The Divine Default

(dee-vihyn dee-fawlt) : The attribution of an unexplainable act or phenomena to a deity with absolutely no direct evidence to support the attribution.

The Divine Default is more than just the "God of the Gaps". It is quite simply the God of Everything. It is the all-encompassing theoretical position of placing God as the primary cause for everything. For many, the Divine Default is the very foundation upon which world views are established. John 1:1 says "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Once someone believes that God is the default reason for everything, anything becomes possible. Difficult explanations become effortless. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it...We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe." Truer words may never have been spoken.

We have learned from our advances in neuroscience that as a species we tend to look for patterns in nature and impose upon those patterns some sort of meaning to help our brain make sense of the world. From both a historical as well as a contemporary perspective, our species has tended to assign anything that we couldn't explain to divine sources in order to satisfy this most basic and innate desire. This concept should be easily digestible to any reasonable person. Picture a typical person living in any pre-scientific era completely frightened of the lightning flashing across the sky and the associated thunder booming for all to hear. What could be causing such a disturbance? A primitive culture would have known nothing of electrostatic discharge, but rather than leave the desire to make sense of the world unfulfilled, lightning and thunder quickly became the work of the gods. Our history is littered with examples highlighting the Divine Default. Earthquakes, disease, and flooding were once all divine. A lack of scientific knowledge of our place in the universe has contributed greatly to the past creation of and the current plethora of religious options that we find available to us in the 21st century. We have often used motivated reasoning to help reinforce these concepts to the masses, often to the detriment of the human race. The people who frequently invoke the Divine Default are so content with the answer that they have that they don't see a need to explore it any further. Even when we do know the cause of something, the Divine Default is still frequently invoked. Using lightning as an example once more, the cause of a lighting strike on a home is well documented, but that doesn't always prevent someone from personalizing the act with divine speculation. Surely if that home was destroyed by lightning it meant that God was punishing the home owner for something he/she did. Ample evidence exists that the vast majority of our neighbors who believe in God do so in a personal way and therefore assign the type of personal attributes to God that they would to another person.11 As I intend to show in this book, the Divine Default becomes an excuse of convenience and ignorance.

The Divine Default not only draws theological conclusions from an incomplete state of scientific understanding (the God of the Gaps theory), but it can be used willfully in spite of known reasons as well. We can find people invoking the Divine Default every minute of every day. When something bad happens in someone's life, it's often because God is punishing us, testing our faith, teaching us humility, making us stronger, or any of dozens of arbitrary reasons. When something positive happens, whether it is finding missing keys, getting a promotion, waking up on time in spite of an unset alarm clock, or even surviving a car accident, the religious tendency is to thank God for the good fortune even though keys frequently turn up without prayer, promotions happen through hard work, circadian rhythm can wake us up, and many variables can contribute to someone surviving an accident. Many religious people firmly believe that God intervenes in their personal lives on a regular basis showing them His love and strength. These aren't always soft targets but are quite often something tangible. God routinely gets people loans, saves children from harm, starts stalled vehicles, spares homes from disaster, passes exams, gets people off drugs, helps them lose weight, quit smoking, and hundreds of other daily challenges. I can rattle off dozens of stories from folks who mistakenly claim that the only possible reason for a particular action was God. Mind you there's no direct reason to make the attribution but that doesn't stop someone from invoking the Divine Default.

What becomes troubling is the corollary to this line of thinking. When someone invokes the Divine Default for all the things God does for them, they are essentially saying that those trivial things are so important that the creator of the universe felt it necessary to suspend the laws of the universe to intervene. This kind of thinking is shameful because there is so much that God doesn't do. It means that God deemed something mundane and frivolous more important than saving any of the nine million children under the age of five who will die this year from preventable causes. If we are to believe that God intervenes in our daily lives, we must then believe that God has weighed the merits of someone asking for help for any arbitrary thing to that of a child and a grieving parent beseeching Heaven for food or clean water and God finding the starving child unworthy. There is nothing humble about this. In fact, this kind of thinking is the ultimate in narcissism. As I stated, the Divine Default is an excuse of convenience and ignorance and perhaps no other example makes this more perfectly clear.

When a woman named Marie took her children to see the July 20, 2012 midnight showing of the movie The Dark Knight Rises at a theater in Colorado, she could not have envisioned the evil that was to befall them that evening. A very sick individual named James Holmes opened fire in the theater killing 12 people and injuring 58 others that night. When the shooting started, she threw herself over her 14-year old and began praying. When the shooting subsided, she and her children dashed out of the theater past a lifeless body until they safely reached the exits. According to Marie, she and her children felt the presence of God more closely at that time than at any other. Pierce O'Farrill also survived the shooting that night, however unlike Marie and her children, he was shot twice in his left foot and once in his upper arm. As he lay on the ground, his head was mere inches away from the gunman's boot. Pierce would later say "There is no doubt in my mind that God saved me. I believe that He saved me out of that theater so that I can just show the world that there is light." For Marie, Pierce, or any other survivor, what possible explanation could exist for attributing anything positive about the experience to God? Like many who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this didn't soften their belief in God - it actually strengthened it! When Pierce invokes the Divine Default to explain God's desire for him to "show the world that there is light", the corollary to this line of thinking is that he is callously implying that God either didn't find the twelve who died worthy of the same mission or that the twelve had to die so that Pierce would have purpose. The invoking of the Divine Default is religious egotism masquerading as humility.

As Bertrand Russell once said, "Where there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith'. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence." That becomes quite apparent when we hear the story about a woman who was 12 weeks pregnant when she discovered through ultrasound that her son had a lower urinary tract obstruction that would prevent the baby from processing amniotic fluid and thus have difficulty developing properly. The outlook for the baby was dire and ranged from dying in the womb to being born with organ damage. She claimed that in light of the diagnosis, the doctors immediately urged her to end the pregnancy. She decided to pray instead and even enlisted the help of others to pray for the baby. When she finally delivered the baby via Caesarean, a specialized team of doctors was standing by ready to whisk him into emergency surgery. They were astounded to learn that the tiny baby's organs were working perfectly. This, according to the woman, was evidence that God not only exists but that He responded to their prayers and personally intervened on her behalf. This, as so often is the case in medical situations, is a great example of the Divine Default. She drew a theological conclusion where one could not have been conclusively drawn. By doing this, she ignores the vital role that her own body plays or any of a thousand other reasons as to why the baby survived including any chance of misdiagnosis from the doctors. There is no quantifiable proof for the direct intervention by God, and by invoking the Divine Default she is obscenely implying that God deemed her and her child so worthy as to require divine intervention but a family in the same situation with the opposite result unworthy of saving.

When God intervenes, the intervention seems to always be conducted on an intimate level. I once read the story about a young man named Matthew Needham who felt such personal desperation that he took his father's gun out of the cupboard in his room, went to a spot where he had privacy, and put the gun to his head with the intention of ending his life. When he went to pull the trigger, nothing happened. It turns out that the gun had a safety on it and Matthew didn't think to turn it off. The experience convinced him that God has created each of us for a special purpose and that it is up to us to find that special calling. On what logical basis could he arrive at that conclusion? When he invokes the Divine Default, he is essentially saying that his lack of firearm knowledge translated to proof of not only the existence of a Supreme Being but also to a direct intervention conducted on his behalf by this Supreme Being. If we are to give this attribution any degree of legitimacy, we have to then believe the corollary that God didn't feel it necessary to intervene on behalf of the 38,000+ people who will sadly take their own lives this year. Are we to believe that Matthew is so important to the functioning of our universe that God would personally come down from the heavens, make sure that the gun's safety was engaged, and save this man's life? The hubris here should be both appalling and obvious.

Oftentimes the invocation of the Divine Default combines both a personal component with the God of the Gaps. For example, if you could rewind time to the Fifth Dynasty and visit ancient Egypt, you would find that society worshiping the sun god Ra. The sun was a phenomenon that was unexplainable to the populace at that point in human history, and without a viable explanation, they concluded that it must be divine. The people created Ra to help them understand this bright, hot object clearly visible in the sky. By the fourth dynasty of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were often regarded as manifestations of Ra in human form - not unlike the future concept of Jesus as the manifestation of God himself. This gave pharaohs unarguable power because what peasant would dare challenge the gods? Ra provided light and warmth - things that could be seen and felt by every Egyptian. Ra cared for man. Today we would laugh at the idea of attributing both human and divine characteristics to a massive sphere of hot gases, but that doesn't negate the fact that ancient Egyptians "knew" it to be true in much the same way that people today "know" God to be true.

Consider for a moment what would happen if you could travel back in time to ancient Egypt with the knowledge that you have today. Regardless of your religious affiliation, imagine trying to explain to the high priests that Ra was not an actual god. Imagine trying to use logic and reasoning to explain the true source of their "god". Besides being labeled blasphemous, the odds are slim that you would survive such an encounter. The rulers and religious leaders would have considered you mad and perhaps opted to incarcerate you...or worse. There is little reason to believe that anyone would have taken you seriously regardless of the logic that you were applying to the situation. This should tell us something about human nature. As a species, we are naturally adept in applying both confirmation bias to evidence and arguments that strengthen our beliefs and disconfirmation bias to evidence that contradicts those beliefs. It is an easily reproducible paradox that human beings, when presented with contradictory evidence, will often cling more tightly to their beliefs. It takes effort to overcome this.

Moving on from ancient Egypt, we can look through the pages of history at some of the most brilliant scientists that have ever walked the Earth and find them invoking the Divine Default once they reached the limits of their knowledge. If we read Almagest from the Greek mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, we find one of the better early attempts at using geometry to help explain the movements of the sun, moon, and planets. Ptolemy's geometrical models of the heavens were laid out in a convenient format for determining what the position of planets would have been in the past along with where we could expect to find them in the future. He is often credited with coining the term "epicycle" which was used to describe the circular paths that these heavenly objects took in space. Once Ptolemy reached the limits of his knowledge however; he invoked the Divine Default and we see this with comments he wrote in the margins of Almagest:

"I know that I am mortal by nature, and ephemeral; but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies I no longer touch earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia, food of the gods."

Ptolemy really cemented the view that the Earth was the center of the divine universe. This Earth-centered model was consistent with the Genesis account of Earth being created before the sun and this view would remain cemented for at least the next 1,500 years. This view would slowly begin to change when Nicolaus Copernicus published his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and it would forever be altered with the discoveries of Galileo Galilei. The discovery of the telescope for example showed us that a divinely created universe of heavenly bodies was not as perfect as many believed. The moon was not blemish-free, the sun had spots that moved across it, and not all motions and rotations in the heavens were as perfectly envisioned. Johannes Kepler came along and established the three scientific laws (now referred to as Kepler's laws of planetary motion) describing these motions in mathematical terms. Even though Kepler was a religious man, he didn't need to insert God into areas that he could explain because...he could explain them. While others at the time were convinced that a perfect creator of the universe would put the heavens in perfect circular orbits, Kepler infused physics with astronomy and showed the contradictory elliptical nature of the orbits. The mere hypothesis that orbits weren't perfect circles was disturbing to many. Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the most brilliant scientist ever, built upon these advancements including the first practical reflecting telescope. He also put the geocentric/heliocentric debate to rest for scientists. Newton was a deeply religious man but he didn't need to invoke Ptolemy's Divine Default because he picked up where others had left off and figured it out. When he could finally answer questions for which God was the only previous answer, God was no longer needed and the Divine Default fell to the wayside. Once the gap in our knowledge was filled with the truth, God was no longer deemed necessary for that explanation. While Newton advanced science tremendously, he couldn't explain everything. For example, his universal gravitation law helped explain how gravity affected the sun and planets but it didn't quite hold up when additional planets were involved. Once the equation became too complex, the stability of the orbits could no longer be maintained and Newton feared that the planets could eventually crash into each other or be spun out into space. Once he reached the limits of his knowledge, we find him invoking the Divine Default by placing God as the force keeping everything in balance. He needed an explanation, and only when he was unable to produce a valid explanation was the Divine Default invoked. We can follow this to the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace who built upon that knowledge to produce a mathematical approach to complex gravitational issues with celestial bodies. Once he did this, Newton's God explanation was no longer needed. By now, I hope you're starting to see a pattern here. We've seen this type of pattern occur throughout history and the single biggest lesson we should learn from this is to stop one another from rushing to apply the label of God to something we simply don't yet understand. A lack of knowledge does not warrant divine attribution.

Fast forward to modern day and we find ourselves in a similar situation. While we no longer worship Ra, 18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. Our political leaders still ignore scientific discovery in favor of more divine answers. A Gallup poll in 2010 showed that 78% of Americans doubted evolution. The vast majority of these people can't adequately explain the principles that comprise Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, but that doesn't necessarily factor into their thinking when it comes to determining whether or not it's true. I could retire if I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone ask "if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" This misconception is often used as some form of justification to dismiss evolution. My sarcastic side has always been tempted to ask "If we came from dirt, why is there still dirt?" It has always struck me as odd that people will readily believe in talking snakes, the walking dead, and transubstantiation but have difficulty believing that man and ape are evolutionary cousins who share a common ancestral link.

Perhaps this disconnect in logical reasoning is due to the fact that the human brain has a difficult time with the concept of probability. Picture this scenario: a single mother of modest financial means spends money each week playing the lottery. The holidays are approaching and she is having a difficult time juggling the mortgage, utilities, medical bills, and Christmas shopping for three children. When things look most bleak, she breaks down crying and prays to God for help. Can you envision this person? Now imagine that the next week she wins the lottery and in an instant becomes entitled to $25 million dollars. All of her financial worries have vanished. One would be hard pressed to find someone more deserving of that money. Inevitably, people, upon hearing the story, will find a way to attribute this to God. God must have answered her prayers.

What if the woman in that scenario did not win the lottery as she hadn't won for all of those previous years? What if three wealthy gentlemen pitched in one dollar on a lark and won the lottery as Greg Skidmore, Brandon Lacoff and Tim Davidson did when they won the $254.2 million Connecticut Lottery in 2011? What conclusion would you draw then? Would God forsake this struggling single mother or the hundreds of thousands just like her in favor of someone more "deserving"? What could the struggling woman have done better?

The human brain has difficulty with the concept of probabilities. For many, it's much easier to invoke the Divine Default as the reason when probabilities become too much for us to understand. Keep in mind that a 1 in a million chance is not so staggering if there are a million chances. In a lottery system where six numbers are drawn from a range of 49, the odds of getting the drawn numbers are 1 in 13,983,816. Given enough time and chances, someone will eventually win. Sometimes people win more than once. For example, in early 2013 Stephen and Terri Weaver of Stuttgart, Arkansas won a $1 million dollar jackpot and a $50,000 jackpot in the same weekend! The odds of winning two large jackpots only days apart by the same people are astronomical, but it can happen and there is a lesson here. At no point in our history has anyone ever been able to prove that God circumvents the mathematics to favor someone deemed "deserving", but yet it's permissible in our society to attribute the act to God. God must have answered their prayers.

People will naturally use motivated reasoning to come to the conclusion that they want. If the woman deserved the money and prayed for it, surely it had to be divine intervention. If she doesn't win, it must be God's will that she didn't win, because as every good Christian knows - God has a plan for each and every one of us. People will find a reason that fits their mind's predisposed outcome. They will often make the facts fit the situation that they want and ignore the ones that don't support their conclusion.

Here's another great example of people making things fit their predisposed outcome. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed than nearly 3 out of every 10 Americans believes that God "plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event."12 More than half of all Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with success and good health. There is nothing to suggest that the creator of the universe cares or intervenes in a sporting contest, but that doesn't prevent the majority of Americans from giving into this type of gullibility. We saw this extensively with Tim Tebow - the new favorite NFL player for Christians worldwide. He lives a life devoted to Jesus and makes it a point to express his faith frequently in public. During the 2011 season, Tebow made a name for himself with a number of impressive 4th-quarter comebacks. The most impressive however came on January 8, 2012 in the AFC wildcard playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the first play of overtime, Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown to give the Broncos the win. Tebow was not known for his passing abilities (this was his first 300+ yard game), but with that score, he managed to throw for 316 yards. The comparisons started immediately because Tebow famously wore 3:16 in reference to John 3:16 in the black under his eyes when he led the Florida Gators to victory in 2009. Even more, he averaged 31.6 yards per pass, the TV rating from CBS peaked at 31.6 between 8:00 and 8:15 pm ET, and Pittsburgh's time of possession was 31 minutes and 6 seconds. Surely this must mean that Jesus has blessed Tim Tebow, right? How could the numbers lie?

If someone was already a believer, they probably support the theory that God's intervention helped lead Tebow and the Broncos to victory. Perhaps others put their faith into the notion that God has more important things to do. Regardless of what camp you belong to, enough people gave in to the application of numerology that it was a hotly debated talking point for that following week. Why didn't anyone pay attention to Tebow's rushing stats? After all, he's much better known for his ability to scramble for rushing yards than he is for his ability to throw. He rushed 10 times for 50 yards in that game for an average of 5 yards per carry - stats that are not only fantastic for any quarterback but desirable for any running back. His completion percentage was 47.6%. The time of possession for his team, the Broncos, was 29 minutes and 5 seconds. Why would his opponent's time of possession be more important? If you don't cherry pick the 8:00 - 8:15 portion of the CBS ratings, the game itself had a TV rating of 25.9. The point is that the people who want to believe that Jesus had a part in the game, or that the outcome was divinely inspired, will find the facts that fit the conclusion that they want while ignoring the facts that do not.

Humans are pattern-seeking mammals. We want to have explanations, and in the absence of a legitimate explanation, we will find anything that satisfies this primal desire. This concept is not even debatable. We have thousands of historical examples verifying this basic human tendency. Before we knew anything about tectonic plates, we attributed volcanic eruptions to the actions of gods and demigods. Each of the major outbreaks of plague was attributed to God as punishment for the sins of man. Before we knew anything about bacteria, many thousands of people believed that God could rescind illness and disease if man repented and reformed. Before we had acquired knowledge of meteorology, many historical accounts of localized flooding have been attributed to God as castigation for mans' wicked ways. In every one of these cases, humans needed an explanation, and lacking a legitimate one, we assigned supernatural causes. Religion is therefore a natural product of this process.

When we try to figure out our place and purpose in the world, the Divine Default is often the easiest way for us to do this. It's much easier to assign the world and everything we see to an invisible force that cannot be proven and yet cannot be unproven. Religion acts as a mental shortcut. The human brain is a master at making these mental shortcuts. These shortcuts, called heuristics, allow us to hit a fastball, drive a car, choose what to eat, and create impressions based upon limited information. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It allows the human mind to cope with an overwhelmingly complex environment. Most of the time, these mental shortcuts work out quite well. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems, these shortcuts go from being efficiently effective to downright misleading.

To demonstrate this I'm going to ask you two questions. I'd like you to answer them as quickly as you can. Answer the first question before moving on to the second one.

1. How many fingers does the typical man have on his hands?

2. How many on ten hands?

Good! Simple questions, right? If you are like most people, you answered ten and one hundred. Your first answer would be absolutely correct; however your second answer would be wrong. Your mind took a mental shortcut called conditioning by association. One man has ten fingers on his hands. The typical hand (singular) has five fingers on each and when that is multiplied by ten hands, you have fifty fingers, not one hundred.

Here's another example. Please answer it quickly.

If a bat and a ball have a total cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Most people would say that the bat costs $1.00 and the ball costs 10 cents. The mental shortcut that our mind takes allows us to quickly arrive at an answer of 10, yet the real answer is 5 cents. The bat costs $1.05 and the ball costs $0.05, giving us a total of $1.10 with the bat being $1.00 more than the ball.

In 1974 researchers gathered 45 people to test the reliability of the human memory and whether or not mental shortcuts could alter the facts that each believed13. The people were all shown the same film of a car accident and then asked questions after watching it. The researchers broke them up into groups of five. The first group was asked to estimate how fast the cars were traveling when they "hit". The second group had the same question posed to them but with the word "smashed" instead of "hit". "Collided", "contacted", and "bumped" where used for the remaining groups. The people in the "smashed" group estimated the cars to be traveling 10 mph faster than those who were given the word "contacted". The participants were asked a week later about the broken glass from the car accident. Those who were given the more violent words recalled seeing broken glass even though no glass was ever broken in the film. This simple experiment demonstrated that a single word has the ability to shortcut our memories. Instead of thinking through the situation, the group was easily manipulated into believing things that did not happen. If a single word one week later could influence what people "saw", try and imagine how this principle might impact the stories of Jesus or Moses which were initially spoken verbally and handed down over the course of many years by non-eye witnesses before finally being written down.

We still use mental shortcuts today, and we even do it on a large-scale basis. Consider the political environment that we find ourselves in. Mental shortcuts often lead to a polarization of our beliefs. It's easier to label someone a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, or a Democrat when most people, if they spent the time to actually understand all of the nuances for a given issue, would most likely not be on the extreme. It's simply easier for us in terms of both time and mental resources to take a stance based upon minimal knowledge. Using federal regulations on businesses as a stereotypical example, conservatives generally espouse a hands-off approach while liberals espouse a more regulated approach. Neither side readily accepts the fact that a completely hands-off approach will lead to monopolies while overregulation leads to a significant decrease in competiveness and innovation. Once we get past the political rhetoric, we find that the mental shortcuts that we've taken haven't given us the outcome that we want or need.

I respectfully ask you to keep this concept in mind as you explore the chapters of this book that deal with Noah and his famous Ark, Jonah's fish tale, and the Genesis account of Cain's wife. As we go through the stories, try not to allow yourself to take mental shortcuts. Try to take the time to reason not only through each part of these stories, but also for any other story in the Bible. Only by removing the mental shortcuts and applying reason and knowledge can we ever hope to gain a better understanding of that elusive concept of truth.