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Atheism of the Gaps: why not ‘God’ rather than ‘I don’t know’

November 3, 2014

I occasionally encounter atheists who claim it is more ‘intellectually honest’ to say ‘I don’t know’ rather than to invoke ‘God’. Now whilst I commend “I don’t know’ as a response where the answer which is indeed uncertain, asserting ‘I don’t know’ in the face of a plausible alternative reeks of a predilection to a certain worldview. Hence this can mean that proposing ‘God’ as a valid answer to a philosophical question is dismissed. I wrote a bit about this recently on my review of the debate between David Robertson and Matt Dillahunty. But this came up again in another discussion I had recently.

Whilst invoking ‘God’ for something we don’t understand could be determined a ‘God of the Gaps’ approach, equally proposing ‘not God’ for something we don’t understand when God could be a valid option becomes an atheism of the gaps – i.e. when I can’t explain it, it definitely wasn’t God. There is a gap in our knowledge but that gap can’t be filled with God, instead I say, ‘I don’t know’.

Agency and burden of proof

This problem becomes particularly acute when considering agency and burden of proof in origin questions. In a recent discussion the atheist attempted to claim that it was incumbent on me to demonstrate my claim that God made the universe because “I was the one making the claim”. I responded that whilst I was happy to make a case for why God did it, (and I think I’ve begun an answer here where the argument from revelation becomes the decisive piece of evidence.), it is also incumbent on the atheist to also demonstrate their position, i.e. that the universe can begin without agency (I’ve outlined a number of other positive claims of atheism here.)

In the presence of a viable solution, to reject divine agency without offering a plausible alternative is atheism of the gaps is it not?

Hence the response to the atheist claim ‘The universe came into existence though no external agent’ with “we don’t know what was before our Universe expanded or what caused the event we label: The Big Bang” is true but also misleading. It’s true that we don’t know precisely what happened before the Big Bang, but this misses the point of disagreement. To demonstrate the reasonableness of atheism the atheist must demonstrate that the universe can come into existence without an external agent (or alternatively demonstrate its eternal nature). If the atheist can’t do that, the beginning of the universe can be reasonably claimed to have begun with an agent and that agent could reasonably be called God. (Now I do realise that there have been atheists who have proposed arguments for an eternal universe – which I’m chasing up and will think about in due course).

To suggest that it’s only the theist who has to demonstrate their case, misses the point of the burden of proof, because both side make positive claims about origins.

Just making something up?

But when a theist invokes ‘God’ am I just making something up? This relates to another conversation I had with another atheist where I asked two questions, ‘why not say ‘God’ rather than ‘I don’t know’? Why can’t God be a valid option to explain certain phenomena? His response was,

‘The reason you don’t just “say god” is the same reason you don’t just say a giant bowl of spaghetti or an invisible pink dragon. You can’t just make something up like that. And if you do this in your premise, then your premise is assuming your conclusion, doesn’t it? An intellectually honest proof would have that … an unknown factor would have to be involved.’

Yet again this misses the point. I’m proposing that an agent was the cause of the action, not a bowl of spaghetti. I’m suggesting that to explain something like the origin of the universe, or a resurrection, the best explanation is that an external agent caused it. Now it’s quite possible that an external agent is not necessary, but this needs to be demonstrated. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to suggest that an external agent is responsible, is it?

If I walk into a field and see a perfect giant silver ball sitting on the grass. Our first question is ‘who made it?’ We naturally jump to question of agency because this is usually how we resolve questions of origin. It could be that it just popped into existence un-caused, but we would consider that unlikely. So why not similar with the origin of the universe? I recognise that this is an argument from analogy (and there are flaws in it). I’m not suggesting that the universe must have begun this way. But it is certainly reasonable to conclude that it did!

So I don’t think I’m ‘just making something up’, I’m suggesting that there is a reasonable explanation for origins, and that is an external agent i.e. God.

The key problem with atheism of the Gaps

The problem with atheism of the gaps is that God can never be admitted as a solution to anything! God is disallowed in any deductive premise in any argument purporting to demonstrate his existence. It becomes an a priori rejection of god as ANY explanation. This means that the theist can never produce an argument that satisfies the atheist because ‘God’ is rejected as an explanation for anything! I find this most frustrating and reveals a worldview problem rather than one of evidence.

Some atheists claim that God has no explanatory power, yet God does have explanatory power to explain the problem of agency in questions of origin. Unfortunately ‘I don’t know’ has far less explanatory power, particularly when plausible alternatives exist. In this case it is incumbent on the atheist to demonstrate these alternatives, unless they rest on an ‘atheism of the gaps’ argument.


Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at


From → Comment, Philosophy

  1. The plausibility of your alternative option is not explained. Where you suggest atheism of the gaps is wrong because god is a plausible alternative you have failed to show that option as convincing. The god did it excuse remains inplausible because there is no credible evidence for the existence of such a being. With your argument the FSM or invisible pink unicorn are also plausible alternatives. To be a credible alternative there needs to be credible evidence. I encourage you to study this page and then perhaps rethink your argument.

    Plausible: superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious

    • Why is god not a plausible alternative? My argument made it clear that the FSM or a unicorn cannot be the ‘agent’ because they are already created within the “system” i.e. the universe. What would make god plausible? Your answer verges close to rejecting god a priori. Thanks.

  2. Rob,

    This post is so full of strawmen, I am fervently hoping you are not in possession of any naked flames……

    Is it possible that an agent created the universe? Yes. I don’t know. At present I have no good reason to believe it was an agent, but I certainly can’t exclude the possibility.

    If it was an agent, could it be God? That’s a bit trickier because as I’ve said on another thread, I take the view that the Judeo-Christian God is not a logically coherent concept. But supposing there was some answer to my coherence issues, then yes, that would be possible. I don’t know.

    Why does it need to be demonstrated that an external agent is not necessary? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to *suggest* that an external agent could be the cause but I do think it’s unreasonable to *believe* that an external agent is the cause unless there is a good argument to support that claim. You make a massive leap from “It’s not unreasonable to suggest x” to “If you *don’t* accept x, then it’s up to you to prove not-x.”

    I know that you say that you have those good arguments to prove God is the explanation, but thats exactly where I disagree. In fact, wasn’t the existence of the universe supposed to *be* one of those arguments? If you need to rely on other arguments to establish the reasonableness of saying “God caused the universe” then let’s ditch the existence of the universe as being by itself an argument for God’s existence and go straight to those other arguments. The universe is just a distraction

    To say that an external agent is the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe is simply to beg the question. What experience do you have of how universes come into existence which enables you to conclude that they are most likely to be caused by an external agent? I know of plenty of things within this existing universe which my experience tells me are caused by agents. I know that things like cars and tables and buildings are all made by agents. But that’s because I have experience of how they come into existence, not because of some philosophical argument on the point. The fallacy here is to treat the universe itself as if it were just another one of the things within the universe.

    I don’t know how universes are made. Nor do you. Nor does David Robertson. Nor does Matt Dillahunty. But Matt and I are the only ones who will acknowledge our ignorance.

    Would you join me in a little thought experiment which I shall call: Why not ‘Rob’ rather than ‘I don’t know’?

    Suppose I am your next door neighbour. I have a beautiful front lawn, which I keep in immaculate condition. One day I wake up to find that somebody has dug a dirty great hole right in the middle of my lovely lawn. I ask my neighbours from over the road, Ann and Brian what they know about it.

    Ann: I’ve no idea! We didn’t hear anything or see anything! It’s a mystery.
    Brain: Rob did it!
    Ann: Brian, you don’t know that!
    Brian: Why isn’t Rob a valid explanation for this phenomenon?
    Ann: You don’t have any evidence!
    Brian: But if you don’t accept that it was Rob, you have to demonstrate why it couldn’t be him. “Rob did it” has explanatory power. “I don’t know” hasn’t.
    Ann: But it might be the wrong explanation. Surely it’s better to accept we don’t know?
    (& so on and so forth.)

    Well, it’s another analogy, and as you say, analogies tend to break down at some point. But my main point is to emphasise who has the burden of proof and why rejecting an explanation does not impose any burden on the rejector to come up with an alternative explanation.

  3. matt permalink

    The eternal nature of the universe remains a distinct possibility if the value of t=0 in space time is undefined.

    However should there exist a point on the space time curve where t=0, and there is an agency causing it to enter a state of motion forwards through time, that entity may be called God for want of a better term but it does not imply a personal God as described by many world religions. Additional information is required to get to that point.

    • matt permalink

      Regarding the explanatory power of ‘God’ for the origin..what precisely does it explain other than ‘there was a cause for this’.

      It looks simply like a shorthand way of writing ‘the first cause’

      Because to define an agent or cause of the universe says nothing of the nature or method of that cause simply by calling it God.

      We do not even know if the universe is a by product or secondary entity not necessarily even intended by such an agent merely by using the first cause argument.

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