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Agnostics with a Moral Compass

In this post I’ll be sticking with my theme of yesterday, related to the lecture I gave at NYU, two nights ago now, about how the Bible deals with the problem of suffering. At the end of the lecture I indicated that I have a view of suffering related to that set out in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes, claiming to be king of Solomon (even though he was living many centuries later) stressed that life is short – it is here for a little while and then gone – and that our view of how to live should be controlled by that uncomfortable but very real fact. For this author there is no obvious justice in the here and now. Righteous people suffer and the wicked often prosper. And the injustice of this life will not be made up in the afterlife since, for this author, there is probably not going to *be* an afterlife. This life is all there is. Which is why, for him, “a live dog is better than a dead lion.” (!)

If it’s true this life is all there is, and that it will not be with us for long, how then shall we live? For this author, we should cherish life for as long as we have it, enjoying what we eat and drink, enjoying our work, enjoying our relatives, and presumably, our friends. We won’t live forever. We won’t even live long. And so we should enjoy it as much as we can for as long as we can.

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I was thinking after my lecture that there were two things that surprised me when I became an agnostic, some 18 or 19 years ago now I suppose. (More? Less? I don’t remember: it’s not like my “born again” experience in high school that I remember with precision.) The first thing that really surprised me was just how *militant* both agnostics and atheists are about the terms they use for themselves. I always thought, as a Christian, that they were basically the same thing or at least that they commonly made common cause against everyone else. Wrong. Agnostics tend to shake their heads at disbelief at atheists and atheists tend to look down their nose at agnostics.

The term “agnosticism” literally means “one who doesn’t know.” And typically it is thought that an agnostic is someone who says she doesn’t “know” whether or not there is a superior divine power in the universe. The atheist, on the other hand, in this traditional view, is someone who says definitively that there is not such divine power. And what I found after becoming an agnostic myself is that all atheists seem to think that agnostics are simply wimply atheists (afraid to say what they *really* think, unwilling to live up to the courage of their convictions) and all agnostics think that atheists are simply arrogant agnostics (since, really, they don’t know either!).

Since then I’ve come to realize – as I indicated in a posting long ago now – that agnosticism and atheism are in fact dealing with two different things: knowledge (agnosticism) and belief (atheism). An agnostic doesn’t know if there is a god; and an atheist doesn’t believe that there is. And so it is possible to be both at once, depending on whether you are classifying yourself according to what you know or what you believe.

But as a philosophy graduate student at NYU pointed out to me over drinks at dinner two nights ago, there is a difference between an atheist who does not believe there is a god, and an atheist who believes there is not a god. Big difference. In the past I’ve described these two modes of being an atheist (this isn’t my invention: I’ve seen others say this) as “weak” atheism (not believing in a god) and “strong” atheism (believing there is not god). I’m more or less between these two. So I’m an agnostic of a strongish weak atheistic streak. 

The other thing I didn’t expect when I became an agnostic is of more immediate interest when it comes to how I live. I really thought (and this for a long time is what kept me from making the leap to agnosticism) that if I stopped believing in god, I would have no moral compass. There would be nothing to guide my actions. There would be no reason for me to behave in a moral fashion. I would be led into a life of hedonistic abandon. It would be an orgy every night of the week.

To my surprise, once I became an agnostic, I realized that it was not that way at all. It was not an orgy every night. Once a week was absolutely enough.

OK, not really. The truth is that as an agnostic I’m no more or less moral than I was before. I do have different grounds for wanting to be moral. I no longer worry about how I will suffer or be rewarded in the afterlife. I no longer think that I have or need some kind of “objective” grounding for ethics in a divine being who created all things and who has given humans his “law” that needed to be followed. There are plenty of compelling reasons to be ethical without God. And I believe life is happier when we *are* ethical, being concerned for the well-being of others, helping out others who are in need, loving our neighbors as ourselves, doing good for those in our community, whether our community is our family, our town, our nation, or our world.

I’ll say more about all that in a future post.

A Privileged View of Suffering
The Greatest Controversies



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 9, 2013

    Warning, odd question follows. From what I gather you are confident that the traditional Christian conception of god as personal, all-knowing, all powerful, and all-loving does not exist. Theoretically speaking, if humans somehow knew THAT there was a god, but nothing ABOUT this god, how would you describe this god based on your experience?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 11, 2013

      I suppose I would describe him / her / it as either extremely remote or as so far beyond our imagination that we can’t figure out his/her/its interactions with the world.

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  March 12, 2013

        My own experience suggests to me that if god exists and god is a “thinking” type of being it is a type of being that can’t communicate with humans (or at least me) because my mind can believe there is a god who creates us and simply decides not to bother with humans (thus it is difficult for me to be a deist). The only other option for I see for a god to exist is as a “non-thinking” being – a foreign “force” or “energy.” Or god just doesn’t exist at all. In either case I don’t know right now.

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    Winslow_dh  March 10, 2013

    I often hear it takes faith to believe in God and faith not to believe in God. What are your thoughts on this. Btw, you have a great sense of humor.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 11, 2013

      I’m not sure: that would mean lack of faith is faith, and somehow that doesn’t seem right to me….

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    toddfrederick  March 10, 2013

    A few personal thoughts from today related to your current essays:

    I reread Ecclesiastes today while waiting for my friend at a gun show to finish buying as much ammo as he could stockpile while hearing the noise of dozens of “Impeach Obama” people screaming their hate across the street. I was thinking that this was a rather bizarre, yet fitting situation considering what I was reading, and took some time looking at the gun show people wondering what their lives were like in light of what I was reading…their hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, hates, love, thoughts of life and of death, and then seeing the tent cities on the outskirts of Fresno with dozens of tents and boxes housing the homeless across the street from luxury hotels and convention centers and swank business office buildings.

    Anyone who reads Ecclesiastes in that mix of life styles can well see the author’s point of view….life’s simply a short mist in time blowing in the wind to vanish quickly and be no more.

    Which way to go? Eat, drink and be merry or find a meaningful purpose in our short lives.

    Jesus was a failure. He came on the scene preaching a dead-end and false promise…that God’s kingdom was coming right now and all would change. It did not come, nothing has changed, and nothing will change.

    The haters still rant, good people are slaughtered, the bad live long lives and the good fail.

    Jesus did one thing: he set up an ethic of compassion. It was an expression of what the kingdom would be like when it came, but is a pattern for our lives as well. We have a choice: to live for ourselves or to live our lives as a community.

    Some choose themselves; I prefer community. The day was not a total loss.

    This is a good series of essays…gets me thinking.

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    Wilusa  March 10, 2013

    I’ve long believed there’s no necessary connection between morality and theistic religion. Any “good” concepts taught by organized religions can be arrived at just as easily (if not more so) by recognizing our kinship, not only with all our fellow humans, but with all the life on our magnificent planet.

    But I don’t think we can say that all humans will find their lives more fulfilling if they lead good lives, showing concern for others. We’re kin, but we’re a diverse bunch, and probably always will be.

    About our “labels” – I think of myself as an agnostic, definitely not an atheist. That may be partly because, in my youth, I was led to believe all self-described “atheists” seek to convert others. But also, I’m an agnostic tending toward pantheism – envisioning myself and others not as “God’s creations,” but as part of an eternally existing One (the Cosmos itself).

    About organized religion: Has it, through the millennia, brought about more good or more harm? I can see that it does a great deal of good. But I have to say that on the whole, I think it’s done more harm.

  5. Avatar
    Christian  March 10, 2013

    “if I stopped believing in god, I would have no moral compass”

    I am always astonished by this. It seems either completely ignorant of pre-Christian philosophies or Asian philosophies, or incredibly rude to atheists, Buddhists, animists, etc. who, clearly, are not roaming the streets killing people.

    I mean, this would reported in the news, right?

  6. Avatar
    proveit  March 10, 2013

    I like to think that I have become more open-hearted in how I regard others since I have cleansed myself of the religious stuff. (Some of this may reflect my advancing years.) The “religious stuff” gave me a way to deflect suffering, I could blame suffering on godlessness or whatever. Now that I have stopped (hopefully), I can see suffering as just that and not deflect, but act where I can.

  7. Robertus
    Robertus  March 10, 2013

    I think most believers, or at least the fundamentalist variety, have it completely reversed when it comes to morality and God. If the existence of God is necessary for morality, it is an extrinsic morality imposed from outside us rather than a truly human morality based upon genuine personal and communal experience. The fundamentalist view of morality also tends to ‘dehumanize’ and delimit God into some kind of mere policeman, lawgiver or judge. For me, moral experience, both personal and communal, is better understood as a path toward the contemplation of a more value-able immanent God in the sense of genuine goodness, whether God exists or not. So much for immanence. With respet to transcendence, agnosticism and atheism are for me mere intellectual exercises in apophatic theology, whether God exists or not.

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    debbyMo  March 10, 2013


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    nichael  March 10, 2013

    To follow up on a point above:

    Just as “atheism” has both a “weak” sense (“I don’t believe there is a god”) and a “strong” sense (“I believe there isn’t a god”), the same is also true of “agnosticism” having both a weak sense (“I *don’t* know if there is a god”), and a “strong” sense (“I *can’t* know if there is a god — i.e. knowledge about such things is, in principle, impossible”.).

    Although the first (“weak”) sense is probably the more common usage, the distinction is important.

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    phillymac  March 10, 2013

    It also seems to me when someone receives an unexpected act of compassion from a non-Christian , one finds a purer form of love within humanity; rather than performing an act of “love” out of the hope of spiritual conversion which is not always, but often the case. I have run through the entire lot of spiritual identifiers for myself as my faith has evolved from fundamentalist Christian > progressive Christian >missional Christian > follower of Jesus > the way of love > Buddhist > agnostic > ??????. In my corner of the world labels seem to do more to divide humanity than to unite, so for now I “just am” ! Loving others simply for the sake of love. Bart, I appreciate your work and without even knowing you I would like to say, ” You are a good man.”

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 10, 2013

    Keep going…. A lot of the time, not always, non-religious people seem much nicer and kinder than dogmatic, religious people. Obviously, there are many exceptions such as Stalin, etc., but religion does not always produce kindness.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 11, 2013

    I don’t quite get the distinction you make between “knowing” and “believing.”

    To begin with, the only thing anyone can know with total certainty is *Cogito ergo sum*. Beyond that, we’re dealing with varying degrees of probability. I’ve never seen Antarctica, even from the air. So should I say I don’t know Antarctica exists, I merely *believe* it does, because other people say so? Of course not! *For all practical purposes*, I “know” it exists.

    And different people, without consciously thinking about it, may see probabilities differently. Saying one “believes” God does or doesn’t exist may not mean the same thing to everyone. Personally, I wouldn’t say I “believed” He existed unless I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I *knew* He did. (“Knew” *for all practical purposes*.)

    “Not believing God exists” vs. “believing God doesn’t exist”? Yes, I can see a difference. But in my opinion, a person who holds the first view and not the second is an agnostic, not an atheist. And with someone who holds the second view, one would have to inquire further into whether the person is denying only the Judaeo-Christian God, or also rejecting all other possibilities. If the former is the case (as it happens to be with me), I’d still say the person is an agnostic and not an atheist.

  13. talitakum
    talitakum  March 11, 2013

    <> just watch what you say, they may call you a glutton and a drunkard 😉
    <> and be content of your pay, <> and if you love your enemies, too, then you’re all set.. !
    Well, you just stopped loving God, but for an agnostic that’s a detail I guess…Heaven’s yours 🙂

  14. Avatar
    pdahl  March 11, 2013

    Happily for us, there is plenty to have guided our moral compass, beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian version of a God who simply handed down ethics, morality, and law to us — in the *proximal* sense as depicted in the OT (e.g., God talking directly to Moses and the prophets, etc.). Indeed, some excellent modern treatments of the *evolutionary* origins of ethics, morality, and law include: (1) The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond; (2) The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker; and (3) Moral Origins by Christopher Boehm. My take of these and similar works is that humanity’s rung on the ladder of life represents a natural, “from-the-ground-up” rise through time (the evolutionary view) rather than some cosmic-induced fall from a higher initial level (the theological view).

    A Christian believer could thus rebut the traditional conception of God as *proximal* cause of our human condition while still embracing, instead, a Creator God as the *ultimate* cause, who in creating humanity simply made use of the natural- and social-selection processes that we can now understand in terms of Darwinian evolution.

    Of course, this latter view challenges the very heart of traditional Christianity — as circumscribed by its various Atonement theories — but in my view it does not require outright rebuttal of God per se.

  15. Avatar
    Dennis  March 12, 2013

    Well, if string theory turns out to be true then all of us will have or have had lived before-lives and after-lives simultaneoulsy in the multiverse.

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    Deaconess  March 15, 2013

    Moral guides are everywhere…don’t forget Jimmy the Cricket and Dolly Partun. Great poetry is another. When I was a traditional Christian, I often found the ideas in my favorite poems to be at odds with my Christian understandings. It was confusing. Also Christianity often seemed to contradict the ideas of great philosophers whom I admired. In an effort to “own” all these ideas, I usually felt twisted in a thousand ways. Now that I am a New Age Christian and see and understand God to be unchanging divine law, it all makes sense in a cohesive way.

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    DavidStanley  March 21, 2013

    The atheist/agnostic thing is really code for people I think. I’m just writing an article at the moment on this issue and it stuck me that when somebody asks you whether or not you believe in God, they are actually asking if you believe in life after death. The problem is, if God exists, it could well be a God who didn’t provide us with eternal life … but nobody cares if you believe in that kind of God. Alternatively, a universe with no God does not necessarily mean that it would be, by definition, impossible for consciousness to survive death. If God was proven to exist in some ethereal way, it would not make it any more likely that eternal life was real in any objective sense. I think Christians often miss this.

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    MicahStott  March 24, 2013

    I think Christians wrongly assume they have a better ground for morality than others. Most of their ideas are no different than the rest of society, they just find proof texts to support what the rest of us recognize as moral and conveniently ignore a whole slew of scripture that doesn’t jive. I found William James’ views on ethics far more helpful than any of the confused moral positions I took as a Christian. I’ve heard christian philosophers argue against “Moral Relativism” yet just as much moral relativism can be identified within Christianity over the last 200 years than any other belief systems.

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    Richard Jacobsen  April 21, 2013

    I am an Agnostic. I have always found the concept that you need the Bible and the fear of a loving, although murderous God to be moral asinine. Only a small portion of the world seems to have gotten these rules and they were not given out until well into the history of man. If you believe that modern man as we know them showed up between 100,000 to 250,000 years ago. I will pick 100,000 years to be conservative. That means God sat idly by for about 96,000 years without giving us rules on how to behave or even the consequences of not behaving according to his wishes. Rather ambivalent for an omnipotent power. For the most part we seemed to have gotten along as well as we do now. Before God, we had figured out killing was bad, stealing, lying, disobeying your parents. We even added some like rape, he forgot that one.

    So God was actually a rather late comer to the laying down the laws of behavior of a good citizen. Other parts of the world that had never heard of the Abrahamic God seemed to have figured out the moral issues on their own as well. The Asian countries that are always left out of the discussion when we talk about the, “Whole world,” and the Americas. I think we like to leave out Asia because they actually had a civilization, government, and written language while we were still picking bugs off each other. The area of the world that created our morals is still considered, 6,000 years later the hub of the third world. They have also been under almost constant war for this period of time over a desert. Not Hawaii but a Desert with no oil. ThInk about it. Take all the time you need. These are the folks that gave us laws and morals.

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    ALIHAYMEG  October 31, 2013

    I no longer believe in an “objective” morality. I believe that we all live, as Kant would say “according to a law we give ourselves”. For me personally, the thing that needs to continue to change (because it does seem to be changing) is our own perception of who we are and what our purpose is. It now seems very simple to me: We are cells in a larger organism. If one accepts this and starts to focus their efforts around the health and wellbeing of the “human organism” rather than themselves, then we may find ourselves outgrowing such things as poverty…war…stratification…and privilege itself.

    If all human needs were met for every person, then why would anyone need any more than any other person? Perhaps we should embrace a new morality for the 21st century; one that raises the morality bar far beyond what any religion has been able to or ever could.

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