When Fox News host Bill O’Reilly interviewed Richard Dawkins on his show, he opened by saying, “I think it takes more faith to be like you, an atheist, than like me, a believer, and it’s because of nature. I just don’t think we could have lucked out to have the tides come in, the tides go out, the sun go up, the sun go down. Don’t think it could have happened.”
A few years later, O’Reilly later made his mark on internet memedom when, in response to American Atheists representative David Silverman saying religion is a scam, O’Reilly said, “I’ll tell you why it’s not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that,” inspiring such parodies as, “Bread goes in, toast comes out. You can’t explain that,” and “I speak into a camera and people give me money. You can’t explain that.”
When I first saw these interviews, I thought O’Reilly might have been joking, but he later defended his remarks. In response to someone pointing out that we know the tides are caused by the moon, O’Reilley said:
Okay, how’d the moon get there? How’d the moon get there? Look, you pinheads who attacked me for this, you guys are just desperate. How’d the moon get there? How’d the sun get there? How’d it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn’t have it? Venus doesn’t have it. How come? Why not? How’d it get here?
This sort of reasoning is often called “God of the Gaps” reasoning. Incidentally, Dawkins himself has helped popularize the phrase, and gives a good summary of it in The God Delusion: “If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it” (p. 125).
Many critics of god of the gaps reasoning focus on the bad effects of thinking that way. Scientists like Dawkins complain that it cuts off the search for other explanations, while theologians worry that if they rely on god of the gaps reasoning, they’ll be left without a god once science has filled all the gaps. But the real problem with gods of the gaps “arguments” is that they are barely arguments: believers like O’Reilly never bother to explain why their favorite gap must be filled by God, rather than any other random hypothesis.
O’Reilly’s response to his critics, quote above, is just as bad as his original argument, because he still hasn’t given any reason why God should be our default way of filling gaps. But it also exhibits another common pattern among believers: when an alternate way of filling a gap are proposed, they just move on to another gap, in apparent faith that if they keep demanding explanations for things, they will get to God eventually. The silliness of this way of arguing is obvious as soon as you ask, “okay, then, who made God?”
Now I’ve said I think there are no good arguments for the existence of God, but at this point some of you may be wondering why I’d waste time on such an obviously terrible argument. I have several reasons. First, critics of “God of the Gaps” reasoning are often accused of misrepresenting the arguments of believers. Those quotes (which anyone with access to YouTube can verify) show otherwise.
Furthermore, I know (from my own experience and talking to other atheists) that if you’re an atheist and if you’re in the habit of getting into arguments about religion, you will hear O’Reilley-esque arguments from believers fairly often. That arguments like O’Reilly’s are bad arguments isn’t obvious to the many believers who make them. In fact, I’d bet that there are more believers who are impressed by arguments like O’Reilly’s than there are believers who are impressed by the ontological argument.
So don’t tell me that asking “who made God?” doesn’t disprove the existence of God. It doesn’t, but it does expose the silliness of a popular way of trying to prove God’s existence. And don’t tell me that Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett, or whoever are being unfair by spending time on such terrible arguments, because there’s nothing unfair about dealing with arguments many people actually make.
Finally, I too often see arguments like O’Reilly’s from people who ought to know better. The difference between “sophisticated” believers, including professional philosophers and theologians, and people like O’Reilly, is often not that the “sophisticated” believers have better arguments. It’s that instead of saying “the tides” or “the moon” they say “the Big Bang” or “the laws of physics” or “morality.” But the arguments of “sophisticated” believers are just as worthless as O’Reilly’s if they don’t give any reason why the gap in question should be filled by their god.