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