Note: 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.” Today we present an edited excerpt 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 Atlantic, The Economist, New York Times, RealClearPolitics, Religion News Service, Slate, and other leading publications.
What is the fundamental burr under the saddle, the bee in the bonnet, for Christians that tends to get them to dig in their heels so much?
Christian [Smith] 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, you know, 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.
You know, as a Christian, I want to say that I may be on a journey. I’m definitely a work in progress. You know, 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. You know, that 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. So I’m not sure who you spoke to and how they couched this.
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 having ‑‑ being in lockstep with other Christians. What unites us is that we follow a common leader. And so I want to be careful about sort of epistemic 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. So I do want to say that.
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. It’s just easier to ‑‑ I mean, I don’t like the phrase “easy believism,” but that’s a phrase that some Evangelicals use as something we don’t want. Right? Easy answers because they’re easy, I don’t like that, so I want something more robust than that.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/atheism-truth-and-certitude-jeff-hardin-weighs-in