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A Revelatory Moment about God: Most-Commented Blog Post: #3

April 28, 2022

Here now is my #3 all time most commented-on post, coming in at 210 comments.  It’s about my religious views as an agnostic.  Or an atheist?   Or, actually, how should we think about whether we even *could* imagine a God.  Read on.



A Revelatory Moment about “God”

January 12, 2020

I had a “revelatory moment” last week that I think may have changed my view about “God” for a very long time – or at least about the existence of superior beings far beyond what we can imagine.

As most of you know, I have long been an agnostic-atheist, and as some of you may recall, I define “atheist” differently from most people, at least in relationship to “agnostic.”   The word “agnostic” means “don’t know.”   Is there a God?  I don’t’ know.  How could I possibly know?  How could you?  I know a lot of you do “know” – or think you know.  But my view is that if you’re in that boat you “think” there is a God – really, really think it, deep in your heart, and maybe even deeply “believe” in God – but really, at the end of the day, there’s no way to *know*, at least in the same way you “know” that you have two knees, live in Pennsylvania, or like lasagna.

Anyway, I’m not asking you to agree with me.  I’m just saying it’s my view.  We simply can’t “know” that there is a God in the same way we know other things, and I myself, long ago, came to the point where I had to admit I *really* don’t know.  It’s not that I deeply believe there is a God but admit that technically I can’t know.  I mean I really don’t know.

Over the past fifteen years or so (more? Less?) I’ve also been calling myself an atheist, but I have always meant something different by that from what other people say.  Usually people think of an atheist as a more extreme agnostic, someone who doesn’t say “I do not know if there’s a God” but who says “I know there is not a God.”  I’ve never meant that.  How could I know that *either*?  I’ve taken “agnosticism” to refer to what you KNOW and “atheism” to refer to what you BELIEVE.   Do I believe in God?  No, I do not.  So I’m an agnostic and an atheist at the same time.

My revelatory moment has softened my view.  I guess I’m still an agnostic and an atheist, but I think it makes much, much better sense to stress the “I SIMPLY DON”T KNOW” part, and stop implying that I firmly believe one thing or another.  Here’s why.

I have a meditation practice and in it over the past year or so I’ve spent a lot of time meditating on consciousness, especially the marvel that I am a self-conscious being (you are too, but I’m usually not thinking about you when I’m meditating.  Sorry….).   Consciousness is one of the most mysterious and imponderable aspects of the multiverse, period.  Philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, theologians, and all sorts of very, very smart people have written extremely erudite books about it, most of them disagreeing with one another.  How does something made out of “matter” have the ability not only to think, reason, decide, achieve its own will, and so on – but be aware of  doing so?

If you know the answer, you should write a book and you will receive many international prizes and be the greatest explainer of human existence who has ever lived.   Many have tried.

So I ain’t goin’ there, to give my sophomoric, neurologically- / philosophically- / psychologically pathetically unnuanced views about it.    But something did occur to me the other day during meditation that came as a revelation.

In my experience, one person’s light-bulb moment, when something really clicks, is completely *obvious* to everyone else.   And so I’m always hesitant to share mine.  Some of you will say, THAT’S what you finally realized?  Uh, yeah, duh….    So, when you do think that, well, hey, I knew you would.

But here is the thought that occurred to my head, for whatever it’s worth.

In our way of thinking (this isn’t shared by all cultures), there are different orders of existence/being.

  • An infinity of things that could exist do not exist – either they never did exist (an infinity themselves) or they once existed and do not any longer.
  • Most of the things that do exist we would call “inanimate” – minerals and stars and black matter and so on and on. There may be even an infinity of that category too, depending on your view of astrophysics etc.
  • Most of the things that do exist and are “animate” we would classify as … what? Non-animal?    Most obviously to our senses (I’m simplifying), for example, plants: grass and oak trees and such.
  • Some few things that exist are animals – however you define that (I’m not interested in refined generic definitions here or exceptions here). They can move themselves, they differ at the cellular level, etc.
  • Some of these animals have brains and have instincts and some ability to assert a will, and so on.
  • Humans, in our way of thinking, are on the top of the chain. It’s not that warblers, and copperheads, and orangutans are all the same – there are enormous differences, of course.  But usually we conceptualize the human with, well, the ability to conceptualize and reflect on the past and future in systematic ways and so on.  And yes, I’ve read Frans de Waal – fantastic!  But still, on some level, I’m not doin’ the same thing with my brain as my cat is…..   Still, it doesn’t much matter: arguing one way or the other on it isn’t going to change my revelatory insight.


So here is my “duh” moment.   A rock has no way of recognizing that an animate object such as a dandelion exists.   A dandelion has no way of recognizing that a panther exists.  Now it gets a bit tricky.  A panther has no way of recognizing that a superior intelligence exists.  Yes, a panther does recognize in some instinctual sense that there are things out there to look out for.  But it has no way of realizing that there are people who can engineer sky scrapers, or split atoms, or reconstruct the history of Rome.   It simply is not in its purview.

Humans can and do recognize, analyze, study, think about, reflect on these other forms of life.  You don’t need to say they are “lower” life forms or that we are “superior” to recognize this.  We can understand all these things because in some sense (not all), our cognitive abilities are superior.

But here’s my point.  Suppose you WERE to think (whether imperialistically or arrogantly or not) that we are talking about levels of existence, from lower to higher: rocks, trees, non-human animals, and humans.   The fact is that the lower ones can never know about the higher ones, what they really are, what they are capable of, how they exist, what they do, and so on.  They can’t even conceptualize their existence.

Then what in the blazes should should make me think that I could possibly know if there was a higher order above me, superior to me in ways that I simply can’t imagine?   Not just one order above me, but lots of orders?  If there are such orders, there is no way I could ever know.  Literally.  Duh.

And so really, agnosticism is the ONLY option.  Not in the sense of a shoulder shrug, “Hey, how would *I* know?”  but in the sense of a deep thoughtful response – I have precisely no way to adjudicate the view, one way or the other.

The PROBLEM is that we humans always imagine we are the pinnacle of existence.  We’ve always thought that.  That’s why we have no trouble killing other things to satisfy our needs.  I’m not opposed to that in every instance: every time I eat a meal or scratch my arm (killing who knows how many microbes) I do that.   But it has always led to some rather enormous problems, from massive destruction of others in war to, now, our rather determined efforts to destroy our planet.

This idea that humans are the pinnacle of “material” existence has always (so far as we know) been promoted in religion, especially those that dominate the West.   In Genesis, humans are the ultimate goal of creation, the reason all other living things came into being.

This idea that we ourselves are all-important has ironically crept out of our religion into our secular epistemology.  If we are the top of all existence, then there must be nothing above us.  And so we can use our brains to figure out everything else that exists.  In principle, our brains can figure out *everything*.

My revelatory moment showed me with graphic clarity  that that just isn’t true, on epistemological grounds.  Who says we’re the pinnacle?  If quartz stone and maple trees and slugs could think, they would think *they* were the pinnacle – they wouldn’t have the capacity to imagine a Stephen Hawkins or a Steve Jobs or a Frank Lloyd Wright.   But they can’t imagine something higher than them.  So what make us think we  would have the capacity to imagine whatever it is that is above *us* in the pecking order?  Frankly, it’s just human arrogance.  Pure hubris.   And I must say, looking at the world today, I’m not a huge fan of human arrogance and hubris.  It’s not doing too well for us.

I am obviously not urging a return to traditional religion.  This insight decidedly does NOT justify anyone in saying, “See, I was right – my view of God is plausible.”  Your view of God might be completely *implausible* and based simply on what you heard from people living 2000 or 3000 years ago who were generally far more ignorant of the world than we are and were simply doing their best to figure it out.  So my insight does NOT argue that there must be a (single, Jewish or Muslim, or Christian) God, or archangels, or demons, or whatever.  For me those are just mythological constructs that are trying to make sense of it all.

So I’m not at all advocating we return to the religious constructions of previous centuries and millennia.  I’m just saying that the possibility that there really *might* be orders of existence higher than I can imagine strikes me just now as completely plausible.  Why not?  Who says *I* can figure it all out.   If superior forms of intelligence and will do exist, I would literally have no way of knowing.  And how many different forms/levels could there be?  God knows.  So to speak.

2022-04-17T20:05:42-04:00April 28th, 2022|Public Forum|

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  1. Kirbytown April 28, 2022 at 6:50 am

    Bravo!! Such a clear presentation regarding the human ability to know anything or everything! Kind of like the guy that first said he thought there were germs causing disease and the backlash he experience from the “scientific experts” of the time. So there could be “beings” “entities” or who knows what shape or title we can give to “whatever” the thing we know nothing about that we are trying to get our finite heads around. I think the problem with accepting the possibility of things outside of our understanding is when we use the term “God” to describe what we can not know. “God” automatically causes us to drag out everything we have know and experienced related to religion. So my question Bart is could this thing, person, entity, or whatever actually have had a hand in say evolution, or human history, etc. ? To bring up religion in this question, could there actually be a “God” involved in the gaps of things we do not know?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 6:26 pm

      There could be, yes. Or, well, there are many other options too. Nearly an infinity of them! So to accept one over another … does one choose the most popular? The one one was raised on? The one that… ???

      • Kirbytown April 29, 2022 at 6:10 am

        Thank you Bart for your reply, it is refreshing to hear a person with your background and proven reasoning abilities admit there are things we can not know. I have listened to folks like Richard Dawkins emphatically state that there is no possibility that there is any room for a dimension beyond nature. I personally get tripped up in his explanation regarding evolution. I fully accept that we have evolved but this poor finite mind can’t make the jump from a wart reacting to light waves to the unbelievably complex binocular vision we all enjoy. I just can’t “see” his reasoning or the fact that folks can’t accept there are possible explanations outside of the current accepted science.

      • FrankBrierton May 2, 2022 at 3:39 pm

        Ref: Your comment of Mar 18th, 2022, at 3:54 PM:
        “I could no longer believe there was a God who was active in the world given all the pain and misery in it…”

        I would submit to you that: God created every ‘thing’, good and bad. Good and bad aren‘t even valid terms. Everything created has properties (extremes) of it‘s own. If a heat issue, the lowest value would be what we call cold, the highest value would be what we call hot. there is no good or bad. There is either more or less. Positive or negative. We have given positive a value of ‘good’, and negative a value of ‘bad’. That’s us, not God.
        Light is a creation, the high end being extreme brilliance, the low end being the total absence of light, or dark.
        God is not all ‘Good’, He is all ‘Perfect‘. What we call good , or bad are our human values. irrelevant in the total universe, and total creation..
        How else could God drown everyone except Noah? How else could He send people to Hell? How else could He kill thousands of Assyrians?
        And today, how could he kill all those Ukrainians?

        • elizvand May 3, 2022 at 10:42 pm

          FrankBrierton — your list of things that God could not do if he were good is PRECISELY why I am unable to believe in the Christian God. Christian doctrine says that God is, in fact, good, merciful, loving, just, etc. A good, merciful, loving, just being COULD NOT create the world that we in fact live in, with (as Prof. Ehrman says) all its pain and misery.

          Your description of God leaves me wondering, what is the point of believing in such a being at all? what does it add to our understanding of the universe to say that there is some a-moral (but perfect) force that created it? What is the explanatory value of that hypothesis? The moral value is obviously nil; so what other value does the hypothesis have?

          • FrankBrierton May 9, 2022 at 2:01 pm

            The ’love’ of a perfect God must be perfect, no? Is there any where in the Bible where it is said God is Only good? No. And Satan rules the earth. When Satan addressed Jesus, he said worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms on earth. Jesus didn’t say ‘No, they are already mine’, he said not to Tempt the Lord, thus in a way acknowledging Satan’s ownership and ability to follow thru on his offer. Point: Existence of evil does not negate existence of God.
            My intent was to challenge Prof Ehrman’s comment of Mar 18th, 2022, at 3:54 PM:
            “I could no longer believe there was a God who was active in the world given all the pain and misery in it…”. The existence of that pain and misery does not negate God’s existence, just the Christian concept you noted. He still exists tho’.

          • FrankBrierton May 11, 2022 at 12:35 pm

            FrankBrierton May 9, 2022 at 2:01 pm
            The ’love’ of a perfect God must be perfect, no? Is there any where in the Bible where it is said God is Only good? No. And Satan rules the earth. When Satan addressed Jesus, he said worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms on earth. Jesus didn’t say ‘No, they are already mine’, he said not to Tempt the Lord, thus in a way acknowledging Satan’s ownership and ability to follow thru on his offer. Point: Existence of evil does not negate existence of God.
            My intent was to challenge Prof Ehrman’s comment of Mar 18th, 2022, at 3:54 PM:
            “I could no longer believe there was a God who was active in the world given all the pain and misery in it…”. The existence of that pain and misery does not negate God’s existence, just the Christian concept you noted. He still exists tho’.

  2. TomTerrific April 28, 2022 at 8:35 am

    Thanks for this. It really clarified things for me and I agree with your concepts.

    Did tombs in 1st century Palestine have rolling stones to seal the entrance? How difficult were these to move? Did most tombs have them? Some?

    Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 6:30 pm

      Some did. They were not bolders but cut stones in a circular shape that could be rolled along designed tracks, so the tomb could be opened for more burials and then closed again.

  3. gwayersdds April 28, 2022 at 9:27 am

    My personal belief is that I choose to believe that there is a higher power. I don’t know that there is one, but to a certain extent that is what belief is. It seems to me that man, since he evolved into a being that is able to conceptualize a power greater than him, has felt that there was a god or gods. Many of those beliefs arose to account for things that they could not explain based on their knowledge at that time. The concept of an afterlife goes back to prehistoric man burying their dead with things that they would need in the next life. I agree with you, Bart, that we cannot know that there is a God but I can believe in things even if I cannot prove them in a scientific way. I totally respect your opinions on this, but I do not agree with you on this matter. As mentioned before by others, even if there isn’t a god or and afterlife, what is there to lose by choosing to believe. If I’m right, a heaven awaits. If I’m wrong I won’t be around to realize my error.

    • elizvand May 3, 2022 at 10:47 pm

      You’ve given a very clear restatement of what’s usually called Pascal’s Wager — might as well believe because there’s nothing to lose by doing so. What you lose, in my opinion, is intellectual integrity. The question (as C.S. Lewis once said, though I don’t have the exact quote available) is not what we WANT to believe, or what makes us feel good, or what we would like to be true; the question is what IS true. Professor Ehrman is right that we cannot *know*, but we can — and I would say must, if we value intellectual integrity — evaluate the evidence for and against the existence of a creator and determine what seems most likely. To me, it is clearly most likely, on the evidence, that there is no creator, or god, or higher power, or whatever term one wants to use. I wish there were a God. I very much want there to be one, and I especially want there to be an afterlife. But my honest evaluation of the evidence leads me to conclude that those things do not exist.

  4. Seeker1952 April 28, 2022 at 10:01 am

    What occurs to me is, if the rest of what you say is true, whether we would even be able to ask ourselves whether there are higher orders of being than ourselves. Plants and animals don’t even ask themselves that. Part of being a lower order of existence is not even being able to consider whether there are higher.

    Unless being able to ask that question is itself a part of our own higher level of existence.

    Maybe it’s sort of like if you have to ask how much a yacht costs then by definition you can’t afford it. If you ask whether there is a higher order of existence then you’re not even asking a real question. It reminded me of Wittgenstein saying something to the effect that it’s the business of philosophy to keep us from being bewitched by language.

    This doesn’t do justice to your reflections. I just wanted to write down my immediate reaction before it slipped away. Maybe I’m resisting what you say because it sort of reopens the question of whether something like God exists.

  5. Parable1990 April 28, 2022 at 10:14 am

    Dr. Ehrman,
    There are those who say that we know there is a God because God reveals Godself to us whether through natural or special revelation (whatever they mean by that). Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Henry Pascual

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 6:33 pm

      I have a pretty simple view of that. Some people who believe in God believe that they can see him revealed in one way or another, including in nature; those who don’t believe in God do not think he is revealed in any way. Those who think he is tend to think that there is no other way to imagine this world apart from a creator. But that of course is not true, since many of us don’t agree at all!

  6. Stephen April 28, 2022 at 10:22 am

    Does it really make sense to talk about “god” or “gods” apart from the specific religious traditions associated with them? Sure there is probably “higher intelligence” out there somewhere but I’m still fairly sure Yahweh or Zeus don’t exist. Perhaps it’s time to abandon the “god” concept altogether. Whatever we encounter in our explorations let’s approach it on its own terms and leave behind all this baggage.

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 6:34 pm

      I don’t know what makes that probable. At least it’s not probable to me.

      • Stephen April 28, 2022 at 9:54 pm

        Well the pre-conditions for life seem fairly common throughout the observable universe. By “higher intelligence” I mean an extraterrestrial civilization more advanced than humans but just as much a product of evolution.

      • notforcing April 29, 2022 at 10:28 am

        To me, the most improbable thing of all is that I can walk down the street and meet animated clumps of matter that are self aware. What could be more improbable than that? If I weren’t animated and self aware myself, I would have dismissed that as utterly unbelievable, to the extent that I was in any condition to dismiss anything at all. There are clearly mysteries. Of course, whether it’s possible to say anything about those mysteries is another matter. But it’s interesting to speculate.

  7. Seeker1952 April 28, 2022 at 10:24 am

    I often find myself searching for/wishing there was some kind of stable consensus among experts about which religion, if any is true or closest to the truth — including consideration of atheism and agnosticism. For better or worse, expert consensus is the basis for my beliefs in many other areas of my life.

    I’ve asked you about this before but now I want to ask what I think is a simpler, clearer question. Would you agree that, within its proper sphere, science, especially the natural sciences, is our best expert consensus about what is true? That’s not to say that religion necessarily falls under the purview of the natural sciences-at least not entirely.

    I just want to add that my perception is that if there is any expert consensus about religion, it seems to be agnosticism and/or atheism. That seems to be the opinion of most philosophers and scientists and includes the consideration that there’s no consensus among the religions themselves.

    Finally, even if religion does not (entirely) fall under the purview of science, would you agree that any true religion would at least have to be consistent with science?

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:19 pm

      Yes, I definitely think science is our best guide to what is ultimately true. Certainly it has overturned the firmly held views of most religions — demonstrably so.

  8. DoubtingTom April 28, 2022 at 10:29 am

    We can only perceive by using our senses, none of which are superior among animals. We don’t smell like dogs can, nor hear like bats and whales, nor can we see as well as hawks. Our perception is limited to what’s relatively close by, excluding things like the pinpricks of light that are stars and planets in the sky.
    Humans just don’t have the capacity to observe and know there is a divinity using any of our senses. And if there is a divinity, there’s no reason to believe it cares about humans one way or another, nor is concerned about our desire to keep our individuality for all time.

  9. notforcing April 28, 2022 at 10:40 am

    Dr Ehrman, when you say, “I don’t know” whether there is a “God”, what precisely is it that you don’t know that there is? The statement is meaningless unless you define what “God” means, what its properties are, otherwise you may as well substitute “a God” with “an X”. I don’t think you can appeal to a “common understanding” of the term, common understandings are all over the place, witness any debate on the question on YouTube, where the yay and the nay sides are invariably talking about different things.

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:19 pm

      I don’t know if there is any non-material power/intelligence in the universe.

  10. jayakron April 28, 2022 at 11:02 am

    I don’t agree that humans are hubristically “trying to destroy the planet” because they believe they’re the pinnacle of creation. How humans have used natural resources has always been motivated by need rather than greed. There has never been a Garden of Eden or a time and place in history where humans lived off the land, ate a non-violent vegan diet, and lived an otherwise carbon-free existence. To survive, humans only choice is to be technological beings that depend on the use of animals and natural resources. Even the most primitive tribes can’t survive in this world without using tools, killing animals for food and clothing, and burning material to create warmth. The good news is that through evolution of technology humans are increasingly able to create warmth and needed goods with much less pollution than in previous eras (eg, London is no longer choking with smog as it was in the days of Dickens). But there’s never been a realistic alternative plan where we can survive without using the planet’s animals and other resources.

  11. Ruby April 28, 2022 at 11:33 am

    Wow… great insight that I never thought of before. Thank you for sharing this again. I just started my subscription in December of 2020, so I didn’t see it the first time. This makes total sense. I am a little more comfortable with my agnostic label now.

  12. jbhodge April 28, 2022 at 4:25 pm

    At Last….

    You have reached the same place I have. I no longer “pretend” to be able to really have a conception of God other than that which “created” the heavens and earth. I can see the creation, and read about sciences quest for understanding the creation, but I truly cannot concieve the immensity nor character of that which is responsible for the creation. What I am certain of, is the creation itself, yet uncertain if we are even aware yet of all that was created.

    What I do believe is in “intelligent design” and that there is an inteligence beyond our comprehension responsible for the creation. God (creator) as a “being” would use the definition of “being” as “existance”. So I do believe in the existence of God which is intelligent whose limits are well beyond my comprehension. Whatever God is, it is beyond the physical as a preternatural existence.

    I also believe in a univeral consciousness that transcends the physical. I believe that “Gods Law” is that universal consciousness. There are interesting studies on how sound can transfer through space and universe which may be the universal conscious transport system.

  13. kt April 28, 2022 at 4:57 pm

    Yes ,,,, exactly ,,, and even you could not care less, of course, here we are on common ground.

  14. jbhodge April 28, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    I have 2 questions I would love for Bart to Post on.. Both greatly ignored in American Christianity.

    1. Matthew 27: 51-53 is a very intriguing passage not included in any of the other canonized Gospels. Growing up in an American Baptist Church, I never picked up in these verses, nor had I heard any teaching or even reference to these verses. The “General” account about the death of Jesus is a combination (like the birth) incorporating all of the Gospels, however this passage was excluded from that general account. Matthew is a very Jewish account of Jesus thus, I’m wondering if you have any insight as to what significance to the Jewish audience that such passage was included?

    2. Did Paul really say “All Dogs Go To Heaven” in Romans 8:18-25? There is really no documentation I can find for a Jewish teaching or tradition of such. Is this a new revelation from Paul, or does this view have another origin such as Egyptian in origin? It seems Paul expected that Man and Animals would all be resurrected (spiritually) and souls were not limited to just humans.

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:24 pm

      1. Yup, it’s a very peculiar stories that even some hard core evangelicals who believe in inerrancy sometimes say didn’t happen. The walking dead are meant by matthew to show the apocalyptic power of Jesus’ death — earthquakes, blackening of the sun, raising of the dead; or so it is usually argued by historical scholars. 2. No, he didn’t say that in my version!

  15. jhallstr April 28, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    Paul Tillich anyone?

  16. Apocryphile April 29, 2022 at 12:55 am

    This was one of my favorite posts of yours. Whatever reality ultimately consists of, and however many “levels” of it there are, I believe transcends our logic and perhaps our ability to forever comprehend. Add to this the fact that there are true statements that nevertheless cannot be proven to be true within any formal axiomatic system (Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems), and we are immediately confronted by mystery.

  17. ojotaylor April 29, 2022 at 1:02 am

    I also identify as agnostic *and* atheist, but my sense of “atheist” is a bit different. In the same way that the word “amoral” means “without morals,” or “atonal” means “without tonality” or asexual means “not sexual,” or “without being sexual,” I think the same meaning applies to “atheist,” “without God,” or “without theism.” The etymology of the word supports this, and contrary to the social misunderstanding of the term, I’m just fine with it and have no problem explaining this to folks when I need to. I am agnostic in the same sense you are, but I am without a God-ideal or concept, literally without God, though there may be one, thus atheist.
    Also, thanks so much for your blog.

  18. Jtwarren April 29, 2022 at 6:24 am

    Hey Dr. Bart. I have another question. If the gospels all reported the same thing, I heard that Christians said that skeptic would think it was collusion. Is this true?

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:40 pm

      Weird. I wouldn’t ever say so myself.

  19. MissAnneHope April 29, 2022 at 6:34 am

    It’s a wonderful insight. It’s worth noting that not all humans think of themselves as the pinnacle of existence; in fact, I don’t think most do. Ask a marginalized person if they think of themselves as top of the pecking order. But you make a good point and it’s a valid criticism of both atheists and theists, I think. We are all quite ignorant of the most fundamental answers to existence, material and perhaps the immaterial, too.

  20. Seeker1952 April 29, 2022 at 11:41 am

    Generally speaking, I think it’s a mistake to not distinguish questions about what is true/real/exists from questions about what is good/moral/right. Something about the world could be true but not good. Or, something would be good if it existed but unfortunately does not.

    I think (most forms of) Christianity drastically conflates these two questions. It says that it’s immoral not to believe the existential claims that Christianity makes and that disbelief will result in severe punishment.

    In your judgment how far does this conflation go in explaining the powerful influence of Christianity on European civilization, ie, Christianity saying that disbelief is immoral and will be punished? Has it been a major factor? It seems to me that it could be/has been a powerful way to trap and control people’s minds—and, during long periods, to justify physical coercion.

  21. HMBarbosa April 29, 2022 at 4:42 pm

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Excellent post. I agree with you in general and think that the most wise position is to say “I don’t know”. However, if there is a god (or gods), to me all the evidence points against the existence of the Christian god.

  22. JoshuaBakradze April 29, 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Bart, what is your view on the early Church’s beliefs on the real presence in the Eucharist?

    In your view, do people like Justin, authors of Didache, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian support the view of the real presence?


    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:48 pm

      They never speak about it in these terms; since the Reformation Protestants have said no, and that it was a later development within theological circles. This led to huge debates, but no, I don’t think these earlier theologians thought about it in these terms.

      • JoshuaBakradze April 30, 2022 at 2:32 pm

        Can you clarify what you mean? And what’s the scholarly consensus on that?


        • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:27 pm

          That the eucharist originally had sacrificial overtones itself, that it was not commemorating Christ’s sacrifice but sacramentally re-enacting it in a way that itself brought grace.

  23. WM April 29, 2022 at 11:12 pm

    “Namaste” Bart. “I bow to the divinity within you.” My 200 words to your 1744 words.
    For me, religion is the description of the Spiritual Source, whereas, spirituality is essentially the experiencing and communicating with this Eternal, Conscious Source. Just as amebas evolve into superior life forms.
    I have noticed different levels of evolution among the saints, sages, mystics, and spiritual Masters
    Spirituality teaches there are three basic paths of evolution for seekers. The logical method of understanding Spirit is the most difficult; the service to humanity makes cooperating with the Spirit easier; the “love the Lord thy God” is the easiest. One of these three paths the Master directs the seeker to take.
    Yes, I have met these Masters and seen “miracles” publicly displayed which are scientifically impossible. But their greatest miracle is the transformation that can changed the heart.
    Using logic, we get hung up on choosing the correct word for the Source, i.e., “God”, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Tao, Great Spirit, etc. Using service we can get hung up on service only to our clan. Using love we can get hung up on “loving” the anthropomorphic form and not the Cosmic essence of Divinity.
    Blessings, fellow seeker, Bart.

  24. TheologyMaven April 30, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Mystics of all religions “know” from various kinds of direct experiences with Something Godlike and often dead people’s spirits (although I suppose you could have the latter without the former). Christianity has been big on the former (indeed converting the Historical Jesus to the Cosmic Christ over time), but tried to regulate the latter (as in the HB m/l unsuccessfully); perhaps it’s always been mostly the realm of women.

    And perhaps depending on “thinking” to get you anywhere in terms of all this has been a more or less dead end. As Aquinas supposedly said on his deathbed.

    As Teresa of Avila said “Remember: if you want to make progress on the path and ascend to the places you have longed for, the important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love.” (Mirabai Starr translation).

  25. Neurotheologian April 30, 2022 at 11:38 am

    Hi Bart. You had a very deep philosophical thought about the uniqueness of our ability as humans, unlike rocks dandelions or panthers, to reflect on our existence and the possibility of God. However, I think there are major flaws in your subsequent argument. 1. just because lower forms of life are unable to form any opinion as to the nature of forms of life above them, or have an understanding that humans built skyscrapers etc, is not a logical argument as to why we humans cannot form an opinion (possibly very truthful) about weather God/a creator made the universe. It just does not follow. 2.
    Lower animals may not be able to conceptualise the existence of animals above them, but they can’t even conceptualise the existence of themselves or animals below them! Nevertheless, they’re certainly consciously aware aware of these higher entities and adjust their behaviour consciously to adapt to the presence of them (us). 3. It’s not hubris to think that we’re at the top of the pile! It’s just a plain fact! There just aren’t any more superior beings wandering around on the planet that we are having to adapt our behaviour to!

    • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:19 pm

      1. I’m not saying we cannot have an opinion; I’m saying that one option is that just as I am incomprehensible to a slug, it is possible that a superior divine intelligence is incomprehsnsible to me. And no, I don’t think most living beings are consciously aware of their existence. Dogs probably; amoeba probably not. 2. I don’t know if it’s a fact or not, and so far as I can tell, there’s no logical way to demonstrate that it’s a fact. Even so, it’s what I think and believe.

      • Neurotheologian May 2, 2022 at 1:15 pm

        Hi Bart I just don’t understand why you suggest it’s impossible to logically come to the conclusion that we are at the top of the pile. As someone who would veer more towards a physicallist ontology, I would’ve thought that simple observation of the tree of life re the increasing complexity of brain structure as one ascends toward humans compared with other animals, would easily provide the basis for a logical argument of the superiority of human cognitive faculties and of the complexity/richness of conscious experience, Including the capacity for pain, pleasure, good and evil. Coincidentally this video has just come out today:

        • BDEhrman May 3, 2022 at 1:44 pm

          I think I explained that in my post. Logically speaking we can only understand what we can understand. It’s like at the end of the 19th century when scientists said there could not be any particles smaller than an electron. Whoops. (Or more generally like happens so often in science when major figures claim they have the whole package worked out. Whoops.) There are always things on the micro level that turn out to be smaller. Logically we can’t preclude it, therefore, on macro levels — and on other dimensions and … anything else. Just because we can’t detect something doesn’t, logically, mean it’s not there.

          • Neurotheologian May 3, 2022 at 6:26 pm

            I just can’t agree with you Bart on this. Of course there are many things we don’t know – particularly at the very small level and also at the very large cosmological level. However, to extrapolate this lack of knowledge to the point of saying say that there might be beings walking among us at the every day Newtonian level that we haven’t noticed yet, just doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, there might be aliens in another part of the universe and of course God himself (or herself/itself) might well exist in a different dimension or not in any dimension at all – indeed this is what I believe. But as for earthly physical life, I maintain that we are at the top of the pile without any doubt and without any hubris

  26. GrayGhost May 1, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Bart, thanks for jumping into the deep end on your meditation thoughts. It really inspired me and
    made me feel my beliefs aren’t so wacky after all.

    A 10 year veteran
    Second time poster

  27. EMichelSilva-96 May 1, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    I’ve thought about it in many occasions Dr. Ehrman, there is a philosophical position called Ig-theism, negative theology which has influenced my thoughts over the last 2 years or so. Have you heard about it? There is also a British philosopher named A. J. Ayer who wrote a book called: Language, truth and logic and he devotes a great deal of the book speaking about those notions.

    • BDEhrman May 2, 2022 at 12:39 pm

      I know about negative theology but I’ve never heard of Ig-theism; and I’m afraid I don’t know the work of Ayer, but yes, these are things lots of smart people have thought and written about.

  28. jbhodge May 3, 2022 at 4:16 pm

    Bart.. The problem with a dependence on science as a proof of God, is that science can only evaluate and test the Physical. Science can only examine the phyiscal creation thus “must” limit its findings only to that which is physical. Science as a methodolgy is key to what can be understood of God. Hypothesis is foundation of Science. Proved facts modify and expand hypothesis.

    God can only be known as an hyposthesis and your hypothesis of God was disproved by observance of suffering. You seem to be saying that you dropped your existing hypothesis of God, but have yet not created a new hypothesis of God that reconciles that what you fill within your heart and mind. Hypothesis change with new realized evidence. Your knowlege grew yet you’ve not yet reconcilled a new hypothesis. Dale Martin had to change his hypothesis of God to fit what his knowlege disproved. Have you ever spoken to Dale Martin as to what his hypotheis of God is? My hypothesis of God changed greatly as facts were revealed to me. I have great hope in you forming another hypothesis of God instead of being stuck in limbo.

    • BDEhrman May 5, 2022 at 12:55 pm

      Yes, Dale and I have had long conversations about it. I agree that science cannot prove God and cannot disprove God. Any theological claims about non-natural reality cannot be disproved by naturalist explanations of reality.

  29. stevenpounders May 3, 2022 at 4:46 pm

    Bart, is the following statement really true?

    “The fact is that the lower ones can never know about the higher ones, what they really are, what they are capable of, how they exist, what they do, and so on. They can’t even conceptualize their existence.”

    Animals CAN conceptualize our existence. Many conceive of other animals, both “higher” and “lower”, as things with agency. Some animals – like humans – seem able to conceive that other animals have feelings/ideations, just as they do. Certainly cetaceans and apes can; but it’s not hard for me to imagine that quite a few mammals have this ability, if not quite a few vertebrates. But then, why leave out octopuses?

    Are animals limited in what they can conceive about us? Sure. So are we. Bats may not be able to conceive the complexity of human cities; but neither can humans conceive the complexity of spatial recognition through echolocation. That does not mean that humans and bats don’t conceive of each other AT ALL.

    The only way I can imagine us not being able to conceive a “higher” life form, is if that life form were actively hiding from us. But even “lower” life forms can hide.

    • BDEhrman May 5, 2022 at 12:57 pm

      Yes, of course, some can. My dog Nina is very aware of my existence. But it’s a spectrum, a continuum. An amoeba doesn’t recognize what Nina is and a slug does not conceptualize me. I may not be able to conceptualize something on a completely different magnitude of existence from me either.

      • stevenpounders May 5, 2022 at 3:03 pm

        But a slug and an amoeba can’t conceive of anything at all. Period. For animals that do have conceptions, what and how much they can conceive about other animals is on a spectrum, but that’s not the same thing as an inability to conceive of another life form AT ALL.

        Most animals with a vertebrate brain complexity clearly conceive of other animals species. Whether the other animal is conceptually “higher” or “lower” has nothing to do with it. A dog can conceive of a human as easily as it can conceive of a mouse.

        But you seem to be describing some possible life form that, by virtue of being “higher”, would be invisible to us. But that’s not really something you see modeled in the animal kingdom. Many animals can detect agency in other animals. Many animals (especially those without developed brains) cannot. But for the many animals that can, their ability to detect agency in other animals has nothing to do with how “high” on some scale of evolution those other animals are.

        • BDEhrman May 6, 2022 at 2:58 am

          That’s right. They are lower life forms. That’s my point.

  30. doug May 3, 2022 at 8:36 pm

    When I was a believer, I would have answered the question of how can we know God exists by saying “God tells us he exists and gives us many signs to back that up”. Of course, since our mental abilities are finite, that would beg the question, “How do you know it is God telling you he exists or giving us signs showing us he exists?”. So that brings us back to your conclusion – we really can’t know if God exists.

  31. Lonbiard1111 May 3, 2022 at 11:32 pm

    Hmmm. Dr Ehrman, when you say “agnosticism is the ONLY option” aren’t you kind of discounting the fact that that some have revelations in altered states or near death experiences which can leave one with unique perceptions of “knowing”? Similarly, revelations in meditation as you described yourself or religious experiences like Paul had? So if someone “knows” there’s “God” then how can it be that agnosticism is the only option? Does it also come down to what one means by the word “God”?

    • BDEhrman May 5, 2022 at 3:58 pm

      I’m saying it’s the only option for me. I do know that people have visions and near death experiences. I do not think they are evidence of another world or supernatural reality.

  32. Lonbiard1111 May 6, 2022 at 12:54 am

    Dr Ehrman. Thank you. Ok so it’s the only option for you. That would indicate an openness for options for others…but yet you don’t think the experiences people who have visions or NDEs are evidence of another world or supernatural reality. Are you familiar with Dr Meduna and the Meduna mixture/ method? Many people, including myself, have had numerous NDE’s . I’m very curious if you would ever consider doing that as a part of your research (?)

    • BDEhrman May 6, 2022 at 3:08 am

      Yes, about five years ago I was very interesetd in NDEs and read about twenty books and a ton of articles taking all positions on them. I think they are indeed genuine experiences and no I do not think they show there really is life after death or a supernatural world. They certainly *seem” to do so for people who experience them though!

  33. dvhcmh May 7, 2022 at 11:03 am

    Good post. As an addendum: We have five senses, and our senses aren’t so acute as those of some other mammals. There could be aspects of reality out there that we simply are not equipped to perceive, either because they require more acute senses or because they would require a sixth or seventh sense we do not possess. Some might term this a “supernatural” realm, though it needn’t be outside nature at all. We can’t know, one way or the other.

  34. bsteig May 7, 2022 at 7:17 pm

    This comment follows and references Bart’s May 6th 3am post. I agree that NDE accounts are not evidence of another realm of existence, but the consistency exhibited in hundreds of similar reports, as well has the reports of more than 2,000 accounts of reincarnation documented by researchers at UVA MedicalSchool/DOPS over the past 60 years provide strong indications that there are many more things are likely happening in the overall several-dimension universe than we are able to sense or measure in our three-dimensional portion.

    I believe it is possible that a portion of our consciousness exists at or near the boundary that separates our world from the domain where a GOD and deported souls reside, and — as Alfred North Whitehead described in his Process Theology writings a century ago — GOD and every person’s consciousness are frequently exchanging information and requests (e.g., our prayers, God’s suggestions of good deeds we can perform). I also believe GOD is planting many ideas in Bart’s consciousness that we eventually read in his blogs and books.

    Bill Steigelmann

    • BDEhrman May 9, 2022 at 6:00 pm

      You may want to read up on other reports that come out of China and other places; in any event, the basic consistencies are completely explicable on the basis of the most common non-supernatural experience, that there are physiological explanations (so that of course the experiences would be similar given the similarities of our physiologies as a species).

  35. Lonbiard1111 May 7, 2022 at 11:10 pm

    Thank you, Dr Ehrman. From your book, Heaven and Hell, I know that you agree with Plato—that death is nothing to fear…and I agree with him as well, that it can actually be the crescendo of one’s life, BUT why don’t you believe that NDEs provide any evidence at all for another dimension or afterlife beyond the death experience? NDE’s certainly are more science based than religious traditions and theories, no? I know those in the sciences have different views on NDEs and revelations in altered states but isn’t that an indicator that a definitive answer has not been found? If we only use a portion of our brains in daily life and we are products of our universe why can’t our brains and inner world be as vast as the universe and therefore provide answers to bigger life questions? Are you a bit open regarding this or are you completely convinced otherwise?

    • BDEhrman May 9, 2022 at 6:04 pm

      I’d say that NDE’s are not established on scientific grounds, no. No scentific experimentation has confirmed them; quite the contrary. the sereious scientific studies almost entirely point to physiological solutions, not to other dimensions or an afterlife.

      • Neurotheologian May 22, 2022 at 3:57 pm

        I have to disagree strongly here Bart. Prof Bruce Greyon’s book “After” concludes very differently. Great topic for further discussion.

  36. Bewilderbeast May 9, 2022 at 10:13 am

    All these considered thoughts done in pretty open-minded fashion are valid; and they aren’t the problem. We are (or should be) all allowed to have thoughts and opinions. The problem comes when people take THEIR thoughts – considered, or even very carefully considered, or not – and try and impose them on other people. THAT’s when the evil starts. By all means people can say (eg.) they think there IS a higher intelligence running us as a computer simulation, but they can NOT then decree (eg.) that we all need to have a USB port implanted into our foreheads. Please.

  37. RuthE May 9, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    I believe humans have the ability to know there is a higher power as humans have the power to communicate in spoken and written language. And aside from instinctual behavior that we and lower animals both have, ideas and thoughts are only communicated through human language (or mathematical formulas). But even formulas require language to interpret their meaning.

    Therefore, I would assume that any power that is higher than humans, also would have the power of language/communication. And that the higher power would be able to communicate to humans about itself. Not only in written form but even in realtime. The realtime aspect is important.

    In a time of personal crisis I prayed an unreasonable prayer (while on the verge of suicide with pills–and I wasn’t one given to prayer) to test if the God I didn’t know was there was actually there–and that outrageous prayer was answered within a couple of hours, which is all the time I was willing to give this “God.” And after a similar desperate prayer, for quite a different reason, was answered later, I became convinced there was a God who communicates and hears prayer–and answers in realtime. And who desires to be in communication.

  38. cliffsnyder February 19, 2024 at 6:34 pm

    Dr. Ehrman- My question has to do with what you now think of (what were presumably) your authentic experiences of faith: your conversion experience, your leading of others into a conversion experience, your experiences of answered prayer for yourself and others. Given where you are today, do you continue to see them as genuine? If not, what do you attribute those experiences to?

    • BDEhrman February 20, 2024 at 6:51 pm

      I”m not sure what you mean by “genuine.” They certainly happened! I converted and converted others. My “answered prayers” were no more remarkable than good things that I hope will happen happening today, so I don’t see anything particularly amazing there either. I think I simply had a different way of looking at the world then that assumed God was controlling things.

      • cliffsnyder February 20, 2024 at 9:32 pm

        I guess by “genuine” and “authentic” I mean as you perceived them.

        My conversion experience was life changing and still impactful more than four decades later. In my lifetime I’ve had a couple of answered prayer experiences and seen some conversions that were nothing short of miraculous.

        As I learn more about Scripture from you and others, I’ve come recognize that much of the dogma I’ve been taught was arbitrary and less supported by Scripture than I had been led to believe. I’m now in much more of a “do we really know that?” position concerning specific articles of faith.

        However, the one thing I haven’t been able to discard has been my faith experiences. They were so real and I somehow can’t attribute them to brain chemistry or collective psychology.

        Hopefully this isn’t coming off as preaching, that isn’t my intention. I was curious whether your previous experiences of faith had left a lasting impact as mine have and how you handled it.

        Thanks again for answering my question.

        • BDEhrman February 25, 2024 at 5:35 pm

          My sense is that most people who are devout believers believe precisely because of their faith experiences, rather than what they might say otherwise. You can’t help what your brain tells you you experience!

        • jbhodge February 26, 2024 at 2:48 am

          .I’m pretty much at the same place as “cliffsnyder”. Except for experiencing what I call being immersed in the “Holy Spirit”, that was nothing like what you would expect in a Pentecostal or charismatic sense, but rather a deep personal experience that filled me with a joy, deep peace and an everlasting bond to that spirit and all fellow men, I could easily reconcile that there is no God. Native Americans did not have any Bible or Torah to create a belief in which to later, give up their faith in. Their faith, was in their connection to the “Great Spirit” and all of it’s creation.

          Bart, my question to you is, did your current “connection” to fellow man exist before you became a Christian, or at the time you did? Your faith in the “God” of the Bible has disolved, but not the connection to others. What do you attribute your connection to fellow man to? In other words “What bonds you to this world and others, and from what does that originate?

          • BDEhrman February 26, 2024 at 5:10 pm

            I suppose it was the way I was raised? I don’t really know. I’ve always felt for those who were not doing well in the world.

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