The Rainbow or the Egg?

Yesterday, my friend Ian happened to mention a bit of dialog from an episode of the 80’s TV show Moonlighting. Bruce Willis’ character is surprised to discover that Cybil Shephard’s character doesn’t believe in God. “Well, where do rainbows come from?” “Refraction of water droplets in the air,” says Cybil. (We’d been talking New York baseball teams, and the bit of dialog ended with a gag about the ’69 Mets.)

But I was thinking about it later, and it occurred to me that the whole snatch of dialog was based on a misunderstanding of what it means when we say, “God made this.” Since that same error underlies a lot of the arguments I hear around and about, about evolution and similar issues, I thought I’d say something about it.

Bruce asks, “Well, if there’s no God, where do rainbows come from?” He’s arguing from the beauty and grandeur of nature to the existence of God: God is responsible for rainbows.

Cybil respond, “Rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets in the air.” She’s using one of the only two real arguments for the non-existence of God: we don’t need God to explain natural wonders, so there’s no God.

But there’s a false dichotomy in how the question is stated: it’s assumed that either God makes rainbows, or nature makes rainbows, but not both. And to ask, “Does God make rainbows or does Nature make rainbows?” is kind of like asking, “Which came first, the rainbow or the egg?” It’s simply the wrong question.

In point of fact, God makes rainbows; and He uses Nature to do it. This is what theologians refer to as “primary” and “secondary” causes. God is the primary cause, and Nature is the secondary cause.

It is the nature of water drops to refract light. It is the nature of light that different wavelengths bend differently when refracted. It is the nature of the Sun to produce light and heat. All of these things have the natures they do because God so created the universe. Put these things together in the proper geometry, and you get a rainbow.

A skeptic might complain that I’ve just pushed the problem back one step. Now the question is, “Why do water droplets refract light?” And the skeptic might come up with a perfectly natural explanation for how water droplets refract light. This is not a problem; God is still the primary cause.

And then the skeptic might say, “But saying that God is the primary cause doesn’t tell you anything about how it really works!” To which I answer, “Yes, that’s right,” if by “how it really works” you mean, “How natural things interact to make it happen.” Secondary causes are true causes. There’s more than one kind of knowledge, and more than one way to discover the truth.

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