If you present the cosmological or design arguments to skeptics at least a few times, it’s extremely likely that you’ll hear the words “That’s a ‘God of the gaps’ argument.” This objection is rooted in the idea that because a number of things throughout human history have been wrongly attributed to the supernatural activity of God or gods, we can now safely dismiss God as a cause behind anything else we observe. These previous misfires include primitive myths like lightning bolts being signs from Zeus and Thor to the universally admired Isaac Newton positing God as a mechanic to straighten out errant orbits. We later learned that lightning has to do with electrical qualities, while wobbly orbits turned out to be the result of other bodies in orbit around the sun. ¹
So, in the mind of many skeptics, this trumps any theistic argument. Because science has previously found natural causes behind assumed supernatural events, it will do so in the future. “So”, says the skeptic, “you have a gap in knowledge, and you just arbitrarily insert God into the gap.” There are problems with this argument, one being that not all proposed gap fill-ins are equal. As John Lennox discusses here, there are arguments for God’s existence that are based on what we do know, rather than what we don’t.
Indeed, both the cosmological and design arguments rely on the same method of inductive reasoning that the anti-supernatural position relies on. After observing that natural causes have replaced miracles as an explanation for a number of events, the inference is drawn that all events will be explained by natural causes. Likewise, the design argument is based on the observation that complex specified information (such as that found in DNA) has never been shown to originate from anything other than an intelligent mind. The cosmological argument also relies on the same logic, that every time we observe something that comes into existence, there is always a cause behind it.
Well, not exactly. There is one very important difference. The anti-miracle conclusion is not by any means the only obvious or plausible way of interpreting the data. For example, 19th century scholars were often highly skeptical of claims made by ancient historians. However, archaeology has revealed that these historians were correct on a number of doubted claims key. But it would be totally illegitimate to infer that archaeology will vindicate them at every point someday. It just means that they were more reliable than previously thought. Likewise, natural causes to certain events would only show at best that the universe has less supernatural activity than previously believed. The origin of information and the necessity of causality conclusions that belong to their respective theistic arguments also have far more instances of observation, without any reasonable alternative rearing its head.
But in the case of false supernatural claims, there is another alternative that presents itself. To illustrate, let’s ask the question “Does this really tell us more about the universe, or more about humanity?” For example, there are many cases of UFO sightings turning out to involve something more down to earth. Does this tell us anything about what is “out there” in space? No, it tells that humans are curious and prone to believing that aliens do exist. But this has not stopped the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life from being a live area of scientific research. As a total hypothetical, let’s say an alien space craft did land and interact with several people. Once they told others, it is pretty likely that others would start to see moving objects in the sky and jump to unjustified conclusions about them being a sign of alien life. False reports about aliens would be almost certain feature of a universe where they actually have visited earth. False reports could also be a feature of a universe where they don’t exist at all. The existence of false reports doesn’t tell us much by itself. We’d have to decide based on other evidence.
But in the same way, in a universe where God has put a spiritual desire for Himself in the human heart, it is to be expected that some humans would falsely attribute some or even a lot of phenomena to the divine. This is an almost certain feature of what a theistic universe with fallible humans would look like. This by itself doesn’t prove that God exists or acts in the universe, but by itself it also doesn’t point in the opposite direction, either.
One other point is worth mentioning. It wasn’t because of science that people began to disbelieve that Zeus was throwing lightning bolts from the sky. It happened because, unlike paganism, which saw the gods as not being distinct from the creation, Christians saw God as being separate from it. ² There was no need to see a god behind virtually every force of nature.
¹. Wiker, Benjamin. Moral Darwinism, pp. 127-28
². Carroll, Bruce and Shiflett, David. Christianity on Trial. p. 58-59