It could be said that the final and most impressive and awe inspiring gap in humanity’s understanding of the fundamentals of the universe, is a unifying theory of everything. The gap in our understanding is often filled by an ill-fitting “God” hypothesis. We are a species blessed with curiosity and I have no doubt that a unifying theory that brings together quantum field theory and general relativity without the need for a creator, will slowly become apparent as we progress our understanding. Until then, the God of the gaps will continue to endure.
Placing God or Gods within the gaps of scientific knowledge is a phenomena as old as civilisation itself. It is a simplistic means of explanation, when tools of inquiry seem too limited to ever understand the complexity of nature. It is often propped up by what appear to be logical ‘proofs’ – the Cosmological proof for example – full of flaws, but the fact remains that there is not a single time in history when the God-of-the-gaps explanation has turned out to be the correct explanation for anything.
Before we had any understanding of the nature of earthquakes and no concept of seismic waves or geographical faults, humanity chose other beautifully creative explanations. The Greeks were terrified of the wrath of Poseidon. It was a concern for most that an angered Poseidon, with his trident would strike the ground so hard and furiously, that the entire planet would shake violently, that tidal waves would surely follow, and that cities might collapse. This particular explanation had such power that sailors – fearing tidal waves created by Poseidon – would sacrifice a horse to the god before an expedition. Alexander the Great is said to have ordered the sacrifice of four horses to win the good graces of Poseidon at the Syrian shore, before the battle of Issus.
Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec god of war and of the sun. He was believed to be in control of the daily rising and setting of the sun. In order to ensure that the sun rose and fell as it was supposed to do, Huitzilopochtli required human blood for fuel. On Toxcatl – a festival day – a Priest would tie a victim to a sacrificial stone, and slowly cut open the abdomen with a flint blade. The still beating heart of the victim would be held toward the sun, as a show of respect to Huitzilopochtli. Human sacrifice – including children – were considered essential for the appeasement of the Gods. Gods placed within the gaps of human knowledge.
We have known for quite some time that a lunar eclipse is the result of the Earth being in between the moon and the sun. The Vikings however thought very differently. According to Viking mythology, two wolves named Skoll and Hati spent their lives hunting the moon. At the very moment a lunar eclipse occurs, the Viking night would be full of frightened screams of those running for cover. This was their nightmare coming to life. Vikings would charge out into the night with swords and shields, believing that if they made as much noise as possible, the wolves would be distracted long enough for the moon to escape. Similarly, the Serrano Indians believed that a lunar eclipse was the result of evil spirits trying to eat the moon, and that it was the tribe’s role to make song and dance in order to distract the spirits so the moon could escape.
There was therefore a time when if you were to encounter a sceptical Serrano Indian, and ask “So where does the moon go?” she might answer “I don’t know“. This lack of knowledge – this gap – is not evidence for evil spirits eating the moon. It is simply a gap in knowledge. To accept that you do not know, is the first step to searching for truth.
The Anishinaabe peoples of the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada tell a wonderfully rich tale of the creation of rainbows. One day, Nanabozho – a spirit – had noticed that all flowers in the meadows were the same. Completely void of colour. He took his paints out and began to paint the flowers. Roses were painted red. Daffodils yellow. Suddenly, two birds chasing each other swooped down and dipped their wings in Nanabozho’s paints. Nanabozho chased them away. The two birds flew toward a nearby waterfall and as the tips of their wings hit the water, it left a streak of colours. They flew back and forth through the mist of the water, creating more and more colour. Nanabozho was overjoyed with the beauty the birds had created in the sky, that he decided that a rainbow would appear where ever light was shone on the mist. Thus, the creation of rainbows.
Supernatural explanations for natural occurrences are a product of our curiosity and our wonder. But we are also rational beings. We have remained rational despite centuries of dogmatic authority often attempting to silence rational inquiry. It is impossible to suppress humanity’s natural reason. There will always be a Galileo. Indeed, if we were to wipe the memory of all knowledge from the collective human mind, we would eventually rediscover gravity, atomic theory, evolution, genetics and medicine. But we would never come to the exact same Theistic conclusions, with the same Gods or Prophets or doctrines. We’d have new myths from rainbows to sexuality. They would be entirely different. There would be evolution, but there would never be Christianity.
We might well say that some of history’s mythical stories may be beautiful and colourful, we must also note that they often contain a sinister tone by way of their demands for sacrifice, for worship, and for war. We see this today, when the Christian story of Sodom & Gomorrah is used to dehumanise gay people; when permanent Bishops in the House of Lords are given the privilege of legislating on behalf of the rest of us based on how much they believe in their particular myth; when the Jewish Mohel mutilates the genitals of a child and sucks away the blood; when not accepting Jesus or the resurrection myth might affect your prospects of running for public office in US; or when Muslims claim rightful ownership over Jerusalem by invoking the al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi’rāj story. Despite the intolerant and exclusive behaviour these baseless myths encourage, they are still given an unearned respect in shaping discourse, and politics. They are perpetuated in schools as truth. Thus, the God-of-the-gaps is not simply a failed science, it is a failed and dangerous political idea that affects all of us.
When we hear those insist that “God is the first cause“, and “you can’t get something from nothing, therefore, God” it is prudent to remember that all they are doing is repeating the timeless tradition of placing a God in the gaps in our knowledge. It is not an explanation, but a wild guess. A simplistic but inadequate science that has always failed every time it has been invoked. It is okay and necessary to indulge our natural and spectacular curiosity, to mind the gap, and to say “we don’t know yet“.