In an article on intelligent design I once wrote for The New Republic, I quoted a statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave preacher and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for plotting against Hitler. He was decrying the tendency of religious people to impute mysterious natural phenomena to God, and made one of the earliest theological cases against “God-of-the-gaps” arguments:
“If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.” (Letters and papers from Prison, 1997, p. 311)
Bonhoeffer, it seems, was smarter than a lot of modern theologians and religious scientists, who, while paying lip service to his idea, nevertheless are still trying to plug the holes in our scientific knowledge with God. That is, the old idea of Natural Theology—that evidence for God abounds in nature—is still alive and well. Though a bit spavined by Darwin’s work, which killed a major part of natural theology (the presumed “design” of plants and animals), the faithful still find God in other places. Here’s a short list of natural phenomena still attributed directly to God’s action.
- The “inevitability” of humans (some, like Conway Morris and Kenneth Miller, argue that creatures with high intelligence, able to apprehend and worship God, would inevitably have evolved, and that this was in some sense not only predicted by God, but directed by him).
- “Free will” (which, as I’ve argued, we don’t have—at least in the dualistic sense posited by religion).
- The origin of the universe out of “nothing”
- The laws of physics
- The supposed “fine tuning” of physical laws, which allows for humans to exist on Earth
- The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in helping us understand the universe
- Morality, i.e., our innate feelings of what is good and bad
- The fact that our senses are sufficiently reliable for us to do science and apprehend truth (e.g., Plantinga’s argument that evolution could not have given us that ability, and ergo it comes from the sensus divinitatus vouchsafed us by God).
1. Francis Collins:
A. Decries God of the Gaps arguments:
“If God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world. It is a complete misuse of the tools of science to apply them to this discussion.”
“When God is inserted in a place where science can’t currently provide enough information, then sooner or later it does. My God is bigger than that. He’s not threatened by our puny minds trying to understand how the universe works.”
(Collins quotes above from pp. 34-36 in Steve Paulson’s collection of interviews, Atoms & Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science).
“A word of caution is needed when inserting specific divine action by God in this or that or any other area where scientific understanding is currently lacking. From solar eclipses in olden times to the movement of the planets in the Middle Ages, to the origins of life today, this ‘God of the gaps’ approach has all too often done a disservice to religion (and by implication, to God, if that’s possible). Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps.” (Collins, 2006, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, pp. 92-93).
B. Uses God of the Gaps arguments:
“That is part of my faith—to believe that God has an interest in the appearance, somewhere in the universe, of creatures with intelligence, with free will, and with the moral law, with the desire to seek Him.” (in Paulson, p. 37)
“When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants—the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, et cetera—that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galay, stars, planets, or people. That’s a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we’re here. And that does make you wonder—gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.” (ibid, p. 39).
“But humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.” (Collins 2006, p. 200).
2. Kenneth Miller:
A. Decries God of the Gaps arguments:
“As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, originally the gods themselves were a kind of scientific theory, invented to explain the workings of nature. As humans began to find material explanations for ordinary events, the gods broke into retreat. And as they lost one battle after another, a pattern was set up. The gods fell backwards into ever more distant phenomena until finally, when all of nature seemed to yield, conventional wisdom might have said that the gods were finished. All of them.” (Miller, 1999, Finding Darwin’s God, p. 193).
“This sad spectre of God, weakened and marginalized, drives the continuing opposition to evolution. This is why the God of the creationists requires, above all else, that evolution be shown not to have functioned in the past and not to be working now. To free religion from the tyranny of Darwinism, their only hope is to require that science show nature to be incomplete, and that key events in the history of life can only be explained as the result of supernatural processes. Put bluntly, the creationists are committed to finding permanent, intractable mystery in nature.” (ibid, p. 288).
(Part of those quotes appear in Price and Suominen’s book).
B. Uses God of the Gaps arguments
“It almost seems, not to put too fine an edge on it, that the details of the physical universe have been chosen in such a way as to make life possible.” (ibid, p. 228).
“If we once thought we had been dealt nothing more than a typical cosmic hand, a selection of cards with arbitrary values, determined at random in the dust and chaos of the big bang, then we have some serious explaining to do.” (ibid, p. p. 232)
“Remarkably, what the critics of evolution consistently fail to see is that the very indeterminacy they misconstrue as randomness has to be, by any definition, a key feature of the mind of God.” (ibid, p. 213)
“Fortunately, in scientific terms, if there is a God, He has left Himself plenty of material to work with. To pick just one example, the indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.” (ibid, p. 241).
“Having decided to base life on the substance of matter and its fine-tuned properties, a Creator who had already figured out how to fashion the beauty of order without the hobble of determinism could easily have saved His greatest miracle for last. Having chosen to base the lives of His creatures on the properties of matter why not draw the origins of His creatures from exactly the same source? God’s wish for consistency in His relations with the natural world would have made this a perfect choice. As His greatest creation burst forth from the singularity of its origin, His laws would have set within it the seeds of galaxies, stars, and planets, the potential for life, the inevitability of change, and the confidence of emerging intelligence.” (ibid, p. 252).
This revival of natural theology, often promulgated by the very people who decry God-of-the-gaps arguments, shows a fundamental weakness of theology and accommodationism. When such people want to show that science and faith are not competitors, but friends, they argue that religion can’t contradict science because they are independent ways of “knowing” about the universe.
They further argue that one shouldn’t use scientific evidence to find God—that, for instance, the Bible “is not a textbook of science.” Evolution-friendly theologians say that it was a mistake to impute design in nature to God, and that evolution is, in fact, precisely how God would have created His creatures. Many such apologists decry intelligent design (ID) because it is simply trying to find God in the gaps of our knowledge—in the complexity of the cell, the unknowns about biochemical evolution, and so on.
Yet they do precisely that when dealing with human consciousness, rationality, and morality, as well as cosmology, mathematics, and the laws of physics. It’s natural theology, pure and simple. And hypocrisy as well.
In the end, then, the faithful want empirical evidence for their faith, and so continue—even the Sophisticated Theologians™—to claim that the mysteries of the universe provide evidence for God. This is, as always, a losing strategy, but shows without question that believers need tangible evidence for their faith beyond the mere whisperings of revelation. Part of that comes from their jealousy of the successes of science, and part from the doubts that plague many believers.