- Addressing an oft-repeated criticism
There’s a view of God and religion that has traditionally been very popular among anthropologists. It goes something like this: primitive man didn’t know how the universe worked, and so he accounted for anything he didn’t understand by invoking some god or the other. Lightning, hurricanes, fires, floods, and the like, were all explained away by him as acts of god. As human knowledge increased, and science started demystifying more and more things, the domain of God/gods started shrinking. Very soon (and here the theory ventures into the domain of prophecy), when science has answered the remainder of the puzzles, religions and their respective gods will have all been rendered completely irrelevant. Of course, it’s debatable how accurate this view is (and we shall come to that question presently) there’s no denying the fact that it’s a widespread one. So much so that laymen who subscribe to it have come to believe that it’s the only view on offer.
This view is often referred to as the god of the gaps– gaps in human understanding of phenomena, gaps that are supposedly becoming smaller and smaller with the passage of time and with the relentless march of science. The theory goes on to say that the farther one glances back the more primitive one should expect the religion to be; and the more one views the modern man (scientific knowledge and all), the more enlightened the religion gets. The Quran doesn’t endorse this theory; in fact, it puts its weight behind the opposite anthropological view, namely, religion started sensibly, but degenerated with time. This view too has always existed; but has traditionally been drowned in all the noise made by the adherents of the first one. Anthropologists will, of course, keep debating these things endlessly, but the more one looks around, the harder it becomes to endorse the view that religion is becoming more enlightened with time.
But the god-of-the-gaps theory has been so popular that it has become the go-to argument of atheists against theists. To be fair, there are concepts of god that answer to this description, but do all religions preach a concept of god which can be swept conveniently under the same carpet? How does Islam, for example, fare against this criticism? While the god-of-the-gaps explains things currently unknown by appealing to a deity, the Muslim claims that certain things, by their very nature, will always remain unknown. Of course, there are many things that will be figured out, but some ‘gaps’ will always remain. This has nothing to do with the current limitation of scientific knowledge/understanding, which could change with time. This is an inherent limitation of human understanding: the human reasons by certain axioms, which always remain ‘outside’ the system in that if they are attempted to be proved from inside the system, the whole system collapses.
The domain of science is limited to physical phenomena any way; and expecting it to answer metaphysical mysteries is demanding too much from it. Science therefore doesn’t even come into the debate
Intelligent people in all ages have maintained that some things can’t be known– not in this life anyway. The person of God, the details of the Hereafter, the ‘mechanics’ (for want of a better word) of revelation, for example, will always remain unknown. As a wise person once remarked, ‘The most you can know about the person of God is that you can’t know Him’. Of course, we can know about his Will, which is another name for the laws of the universe.
Modern logic appears to agree. Namely, the totality of truth is ineffable. For the Muslim, God is Al-Haqq (The Truth), and is therefore just outside what men can know. So it is that, according to the Quran, when Prophet Moses expressed his wish to see God, he was told that that was not possible [7:143]. Of course, the limitation here is the human being’s, not God’s (as the atheist often cheekily tries to imply). In reply to another question regarding the nature of revelation (how God, reaching down from the supernatural, interacts with men) The Quran points out that humans have been given but little knowledge [17:85]. Regarding knowable facts on the other hand, it’s the same Quran that encourages inquiry, which says that the heavens and the earth have been made subservient to man for exploitation by him. The key is to differentiate between the two, and not to waste time in pursuing knowledge that is unattainable. I am afraid, many scientifically minded Muslims too are confused on this point.
The inability to know the totality of truth is an inherent human limitation– there’s nothing provisional about it; hence the god-of-the-gaps charge is misplaced. The domain of science is limited to physical phenomena any way; and expecting it to answer metaphysical mysteries is demanding too much from it. Science therefore doesn’t even come into the debate, really.