Atheism, Truth, and Certitude: Jeff Hardin Weighs In | The BioLogos Forum

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

Jeff is not available to respond to comments or questions, but he will read as many responses as he can.

I want to thank Jeff Hardin for this presentation and BioLogos for sharing it with us. I particularly appreciate Prof. Hardin’s personal testimony which enables him to go beyond the false dichotomy of Creationism vs. Evolution.

However the dichotomy is real and I think based on a real philosophical divide which is much deeper than scientific disagreement. I want to follow up on what he said by using the quote from Thomas Nagle. Nagle said that the “cosmic authority problem… (is) responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.” Then he intimates that evolution is used to take the place of divine authority.

My take on this division is that most people today (in the West) who accept God one way or the other as the Cosmic Authority Figure. Theologically and philosophically for them God is Absolute and His Word is Law. On the other hand we have many people like Thomas Nagle who reject the idea that there is an Absolute Cosmic Authority Figure. They value freedom more than structure. Morally and philosophically they are Relativists as opposed to Absolutists.

Absolutists stress unity and uniformity, the One. Relativists stress diversity and creativity, the Many.

The problem is that both sides are right and both sides are wrong. We need both unity and diversity, consensus and creative alternative views.

The Christian faith, and this is where Jeff’s testimony comes in, is the only real alternative to the false dichotomy of Absolutism and Relativism. Christianity recognizes the authority of God the Father, but shows that God is not Absolute through the Son and the Spirit.

The real answer to the Cosmic Authority problem is Jesus Christ, Who demonstrated on Good Friday and Easter that God is Relational or Loving, not Absolute. The problem is that many Christians have not moved beyond the Absolute God of the Hebrew Bible to the relational God of the New Testament in Christ Jesus.

On the other hand the Trinitarian Relational God is not a Relativist God. Darwinian evolution does not free humans from a Cosmic Authority, but tries to replace a real and meaningful forgiving Authority with the unforgiving, conflict based false authority of Darwinian Natural Selection.

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I too thank Biologos and Pastor Hardin for sharing his sensitive and seasoned approach to these issues.

Roger, when you write: “Christianity recognizes the authority of God the Father, but shows that God is not Absolute through the Son and the Spirit” --you should probably clarify that you are not speaking for all of Christianity or all Christians. There are some (myself included at least, and I’m not alone) who do think that God is absolute, and while I may respect and continue to fellowship despite any disagreements over this, I do not think it a philosophically or theologically trivial point.

Perhaps it would be better to say that “our view of God” or even “the aspects of Himself that God chooses to reveal to humans at any given point in history” are not absolute. I.e. Christ does reveal much to us that was as yet unrevealed in prior times. But I think you err when you speak of many Christians who “…have not moved beyond the Absolute God of the Hebrew Bible…”. I, for one, have not “moved beyond” and have no intention of ever attempting to do so as it doesn’t seem Jesus showed any interest either, in “moving beyond” the God of the Hebrew Bible.

That is an error imputed to us by new atheists who love to think that Christians ought to at least ignore the Old Testament if nothing else.

Apart from these non-trivial points, I do agree with you on the need for Christians to engage in and pursue both unity and diversity and relational/loving attributes of (an also absolute) God. Those are good points. And we do well to hold them all as well as we can in our finite perspectives.

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I moved 9 posts to a new topic: Is Jesus the God of the Old Testament?

I hope that Jeff will read this.

I take from his statement of faith that he is a person of faith. I also know persons of faith are called to speak out on issues which can get them into all sorts of trouble.

Jesus had to speak out the truth about Himself even though the religious scholars and authorities of His day attacked Him at every hand. One time they told Jesus that what He said was false, because He was the only One speaking on behalf of Himself and the law said He needed another witness to validate His claims. Jesus said that He had another Witness, God the Father, Who validated His claims, so He met this standard.

When Christians take a stand that is different from many of those within the church, even though it may be based on good theology, they face the real possibility of rejection. When Christian academics take a position that is different from many within the Academe, they also face the real possibility of rejection.

Some of us are called to step out on faith to challenge both the views of people in the Church and the Academe, just as Jesus was called to challenge the views of both the Jews and the Pagans. We can say that we have three Witnesses on our behalf, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can say with Paul, if God is for us, Who can stand against us?

God has not given us certitude, but God gives us what we need, which is faith. Stand strong with Jesus, Bro. Jeff. You are not alone. Do not stand for the Truth with pride, but with humility for all Truth comes from God.


I, for one, have not “moved beyond” and have no intention of ever
attempting to do so as it doesn’t seem Jesus showed any interest either,
in “moving beyond” the God of the Hebrew Bible.
That is an error imputed to us by new atheists who love to think that
Christians ought to at least ignore the Old Testament if nothing else.

This is why atheists find it important to debate the truth of revealed religions. Merv, I know you are an educated man who is probably nice in real life. Are you condoning the OT atrocities like genocide and sex slavery because your god commanded the Israelites to do these things? I think that is called the “Divine Command” theory of ethics–if god says it, it must be good. You can see how scary this would be to anyone else. If you thought your god commanded you or your nation to do similar things today, would you leave behind your humanistic sensibilities and support such atrocities? I hope not, and I think you probably would not. But there are plenty of people today who do hold that Divine Command theory of ethics and do commit such atrocities, because they think their god told them to do so. We see it on the news every day. That’s why the truth of these so-called revealed religions is so important to debate.


Thanks for the, uhhh, compliment of granting that I’m probably not a racist, genocidal rapist. Do I get a merit badge or something? And hoping that you extend this benefit of the doubt to most Christians today … thanks on behalf of all of us.

I recently encountered an online sermon series produced from a Methodist minister in Kansas City. It (the series) is titled “Half-truths” that Christians often say, well-meaning or otherwise. And while I haven’t finished listening to all of them (yet), the ones I have are, I think, an excellent representation of grounded, biblical Christian thought. One of them: “Love the sinner, hate the sin” caught me by surprise as I’ve thought and even said that approvingly. But I won’t any more. But here is the one that made me think this may be the best answer to your question, Lou, about Old Testament atrocities: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” —a billboard saying that many Christians are guilty of promoting; they would do well to listen to this sermon about it.

Here is the link to the whole sermon series. Others in it may pique your interest as well, but I recommend at least starting with the last one I mentioned above: “God said it …”. It is the better part of an hour long, but it would be time well-spent I hope. Not that your question specifically about the atrocities is going to be fully explained or is now understood by Christians, mind you. Dwelling on that and explaining it all away is not the point of his sermon. But rather it may help you see how orthodox Christians today do take and use the Bible (all of it, though not uniformly or woodenly so) as authoritative in their lives, and how this is a positive, even essential thing. I’ll be curious as to your reactions if you find the time to listen to even just one of these.

I’ll check it out, Merv. May take me a while as I have to travel beginning today…

I moved 2 posts to an existing topic: Is Jesus the God of the Old Testament?

@johnZ and @Relates, I moved your discussion here. Please continue the discussion on that thread. It has moved away from the topic at hand.


I hate to intrude into your time and privacy, but I would appreciate if you would let me know if I was close to right about your views concerning Cosmic Authority.

We do really need to be able to dialogue with others instead of just fussing among ourselves, and if we can agree that Cosmic Authority does not really represent the Christian view of God, it would be a good step forward…

Merv, I now have listened to the sermon you recommended. I’ll admit I am impressed with his honesty. He is making the same argument I have often made here and on Jon Garvey’s “Hump of the Camel” blog: The bible was clearly not dictated by a god, and was written by humans, with motivations that included justifying wars and dynasties, maintaining cultural identity, and other worldly motivations. As the sermon speaker pointed out, this includes both the Old and New Testaments. So it is not reasonable to take the high view of scripture promoted by so many of the people here and elsewhere.

I think it is telling that when I make these arguments here and at Jon’s blog, I get many nasty comments (especially GJDS/GD, but also sometimes by you). With a few exceptions, most people simply don’t engage my argument and just spew vitriol or claim that I was diverting the thread. But the argument is critically important to understanding how to treat the Bible. It shows that BioLogos’ official belief in the authority of the bible is misplaced.

Your speaker uses Jesus’ words to try to separate the human and divine elements of the Bible. But he seems to forget his own argument when he reads those parts of the bible. The NT, like the OT, was written by humans, not gods. We have to think carefully and skeptically about the gospel accounts, just as we would any other part. And we need to do so while keeping in mind the comparable literature from other religions and cults, so we can see what sorts of historical distortions can creep into these accounts, and how unreliable they can be.

Welcome back, Lou – I’m glad you are presumably safely back from your travels.

Sorry if my comments have sometimes been vitriolic to you over this. I’ll try to do better and hope that my sustained disagreement doesn’t come across that way here.

I’m glad you enjoyed the sermon. You might enjoy some of the others on that same link as well, though I think this one was most closely centered on the topic at hand.

Did you notice how the preacher, despite his calling attention to its human authorship, did not use that to dismiss a high view? I don’t think he used the terms “high” or “low”, but from the rest of his messages, I gather that he sees no conflict, as you do, with knowing both that the Scriptures were written by humans, and that we should have a high view of both testaments. Granted, (and I think you are totally right about this), we do “favor” the New Testament in terms of using it as a filter and lens for understanding the older one. This understanding of the Bible is much more fluid than what you (or many Christians for that matter) seem to exhibit.

Merv, thanks. I actually don’t care about the tone of people’s comments (I’m no saint in that respect, I’m afraid). I’d just hope that you would see the main point that I was making, and that your sermon speaker also made. The whole bible, NT and OT, is written by humans and is, at the very least, not closely edited by a god. This has important implications which many people here are not making. We both disagree with the OT fundamentalists, but many people here are also overly fundamentalist about the NT. The sayings of Jesus and the events described are passed down to us through many very human filters, and not edited by a god, and I think most Christians do not take the consequences of this seriously enough.

But I am glad you seem to agree that the interpretation of the bible should be fluid. More than that, the arguments of your speaker (and my own arguments) show that every part of the bible (including the NT) needs to be evaluated on its own merits, without a false sense of authority. The whole thing really was written by humans, even if god exists.

Lou, as far as the research on the scriptures is concerned, especially the new testament, it is not likely true that the sayings of Jesus are passed down to us thru many human filters. The gospels appear to be written down by first person witnesses, or by someone who interviewed direct witnesses. As earlier manuscripts have been discovered, it is amazing how similar they are to present translations. No filtering there. The epistles were written by apostles who were eye-witnesses, or who lived in the same generation as Christ. There are very, very few discordances between the oldest manuscripts and the scripture we have had all along.

In the old testament, the prophets books were written and transcribed for many generations, and again, the accuracy to the oldest discovered manuscripts is amazing. I don’t think your blanket characterizations are very accurate in this regard.

JohnZ, yes, the sayings of Jesus are fairly consistent within the three Synoptic gospels, so it is possible those have not passed through many filters. Most biblical scholars agree that many of the sayings came from a written document, Q, that the gospel writers had access to. But this does not mean the sayings didn’t pass through human filters. First, the sayings aren’t in Jesus’ native language, so at the very least they passed through human translation filters. Second, most biblical scholars do not think that any of the gospel writers were actually eyewitnesses, contrary to your claim. Unlike the other two major issues we disagree about (common descent of vertebrates and age of the earth), I admit that this is not quite a settled issue, but your opinion is definitely a minority view. The gospels differ greatly among themselves about important narrative details, particularly those centered around the resurrection, and each gospel writer has clearly mixed his own views with the narrative.

The OT is another story entirely. Here, yes, we have faithful transmission of oral legends, but the legends themselves are often clearly false. The universal flood, the great ages of the first people, the creation myths, etc, are false. There are also anachronisms in many parts showing they could not have been contemporaneous accounts of the events they describe.

JohnZ, I should add that my comment to Merv was rooted in a long-running discussion he and I have had here and on other blogs about the god-ordered atrocities of the OT. It is very difficult for a Biblical literalist to explain how a perfectly good, all-powerful god could order his people to behave like today’s ISIS: kill the men, old ladies, and babies of entire tribes, and take the virgins as sex slaves.

Lou, the gospel of Luke has this intro:

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things [a]accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning [b]were eyewitnesses and [c]servants of the [d]word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having [e]investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been [f]taught.

There are people much more expert in these things than I, but I will state my understanding: These gospels were all written down within about a generation of Jesus’ death, when people who had seen everything were still alive. We don’t today say that translations from english to french are invalid or even inaccurate in general on cereal boxes or Canadian legislation, so saying that there were translations resulting in filters would be invalid.

Also, the gospels do not differ among themselves as much as you imply. Rather there is difference in emphasis of what is reported. The purported differences often don’t exist when examined closely, and in the very few cases where they do exist, are relatively insignificant. There is also no evidence that the views of the gospel writer has distorted the narrative, although it is true that each gospel book has focussed on different aspects of the gospel message.

Your generalizations about the OT are impossible to answer specifically, as most generalizations are. But I would in turn generalize to say that the OT is not a transmission of legends, but of actual events. In addition, the events, people, etc. are not myths, but are true. So there you have one generalization countering another, I’m not sure to what purpose. But the nice thing about generalizations is that it avoids the examination of actual evidence, data, and arguments.

As far as the atrocities of the Old Testament, yes, it is difficult to understand. However, it is interesting that one of the prevalent pagan practices of the time was to offer babies as burnt offerings to their god Baal or Dagan. In addition to any other atrocities that were done by people at the time, it is not illogical to think that these people deserved to die for their atrocities. God also threatened his own people that if they did the same thing, they too would be destroyed. And in fact, eventually, after they had worshipped these pagan gods for many years, God finally destroyed Israel as well.

On the other hand, if you read carefully in the old testament, you will find that Israel was told to treat these foreign girls well, not to abuse them, and to take them as wives (Deut 21:10-14), and not sell her or treat her like a slave.
To treat the alien and fatherless with justice (Deuternomy 24:17-22) To stone the rapist (Deut 22:25-27) Although there are some “questionable” (to us) solutions, they are mostly due to the difficulty of deciding between various accounts of truth, like Solomon having to deal with two women who both claimed a baby as their son.

I’ve written a lot about the OT atrocities lately, here and on Hump of the Camel, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. I’ll just say how odd it is that you think it was wrong for the pagans to sacrifice a child, but it was ok for the Israelites to kill ALL the children of those same pagans.

Let’s get to your main point, and as you suggest, it is best to be particular. When you say that the OT is true, surely you don’t mean there was a global flood, the earth is 6000 yrs old, people used to live to be many hundreds of years old, etc?

I have no reason to believe that before the flood, people did not live for hundreds of years. Nor do I know if everyone did, just the ones mentioned. I believe a global flood was possible, therefore I have no reason to believe that it did not happen. I think the geneology within the bible indicates Adam and Eve lived about 6000 years ago. I believe that written documentation tends to be more accurate than inductive reasoning.

I agree it sounds wrong to destroy a nation for only the sins of a large majority of the parents… but is it right to alllow them to continue as a nation to sacrifice their children for generations?