|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||About God - Atheism|
“God of the Gaps” : whose “god” is he?
Does the augmentation of knowledge strengthen or weaken the faith of those who believe in God?
Source: The interview with Neil de Grasse Tyson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytaf30wuLbQ
Below is a commentary on the video interview, in response to the atheist absolutizing of the “gaps” phenomenon.
One of the favourite atheistic arguments opposing the faithful who believe in God is the argument labelled “god of the gaps” – that is, an imaginary “god”, who fills the knowledge gaps of those who believe in God, and who gradually retreats as scientific knowledge advances. However, “gaps” are also located, in the atheistic rationale.
1. The arguments regarding the “god of the gaps”
Certain atheists philosophize that the faith of God-believers is attributed to their attempts to fill the voids of their knowledge regarding the workings of the cosmos.
They assert that when a person is unable to explain certain phenomena in the cosmos, those phenomena are ascribed to the existence of an imaginary god, of whom they can say: “I don’t know why or how this phenomenon exists, so it MUST be God’s doing”. “Perhaps God steps in and makes it right, every now and then,” Newton had said, when he had reached the limits of what his equations could calculate. But, as Science advances and gives explanations to the functions of the cosmos, and man’s knowledge regarding the workings of the universe increases, then the need of believers to ascribe certain phenomena to God is no longer a need. Invoking “a god” as an explanation of phenomena also diminishes, hence, the One God “retreats” from their thoughts, as He is no longer considered necessary for explanations.
“God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance” – to quote Mr. De Grasse Tyson’s words in the video – which is why, as human knowledge advances, the faith in a divine entity recedes as an unnecessary factor.
But, just how valid are all these assertions?
2. To whom is the “god of the gaps” a valid belief?
As strange as this admission may sound to non-believers, the argument “god of the gaps” is, in fact, a valid one – but NOT to the degree that is asserted, and NOT to everyone! It is not even limited to believers only!
Saint Basil the Great said: “You should direct your admiration to God’s Wisdom, which arranged everything thus; so that our surprise for wondrous things is not diminished when the manner is discovered, by which one of the paradoxes is solved.” (Basil of Caesaria, Works, Homily A - “On the Hexaemeron” E.P.E. Vol.4, pp. 55-63; and PG 29, 25A).
These words by Saint Basil show that he was aware of the risk of a believer forsaking his faith after learning how certain mysteries of Creation function.
In parallel however, he was aware that what applies for some people, does NOT apply for true believers, who do NOT link God with whatever they can understand; they know that God is EVER-PRESENT, EVERYWHERE, and behind EVERYTHING in Creation – regardless if they know how everything functions, or not.
For the genuine believer, God is “ever-constant” and “ever-proliferative”, and NOT “ever-receding”!
In reality, faithful Christians differentiate between the Uncreated God and the functions of created nature – which He created. Their faith in the existence of God is not dependent on their knowledge of how things function; they know that God is ever-present, and literally “behind” every single thing, as the Creator and the Maintainer of Creation.
That which is “ever-receding” with advanced knowledge is NOT God, for a true believer; it is his own ignorance about God’s Creation. It is the difference between created nature and the Uncreated God that atheists and superficial “believers” do not take into account. By not discerning between created and uncreated - between Creation and God – they see God as an “accessory” of the world, who merely “explains” the unexplained. And as a consequence, yes, when the unexplained phenomena become fewer, the “god of gaps” in their sphere of knowledge becomes less prominent.
A true Christian who knows his faith knows that God is literally “behind” everything, “....upholding all things by the word of his power...” (Hebr.1: 3).
As Christ had also said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and yet, not even one of them shall fall on the ground without the will of your Father. In fact, even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matth.10:29-30)
The Christian Church’s position regarding God is clear and specific, and is unchanging – irrespective of scientific “breakthroughs” pertaining to Creation. What DOES change does NOT pertain to God, but to HOW He fashioned Creation. We do NOT confuse the unchanging God with changeable Nature, nor do we exchange our steadfast positions regarding God, for the sake of our ever-changing scientific perceptions pertaining to His Creation. Everything that we know about God has been through revelation; everything we know about Creation has been through research.
Saint Basil the Great doesn’t expect all the answers to be in the Holy Bible, but he DOES regard scientific research both necessary and already foreseen by God: “...many things have been withheld (by the Bible) to exercise our mind towards research, by providing out of few things an opportunity to surmise...” (EPE 4:72/4). In other words, God’s intention was for mankind to discover how He fashioned the cosmos, through their own scientific research – which Basil considers to be a God-given “exercising of our mind”!
Both the God of Christians –and Christians themselves– are anything BUT afraid of scientific discoveries!
What atheists are in reality criticizing is a specific group of believers: the superficial ones, who, when initially arguing that something is God’s doing and later learn that the “something” was a result of Natural Laws, lose their faith in God. This stance however does not apply to Christians who know their faith.
Faithful Christians who know their faith are fully aware that God does NOT INTERVENE IN NATURE IN ORDER TO CORRECT SOMETHING, as if He had made a mistake to begin with and then had to backtrack to correct it! We are fully conscious that our Omniscient God has set everything in motion from the very beginning of Creation’s existence, on a constantly progressing course towards eternity, through the natural laws of His design, without any additional interventions. Everything that we (temporal creations) perceive as interventions, have been set in place by the Creator from the commencement of (created) Time, as foreseen and predesigned “laws of nature”.
Our perception of “Time” in motion is something “motionless” for our Time-less God, and is but one more dimension of His Creation; in His eternal glance, overall Time is an eternal Present. This is why the superficially faithful’s logic is mistaken, when they want God to “intervene every now and then to make things right”, resulting in the receding of their faith in God when they realize that things were thus tuned by God’s natural laws.
And this reality (of the natural progression and course of Natural Laws without any interim “mending” by God) we Christians did not expect Science to teach it to us. We already “knew” it, from the beginning of the Church’s existence! Saint Gregory of Nyssa made it clear, that everything was created as is, from the very commencement of Creation, without any “corrections” along the way: “All things regarding nature were within the first momentum by God - as if a certain seminal power was exerted for the genesis of all things - without any subsequent action (exerted) upon each one.” (ÑG 44, 77D).
Basil the Great acknowledges a developmental course in Creation, by presenting the “first beginning” as “having birth pangs until the genesis of everything, because of its being placed there by the power of the Creator”, in anticipation of “the obligatory moments when, by the divine calling, it would bring forth each one’s movements”. (ÑG 29.36Â)
This is because according to Saint Gregory, «of all existing things - the causes, the reasons and the powers – God had deposited them as a whole». (ÑG 44, 72Â).
The universe, according to Basil the Great, develops and takes form within Time, after having previously received all of the necessary powers that will form it completely, in a developmental sequence according to the will of the Creator: «The sequence of nature, having received its beginning from the initial command, will thereafter go through Time, until it reaches the common completion of all things» (ÑG 29,1164).
And as Saint Gregory also says, «Nature causes the ascent of the characteristics of life by degrees, from the smallest to the largest thing, until their perfection». (ÑG 44, 148C) It is with a gradated movement that the universe advances towards perfection according to God’s will; however all things have an initial and non-repeated impetus by God, without any corrections along the way. It is well-known by Christians that literally in everything created, God has installed His “raisons d'être”, which lead every single thing – from the beginning of Creation – to the end purpose of His Creation and the final outcome of the divine will.
As such, when the faithless present their arguments regarding the “god of the gaps” and those who believe that “the god of the gaps recedes”, they should not generalize by claiming that it applies to the faithful in general, as it applies only to the religiose types. The truly faithful have no such worries!
Furthermore, for the truly faithful, God is NOT a “figment of their imagination”; He is real and living, and they have become acquainted with Him personally and converse with Him, throughout all the ages. We do not become acquainted with God, because we have imagined Him as something that covers the gaps in our area of knowledge, but because He reveals Himself to those who seek Him with faith and love, who then cleanse their hearts so that He may dwell inside them and “visit” them.
We could ask the atheists who theorize that science can nowadays “record” the workings of the brain during religious experiences - and that “god” is found only in the mind – that is, in the imagination of people who “hear voices inside their head”: how do they KNOW that such recordings are of an “unreal god” and that they are not the recordings of an ACTUAL COMMUNICATION of the brain with the Uncreated, or with created beings? And how do they know that this applies in all cases? Could it be that it is atheistic dogmatism striving to fill its own gaps, with unsupported theories?
3. The idea of “gap filling” also applies to the non-faithful!
We need to make it clear, finally, that the practice of filling the gaps in our knowledge with “something” is NOT a characteristic of faithful people, but also of the non-faithful! Even if they happen to be Scientists!
Isn’t it a fact, that scientists also fill the gaps in mankind’s knowledge with incomplete scientific theories – throughout History?
Where a simple faithful person “sees” an act of God, a scientist will “see” an initially unsupported theory, to which he will then apply himself, in order to prove it correct. And not infrequently, he will be forced to revise or to announce that his initial theory was wrong! So, essentially, he too is filling the “gap” of his knowledge with an imagined theory, for which he has no evidence to confirm it; but because he BELIEVES it, he strives to prove it! Does that mean that science per se is wrong?
Similarly, for a simple faithful person, his need to revise his initial perception about how the created cosmos functions is in no way evidence (not even an indication) that the god he imagined to have acted is only a figment of his imagination. It is not God that he was imagining: he was only imagining THE WAY THAT GOD PROBABLY ACTED. There is a huge difference between the two aspects.
Now that we know about DNA (the genetic code which was given by God to all biological beings), today’s faithful do not imagine God as a potter merely fashioning creations, but as a “programmer”, Who had designed and installed the genetic code of all biological beings that produce the life that we are so familiar with in our time. Again, it is not God per se who is troubling our thoughts; only THE WAY we imagine God to be creating. God remains the same, unaffected by our increment in knowledge. As a matter of fact, we could say that it is amazing how our contemporary perception of God as a “programmer” is even closer to the original, Patristic formulation regarding God’s “how”: «The sequence of nature, having received its beginning from the initial command, will thereafter go through Time, until it reaches the common completion of all things» (ÑG 29,1164). In actual fact, this is not a “receding of the god of gaps” in view of something new, but on the contrary, a return to the initial – to the original – basic definition of “the beginning”: of how God created everything.
Most certainly, there have been people throughout History who have misconstrued certain expressions in the Holy Bible – for example the term “days” mentioned in Genesis, which they believed comprised of 24 hours. But that does not mean the God-inspired expression in the Bible was “wrong”, simply because they had misinterpreted the term with their limited knowledge. Perhaps few are those who know that long before we were informed by Science that those “days” were “symbolic periods of Time”, holy Fathers such as Saint Basil the Great had already interpreted accurately that those “days” were “symbolic periods”:
“So that regardless whether you call it “day” or “age”, you are expressing the same meaning. Even if that state was called “day”, it was one, and not many; and even if it was called “age”, it must have been unique, and not multiple. Thus, in order to lead the (term’s) meaning towards the life to come, he gave the name “one” to the image of the age, the commencement of days, the same age as the light, and the blessed Sunday, which was honoured by the Resurrection of the Lord”. (EPE Vol.4. pp. 55-63, last section)
As anyone can see, our sacred texts already contained the information that would lead the well-meaning student to the correct conclusion, given that even in the very ancient text of Genesis, the word “day” was given a variable duration and not only as one of the six “days of Creation”, given that the overall “six days of Creation” are also mentioned as “day”:
“4 This is the genesis of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day that the Lord God created the earth and the heavens, 5 before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. “ (Genesis 2: 4-5).Atheists similarly resort to eschatological references in the Holy Bible (such as “stars will fall from the sky”) as an example of “incorrect scientific knowledge in the Scriptures”, while they disregard not only the findings of Science on this subject, but also the metaphor in those words (don’t we still call meteors “falling stars” today, even though we know they are NOT stars?) They also disregard the clearly symbolic meaning that the Holy Bible itself gives to the “stars” in prophetic literature, when it specifies that they symbolize the Bishops of the Church: “The mystery of the seven stars which you saw upon My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are messengers of the seven churches, and which you saw are the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:20).
For a person to readjust his interpretations of Creation around him not only doesn’t comprise proof that God is “imaginary” and a “god of the gaps”; it is merely his readjustment regarding Creation –NOT GOD– which is characteristic of EVERY PERSON’S progress in knowledge, be they faithful or non-faithful. Atheists should therefore refrain from ascribing this characteristic SPECIFICALLY TO THE FAITHFUL, and also refrain from assuming that people are confusing God per se with the perception they have about God’s creations:
“You should direct your admiration to God’s Wisdom, which arranged everything thus; so that our surprise for wondrous things is not diminished when the manner is discovered, by which one of the paradoxes is solved.” (Basil of Caesaria, Works, Homily A - “On the Hexaemeron” E.P.E. Vol.4, pp. 55-63; and PG 29, 25A).
Translation by A. N.
Article published in English on: 20-08-2019.
Last update: 20-08-2019..