Is God of the Gaps a valid atheist argument?

Christians make a “God of the gaps” error when they say; “Well; if you don’t know what caused that; I do! God did it.” Let's address some Christian responses.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“God of the gaps” is a Christian response to the march of science. God had been used to explain many things—lightning, disease, earthquakes, and so on—but as science explained more, less remained for God to explain. God was forced to live in the gaps where questions remain, between blocks of well-established scientific knowledge.

Christians often still use it as an attack, demanding, “How did the first life come to be?” or some similar unanswered scientific question. Their conclusion: “You’ve got no answer; therefore, God did it.” Science will always have a long list of important unanswered questions, so this argument is endlessly reusable.

The atheist response

The problem is that as those gaps in scientific knowledge are filled in, fertile ground for God belief shrinks. The image that comes to mind for me is God sitting forlornly on an iceberg that is gradually melting. The Christian who builds his faith on a foundation of science risks that faith when the science shifts.

The second problem is that it assumes too much. Sure, Christianity can answer questions that science can’t, but are those answers worth listening to? “I don’t know how this works; therefore, God did it” is no solid foundation on which to build a worldview. There’s no more evidence that “God did it” than that the Flying Spaghetti Monster did it. And “God did it” is a claim, not a conclusion. It’s not supported by evidence.

The Christian response

Christians have several responses. Here’s a snarky Christian characterization of the atheist position:

But now, in the fullness of time, we have seen a great light … and this light has chased God out into the shadows. To this day, science continues to replace God-filled gaps in our understanding with all-natural ingredients. And since we don’t need God to explain the existence of the nature of the universe, we don’t need God, period. (@34:00)

Another version:

[The god-of-the-gaps] objection is rooted in the idea that because a number of things throughout human history have been wrongly attributed to the supernatural activity of God or gods, we can now safely dismiss God as a cause behind anything else we observe.

In other words, these mocking characterizations imagine that science doesn’t have all the answers yet, but it will! This is the science-of-the-gaps fallacy, also called the Argument from the Future (because the future will resolve the problems we can’t today). This has been cleverly distilled into, “I don’t know, therefore not God.”

Whatever you call this argument, I don’t make it. I don’t say that God couldn’t be the explanation for anything within nature, just that that’s where the evidence points (or lack of evidence).

A counterexample?

One Christian response gives the search for extraterrestrial life to argue against God-of-the-gaps thinking. So far, it’s turned up nothing, but the search continues. If atheists reject the possibility of God, why not reject the possibility of extraterrestrials with the same logic?

First, I don’t reject the possibility of God. And second, “the supernatural” has never been shown to be an explanation for anything. The search for the supernatural is not at all parallel to the search for extraterrestrials, which is simply a search for life (which we know exists) that uses technology (ditto).

Christians point to something, not nothing?

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason pushed back against the god-of-the-gaps charge. Taking just the Intelligent Design argument, he says it doesn’t point to a lack of evidence and then imagine a Designer; rather, it is an argument itself. And when there’s some unanswered question about evolution, each side—both ID and evolution—must fill that gap.

He tells his evolution opponent,

When you get [an answer] in the future, you can stick it in the gap…. But in the meantime, reason and rationality require that we go with the odds-on favorite given the evidence that we have right now. (@24:29)

The what? The “odds-on favorite”?? Someone’s not paying attention. No supernatural explanation has ever successfully explained anything. “Supernatural Explanation” has come in dead last in every race it’s run. No, it’s not the favorite.

And note that the naturalistic answer would depend on what the question is; that’s why the answers are hard to come up with. The ID answer is always the same—God (or “a Creator,” if you prefer) did it, breaking unknown laws in unknown ways. They’ve got a one-size-fits-all answer that’s ungrounded from reality and answers nothing.

Use science correctly

Christians, either use science or don’t. If you don’t, that’s fine, but then tell us you simply believe by faith rather than evidence. And if you do claim science is on your side, then man up and take a stand on the scientific issue that you raise. Tell us that your faith is built on there being no scientific explanation for abiogenesis (or whatever the question is), and if one is found, your faith ends.

The alternative (which I’m sure you’ll choose) is that you’re simply parroting the Unanswered Scientific Question du jour. When it gets answered by science, you’ll pick a new one and hope we don’t notice. You’re always retreating, always moving the goalposts, never taking a stand. Your argument then is nothing more than “Science has unanswered questions; therefore, God.”

Science will always have a long list of important unanswered questions, so this argument is endlessly reusable.

Imagine if Isaac Newton had taken that approach: “Apples fall to earth and planets orbit the sun because of God. Praise the Lord!” Answering every question with “God” dismantles science.

These Christians are abusing science, not using it. It’s not just that they pick and choose scientific facts to support the conclusion they’ve already chosen (rather than following the evidence), but they dishonestly imagine science’s questions are evidence against science.

An article from the Discovery Institute is an example. It begins,

It looks like 2017 could become some kind of genuine annus horribilis [horrible year] for the established scientific consensus on human evolution. It all began with five discoveries that made worldwide headlines earlier this year.

So what are you saying? That evolution is now on the ropes? Or are you just spinning interesting questions (and biologists delight in finding new puzzles to work on) to be knockout punches, knowing that they are nothing of the kind?

When the dust settles, we still have the popular Christian argument: “How do you explain abiogenesis?” or “What came before the Big Bang?” or whatever. They’re valid scientific questions, but Christianity provides no answer.

It’s like these Christians are reading a long book about science. They are impatient with the slow progress, so they turn to the back and find that the last pages are blank. Unable to stand the tension, they pencil in “God did it.”

That works, if you don’t care about being right.

Related posts:

[Do you] mean, if you don’t understand something,
and the community of physicists don’t understand it,
that means God did it?
Is that how you want to play this game?
… Then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance
that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on.
— Neil DeGrasse-Tyson

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...