Jeff Hardin
 on March 26, 2015

Atheism, Truth, and Certitude: Jeff Hardin Weighs In

Jeff Hardin discusses what keeps Christians from engaging in dialogue about science and faith issues (especially evolution); he also reflects on the Christian notion of faith.


Jeff Hardin, BioLogos Board Chair and University of Wisconsin-Madison Chair of Zoology, was invited last fall to present to an elite group of reporters at The Faith Angle Forum. His topic was “Christianity and Science: Current Disputes among the Faithful.” As an Evangelical Christian with seminary training, and as an elder in his church, Jeff has pastoral sensibilities that came through in his presentation. Today we present two edited excerpts from the fascinating transcript, which includes tough questions on science education and textbooks, political polarization and religion, whether young earth creationists can do quality science, the use of metaphors in Scripture, Evangelical suspicions of scientists, and other hot-button issues. Check out the transcript to see how Jeff responded to burning questions of reporters from The AtlanticThe EconomistNew York TimesRealClearPoliticsReligion News ServiceSlate, and other leading publications.

The first excerpt is from Jeff’s main remarks, regarding what can keep Christians from engaging in dialogue about science and faith issues, especially evolution.

Christian [Smith, sociologist at the University of Notre Dame] mentioned yesterday that one word can set dialogue back many years in this area. I think he called it “posttraumatic stress disorder” approaches to the discussion. That was very helpful for me because that immediately gave me a mental image of the kind of emotional pushback that words can cause, and I think it comes from the view called materialistic naturalism.

Here is George Gaylord Simpson, leading evolutionary biologist in the mid-20th century: “Man, [human beings], were certainly not the goal of evolution, which evidently had no goal. Humans were not planned, in an operation wholly planless.”

Richard Dawkins, the most articulate spokesperson for this view nowadays, said it in The Blind Watchmaker and many, many places elsewhere: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

And there are a number of other new atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, a neuroscientist. Stephen Jay Gould had a different take on this, but even he thought Christian faith shouldn’t really be speaking to evolutionary biology.

So what’s going on here when Dawkins or Simpson make statements like this? Well, I think what we’re engaging in here now is no longer a natural explanation. Clearly it’s gone well beyond that, it’s gone to a worldview or metaphysical statements about the way the world fundamentally is, and it’s the metaphysical naturalism which seems to be an entailment based on the writings of people like Dawkins that Evangelical Christians look at and go, “I can’t accept that, so therefore I cannot accept thinking at all about evolutionary biology.”

Now, it’s interesting. I know a lot of agnostic or atheist biologists – many of them are friends of mine – and atheist or agnostic philosophers. Not all of them see that there is this kind of inevitable entailment of metaphysical naturalism with evolutionary biology.

A guy I really like a lot is Tom Nagel. He is from NYU. Some of you may know his work. Here is what Tom Nagel said in a book called The Last Word:

I want atheism to be true and I’m made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It’s not just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope that I’m right in my belief, it’s that I hope there is no God. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it’s responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life.

What I appreciate about Tom Nagel is he is just irrepressibly honest. He says, “evolution is convenient for me because it seems to give me an out; I have this cosmic authority problem.” And I think that’s what’s motivating some of the rhetoric here, and at least in my experience, this is helpful to some Christians.

Now, there are problems with metaphysical naturalism, of course, and one of them is articulated really well by Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel Laureate himself, an atheist or agnostic, who said it this way: “The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things, questions such as, ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’”

For Medawar, science cannot possibly answer these questions. We need to seek answers to these questions through something else. And for a Christian, including one who believes in evolutionary biology, as I happen to, the answers to these kinds of questions do not lie in the scientific method, they lie outside of science, and Medawar saw that science is limited in this way. It’s spectacularly successful, but its success lies in the self-limitation of its methodology.

The second excerpt is part of Jeff’s response when the comment was made by journalist David Gregory that, “[For Evangelicals]… the journey is not enough, the notion of a faith journey is not in and of itself a destination… you must make a decision about who God is…you must come to a final resting place.”

Evangelicals do talk about “Truth”, with a capital T, quite a bit…[O]n the main administration building for my college at Wisconsin, which is a College of Letters and Science, is a quote put there by the Class of 1955 from John Chapter 8: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” [John 8:31] That was Jesus who said that actually. […]

As a Christian, I want to say that I may be on a journey. I’m definitely a work in progress. The Apostle Paul told the Church at Philippi to work out their salvation in fear and trembling for it is God who is at work within them both to will and to work for his good pleasure [Phil 2:13]. Amen to that. I should have been living in Philippi. That’s me. I’m a work in progress.

So in that sense, a faith journey, we’re all unfinished construction projects. I think Christians all want to affirm that. But it is true, I think, that Christians want to say that not all roads lead to the same destination. Just as it’s true in the real world, not all roads converge. Some roads might run closely parallel or maybe converge onto the final destination, but not all roads are going to do that. And so I would want to affirm that. […]

Truth and absolute certitude are not the same, so I think truth in John 8 is personified in this person Jesus of Nazareth. I can apprehend that truth has its locus in Jesus of Nazareth as a Christian in that this leads me on a path of what Christians call discipleship, of following him, without having all the answers or being in lockstep with other Christians. What unites us is that we follow a common leader. And so I want to be careful about asserting a 100-percent certitude about everything that I affirm as a Christian.

Fundamentally, being a follower of Jesus is a life of faith, so there has to be some sense in which my faith is not rationally compulsory. So I may have good reasons for my faith, and many Christians much smarter and more articulate than I am have laid out some of the good reasons for being a Christian, but ultimately those reasons don’t compel my faith; I still have to exercise faith. Following Jesus involves that no matter who you are.

Now, I am really sensitive to the idea that someone is really satisfied with what they think they know and what they understand about the world. I don’t want to throw their life into turmoil [by making them question their understanding of creation]; I want to be sensitive to that. That’s a pastoral concern that I have. So I don’t want to just drop some sort of hand grenade into their lives without providing some tools to think about that. So sharing a spectrum of possible views and pointing people to resources of good articulate spokespersons along that spectrum—that’s the approach that I’ve taken.

We should strive to be fully integrated coherent human beings and, as Christians, perhaps more than any other people, we should be wanting that. I think that’s something that our faith insists of us. That’s hard work, and a lot of people don’t want to put in that effort…[They want] easy answers because they’re easy. I don’t like that…I want something more robust than that.

About the author

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin is chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to numerous scientific research articles relating to embryonic development, Hardin is senior author of World of the Cell. He received a Master of Divinity degree at the International School of Theology in Southern California, where he met his wife, Susie, who worked in campus ministry with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ). He is on the national advisory board for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Faculty Ministry and serves as faculty advisor for the Navigators and InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship on the UW-Madison campus.