THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

 

“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”.  And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

However, in popular modern usage, it means something rather different; a version of the argument-from-ignorance fallacy, that:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.

Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery.  This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense.  It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.

1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.

2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance.  The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.

3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.

To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?

 

2 thoughts on “THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

  1. While I largely agree with you that the reasons people hold beliefs which contradict our current understanding of reality whether it be religion, conspiracy theories or alternative medicine are emotional and cultural reasons not intellectual ones and arguing based on facts is often fruitless and frustrating, it is so often the believers that jump to the god of the gaps fallacy to express their beliefs and to attack science and knowledge and to try and get their particular belief special treatment in society and under the law just look and the endless “irreducible complexity” arguments that creationists use to try and force their beliefs into education systems so I think it remains important to be able to counter that kind of argument but it isn’t one that I would lead with.

    Unfortunately this leaves us with the same question how do you move people away from emotionally lead beliefs that are harmful to themselves and society? I think this is something we cannot leave for people to arrive at unaided as the structures and communities around these beliefs are often deliberately and expertly set up to prevent their members encountering or considering any alternative view.

  2. So it seems that those religious apologists are using TGOTG argument in exactly the way that Drummond, Bonhoeffer and Coulson cautioned against (see Wikipedia article linked above). Perhaps directing these people to the source of the term wouldn’t change their minds, but may cause them to question their use of that line of argument.

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