Answering the ‘god-of-the-gaps’ Accusation

One of the arguments that atheists often use against theism, is that the reason why people believe in God is because it explains (or at least claims to explain) a gap in our knowledge. Belief in God was a lot more plausible when we didn’t know how the world works, but as science advances we do, and God is reduced to the ever shrinking gaps in our knowledge. This kind of reasoning reduces all theistic explanations to “god-of-the gaps” arguments, or “arguments from ignorance” (which are essentially the same thing). However, there are two very big problems with this kind assertion.

The first problem is that calling these arguments “god of the gaps arguments” or “arguments from ignorance”, is assuming the very thing you’re trying to establish: philosophical naturalism. If you assume that everything can be explained by the natural sciences within the worldview of philosophical naturalism, then anything that can’t be explained naturally has to be able to be explained naturally. And so it can’t be that there’s no natural explanation, but rather that we don’t yet know what the natural explanation is.

However, this necessarily assumes that there is a natural explanation which we simply don’t know, in order to argue against all other possible explanations. The explanation may indeed be a natural one, but insisting that has to be, in order to argue that all other alternatives are false, is assuming the very thing that you’re trying to establish: that everything has a natural explanation.

And so calling an argument for theism, whatever it is, an argument from ignorance or a god of the gaps argument, is assuming philosophical naturalism in order to establish philosophical naturalism. It is a text book example of the logical fallacy known as circular reasoning. You’re assuming that there is a natural explanation that we don’t know of, in order to argue against an alternative explanation simply because it doesn’t fit your worldview.

The second (and even more significant) problem, is that when this position is taken, the naturalistic worldview is rendered unfalsifiable. Instead of engaging with the reasons, evidence or arguments that theists bring to the table, they are dismissed as god-of-the-gaps arguments or arguments from ignorance, regardless of their explanatory power, or naturalism’s lack thereof.

This is not merely moving the goal posts, it’s attempting to set up the game so that the other side has no goal posts: if it can be explained by a naturalistic worldview then we have no need of the God hypothesis, and if it can’t be explained by a naturalistic worldview then it’s a god-of-the gaps argument / argument from ignorance. Heads atheism wins, tails theism loses.

Of course, naturalists are free to do this, but it’s difficult to see how they can, at the same time, claim to be following the evidence. Whenever they come to reasons, evidence or arguments for theism, they can simply put their fingers in their ears and shout “argument from ignorance!” In doing so, they reveal that there’s no way that their worldview of philosophical naturalism could ever be falsified.

Whatever evidence there is against naturalism is dismissed before it’s examined, and the naturalistic worldview is taken on blind faith in the possibility of future natural explanations that we’re currently all ignorant of. By contrast, abductive arguments for theism (like the cosmological argument, the argument from fine-tuning, the moral argument etc) don’t proceed on the basis of what we don’t know, but on the basis what we do know. John Lennox explains this kind of reasoning as follows:

“God is the creator of both the bits of the universe that we don’t understand, and the bits we do. And of course, it is the bits we do understand that give the most evidence of God’s existence and activity. Just as I can admire the genius behind a work of engineering or art, the more I understand it; so my worship of the Creator increases, the more I understand what he has done.” (John Lennox, Gunning for God, 31)

This kind of reasoning is worlds apart from “I can’t explain it, therefore God did it.” It’s the reasoning of the form: “What we do know seems to be better explained by theism in general and Christianity in particular, rather than atheism in general and naturalism in particular” (an inference to the best explanation).

Unlike the commitment to naturalism which labels arguments against it as “arguments from ignorance”, the Christian worldview makes claims that are falsifiable. These include claims such as the universe had a beginning, the universe is designed for life, the origin of life was not the result of blind natural processes, good and evil are more than social constructions, and uniquely, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

This last claim in particular sets Christianity apart from other worldviews: Christianity uniquely puts its neck on the chopping block of history. None of these arguments are new, but they’re all falsifiable. Christianity could be falsified by scientific evidence of a steady-state universe, or the falsification of its appearance of design, or by demonstrating abiogenesis, or by a natural explanation of the resurrection shaped hole in history.

Unfortunately, all such natural explanations are forthcoming, although they are entirely possible, if indeed the natural is all that exists. However, what are the equivalent falsifications for philosophical naturalism? When atheists are asked this question, they usually posit some sort of miracle. But when asked if miracles are possible, they almost always say “no”, the one thing that would falsify their worldview, is impossible by definition.

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