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Am I a Better Person as an Agnostic?

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 absolutely enough. 🙂

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My Preferred Bible Translation
Autobiographical. Metzger and Me: More on the NRSV

17

Comments

  1. Avatar
    AmenRa  August 27, 2012

    Well I must Dr. Bart, at least you are a consistent person. If agnostic means I don’t know, then your answer, I don’t know if I’m a better person is to say the least consistent. As a Humanities teacher at a university, I ask my students what if everything they’ve been told about their religion (mostly Christians) is a lie, would it change their moral behavior. More times than not, they said it would. They would do more sinful things without conscience. In those cases its best that they believe in something/someone who is watching. However I do believe that from an evolutionary perspective on social development, agnosticism serves as a bridge between one stage of enlightenment to the next. In other words the grasp for the ultimate reality requires that we question our beliefs, dogmas and certainties. This is necessary not just for religious opinions but scientific dogmas as well. So I hope you are an agnostic with integrity that will be open to doubting self dogmas while on the road to deeper wisdom. Einstein would say, “the difficult problems of today can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  August 27, 2012

    This is a fascinating topic. I remember being very impressed by this statement you made at the beginning of your blog:

    “I have long been deeply concerned about those who suffer from hunger and homelessness – even more, for some reason, since I became an agnostic, some 15 years or so ago. I give a sizeable chunk of my income to charities that deal with these problems … ”

    What Charities Does The Blog Support?
    https://ehrmanblog.org/category/public-forum/

    Not all, but way too much of Christianity seems to suffer from some kind of weird mixture of otherworldism and individualism.

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  August 27, 2012

    “We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word [Logos] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists;” 1 Apol. Chap 46

    So, Bart, St. Justin and I claim you anyhow!

  4. Avatar
    donmax  August 27, 2012

    I hear ya, Bart. My own life experiences are not that different from yours — raised in the church, a family of conservative believers, lucky enough to get a liberal education (not what passes for “liberal” these days) and an appreciation of history as part of human evolution. Like you I enjoy much of what comes my way and share a good deal of my financial good fortune with others. I also understand how hard it is (or can be) for any of us trying to survive in the world of today or any other era. One thing I’ve learned is that religiosity has not been a boon to human existence, especially among Christians. Too often it has impeded education, scientific progress and freedom of (and from) religion. If anything, pagans seemed to be more open to new ideas, more tolerant of diversity, and less myopic or fanatical in their beliefs.

    When it comes to issues of happiness, however, I don’t think it has much to do with being a believer or an agnostic. Sometimes religious faith is helpful, especially for those with much heavier burdens than what you or I have to carry at the moment. Sometimes tragedy strikes (this includes accidents of birth) and sometimes it boils down to how we are wired or to other external factors that you and I care so much about.

    What I’m getting at is that faith is not just a matter of intellectual belief. It’s also a matter of feelings, being connected emotionally to the divine in ways that transcend thinking.
    DCS

  5. Avatar
    donmax  August 27, 2012

    Sorry for the interruption, but I really wasn’t finished before. Duty called, and by that I mean my wife.

    I agree with Christopher Hitchens (and you?) that there’s a certain sense of liberation in becoming a skeptic. It’s good to have doubts and to realize that many of the things we were taught as children leaves a lot to be desired. When I first heard Gershwin’s lyric “Whatever yer lible to read in the bible, ain’t necessarily so,” it was liberating, probably because I was wired for it, but for others in my family, the notion just made them more conflicted and insecure.

    As far as evolution goes, it’s not something people think about very much, except for a limited number of educated geeks locked into math and science and a minority of secular-minded scholars such as you and me. Most folks are so plugged into their daily lives and personal histories they don’t have the time or the inclination to consider “long and complex evolutionary processes.” Maybe they will never feel as free as we do because they aren’t, and therefore can’t easily jump into “the simple pleasures of life.” Maybe it’s too big a leap for them or too complex and costly. (By that I don’t only mean money.)

    Being “fully human” is hard to define for oneself, let alone for everyone. And if history is any kind of gauge, human beings have not made much progress in that regard.
    DCS

    • Avatar
      GaryS  September 3, 2012

      I really like your reference to the Gershwin lyric. It’s always interesting to hear those defining influences on people that helped move them to an agnostic view in a culture where religious belief is so ingrained from childhood. For me this occurred when I got to college and was exposed to some really serious evangelicals whose primary mission was to get converts. I was pretty ambivalent about religion, but figured I better look into it and get on board in case any of it were true. That’s when I found Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I’m Not A Christian’. I hadn’t been much of a reader at the time, so I had never come across such a direct and aggressive critique of religious belief, and an accompanying defense of a more humanistic view. I like the way you describe the ‘liberating’ feeling you had with Gershwin because that’s the same feeling I had. Since that time I’ve always had a laymen’s curiousity about the history of christianity and religious belief in general, which is why it’s such a pleasure to be reading Dr Ehrman’s books today. I can imagine there will be a lot of people who will look back on his writings as their defining, liberating moment.

  6. Avatar
    simonelli  August 27, 2012

    So Professor Herman, in other words you have discovered the freedom that comes to anyone by living without hypocrisy. You may not know, but you have made peace with your fleshly side, in other words you no longer are trying to eradicate its earthly derires from your soul. Unfortunatly by doing that you have lost the hope of eternal life. The Holy Spirit was freely given to the faithfuls to overcome our fleshly side and enable us to live holy lives. consequently we have passed from dead into life. Repentance is in fact a declaretion of war within our soul, peace is made when you win or give-up the fight.

  7. Avatar
    hwl  August 28, 2012

    Another aspect of your life as an agnostic readers may be interested in, is your relationship with Christian friends and family members – those you knew well while you were a Christian and those after you started to identify yourself as an agnostic. I gather that your wife belongs to a fairly liberal Christian denomination. I would imagine that if she is a fundamentalist, perhaps something like the way you were during your time at Moodys, family life would be more challenging.
    You have many christian colleagues who belong to mainline non-evangelical denominations. Do they identify themselves as “liberal” Christians? I often think the monicker of “liberal Christianity” is somewhat of a misnomer: one can be liberal in attitude towards the Bible and its interpretation, but conservative on political and social issues.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 28, 2012

      Yes, my wife is an Anglican, fairly high church, and about as liberal as they get, though committed to the liturgy. But she is theologically interested, and highly informed.

  8. Avatar
    kirrinemary  August 28, 2012

    Just a superb answer! Loved “God’s Problem”. Thank you.

  9. Avatar
    ZachET  August 28, 2012

    I think it would be great if one day you could debate Robert Price as you have both responded to each other several times (he responded again just yesterday), and disagree strongly.I think it would really put some big issues to bed. Would you consider it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 28, 2012

      Well, I consider every invitation. (Though I have to limit what I can do; not enough hours in the day or days in the week for my taste…)

  10. Avatar
    tcc  August 28, 2012

    Yep. Agreed with all of the above.

    That whole idea that morality is somehow intrinsically tied into some mystic afterlife is serious BS, and one of the big problems I have with religion (and it’s also a really recent development, mostly ripped off from Zoroastrianism and the Greeks). If we only do good because of fear or reward, then we’re not actually practicing morality in any meaningful sense–we’re playing a game. It’s also an attack on human dignity, and makes the Christian god seem like a shakedown artist.

    That’s why I like Ecclesiastes, because it’s kind of divorced from the rest of the Bible’s fire and brimstone threats, and basically tells you to work, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

  11. Avatar
    andrew0410  August 28, 2012

    Hmm, interesting points. My observations are that some people act worse after deconverting (as some restraints are lifted), becoming free to be the nasty/unpleasant people they always wanted to be, whilst others act better as they become more open minded, tolerant, etc. Christianity at its best can be notable for making people loving, especially towards other like minded Christians, and in many self sacrificial lives towards mankind as a whole. Sometimes though, being loving towards like minded Christians can be the flipside of an unattractive party mindedness, and ‘love’ towards all mankind can be very much with the express goal in view of converting others to their party viewpoint.

  12. Avatar
    Skeptic59  September 27, 2012

    “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.”

    If I’m not mistaken, the subject of ‘ethics’ as a field of study originated with the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans… And they didn’t attach any part of it to their religious practices!

  13. Avatar
    johnsep59  November 5, 2012

    I believe that “man” created (creates actually- an ongoing process) god in his own image rather than the other way around as it is written in the Catholic Baltimore Catechism. Therefore, god and religion are a reflection of what is in “man’s” heart in any given generation. And so it should not surprise anyone that lo and behold, we should have approximately the same sense of morals and ethics when we remove the “training wheels'” that are our religions. And following that same analogy further, sometimes to our surprise, the bicycle seems to ride more smoothly and efficiently WITHOUT the training wheels!

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