The "God of the Gaps"

by Adrian Barnett (1999)
comment: This essay used to be on the web ( but now the entire website is gone.

Early in history Gods could be found everywhere.  There were gods of the sea, gods of storms, gods of forests, gods of rivers, gods of cities, and probably gods of that place under the stairs where you can't quite reach, even though there's a really useful Hoover attachment back there somewhere.  When monotheistic religions appeared, they attempted to congeal these diverse gods into a single, all-powerful God Of The Universe, like so many plastic soldiers melting into one lump under a magnifying glass on a sunny day.  In the case of Judeo-Christianity, this God is Jehovah.  [1]

Unfortunately, Jehovah seems to be shrinking.  Melting, like the Wicked Witch after being brutally attacked with a bucketful of water.  God, who once shook the planet, created stars, filled oceans and populated continents and coral reefs with everything from starfish to starfruit, seems to be suffering from a case of erosion that would put the ice-worn mountains of the North to shame.

Cosmology, geology and biology are the sciences that cover pretty much everything there is.  (Okay, so physicists and chemists may pull rank, but the first three divide things up into handy packages.) God was once held responsible for creating the stars in their crystal sphere, for moving the sun around the Earth, for opening and closing the windows in the sky to let the rain and snow in.  For placing comets, planets and supernovae as signs, portents and landing-lights for Wise Men on camels.  For the perfect order and majesty of the clean and neatly-a rranged Heavens.

Sadly, God had to relinquish his control when the telescope was invented.  To hide his tracks He was careful to dirty up the cosmos with great clouds of alcohol and laughing gas, dirt, bits of broken rock, and all sorts of other untidy, disordered muck.  To look at it now, you'd hardly know a guiding intelligence had any hand in it at all, so good a job was done of making it appear natural.  Right down to leftover radiation from the (ho ho) Big Bang.

A similarly woeful tale can be told of biology.  With the theory of evolution, the gradual piecing together of the fossil record and the discovery of DNA, the Lord no longer was able to carefully direct each individual sperm to its divinely-chosen eggs, to maintain control of the flow of genes each and every time anything reproduced.  There was nothing left for him to do, which probably came as a relief, what with the slimy, messy, icky nature of...  well, nature.

And so it went on.  God was not getting further away - just smaller and smaller.  The effect can be the same, in the right light.  But old Jehovah was fading away, like one of those little chalky feeding blocks you drop in the fishtank before you go on holiday.  ( Of course, God was not being nibbled by fish - that would be silly! )

Geology too.  When nosey geologists started digging the ground up and peering too closely at what they found, God had no choice but to call it a day and fake a load of strata, fossils, ancient coastlines, coal deposits, drifted continents and all the other paraphernalia to make it look like the Earth was an extra few billion years old.  Like a pile of sweets surrounded by four-year-olds, the Lord just kept getting smaller.

And that is where we find Him today.  In the cracks and gaps in our scientific knowledge.  Unlike God, scientists are not omniscient, and so there are still plenty of gaps for God to hide in, and be invoked as an ideal explanation at a moments notice.  The inexorable progress of science, like a bulldozer on autopilot, is slowly filling in the gaps, making poor old Jehovah vacate them and find some even more obscure hiding place.

Science cannot explain THIS, they cry, That is sure proof of God's existence and cleverness.  Look what we've found, they shout, the only possible explanation is our God (as defined in edition 27a of this particular translation of the Bible).  How could anyone possibly argue with such damning evidence?!?

And yet the bulldozer grinds forward, pushing heaps of fresh knowledge and understanding into the hidey-holes where gods are to be found lurking like trolls under bridges.

Strangely enough, the people who espouse this sort of deity invariably fail to acknowledge that they are insulting the very omnipotent being whose existence they try to convince us of.  To say that the world works perfectly well without divine intervention, except here, here, here and over there, is to say that God is a pretty shoddy builder.  He is, it seems, unable to put together something without using magic god-glue to stop it falling to pieces.  My son can do better than that with his Lego!  By saying that God exists because of the cracks in the universe, what does that tell us about this God?  That he is incompetent; he cannot finish the job he started; hes a cowboy builder?

To use the God-Of-The-Gaps argument is to open up your poor old deity to scientific scrutiny.  If you say that proof of your God can be shown by a particular unexplained phenomenon, youre going to be in trouble when science gets round to examining and explaining that phenomenon.  Does your God vanish or die, or just scuttle over to the next Gap, like some giant cockroach when the light is switched on?

Sometime, someday, most of the important gaps will be closed, and those remaining believers who rely on this form of argument will be heard saying "Ah, but what about the mating ritual of the Venezuelan Accordion Beetle, eh?  You can't explain that with your stupid test tubes, can you?  Bow down and praise the Lord in apology!  The remaining believers will have to fall back on good old ignorance ("Continental drift? What's that then?"), denial ("I wouldn't believe it even if you proved it to me!") or old-fashioned faith ("The world is really as I feel it ought to be, not as it is").

Far and few, far and few, are the gaps where the deities live.