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Am I A Better Person as an Agnostic? A Blast from the Past

I have started re-posting some of my posts from three or four years ago on occasion, at the suggestion of several people on the blog.   Frankly, I don’t remember even writing most of them!  Here is one from four years ago, a response to the question of how losing my faith affected me — did it make me a better (or worse) person?

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QUESTION:

Dr. Ehrman,  I am still reading your book (God’s problem) which seems to be very interesting since you are not interesting to gain any approval from anybody but only to communicate what you believe and where you are today. Congratulations for that….   Did you became a better human being after losing your faith?

RESPONSE:

Great question! Most people have assumed the opposite, that anyone who loses his or her faith must become a worse person. The logic seems to be that without a belief in God, there would be no grounds for morals and that people left to their own unconstrained devices would have no reason to avoid living in any kind of shameful way they chose.

I have to admit, when I was a Christian, that’s what I myself thought. And it was one of the reasons that, for years, I was reluctant to question seriously my faith in God. I was afraid that if I no longer believed there would be nothing stopping me from becoming completely profligate and having orgies every night.

Now that I’m an agnostic I have come to see that once a week is perfectly fine. 🙂

Seriously, my fears were absolutely unfounded.   There are lots and lots of reasons to be moral whether or not God exists and whether or not a person believes in him.   This is contrary to what I expected to find.   But find it I did.  In some ways, I have *more* reason to be moral than ever before.   Since I think this life is all there is, I do not want to throw it away on a senseless pursuit of vain pleasure.   Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy my life very much.  In fact, I enjoy it a lot more now than when I was a believer.  But I do not enjoy it by throwing myself into senseless passions and orgiastic pleasure, which I see as empty, futile, and brainless.   I throw myself into the simple pleasures of life, with a gusto: family, friendships, meaningful work, and the very real pleasures of good food, good wine, very good, well, other, alcoholic beverages, good cigars, sports, physical work outs, 19th century novels, theater, and and and.

I’m not sure that I’m a better person now, but I am much more involved in dealing with problems of suffering now than I was then.  That may, though, simply be a function of having so much more money now than I had then.  But I give a LOT more away now, not just in total dollar amounts but in percentage of income.  No comparison.  And my compassion for others has only increased as I’ve realized that all the pain, misery, and suffering of this world will not be resolved in the afterlife.  We either help someone now, or they die helpless.  And that’s not acceptable.

One might think that if this life is all there is, there would be no reason to help someone else – just live for yourself!  But I don’t see it that way, and I’m clearly not wired that way.  I can’t help feeling compassion for others, especially those in need.  Some would argue that this is a proof for the existence of God.  I don’t think so.  I think it is how we have evolved as a species.  Nothing is *forcing* me to act on these feelings, but I want to do so and think others should do so as well, if they want to be fully human.   In some sense, being fully human means realizing in one’s life the way you have been “made,” not by a creator but as a result of very long and complex evolutionary processes.  Living in contrary ways leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.  My happiness is rooted not only in finding pleasure in the simple things in life but also in helping others do the same.

So I don’t know if I’m a “better” person now.  I’m certainly not a worse person.   And I do feel better about live, about love, about hope, about the future than ever.   I am also a happier person.  To some that may seem ironic:  how can you be happier thinking that “this is all there is”?  But for me, since in fact this is all there is, and since we won’t live forever, and in fact will not live for long, we should live life to the fullest, as much as we can and for as long as we can.  Life in the here nad now is not a dry run or a dress rehearsal for something to come.  This life is it.  And so we should throw ourselves into it with all gusto we can, and help others do so as well.

In fact, I think I’ll head off for a massage this afternoon!

 

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Comments

  1. epicurus
    epicurus  August 28, 2016

    There is an interesting and very short (about 800 words) article from 2007 by Gywnne Dyer call “Religion and Good Behavior.” It discusses questions such as why the U.S., being quite religious, is not a low crime paradise, while countries with low levels of belief, such as Britain, should be overrun with crime, but are not. Also that many secular countries tend to have better social welfare systems.

    http://gwynnedyer.com/2007/religion-and-good-behaviour/

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 28, 2016

    Bart, an unrelated question; Matthew’s gospel (chapter 1.23-25) quotes a passage from Isaiah that says ‘a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel’. I’m wondering what is the connection between the name Jesus and the name Immanuel, how are those two names related to each other?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2016

      They’re not etymologically related. Jesus (Greek) comes from Joshua (Hebrew) and means something like “Yahweh is salvation.” Immanuel is a Hebrew name that literally means “God is with us.” So the ideas are related but the names themselves are not.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 28, 2016

    1. “Once a week Is perfectly fine” especially now that we are older.

    2. I would rather have someone treat me decently and kindly because they want to do so rather than their doing it because their God commands it.

    3. This blog is a terrific illustration of your compassion both in supporting good causes financially and in helping educate us in areas where, to be honest, it is difficult to get reasonably educated.

  4. Avatar
    kostya_petrenko  August 28, 2016

    I am sure everyone experiences conversion and deconversion in their own unique way, but to me the two experiences were very similar. Both were very illuminating experiences. The only difference, of course, is that the conversion happened not on the basis of strong evidence, whereas deconversion was all about evidence. But the purely psychological effect was basically the same – feeling of clarity, new discovery, new doors and meanings opening. I think both experiences provide powerful moral motivations because they are a result of a deep search for meaning.

  5. Avatar
    KathleenM  August 28, 2016

    My brother is an agnostic scientist. Dad used to read me Plato–a benign tyrant might be good. My Mom was one of the first conservationists in California – it was totally a sin to throw a Kleenex out the car window in my family – even before it was against the law. My kid sis and I are both Catholics by choice. My parents thought if we wanted to be baptized when we were “old enough,” that would be fine. They attended mine.

    College age I was obsessed with translating anything ancient and started with hieroglyphics, then Sanskrit, and now Galilean Aramaic. As kids we used to sneak into the “tents” in So. Carolina to see immersions and healings by So. Baptists. We have some faith healings in the Church too – Charismatic Catholics from the descent of the woman who was the heroine in the Sound of Music – the nun that left the habit, now deceased. The Chinese my age, 60’s, have been raised without any religion – when I asked a Chinese friend about coming to the Newman Center to mass, I tried to explain “worship” but there isn’t any modern Mandarin word for it. I got tongue tied without having the “language” of religion we use in English. Raised as socialists. I accept the Bible, but I like ferreting out levels of meaning, past and present and the history of how we got the writings. We used to just shout some of the Jesus short prayers like “Jesus love me,” or “Take my hand.” (It works if you get lost climbing Mt. Rainer and see bears, I instinctively try the sign of the cross, but run fast, if the bear comes closer.)

    ***Original Sin: Here’s an idea I got wise to about “original sin.” OK, it got to be a doctrine around the first centuries I think, then big in the middle ages, a time of duress with the plague and the rise of nation states.

    I thought about Veda Vyasa writing the Vedas – the 4 holy books in ancient India. His devotees/students couldn’t get up the hill to bring him his dinner due to a natural disaster in 6000 BC. After a few days he prayed for food, and a friend a little sparrow, said “eat me Lord,” but Vyasa said “no, you are my friend, little one.” The next morning the bird was laying dead at his right hand. Then the apple tree he sat under (or fruit tree) dropped an apple and said “here eat my apple,” but he said “no the earth needs your seeds.” Then the flowers by his left hand bent over and the rose bush said “here eat my petals, Lord,” but he said “no I will not eat the beauty of the world, an old man am I.”

    Vyasa grew very weak from not eating, and finally after 40 days, his followers came running up the hill with the food left over from the temple, and laid it at his feat. “eat, eat,” they said, but he shook his head “Since I have not eaten, I have learned that my life has been a burden on the world. I will eat no more.”

    He gave them the 4 vedas he had written, and they stepped back away from him. Lightening flashed and the sparrow caught on fire and began to burn, the apple and the flowers too, along with Vyasa’s gown. “Serve me now,” he said to his students, reaching his arm out to the world, by reading and repeating what I have written for you, so you too will understand. Life is full on both the level of existence and nonexistence. Do not grieve for me, I go to become one with Reality. Enjoy what you know, and become divine if you will by experiencing your selves.”

    His gown inflamed, Vyasa begin to become ashes and dust, and as his profile disappeared, the water from rain put out the smoke, the wind blew the ashes away–the ashes of the wise man, the bird, the apple and the flowers became one in the wind and spread out over the Nagar. In the wind his devotees could here his voice: Veda Aham. (The Veda I am.) Which they still hear him say today. Veda means total knowledge and total wisdom. Aham means I am. Aham Vedanta – become, be the knowledge, for our lives eventually pass from us.

    It’s impossible to live or move in the world and be totally innocent or harmless. I think that’s what the ancients realized and called it “original sin,” we still war today over food and land and who gets what of the spoils. We try to write it, people save the stories, if it makes sense, it get’s passed on, it becomes a text, it gets translated, and later on we try to get back to the “meaning” of it. We should believe in our experiences, our own personal wisdom, not just in what we “read” or “get told.” I like the scriptures from an academic sense, level. It’s fun, it’s basic, historical and we want to get it right somehow. ( I like reading them in church too – we have a collective understanding or even misunderstanding if you will. It all makes for good studies, thought provoking. ) People really want the “historical Jesus now,” all kinds of folks, and Bart really started a lot of that interest IMHO.

  6. Avatar
    Jason  August 28, 2016

    Do you remember if you got the massage?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2016

      Absolutely I did. I wrote that from my flat in Wimbledon, and around the corner is a Thai massage place that is fantastic! They can really work you over there….

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  August 28, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, my main area of research as a social scientist is the evolution of morality. And I’ve found that when it comes to beliefs about moral agency most people succumb to what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. The FAE, in essence, is our proclivity to attribute our own good fortune as a product of our personal, internal qualities, while the good fortune of others are a product of impersonal, external factors. Meanwhile, we attribute our misfortunes to external factors out of our control, while attributing the misfortune of others to personal failings within themselves. In other words, I’m good because I’m a good person, but other people are good because they are forced to be good. And if I’m ever a bad person, it’s because I was forced to be bad; but when other people are bad, it’s because they are inherently bad people. Our essential biology as human beings makes us see ourselves and other people this way.

    So when I tell people that I’m an atheist, one of the three questions that I’ll immediately be asked (the other two are: “So who created the universe?” and “So do you just believe in yourself then?”) is “Without God, how do we/you know right from wrong?” In response I ask them, if you were to learn with undeniable certainty that God didn’t exist, who would you kill first? They, of course, say they wouldn’t kill anybody. I ask them why they wouldn’t kill anybody, and then they proceed to answer their question.

    You see, it’s the OTHER people who need God to be good, because they’re bad people. Thieves, murders, rapists…if it weren’t for God, those bad people wouldn’t know right from wrong, and they would never be punished for their evil ways. But, you know, I’M a good person. I don’t need God to be good, but if and when I do bad things, it’s because I have forgotten God/Jesus, or abandoned God/Jesus, allowing Satan to enter my heart, tricking me into doing bad things. But when I do good, it’s because I AM good. When I do bad, it’s because Satan made me do bad. When others do good, it’s because God makes them do good (i.e. THEY need God to be good). When others do bad, it’s because they are wicked, evil, unrighteous people by nature. This is the Fundamental Attribution Error at work.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  August 31, 2016

      That’s interesting. Apparently adults are particularly good at maintaining self-deceptive beliefs. I read that in a survey of university professors, 94% believed that they were better at their jobs than their colleagues. Clearly half of them must be wrong.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 31, 2016

        Yes, and all of our children are well above average!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  August 31, 2016

        More than three-quarters of the population believe they are above average in intelligence. Psychologists have another term for our tendency to over-estimate our abilities. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect
        Makes one wonder if Socrates’ overly exaggerated humility was actually genuine.

    • Benjamin
      Benjamin  August 31, 2016

      ?

  8. Avatar
    Judith  August 28, 2016

    Your personal posts are unforgettable, Dr. Ehrman. For those with an intense interest in you because of all you mean to us, we do not forget anything you share that’s personal about you and your life. You may want to remember that when making a selection for Blast from the Past posts.

  9. Avatar
    GHack  August 28, 2016

    Interesting, one on my breaks with evangelical christianity as well as most religion, was the realization that I simply wanted people to be happy and well adjusted. How much pain and unnecessary suffering was heaped on so many people I have known and loved in these trip clinging to a rock revolving around a rather uninteresting sun? I can only take their word and empathize. The scale of human suffering in this world simply humbles me in a way that the comforting words evangelical christianity never could.

  10. Avatar
    itsmoses  August 28, 2016

    Beautifully put, after leaving my church I began to embrace and become more aware of the concept of Empathy. It helped us evolve as societal creatures and helps prevent us from harming each other (if we adhere to it lol)

  11. Avatar
    FocusMyView  August 28, 2016

    I think it can be confusing for people to differentiate as to the whys of shifts in priorities. Like you said, you can focus on helping others now that you have more assets to help with, and you HAPPEN to be agnostic now.
    A good friend of mine has finally settled down in life and has a great relationship with his long time girlfriend. It happens to coincide with his turning his life over to Christ. So he is convinced that everyone who turns their life over to Christ will drastically improve their lives, as he feels he has done.
    This blog is a nice way to help people, no matter our state of faith.

  12. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 28, 2016

    The standard is not “better”….
    Matthew 5:48
    You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2016

      Yeah, I’m never gonna get there….

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  August 29, 2016

        That’s the point, it’s impossible for anyone to be acceptable to God without a savior. It’s a great selling point as we all fall short of our goals ( definition of sin). Great posts. I learn so much from you and the other , much smarter bloggers .

  13. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  August 28, 2016

    I think age and maturity has had more of an effect on my compassion than anything else. Religion forced me into having pseudo-compassion for people that I didn’t really like. If I didn’t like someone, I felt guilty. Then, I would try to “love” that person because I thought I would go to hell if I didn’t, but I also wanted to be pleasing to God. That only made me resentful. Then, the resent would result in more guilt. Now, I feel that there are good reasons for not liking certain people.

    I will say that the compassion I have is more identifiable now that I am free from religion. As in, I know for sure what truly triggers my empathy and compassion–basically everything the donations on the blog go for —and animals. I wouldn’t put an animal above a human, but I do love and have loads of compassion for animals. Sometimes I like animals better than people.

  14. Avatar
    Hume  August 28, 2016

    Good post. But how do you feel about dying? Is that not in some part terrifying. And us losing our loved ones forever? How do you get over that?

  15. Avatar
    teg51  August 29, 2016

    Hi Bart, i know this question has probably been asked before but well, i want to ask it again! Here it goes, in one of your books you make the claim that Jesus was not viewed as God , or the divine son of God during his actual ministry but that he was interpreted as such n light of the following resurrection encounters, If that’s the case then i pose the question, was Jesus description in the gospels of being a healer and miracle worker also a later post-resurrection invention, or was he viewed as such during his actual ministry?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 29, 2016

      I think it was a later invention. Most Christians would say it was not!

  16. Avatar
    marcrm68  August 29, 2016

    So many religious family members, friends, and people in general look at life kind of like an endurance test… If I can just suffer through to the end, then God will take care of me forever… Religion does give many people comfort in this regard, but there have been so many wasted lives! So many people living for a fantasy…

    Since I have been an atheist ( in no small measure because of your books ), I feel so much better about things! There is no guilt, or anger that God hasn’t done this or that for me. All there is is blind chance, and your own wits!

    And if I’m wrong, it will be a pleasant surprise when I die. And if I’m right, I won’t be around to feel sorry for myself… Either way is just fine!!!

  17. Avatar
    madmargie  August 29, 2016

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I am a Christian, after a fashion. I believe Jesus lived and taught the people of his day about his hope for God’s kingdom on earth…as it could be a better political system then the one we now have. Capitalism is greed driven. I do not believe in a “godhead”. I do not believe Jesus was deity. He was a human man with human needs. I believe God is spirit and tries in every way possible to persuade us to be better people, to care about one another and to be as useful as humanly possible. I do not believe God is coercive and I don’t believe God contradicts God’s own laws to provide miracles. If God had that power and used it, then the holocaust would never have happened as well as other thousands of natural disasters. Luckily, I belong to a church that allows us our own theology. I do not accept the creeds. In my opinion, they are man made attempts to explain the unexplainable.

  18. Avatar
    jhague  August 29, 2016

    It seems to me that sometimes Christians are living an unhappy life due to always worrying if they are saved or not in the life that they believe is yet to come! If they would calm down and live for the current life that they know is certain, they would probably be happier.

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 30, 2016

    From another perspective: I “incline strongly” to belief in reincarnation. And that leads me to *try* to be less judgmental of others. Telling myself, “I may have done something as bad or worse in a previous life. And I can’t be *sure* I won’t do something as bad or worse in a *future* life!” (Understanding, of course, that calling a past or future incarnation “I” is a kind of shorthand. No two incarnations are the same entire *person*.)

    Also, believing in reincarnation gives one a reason to *try* to *prepare* for the next life. It may not be possible…but we can hope it is.

    By the way, I “incline strongly” to belief in reincarnation not just because it gives me hope, but because of the actual *strong evidence* for it.

  20. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  August 30, 2016

    For all but a small percentage of people I think there are plenty of good reasons to be moral without God or religion. However, I don’t know how to convince someone that it’s rational to be moral if s/he simply doesn’t think it’s in his/her own self-interest and can get away with not being moral (a question going back at least to Plato’s Republic). Positing “God’ may solve this problem, ie, make morality rational in all cases, but may also create other problems. Anyway, I wonder if we just have to accept that a small percentage of people just don’t see good enough reasons to be moral, at least when they can get away with it.

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