly how life started, it must be God who caused life to start.’ Critics of intelligent design creationism, for example, have accused proponents of using this basic type of argument.

The term was invented as a criticism of people who perceive that God only acts in the gaps, and who restrict God’s activity to such ‘gaps.’ It has also been argued that the God-of-the-gaps view is predicated on the assumption that any event which can be explained by science automatically excludes God; that if God did not do something via direct action, God didn’t do it at all. The argument, as traditionally advanced by scholarly Christians, was intended as a criticism against weak or tenuous faith, not as a statement against theism or belief in God.

According to John Habgood in ‘The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology,’ the phrase is generally derogatory, and is inherently a direct criticism of a tendency to postulate acts of God to explain phenomena for which science has yet to give a satisfactory account. He states: ‘It is theologically more satisfactory to look for evidence of God’s actions within natural processes rather than apart from them, in much the same way that the meaning of a book transcends, but is not independent of, the paper and ink of which it is comprised.’

From a scientific viewpoint, God-of-the-gaps is viewed as the fallacy of claiming any gap in our scientific knowledge as evidence of God’s action, as opposed to admitting that we do not currently have an answer or anticipating that, should an answer come, it will be a scientific one that leaves no role for God. In this vein, Richard Dawkins dedicates a chapter of his book, ‘The God Delusion’ to criticism of the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. Some theistic scientists point out the danger of using a God-of-the-gaps argument and prefer (for example) the ‘fine-tuning’ argument (pointing out that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range; which is itself related to the anthropic principle, which states that the universe is how it is because it must allow for the eventual creation of us, as observers).

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