Winter 2016

How to Make Evidence for God Disappear

A tutorial for atheist magicians

By Paul A. Nelson

For several years, I’ve interacted with the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne doesn’t like me, and I can’t really blame him for that. He’s an atheist who thinks that Darwin’s theory of natural selection solved the problem of biological complexity, at least in principle, whereas I am a Christian who thinks that life is best understood as the product of intelligent design by a divine Creator. 

Nevertheless, despite our differences, and his obvious antipathy for me, I am fond of Coyne. Like me, he loves cats, delicious calorific food for which one needn’t apologize, such as barbecued ribs, and classic rock. I wish I could say the same, however, for Coyne’s view of how scientific evidence and belief in God intersect.

Recently, Coyne published a book, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, in which he argued that the scientific outlook — with features such as weighing publicly available evidence, testing one’s theories against nature and revising them in the light of contrary data — is really only compatible with atheism.

Yet Coyne also argues that he does not hold his atheist worldview dogmatically. Should the right evidence come along, he says, his atheism could be overturned. Should the right evidence come along, he says, his atheism could be overturned. Now, to read that in FvF was encouraging. No one wants to participate in a debate about origins where the evidence has been rendered irrelevant, making any hope of persuasion impossible.

But reading further into Faith Vs. Fact revealed a philosophical magic trick concealed in Coyne’s apparent open-mindedness to the power of evidence. It’s a trick worth analyzing in detail, because the move takes away with one hand what was apparently offered with the other. Here’s how the trick works, separated into its three major steps. Watch carefully.

1. Reject the doctrine of methodological naturalism.

Chances are if you’re an atheist, your audience will expect you to endorse methodological naturalism (MN). MN holds that science may explain using only undirected physical or material causes. No appeals to God’s agency are allowed. To quote Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, we “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” MN is thus a fundamental ground rule of science.

Coyne disagrees, rejecting this absolute form of MN. “Lewontin was mistaken,” he writes. Although we haven’t yet seen that Foot, we might. “We can in principle allow a Divine Foot in the door,” Coyne acknowledges — so MN cannot govern science in every aspect. A surprise turn like this throws your audience off balance.

2. Specify the evidence for God that you would accept.

Coyne grasps that there’s little point in allowing the possibility of evidence for God’s existence if one cannot describe what evidence would suffice. So he offers some candidates. “If, for example, supernatural phenomena like healing through prayer, accurate religious prophecies and recollection of past lives surfaced with regularity and credibility, we might be forced to abandon our adherence to purely natural explanations,” he writes.

Seems open-minded, right? Next comes the critical step — and here is where the rabbit of evidence for God disappears into Coyne’s philosophical hat.

3. Say that any explanation invoking divine action is a God-of-the-gaps.

Let’s say we have some longstanding puzzle, such as the origin of life, which many theists see as evidence for God’s existence (that is, the complexity of the first cell requires a non-physical cause with purpose, creativity and the power to bring into existence information-bearing molecules such as DNA). Why isn’t this evidence for God?

Because, Coyne contends, “science” — by which he actually means applied materialism or naturalism — must never be foreclosed by hasty appeals to divine action, or to God-of- the-gaps explanations. What is more likely, he asks, “that these are puzzles only because we refuse to see God as an answer, or simply because science hasn’t yet provided a naturalistic answer? ... Given the remarkable ability of science to solve problems once considered intractable, and the number of scientific phenomena that weren’t even known a hundred years ago, it’s probably more judicious to admit ignorance that to tout divinity.”

Master this conjuring trick, and one can’t lose. No matter how remarkable the evidence for God’s action might be, either in cosmic history or today, one can always make that evidence disappear into the bottomless bag of “the God of the gaps” objection.

Calling Trickery What It Is

There’s a simple reply to this sleight of hand. If God is a real cause, he may have left “gaps” in the natural order as his signature. These gaps — call them designed or created discontinuities — won’t go away, or be dissolved into strictly material or physical causes. The discontinuities exist, not because of the incompleteness of our scientific knowledge, but rather because they are real markers left in the world, indicating the handiwork of a divine intelligence.

Science as a genuinely open enterprise, where all the causal possibilities, including design, are on the table for discussion, must consider that we can discover and map these discontinuities. Coyne shouldn’t pretend that he’s truly weighing the evidence for God’s existence if he intends to sweep everything puzzling to materialism into his magician’s bag.

Science — not to mention philosophy and theology — deserves better.

Paul A. Nelson is an adjunct professor in Biola’s Master of Arts in Science and Religion program. He is also a fellow of the Discovery Institute and has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.



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  • James Downard December 29, 2015 at 11:52 AM

    Although this lofty minded generic defense of "God" will appeal to everybody in the antievolution subculture, from Discovery Institute to Answers in Genesis, it depends on several buried assumptions of questionable validity. The first concerns which God(s) one has in mind as the one(s) responsible for the allegedly godish activity. While the Christian version is a major player today, it remains a minority faith globally (2.6 billion out of 7 billion). That is true for all religions, and appears to have been so through human history. So although the Biola clientele may flatter themselves to have the proprietary nametag for the proposed divine tinkerer, remember that yours is not now (nor ever has been) the only game in town.

    But beyond that is what Nelson is so reluctant to specify, which God of Abraham version he envisages. Nelson is, after all, a Young Earth creationist (that recent brand of antievolution apologetics that sprang from the brow of Helen White's Adventism at the turn of the 20th century, and which Henry Morris cleaned up for an evangelical audience). For those unfamiliar with the players, there is a wide literature. I cover the matter from my #TIP Troubles in Paradise methods perspective at, html versions of the new modules at

    The God version Nelson believes in made the universe only a few thousand years ago, with a literal global Flood roughly 4500 years ago (smack dab in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, who seem not to have noticed, yet another discipline that must be shredded, along with geology and radiometric dating, but also the cosmology whose Big Bang so many anthropically-minded ID advocates favor).

    The version of Christianity that Nelson believes in is as empirically falsified by science and history as Quetzalcoatl or Zeus, meaning whatever deity gets to lay dibs on the Natural Theology designer label, it can't possibly be the one Nelson believes in. But, lo, Nelson has the Mere Christianitty figleaf handy to allow him to keep on the same pedestal as Steve Meyer or Bill Dembski.

    Nelson's argument falls under the "Origins or Bust" category, of wagging fingers at initial causation and origins (which may well be permanently unresolvable because we cannot build tools capable of studying them) instead of openly defending the specific applications that begin to trouble all Christian theology the moment you step back to consider what happened after the alleged divine designing thing.

    The advocates of design are not now, nor ever have been, players on the "doing the work" scene, but are merely post-hoc spin doctors trying to figure out which of the voluminous facts of nature they are not going to pay much attention to in filling their Natural Theology Hall of Evidence for God (only just their own, no others allowed to apply)

  • Torbjörn Larsson December 29, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    Ha, “atheist magicians”! Makes you wonder if the constant pointing out of the obvious evolution of magic (such as shamanism) into modern religion (such as prayers) is finally getting on fundamentalist nerves ... but it was an oblivious attempt at poisoning the well.

    The obvious problem with Nelson's gods-of-the-gaps defense is that it makes his magic belief ever smaller. But he manages to make it even worse, his own reasoning show that it should be considered a false belief:

    "Let’s say we have some longstanding puzzle ... Why isn’t this evidence for God?"

    Why isn't then the _solved_ earlier longstanding puzzles like quantum mechanics solution to black body radiation the rejections that tell us Nelson's magic hypothesis failed? Nelson won't tell us, likely because he can't.

    Before I go on to nitpick the irritating science errors, let me note that the article isn't fair to Coyne. He has explicitly stated what he would consider passed tests for Nelson's type of magic hypothesis. Yet another area Nelson won't, or can't, touch.

    "... some longstanding puzzle, such as the origin of life, which many theists see as evidence for God’s existence (that is, the complexity of the first cell requires a non-physical cause with purpose, creativity and the power to bring into existence information-bearing molecules such as DNA)."

    Fractal errors, errors small and large, lies here. This is what often happens when one discuss a topic one has no understanding of. I'm interested in astrobiology, so let me attempt to straighten this out:

    This isn't a puzzle. Regarding general mechanisms, we know that emergence of life is a geological process from observation, since Earth was once too hot for life and now has life.

    But besides the well known observation of natural emergence we have scientific theories. One of the two major ones, soup theory, is based on protocells. They constitute _two chemicals_ (RNA and fatty acids), yet are growing and dividing when circulated in hot environments. Expressed in binary the system complexity is 2 bits, or shy of the simplest system you can have.

    The other one, vent theory, is even simpler, the cells starts out as rock pores! And since we can observe ~20 traits that has frozen in from Hadean alkaline hydrothermal vents it is, using evolutionary science, a very well evidenced scientific theory, on the order of likelihood of low resolution versions of the standard phylogenetic tree.

    Finally, cells didn't evolve information-bearing molecules. Nature is rife with them, any crystal with its dislocations encodes information. Nor does evolution require magical "purpose" or "creativity", it requires variation and selection, while geology and biochemistry requires elements and a temperature gradient.

  • Torbjörn Larsson December 29, 2015 at 3:28 PM

    [I'm a bit miffed that you can't link references from here, but Szostak has done the research on protocells and Russell the research on Hadean geology. His "The Drive for Life on Wet and Icy Worlds" is the best source on the inherited traits between geology and biology.]

  • Andrew Stuck December 29, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    I will be emailing this to the Reader Feedback column, but in case it doesn't make it into the next issue, I will post it here as well.

    I have to diagree with Paul Nelson’s advocacy of the “God of the Gaps” argument in “How to Make Evidence for God Disappear”. Science, properly applied, creates descriptions and predictions to aid future studies: “God of the Gaps”, as generally applied, provides neither. For science to work at all, it must at least attempt to account for all the variables, even if those variables include non-naturalistic explantions.
    If we as Christians are going to invoke God as an explanation, let us truly explain things then, rather than “explaining them away”. A rigorous framework would help us here. How can we tell when we’ve found a true gap in what science can describe, rather than something we simply haven’t explained yet? How might we test this hypothesis, if not experimentally, then at least logically? How do we scientifically define this gap once we’ve verified it, so future researchers know how to work with it?
    Scientists know that discovering an answer rarely closes an issue, but rather opens up many more exciting lines of inquiry. To say “God did it” shouldn’t settle a debate, but rather act as the foundation to answer even bigger and more complex questions.

  • eric December 30, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    Prof. Nelson, regarding points #2 and 3, I see no trick. It seems reasonable to say that a longstanding puzzle in biology is not evidence of divine action while reproducibly and consistently correct religious predictions would be evidence of divine action.

    What's philosophically wrong with the argument that "I don't know" /= evidence for one hypothesis over another?

  • drfrese December 30, 2015 at 6:51 PM

    Pssst, hey Prof. Nelson: you are kindly directed to look into the fallacy known as the "argument from ignorance." The Wikipedia article on the topic should suffice.

  • Haroldo April 17, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    I think Coyne is taking a fairly reasonable stance. The God did it so we needn't do science argument impedes scientific understanding. Isaac Newton proposed that mini miracles allowed planets to stay orbitting around the sun until he was proven wrong. We as Christians should not settle for blind guesses based on nothing but conjecture.

    I think the author should focus on point #2. Isn't there a few very specific prophecies that have already come to fulfillment? I remember one from a lecture.

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