The Divine Fallacy: When People Assume that ‘God’ is the Only Explanation

The Divine Fallacy

 

The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that a certain phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention or a supernatural force, either because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t believe that this isn’t the case.

For example, if someone doesn’t understand how evolution works, they might display the divine fallacy if they claim that their inability to understand evolution is proof that God must have created humans.

The divine fallacy is important to understand, since people frequently use it in an attempt to discredit scientific theories that they disagree with, and in order to support various pseudoscientific concepts. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the divine fallacy, and see what you can do to respond to people who use it.

 

Explanation of the divine fallacy

The divine fallacy can take various forms, but it generally has a structure similar to the following:

Premise 1: if I don’t know how to explain a certain phenomenon using science, then it must occur as a result of divine intervention.

Premise 2: I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon using science.

Conclusion: this phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention.

This form of reasoning is fallacious, because it relies on a flawed premise that renders it logically unsound, and namely on the assumption that if someone doesn’t know how to explain a certain phenomenon using science, then that means that a divine force must be the right explanation for it.

Furthermore, people use the divine fallacy even in cases where they make no attempt to understand or explain the phenomenon in question in the first place. This means, for example, that a person using the divine fallacy might attribute a certain phenomenon to God, simply because they can’t believe that this isn’t the case, rather than because there’s no other way to explain it.

Accordingly, the divine fallacy is often used even in cases where there is a clear scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question, since the use of this fallacy depends on what the speaker knows and believes, rather than on what other people know about the topic.

In addition, this also means that the divine fallacy is closely associated with the argument from incredulity, which is a logical fallacy occurs when someone concludes that since they can’t believe something is true, then it must be false, and vice versa.

Note: another fallacy that is closely associated with the divine fallacy is the appeal to holy scriptures, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that everything that is written in the holy scriptures (e.g. the Bible) must be true, since they believe that those texts come from a divine source of knowledge.

 

Caveat about the divine fallacy

The divine fallacy is often misinterpreted, when people assume that it means that all statements expressing belief in religion, the divine, or the supernatural are necessarily fallacious or false. However, this is not the case. Rather, the divine fallacy only occurs when people assume that a divine or supernatural explanation for a certain phenomenon is true, simply because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t believe that this isn’t the case.

For instance, consider the following example of a fallacious statement, which involves the divine fallacy:

“I don’t understand how life on Earth could have developed naturally, so it must have been created by God.”

Here, the speaker uses fallacious reasoning when they claim that just because they don’t understand how life naturally developed on Earth, that means that God must be the explanation for it.

Conversely, the following example contains a similar statement, which is not fallacious, and which does not contain the divine fallacy:

“I believe that life on Earth was created by God.”

This statement, by itself, can be truthful and logically sound, as long as the person who says it believes in what they’re saying, since the truthfulness of this statement is based solely on their belief. As such, while you might disagree with this person about how life on Earth developed, that doesn’t change the fact that their argument is nevertheless logically valid and sound. The same holds for various similar statements, such as:

“I choose to believe that God exists, because it makes me a happier person.”

In addition, a partly similar thing can be said about the following type of statement:

“Humans were created by God.”

Even though you can argue against the truthfulness of this statement, this statement is not, by itself, logically fallacious, and it does not represent an example of the divine fallacy, since it does not involve fallacious reasoning. Furthermore, even if someone goes on to provide false evidence in support of this statement, such as that “scientists have never found evidence of evolution”, that still doesn’t mean that the argument contains the divine fallacy, though it is factually wrong.

Overall, the main thing to understand is that the divine fallacy does not mean that a statement is necessarily fallacious or false just because it expresses belief in things such as religion, God, or supernatural forces. Rather, the divine fallacy simply describes a fallacious pattern of reasoning, where people assume that these things must necessarily be the right explanation for a certain phenomenon, either because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t believe that this isn’t the case.

Note: in many cases, divine or supernatural explanations are problematic for various reasons, such as that they’re often not falsifiable. However, while this is problematic and should be taken into account when assessing arguments and responding to them, this still doesn’t mean that any argument that involves belief in such concepts is necessarily fallacious or false.

 

Examples of the divine fallacy

An example of the divine fallacy appears when someone says “it just doesn’t make sense to me that fossils could last for millions of years; God must have put false evidence there recently to test our belief”. Here, the speaker assumes that because they don’t understand how fossils could last for millions of years, then they must have been recently placed there by God.

As this shows, the divine fallacy is often used in an attempt to discount scientific findings, and to support pseudoscientific alternatives that revolve around divine and supernatural explanations. Another example of this is the following statement:

“There can’t be a natural reason for all the hurricanes that our country experienced recently. It must be the work of God.”

In addition, another example of this is the following:

“Human beings are too complex to have evolved by chance. We must have been designed by God.”

As these examples show, the divine fallacy is based on someone being unable or unwilling to explain a certain phenomenon without using a divine or supernatural explanation.

As such, when people use this form of reasoning, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t an alternative explanation for the phenomenon in question, or that there isn’t scientific evidence available on the topic. Rather, it means that people either don’t know about this evidence, don’t understand it, or don’t want to use or accept it.

Furthermore, in some cases, people can use the divine fallacy intentionally, even if they know that what they’re saying is wrong, because it helps them achieve a rhetorical effect and promote a certain agenda.

 

The divine fallacy and the God of the gaps

The God of the gaps is an argument where gaps in scientific knowledge are presented as proof of God’s work. God of the gaps arguments therefore tend to have the following basic structure:

Premise 1: if science can’t explain a certain phenomenon, then it must be the work of God.

Premise 2: science can’t explain phenomenon X.

Conclusion: phenomenon X must be the work of God.

Accordingly, God of the gaps arguments are highly similar to those that involve the divine fallacy. The main difference between these fallacies is that the God of the gaps fallacy depends on what is known by the scientific community, whereas the divine fallacy depends on what is believed by the speaker.

 

How to counter the divine fallacy

When someone uses the divine fallacy, there are several main ways in which you can respond:

  • Explain why the reasoning behind the divine fallacy is fallacious. To do this, you need to explain the issue with the flawed premise of the divine fallacy, as it appears in your particular circumstances. For example, this could involve explaining that just because the other person is unwilling to believe that God isn’t responsible for a certain phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that God is indeed responsible for it.
  • Ask the person who used the divine fallacy to justify their reasoning. This can involve, for example, asking the person in question why they can’t believe that non-divine explanations are possible, and why they think that this necessarily proves that their divine explanation is right. This can help the person who’s using the fallacious reasoning see the issues with it, and it can also help you understand the rationale behind their reasoning, which could help you respond to it better. Furthermore, this can help show that you’re interested in what they have to say, especially if you do this in a genuine non-confrontational manner, which increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to engage in productive discourse and change their mind.
  • Give examples of previous uses of similar fallacious reasoning, which clearly demonstrate why such reasoning is flawed. For example, you could point out that people used to believe that thunder is caused by the gods, or that epileptic seizures are caused by demonic possession, because they didn’t know how to explain these phenomena otherwise. The advantage of using these examples is that many of them appear ridiculous in hindsight, which means that they can help demonstrate the issues with this reasoning. However, the downsides to using such examples are that the person you’re talking to might fail to see the problem with them, or they might think that the phenomenon that you’re talking about now is different somehow.
  • If possible, show that the phenomenon in question can be explained without divine explanations. For example, you can present scientific evidence that explains the phenomenon. This can help change people’s mind, even if it doesn’t directly address the issues with this type of reasoning. Note that, when doing this, and particularly if the person you’re talking to is likely to struggle to understand your explanation, try to make that explanation as simple as possible given the circumstances. In addition, keep in mind that regardless of whether or not it’s possible to explain the phenomenon in question using non-divine explanations, arguments that involve the divine fallacy are still fallacious. This means that even if you in particular or people in general aren’t currently capable of explaining a certain phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that divine explanations for it are necessarily true.

In addition, in some cases, the best way to respond to the use of the divine fallacy might be to simply disengage from the discussion, rather than try to change the other person’s mind. This can be especially appropriate when the other person is using this fallacy intentionally, for rhetorical purposes, or if they’re using it unintentionally, but it’s clear that you won’t be able to change their mind regardless of what you say. However, even in such cases, it can still sometimes be worthwhile to engage in discussion; this is the case, for example, if there’s an audience involved, who are open to listening to your arguments on the topic and who might change their mind.

Overall, you can respond to the use of the divine fallacy in several ways, including by explaining why the reasoning behind it is fallacious, asking the person who used it to justify themself, giving examples of past uses of the fallacy that clearly illustrate the issues with it, or showing that the phenomenon in question can be explained without divine explanations. In addition, it’s sometimes best to simply disengage from a discussion with a person who relies on this fallacy, though keep in mind that even if they won’t change their mind, there may still be value in talking, for example if there’s an audience who’s willing to listen.

 

How to avoid using the divine fallacy yourself

The easiest way to avoid using the divine fallacy is to avoid using divine or supernatural explanations for phenomena that you encounter. However, even if you do choose to use such explanations, you can still make sure that you do so in a non-fallacious manner.

Specifically, you should avoid assuming that these explanations must be right simply because you don’t know how to explain the phenomenon in question otherwise or because you can’t believe that this isn’t the case. When in doubt, you can deconstruct your argument, in order to determine whether it contains this flawed assumption, either explicitly or implicitly.

If you notice that you’ve used this form of fallacious reasoning in your argument, you can either modify your belief, by trying to identify an alternative explanation, or you can modify your argument to make it logically sound while maintaining your original belief.

For instance, consider the following example of a statement that contains the divine fallacy:

“I don’t understand how life on Earth could have developed naturally, so it must have been created by God.”

If you realize that this is your current stance, you can either try to learn more about the topic, in order to understand how life on Earth could have developed naturally, or you can modify your statement, to something such as the following:

“I personally don’t understand how life on Earth could have developed naturally, so I choose to believe that it was created by God.”

However, keep in mind that even if such an argument isn’t fallacious, it can still be problematic for other reasons, such as that there’s a lot of scientific evidence available on the topic. This means that even if you modify your arguments in order to make them logically sound, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily good arguments to make.

Note: even if you don’t use divine or supernatural explanations, it can still be beneficial to familiarize yourself with the argument from incredulity, which is a more general form of a similar pattern of fallacious reasoning.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The divine fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that a certain phenomenon must occur as a result of divine intervention or a supernatural force, either because they don’t know how to explain it otherwise, or because they can’t believe that this isn’t the case.
  • For example, if someone doesn’t understand how evolution works, they might display the divine fallacy if they claim that their inability to understand evolution is proof that God must have created humans.
  • The divine fallacy does not mean that a statement is necessarily fallacious or false just because it expresses belief in things such as religion, God, or supernatural forces; rather, it simply describes a fallacious pattern of reasoning that involves belief in those things.
  • You can respond to the use of the divine fallacy in several ways, including explaining why the reasoning behind it is fallacious, asking the person who used it to justify themself, giving examples of past uses of the fallacy that clearly illustrate the issues with it, or showing that the phenomenon in question can be explained without divine explanations.
  • It’s sometimes best to simply disengage from a discussion with a person who relies on this fallacy, though keep in mind that even if they won’t change their mind, there may still be value in talking, for example if there’s an audience who’s willing to listen.