The God of the Gaps?

I’ve seen all sorts of numerous accusations about how I’m trying to prove “the God of the Gaps“.  (For those who don’t know the God of the Gaps is roughly the idea that you can identify God in those parts of nature which don’t work, i.e. in the gaps in our scientific knowledge.) I find this accusation hurled at me especially often if I’m discussing anything involving wonder at the natural world.  It’s often followed by assurances that atheists have a sense of wonder, though one is forced to wonder what it might consist of in the face of the unshakable conviction that we understand everything.

Anyway, I’ve been wondering where on earth the idea of the God of the Gaps came from, anyway. It feels like the sort of thing you might get from a Christian fundamentalist, though even they usually aren’t this obtuse. Oddly, Wikipedia isn’t much help. In the Origins of the Term section of the article on it, it says:

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 can not 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.”[2][3]

In 1933, Ernest Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, used the phrase in a discussion of general relativity’s implication of a Big Bang:

Must we then postulate Divine intervention? Are we to bring in God to create the first current of Laplace’s nebula or to let off the cosmic firework of Lemaître’s imagination? I confess an unwillingness to bring God in this way upon the scene. The circumstances with thus seem to demand his presence are too remote and too obscure to afford me any true satisfaction. Men have thought to find God at the special creation of their own species, or active when mind or life first appeared on earth. They have made him God of the gaps in human knowledge. To me the God of the trigger is as little satisfying as the God of the gaps. It is because throughout the physical Universe I find thought and plan and power that behind it I see God as the creator.[4]

During World War II the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the concept in similar terms in letters he wrote while in a Nazi prison.[5] Bonhoeffer wrote, for example:

how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap 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.

All of its citations are Christians who are saying that this is a stupid idea (there are more, I’ve cut for brevity). And of course it is; the God of the Gaps basically postulates that God is incompetent and didn’t make a creation which actually works and has to be constantly patched up. I’m really wondering why on earth atheists are so obsessed with it, since it’s something serious Christians criticize heartily.

There are a few explanations which spring to mind or were suggested by friends:

  1. The atheists believe in a God of the Gaps, only they call it Science. (i.e. the mis-understanding of science commonly called scientism).
  2. They really want Christians to propose an idea they can beat up by some method other than denying  that human reason can reach truth.
  3. The sort of people who tend to become either atheists or fundamentalist Christians use this argument if they become fundamentalist Christians. As a result, non-fundamentalists never see it but atheists do since they’re almost the only people who regularly interact with fundies.

I’d be curious in hearing other explanations, if anyone has any to offer.

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