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The Atheism of the Gaps and Its Sacramentals

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 6/30/13 at 11:01 PM

 

I have, in the past, said that there is a simple thing skeptics of the Shroud of Turin can do to prove it a medieval forgery: Make another one. Shouldn't be that hard. An atheist reader writes

It actually has been reproduced and there was a show on it.

No, it hasn't. Every now and then some debunker announces they have reproduced the image and then reveals to media fanfare some crappy facsimile that bears as much similarity to the Shroud as carob does to fine Swiss chocolate.  Like this:

Evangelical Atheists are fond of making fun of the God of the Gaps.  The God of the Gaps is best lampooned in this famous cartoon:

The critique, often quite just, is that many believers basically argue "I can't explain X, therefore X is caused by God interrupting the course of nature with a miracle."  The problem with this, of course, is that when you do find an explanation for X, as that lightning is electricity and not miraculous bolts of anger from God's fingers, or living things evolved and were not fashioned in an instant by divine fiat, or germs and not evil spirits cause sickness, it is easy to fall prey to the notion that wherever a gap is closed in our knowledge God is driven out.  And so we live in a culture where many imagine that the day will surely come where our knowledge of nature will leave no room for God at all since he can (it is presumed) only be found in those places where we don't know how the universe works.  This is a hugely popular narrative in our culture and Christians only assist in spreading it when they argue that gaps in our knowledge must mean "God did it."  Interestingly, when St. Thomas argues for the existence of God he never argues from gaps in our understanding or from miraculous exceptions to the laws of nature.  Instead, he argues from the existence of nature and the laws that govern it and from the intelligibility of creation. He doesn't ask "Why are there mysterious exceptions to the rules of nature?"  He asks, "Why is there nature at all?  Why are there rules?  Why can we know them?" But that's grist for another conversation.

What interests me here is the fact  that not only believers commit the fallacy of "I don't understand X, so X must conform to my strongly held a priori beliefs."  Atheists can do it too.  Case in point, the Shroud of Turin.  Only True Believers in the Atheism of the Gaps buy the claim that the image on the right above "reproduces" the image on the left. Anyone with two eyes in their head can see that it doesn't. In fact, nobody has ever reproduced the image. Nobody knows how it was made. And nobody has explained why a medieval forger would happen to have a 13 century old 14 foot cloth full of pollen from the Holy Land laying around and think, "I know!  I will use this to make a one-of-a-kind photo negative image that nobody 8 centuries from now will know how to reproduce--just this one time.  Oh!  And I'll be sure to place the wounds in the wrists and not the hands in contravention to all medieval art, not to mention including details of Nazirite hair styles from the first century and anatomically correct details of Roman flagellation."

Only true believers in the Atheism of the Gaps cling to the faith that it's a fake despite a spectacular paucity of evidence for their doggedly held creed (and, irony of ironies, venerate every crappy fake as credulously as a 12 century Sicilian peasant kissing the skull of St. Christopher because a gypsy told them so). The Atheist of the Gaps believes in such fake relics with childlike faith no matter how badly that fake fails to actually reproduce the Shroud. That's because they need it to be a fake. It is an article of faith in advance of and in the teeth of all evidence. 

Understand.  That doesn't prove the Shroud is genuine.  And it certainly doesn't prove that the Church thinks it is.  Catholics don't need it to be real.  If it is, it is.  If not, not.  They can cope either way.  There have been plenty of fake claims of miracle over the years (commonly rejected and debunked by the Church, as for instance, at Bayside's "Marian apparitions").  When the evidence points to a fake the Church says, "Oh well, that one was a fake".  Catholics can follow the evidence where it leads. 

But materialist dogmatists cannot follow the evidence for miracles where it leads because they have a dogma forbidding miracles at all costs. One genuine miracle--just one--brings the atheist project down in ruins.  Unfortunately, in this case, all the evidence supports the claim that the Shroud is real. Catholics know that God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do as he pleases, even when that screws up the dogmas of atheists.  Catholics, at ease in a strange world where God sometimes does strange things, are cool either way. If the Shroud turns out to be a fake, oh well.  If it's the real deal, then cool:  Praise God for this wonder.  As I have said, I think it genuine, not as an article of faith but as a matter of ordinary human evidence, as I think Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy.  It's the most obvious synthesis of all the evidence we have.

Strangely and hilariously, the absolute atheist refusal to consider the possibility of the Shroud's genuineness vs. the Christian openness to all the strange possibilities this strange world holds is called by the Atheist of the Gaps, "Christian obscurantist close-mindedness vs. Atheist rational willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead". It's of a piece with the "open-minded" atheist Emile Zola who, witnessing a miraculous healing at Lourdes, responded by declaring "Even if I saw all the sick at Lourdes healed, I would not believe."