Opposing the God of the Gaps

March 11, 2008 at 11:58 pm 19 comments

broken chainI’ve long been familiar with the type of argument that is known as “the God of the gaps”, though it has only been within the last year that I’ve heard that name applied to this particular argument from ignorance.

Shortly, for those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, a “God of the gaps” argument points to one area where either humanity as a group, or the individual making the argument in particular, have less than complete knowledge. The one proposing the God-of-the-gap argument then declares that God fits into that gap of knowledge. At one time, it was possible to respond to any question of how or why by responding that God was the answer, or at least the cause. As humans have discovered how various things work or why they happen, the gaps for this God to live in have gotten increasingly smaller.

The God of the gap is popularly invoked to explain the very beginnings of the universe, consciousness, common understandings of morality or the existence of living organisms. If we don’t quite know how something happened, God did it. If we aren’t sure why something happens the way it does, it happens that way in accordance with God’s plan.

Sometimes new gaps are created for this God to exist in. To ask why the universe exists, or what purpose life has, presupposes a gap in our current knowledge someone can claim God is, or provides, the answer to. On a more individual level, if we pray for something and receive it without being able to see how or why we may have received what we prayed for (sometimes by not looking for, or even denying, other possibilities), we can choose to assume the answer is the God of the gaps.

Just recently, I’ve begun to wonder if what happens when someone invokes the God-of-the-gaps is worse than simply another logical fallacy to be disregarded in an argument. Once someone chooses to invoke the God-of-the-gaps, that someone has equated their god with their ignorance. Now, it’s true that ignorance can be described with many of the same characteristics often attributed to various gods. God is the beginning and the end; we are born in ignorance and die with ignorance. God is beyond all human understanding; the more we know, the more we are aware of how much there still is that we are ignorant of. God is good; ignorance is bliss.

But, if ignorance becomes god, in any area, there are those who will argue that it has become sacred- set aside for special treatment. It is not to be attacked or questioned. Indeed, as it is worshipped, it grows in apparent importance when compared to all related knowledge. Not only do we not know something, but it is considered blasphemous to seek information about it. It becomes possible to claim that accepting something as a mystery is an act of humility, implying that attempting to understand it is an act of arrogance. All progress in that area comes to a halt.

If we claim to follow the Judeo-Christian god who is reported to command that we love Him with all our minds and to not worship any idols in His stead, we do Him a great disservice by forwarding a God-of-the-gaps argument and thereby worshipping our ignorance as god. If we worship or follow a god (or pantheon) who does not command thought or forbid idolatry, we still do our god(s) a disservice by being unwilling to learn from all of that god’s (or those gods’) self-revelation in creation.

If we do not believe there is a god, we do ourselves a disservice whenever we allow ignorance to be set up as a god. C.J. Cherryh, in one of her novels, had a character say, “Ignorance killed the cat…. Curiosity was framed.” What we don’t know can hurt us, and even outside of self-preservation, there is so much beauty and elegance in the universe and potential in humanity, that refusing to learn or allowing an area to be considered off-limits to enquiry seems very much like a sin- against ourselves, if no one else.

Investigation and education are our only tools against ignorance, and thus, the God of the gaps. If we choose not to worship our ignorance, neither should we settle for it. Instead, we can choose to continue learning and sharing what we learn throughout our lives.

- Quester

Entry filed under: Quester. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thinking Ape  |  March 12, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Excellent article Quester and, may I say, much more profound and thought through than the section on the same subject in Dawkin’s The God Delusion.

  • 2. paulmct  |  March 12, 2008 at 12:53 am

    Very good post. I especially liked this section:

    “Not only do we not know something, but it is considered blasphemous to seek information about it. It becomes possible to claim that accepting something as a mystery is an act of humility, implying that attempting to understand it is an act of arrogance.”

    So true. Religions have been, and are, heavily invested in people’s ignorance. If you start asking questions, you might realize they don’t have all the answers and that you don’t need them.

    I also think a lot of people are afraid of the gaps. If you’re interested, I discussed that here:

    http://paulmct.wordpress.com/2008/02/10/fear-of-the-void/

  • 3. Quester  |  March 12, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Thank-you, TA and Paul.

    Paul, I followed your link and appreciate your article.

    Of course, now that I’ve written this and published it for all to see, it belatedly dawns on me that Question Monkey’s article last week was on much the same subject. That may be part of why the issue’s been on my mind lately. Sorry for the repetition, especially to Question Monkey.

    *blush*

  • 4. ned  |  March 12, 2008 at 2:22 am

    Quester: This is a wonderful article. Thank you. Similar ideas are also expressed beautifully in Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience.

  • 5. Thinking Ape  |  March 12, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Quester says,

    Of course, now that I’ve written this and published it for all to see, it belatedly dawns on me that Question Monkey’s article last week was on much the same subject.

    For those who wonder to which article he is referring to, check out Question Monkey’s Blind Faith or Blinding Faith.

  • 6. the chaplain  |  March 12, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Very nice post. It’s easy to get on a high horse about this topic and come across with the impression that doubters and nonbelievers are superior or more honest than believers. You avoided that pitfall nicely.

  • 7. Greg  |  March 12, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Excellent post. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge dated Apr 30, 1944: “Religious people speak of God when … human resources fail. … It always seems to me that in talking thus we are only seeking frantically to make room for God. I should like to speak of God not on the borders of life but at its centre, not in weakness but in strength …. The Church stands not where human powers give out, on the borders, but in the centre of the village …”

  • 8. LeoPardus  |  March 12, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Darn fine post. I kept thinking of possible comments, then you’d get to it in the next paragraph I read.

    Nice thinking and writing.

    Thanks.

  • 9. Stephen P  |  March 12, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    It becomes possible to claim that accepting something as a mystery is an act of humility, implying that attempting to understand it is an act of arrogance.

    Indeed. And yet what greater act of arrogance can there be than for someone to claim the right to keep the whole of humanity in ignorance?

    People with an inordinate regard for literal readings of the bible are sometimes referred to as bibliolaters. Perhaps we could refer to people who equate their god with their ignorance as nesciolaters. (Unless a passing classicist can suggest a better term.)

  • 10. Stephen P  |  March 12, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    It becomes possible to claim that accepting something as a mystery is an act of humility, implying that attempting to understand it is an act of arrogance.

    Indeed. And yet what greater act of arrogance can there be than for someone to claim the right to keep the whole of humanity in ignorance?

    People with an inordinate regard for literal readings of the bible are sometimes referred to as bibliolaters. Perhaps we could refer to people who equate their god with their ignorance as nesciolaters. (Unless a passing classicist can suggest a better term.)

  • 11. Stephen P  |  March 12, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Sorry about the double post. My feeble excuse is that I did actually receive a message saying that there had been an error and I should resubmit it …

  • 12. Quester  |  March 12, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Ned,

    Sounds interesting. What sort of book is Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience?

    Chaplain,

    Thank-you. I’m still not sure whether I’m a believer with strong doubts or a skeptic with a history of belief. Not knowing what side I’m on, I feel a need to take special care not to lash out in either direction. That said, we’re all people with our own blind spots and hypocrisies. Learning and teaching are thus always better options than looking down on others from a non-existent high horse.

    Greg,

    The idea of prayer being a last resort has long frustrated me. If it works, prayer should be what we turn to first, not after everything else has failed.

    Stephen,

    If I ever feel the need for such a term, I will try to remember yours.

    LeoPardus,

    Glad to hear it. Completely off-topic, what is that image you’re using for an avatar?

  • 13. LeoPardus  |  March 12, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Quester:

    I was planning a post with a larger image of my avatar. I’ll have to get it done now that I know people (or at least one people) are curious.

  • 14. ned  |  March 12, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Quester: “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” is an edited version of a series of talks given by Carl Sagan at the Gifford Lecture of natural theology. Sagan called science “informed worship”. He believed that rational understanding of the universe can serve as the foundation of a deeper form of (non)theology. Sagan was a agnostic but it’s a way of saying “the more you know, the closer you are to God”. I thought you might enjoy it.

  • 15. Quester  |  March 12, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    LeoP- All right. I’ll wait for to read about it then.

    Ned- I’ll have to look that up.

  • 16. Opposing the God of the Gaps. « Sparse Random Thoughts  |  March 15, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    […] Posted in Everything, Religion, Sites I Visit by Matt on March 15th, 2008 I thoroughly liked this article by Quester over at de-conversion.com Tagged with: god, ignorance, knowledge, reason « […]

  • 17. Anonymous  |  March 22, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Perry Marshall any atheist to debate him. He says, “If you can read this, I can prove God exists”.

  • 18. Quester  |  March 23, 2008 at 3:43 am

    You’re right, Anonymous. He does say that. A brief Google search allowed me to find that out, and also find the response of a few members of the Rational Response Squad forum members. You might find that latter link worth reading.

  • 19. Why I Support Intelligent Design « de-conversion  |  June 21, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    […] include at least a rudimentary acceptance of evolution as a concept. And since ID is basically a “God of the gaps” theory, it will eventually collapse under scrutiny by those who take the time to think, and the […]

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