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An Agnostic Teaching the Bible

Question:

I have recently wondered how you can truly enjoy (and endure) your line of work with your loss of faith. It would seem to me that the mental dissonance would lead to great frustration and personal anguish in studying and teaching about something which you know is not historically true and has led you away from your faith….not to mention all of the flack you must have to dodge from the average person on a daily basis, including your beginning students, knowing that you will never change the minds of your most rigid fundamentalist critics.

How do you deal with it…with any enthusiasm? I left church work because of that….what’s you secret?

Response:

It’s a good question, but there’s an easy answer, I think. It would probably be a real problem for me if I were teaching in a seminary or divinity school, or even a Christian college; in that scenario I think I would be completely torn and agonized the whole time, training ministers or teaching young people the Bible and the history of early Christianity, while personally not believing it. There I would be swimming against the tide the whole time. I do have friends who teach in that context – lots of them, actually. Some of these teach at schools that take a far more conservative line than they do; the students all believe that the Bible is the Word of God and are unwilling to engage in critical historical analysis of it, but my friends, their teachers, while themselves still believers, do not see the Bible that way. They (my friends) certainly believe in God and think that Jesus is the son of God (in some sense). But they know that the Bible is a very fallible, human book that needs to be studied like other great literature from antiquity. They try to teach the historical critical methods, but it is like talking to a wall the whole time – or worse, it is like being put up against the wall.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  January 9, 2013

    One thing I can say I learned from studying the bible historically is respect for other people’s beliefs. I never went to church growing up, but started going on a regular bases about 4 years ago at the age of 43. Even then I would ask myself, “how do Christians know that they have it right, and everyone else does not” This was something I could not get out of my mind. I seen so much diversity in Christianity that it was rather alarming. I used to like a popular TV preacher back then, and when I brought up his name in a bible study once, eyebrows were raised. The next day I was informed by a church member that I had offended my baptist brothers. I was very confused back then and did not understand why. Even though now, I would not watch this so called preacher on TV, I just did not understand why I could not have my own personal “theology” about God. I would pray to God, back then, and ask Him to show me the truth, at all cost. Even though I hold on to a belief in God somewhat, it is a very unique one, I like to believe. Even though it is at times uncomfortable for me to go to church at times, usually because of anti-semtic remarks, or exclusionary religious attitudes, I just try to be respectful of people’s personal beliefs. Even though this path is a struggle, it is my own personal journey with God…and I would not have it any other way.

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  January 9, 2013

      You said you were seeking the Truth. I have been were you are. I came to realize that we can not know the truth. We are finite beings and our minds can not comprehend the infinite. The best we can do is seek happiness through love and compassion for humanity and our world. Religion can give us clues but such can never be verified in this life…in my opinion.

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  2. Avatar
    Adam  January 9, 2013

    You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 9, 2013

      Good question. I think I’ll try to answer it on the blog itself.

    • Avatar
      Dennis  January 11, 2013

      I think a literal interpretation of John 14:6 would qualify. Its the main reason my fundamentalist friends use to tell me I’m wrong.

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  January 9, 2013

    If all truth, wherever encountered, is Christian (as Justin maintained), then how can the pursuit of truth threaten a Christian?

    1
  4. Robertus
    Robertus  January 9, 2013

    Having never been part of a fundamentalist church or evangelical institution, much of your life story is foreign to me. But I have observed something similar in the Catholic Church, especially as the temporary liberal enthusiasm following Vatican II has evaporated. People are just lazy, not wanting to think very hard about much of anything. What should be the most exciting subject of all, God, if she exists, is made into boring, simplistic drivel.

  5. Avatar
    Vridar  January 9, 2013

    I’m asked quite often why I study Christian history being a non-believer. I answer I care not whether there’s a god or Jesus existed. I love the history. Those asking the question concerning your teaching Christian history as an agnostic and about my interests have difficulty understanding the separation of belief and the knowledge quest.

  6. Avatar
    toddfrederick  January 9, 2013

    Thank you so very much for providing such a thorough and concise answer to a difficult personal question with sensitivity to your students and your readers. Blessings.

  7. Avatar
    Joshua150  January 9, 2013

    Good answer. I do the same in the limited context of my life after losing my Christian faith discovering what you did through years of study. These things are much easier to discover now, and your books are a large part of that. I give them as gifts when I can.

  8. Avatar
    maxhirez  January 9, 2013

    It sounds to me like the question makes the assumption that somehow without faith, Biblical history is somehow less fascinating. That’s simply not the case. However, now You’ve caused me to wonder if the teachers of Mass Murder classes are better off if they’re people of faith…?

  9. Avatar
    JohnBradbury  January 9, 2013

    As an atheist I get asked a somewhat similar question when someone sees me reading a book or watching a DVD by Bart Ehrman, or sometimes even reading the Bible! All I can say is that, whatever my personal worldview, I have to accept that Christianity and religion in general has had, and still has a major impact on society and informs opinion about many critical issues. As such, I like to try to understand how this happens and what are the more certain historical facts. The perspective that Dr Ehrman’s teaching has given me has certainly generated more interesting discussions with Christians, particularly those that come knocking on my door and try to engage me in a discussion, even when (or perhaps because) I tell them I am an atheist. If I had the time, I would study it more deeply than I do, but my main study area is in mathematics and science.

  10. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  January 9, 2013

    Thanks for that, Dr. Ehrman!

    I, myself, have had a rather peculiar experience, now that I’ve lost my faith. I always had a passing interest in apologetics. While I was a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian, I used to love having intellectual arguments with non-believers on a wide range of topics, though most especially Creationism. However, I never really did a great amount of research into the subject; as an intelligent, scientifically minded person with a thorough grasp of logic, I was already more of a challenge to the vast majority of my dialogue partners than any other Christian fundamentalist they had met. Because of that, I had no motivation to really expand my knowledge base.

    Ironically, I ended up losing my faith when arguing– not against an atheistic worldview– but rather against a Christian worldview that was even more fundamentalist than my own. I had stumbled across Harold Camping while scanning through the radio on my commute home, one night, and became intrigued with his preposterous date setting. Since his whole prediction was based on a chronology of the Bible that he had devised, I figured I could bring the whole thing crashing down by disproving his timeline. Long story short, this led me to the discovery that the Exodus probably never occurred– at the very least, it did not occur on anywhere near the scale claimed in the Old Testament. That realization snowballed, for me, and combined with many other factors to lead to my loss of faith.

    Curiously, however, my interest in Christianity has been utterly rekindled as a result of my loss of faith. I have been more interested in apologetics and textual criticism in the past two years than I had been in the previous twenty. I’ve been reading more, discussing more, and generally have had a greater love for the subject than I’ve felt since I was a teenager trying to bring my friends to the Lord. It is certainly the greatest irony in my life: losing my faith in Christianity has only made me want to learn more about Christianity.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 9, 2013

    Good answer.

  12. Avatar
    DMiller5842  January 9, 2013

    I am so thankful that you do what you do and that our universities are places where research rules!

  13. Avatar
    Deaconess  January 13, 2013

    I think it is wonderful that you have no faith agenda to promote as you can be more objective…like a purist.

  14. Avatar
    oath2014  June 19, 2014

    I think Prof. Ehrman being an Agnostic and teaching what is in the Bible is not only pure and refreshing, it is a welcome alternative to those who use circular reasoning, confirmation bias, and outright book worship in their preaching every Sunday. Sermons I’ve listened to throughout my life and even (snicker) lectures I see on Youtube are so riddled with straw man arguments, logical and illogical fallacies. It is no wonder why the Christian church is so fractured and why on a thousand Christian forums the posts and threads are littered with embarassingly simplistic, almost carnival trash level of thinking.

    “Is masturbation a sin? Do angels have wings? How do I get saved? Is speaking in tongues real? Is it sinful to listen to Metallica? Am I going to hell if I get a tattoo?” I cannot believe that we have soo many churches all over America and yet year after year after year the same questions keep getting asked and argued about. MY PERSONAL BELIEF is that the Bible is simply an unsatifisfactory text to attempt to base one’s life on because it was poorly compiled and rife with disjointed and primitive views of God, as well as filled with contradictory teachings. It rushes through important topics like the creation of the universe, and yet has time to give us a mind numbing 150 Psalms. It hardly teaches us about the birth of the church or structure, and yet gives us The Song of Solomon????

    MY SUMMARY OF THE BIBLE?

    It is a book where a narcissistic God seemingly empowers an elite group to lord over a small remnant who think they have a divine birthright to take whatever they see.

    We see this played out not only in the OT but also in Christianity today where churches have replaced temples and pastors have replaced high priests.

    WIth that said (strangely enough) I do consider myself a Follower of Jesus! (I know, right?!) But instead of former jocks donning suits and ties and teaching the Bible as “God’s Ultimate Playbook” I would love to see more people like Prof. Ehrman filling the religious world with their intelligence and zeal for truth.

    In fact, I wish someone would start an AGNOSTIC CHURCH near me which taught people weekly about the flaws and errors in Christianity and the BIble, but taught us all to be kind and love each other. I would go to a church like that.

    Sorry for the long post but this subject really emotionally hit me!

    Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful blog Prof. Ehrman. When I paid for entrance I was a tad bit worried it would be light on teaching. I publicly repent of such ridiculous thoughts. This site has an intellectual depth and bounty of knowledge that I will be able to mine for years.

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