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God of the gaps

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017

Phil Plait has addressed the incredible inanity of Bill O’Reilly’s comment that the tides prove God. It is, as Phil notes, a classic “God of the gaps” argument. I thought I should reprise the original source text of that criticism. It is from Henry Drummond’s book Ascent of Man in 1894.

There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps—gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely-jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

If by the accumulation of irresistible evidence we are driven—may not one say permitted—to accept Evolution as God’s method in creation, it is a mistaken policy to glory in what it cannot account for. The reason why men grudge to Evolution each of its fresh claims to show how things have been made is the groundless fear that if we discover how they are made we minimize their divinity. When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine—as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the dis-orders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, He disappears periodically. If He comes upon the scene at special crises, He is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology. Negatively, the older view is not only the less worthy, but it is discredited by science. And as to facts, the daily miracle of a flower, the courses of the stars, the upholding and sustaining day by day of this great palpitating world, need a living Will as much as the creation of atoms at the first. We know growth as the method by which things are made in Nature, and we know no other method. We do not know that there are not other methods; but if there are, we do not know them. Those cases which we do not know to be growths, we do not know to be anything else, and we may at least suspect them to be growths. Nor are they any the less miraculous because they appear to us as growths. A miracle is not something quick. The doings of these things may seem to us no miracle, nevertheless it is a miracle that they have been done.

Bill needs to read more in his own theological tradition…


  1. What’s the likelihood that any of those broadcasting demagogues are well versed in their own theology? In my experience, the people who bother to be theologically literate are often the Terry Eagleton types who do it for the privilege of huffing about how they have a more nuanced idea of God than the one Dawkins, et al. like to flog. American popular Christianity is too watered down for that.

  2. Leslie Leslie

    Now is when my pessimism takes hold and dominates my thinking … for if we were this smart in 1894 and yet are this stupid (eg O’Reilly) today, however will get smarter, become more wise, evolve …

    Or maybe one could consider O’Reilly as the devil which forever persists.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      History, by and large, does not progress. Remember, in evolution, stasis, simplification and loss can be evolutionary moves too.

      • Brian Brian

        Beat me to the punch. And far more clearly explained.

    • Brian Brian

      Evolution isn’t teleological. There’s no necessity that humans evolve to be smarter. It might be more beneficial to loose some cortical mass, which expends a lot of energy, just so long as we O’Reilly’s can breed successfully. 🙂

    • Those that don’t know history are….

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        … blissfully happy. For a while …

      • Chris' Wills Chris' Wills


      • Mike Haubrich Mike Haubrich

        …to often ready to make it.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    I thought Henry Drummond was the guy who defended Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Why, so it is. Not an accident, I bet.

  4. milesrind milesrind

    Great passage. Thanks for making it available. (I had never heard of Drummond.)

  5. I had also not heard of Drummond. What a sensible man, and what a great quote!

  6. Jeb Jeb

    Evangelical member of the wee free!

    “No class of works is received with more suspicion, I had almost said derision, than those which deal with Science and Religion. Science is tired of reconciliations between two things which never should have been contrasted; Religion is offended by the patronage of an ally which it professes not to need; and the critics have rightly discovered that, in most cases where Science is either pitted against Religion or fused with it, there is some fatal misconception to begin with as to the scope and province of either.”

    preface to Natural Law in the Spiritual World.

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