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Changing Your Mind. Or Not.

Two things have happened to me this week that have made me think rather intensely about the path I’ve taken in life, and how radically it has swerved from the paths of others who were like me at the age of 20.   I emphasize “who were like me.”   The reality is that the path I was on already at 20 was (now I see) extremely weird, and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.   I was a hard-core evangelical Christian dedicated to ministry for the sake of the gospel.   Not exactly what most 20-year olds (including any of my many high school friends) were doing at the time.  If ever I want a conversation-stopper at a cocktail party, all I need do is say something about my past.

Still, given that as my starting point, what happened next is even more highly unusual.  And I was abruptly reminded it of it this week, twice.   First, on Monday I had a radio/podcast debate here in London on “Premier Christian Radio” (it is the leading Christian radio station in England) (not that it has a lot of competition, but it is indeed a high class operation) with another scholar of the New Testament, Peter Williams, one of the world’s experts on ancient Syriac as it relates to the Bible (both OT and NT), former professor at the University of Aberdeen and current head of Tyndale House in Cambridge: http://legacy.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/peter-williams. Peter is the author of Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S Lewis vs the New Atheists.

I have known Pete for years; he is a committed evangelical Christian with a view of the infallibility of the Bible.  Our debate was on the question of whether the Gospels are historically reliable (a topic of frequent recurrence on this blog, obviously) (some bloggers may think “interminable” recurrence).  He thinks there is not a single mistake in the Gospels, of any kind.  I think there are.  You’ve heard this kind of debate before, so I won’t be recounting the ins and outs (although they were quite different from those you’ve seen before; still, it won’t matter for this post).

The second thing that happened is that I received a Facebook post from a former friend (I emphasize “former” since we apparently are no longer friendly) and classmate of mine from my Moody Bible Institute days (mid 70s), in which he lambasted the fellow alumni from my graduating class for holding me in any kind of esteem.   The implication of his lambast was that I’m the enemy of the truth and no one should respect me or my views.   I haven’t talked with this fellow for over 40 years, but last I knew we were friends, on the same floor in the dorm and the same basketball team.  OK, I couldn’t hit a jump shot, but still, is that reason to be upset four decades later?

In any event, these two events made me think hard about one issue in particular, one that I keep coming back to in my head, in my life, and, occasionally, on this blog:  why is it that some people are willing to change their minds about what they hold most dear and important in their lives and other people retain their same views, come hell or high water?    Why do some people explore options and think about whether they were originally “right” or not (about religion, personal ethics, social issues, politics, etc.), and other people cling tenaciously to the views they were given when they were 14 years old?  It’s an interesting question.

Because I changed my views on something near and dear to me and my then-friends, I’m a persona non grata in the circles I used to run around in.  And granted, I have zero desire (OK, far less than zero) to run around in them now.   But I don’t feel any animosity toward my former friends, or think they’re going to roast in hell because of their views, and wish that torment would begin sooner than later.  I understand why they do (toward me), but it’s sad and disheartening.

Let me be clear, my (current) scholar-friend Peter Williams and I are on very good terms (after our debate he bought me lunch and we had a lovely talk about his current research projects): there’s no animosity there or wish for me to speed the process of passing off my mortal coil, at all.   Though I bet if you press him he would regretfully inform you that I probably will be roasting in hell.  Still, that’s OK; it’s what he thinks.

What I’m more interested in is why I would have changed my mind and others like him absolutely don’t.  Even scholars.  Their views significantly deepen, become more sophisticated, more nuanced – but the views don’t change.  (My sense of my former classmates at Moody – at least the ones I hear about – is that their views don’t even deepen or grow more sophisticated; they literally think pretty much the same thing as they did when they were mid-teenagers, only now with more conviction and passion).

The reason I find the whole matter sad is almost entirely personal (I guess sadness by definition is).   My former evangelical friends and current evangelical debate partners think I’m an enemy of the truth, when I’ve spent almost my entire weird journey trying to come to the truth.  And so far as I can tell, they haven’t.   I’m not trying to be ungenerous, but it does seem to me to be the reality.

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here:  how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right?  The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?  The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity)  is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian.  And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.   Yes, they don’t see it that way.  They think they are right because they agree with the Bible which comes from God so they agree with God and I (and everyone else on the planet) disagree with God.  But the reality is that this is the view they were handed as young kids.

I realize these are very old questions.  When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him.   Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would.

Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.   But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense.  And it’s a troubling idea to me precisely because those are the roots I come from.

This is not an issue for most blog members, but possibly for some.   I have a few more reflections on it – specifically with respect to my debate – that I think I’ll reflect on in the next post.  (I’ll get back to the authorship of the letter of James!  But for now this is on my mind.)

Members of the blog have full access to five posts a week on issues connected with the New Testament and the history of early Christianity.  Join, and you can too!  Every penny of your membership fee will go straight to charity.


Is History a Four-Letter Word?
Why Was the World Created in 4004 BC?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jhague  July 17, 2019

    “But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense.”

    The other puzzling thing is that these same people will use their intelligence when involved in most all other activities. They will change their thinking when appropriate with most other subjects but not with their religion.

    They also view other religions as nonsense and cannot understand how anyone could hold the beliefs of another religion. But their religion makes complete sense and a non-believing person does not have enough faith if they do not believe.

  2. Avatar
    herculodge  July 17, 2019

    As the Backfire Effect tells us, we invest our emotions and thoughts into developing a core identity and crystallized worldview that over time becomes our default setting for living our life. If someone challenges that default setting, we feel threatened because we don’t want the house of cards to fall. Feeling threatened, many people lash out and experience a change in the brain called “flight or fright.” In contrast, a small percentage of people have a sort of metacognition that allows for self-doubt and considering opposing views as one evolves one’s worldview.

  3. Avatar
    flshrP  July 17, 2019

    Michael Shermer would say that your Moody friends (or former friends) don’t have an as highly developed bullshit detector as you have. They have found a comfortable religious fantasyland and are full time residents therein. Their ultraconservative Christian beliefs seem to remove the most basic human fear that they and everyone else face–namely the fear of non-existence after death.

    They buy in completely in the fantasy of the invisible, immaterial, immortal human soul and the entire Christian salvation theory complete with heaven, hell, angels, saints, demons. They have not figured out that eternal condemnation of poor, weak creatures like us humans to the fiery pit for fantasized sins that are offensive to an equally fantasized infinitely perfect and infinitely powerful creator god is not punishment–it’s torture. How can such a deity condemn finite, powerless humans to an infinity of torture for any action these wretches might do?

    And, as Richard Dawkins would point out, your friends are infected with the virus of religious belief and that one of the defense mechanisms of this virus is to convince these victims that it is sinful to be skeptical and to question their faith (i.e. the beliefs they hold without any supporting evidence). And that apostacy is the unforgiveable sin.

    You are not alone. My high school friends are just like your Moody friends–stuck in stasis and no different from what they were at age 16 in their beliefs and prejudices. And we are in our late 70s and they have not changed in 60 years. I live in California; they have lived in Missouri all their lives. When we get together, as some of us did on my 75th birthday, it’s civil enough (several rounds of beer are helpful). And past experience has taught us to tread lightly on religion and politics, especially in these times with so much divisiveness in the U.S.

    Your eyes were opened when you got to Princeton Theological Seminary and began to change your beliefs. In my case, four years in a Jesuit university did the trick. Reading the Bible cover to cover and/or exposure to the Jesuits are two time-tested ways to lose your faith if you have any skeptical bones in your body.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  July 17, 2019

    I can relate. I feel like I have done a good job of trying to examine religion and the Bible objectively and being willing to adjust my views to fit the data, rather than adjusting the data to fit my views. But people who are still entrenched in my former belief system see it as betraying the truth rather than seeking the truth. And it’s hard to explain my process to them without it feeling like I’m attacking their belief system, which is not my intention. So, I end up being cautious about what I say, which is a shame, as I wish people could talk freely about such things without their feelings getting hurt. Question: I see you’re doing a seminar at UNC this fall but not on the topic of your next book. Do you anticipate doing a seminar based on your new afterlife book?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      Yup, I will. And will also be doing one for the Smithsoninan Associates on it (four lectures, all day). You can find it on their website if you’re interested.

  5. Avatar
    Pattylt  July 17, 2019

    I have spent many a brain cell thinking on this issue as well. I don’t have answers either (unless you do?)

    A few thoughts seem likely. Authoritarian types have to have authorities. For some reason, certain types of personalities are unable to step out of the authoritarian boxes they seem to need. Which leads to cognitive dissonance avoiders. Some personalities will construct walls in their brains to isolate conflicting thoughts because it causes so much discomfort. They probably have no conscious thought that they do this. Their brains just seem to be hardwired to avoid internal conflict and the smarter they are, the better they can resolve these conflicts to themselves. Less intelligent people seem to just avoid thinking about it very seriously but smart people find ways to resolve conflicting ideas.

    I’m still trying to figure out how someone that insists they follow Jesus and his teachings will also insist that the poor only need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and take responsibility for being poor without government help or resources. They claim to care and insist that private charity will accomplish what government is incapable of…without ever explaining how private charities would accomplish such a monumental, fair and equitable task! Charity will just work! Meanwhile let’s pull money away from government programs. I shudder at their solutions when they have articulated them…most haven’t so far.

    I also agree that every Christian’s God agrees exactly with them when properly interpreted! 😂😂😂

  6. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 17, 2019

    “Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous. But what I’m puzzled by is not *that*, but by the fact that thinking human beings (as opposed to non-thinking ones) can actually still subscribe to such nonsense.”

    Very true. God is Just. God will not judge those who are ignorant and with out knowledge like the one with knowledge. It’s the one with Knowledge that carry the burden of that knowledge and what they do with it.

  7. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  July 17, 2019

    My sense is that the bulls-eye is heaven (i.e. eternal life). And many want a guarantee of attaining it. They find that guarantee (indeed, written) in the NT, given to them as unquestioning youths. So to question that ironclad guarantee is to commit eternal suicide. They would be very uncomfortable with the uncertainty that accompanies skeptical inquiry, or agnosticism. Do my thoughts make any sense, Professor?

  8. Avatar
    Brittonp  July 17, 2019

    Thank you for sharing your story Dr. Ehrman.

    It seems to me that my evangelical family and friends are drawn to their faith primarily due to a deep need for security and order. The thought of having a supreme being watching over them, guiding them and ultimately in control of this world relieves them of worry. In addition, most of them grew up in communities heavily influenced by evangelicals, it is the only life they know.

    A distinction I note too is that when I was faced with apparent contradictions and errors within the bible my rational mind could not let it be. Most evangelicals I know are comfortable with believing that someday God will provide the answer to how it is all true.

  9. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  July 17, 2019

    Dear Bart. That’s a heart-felt, honest and very personal set of thoughts to share on the blog. For this reason, and for the reason that I have huge respect for your scholarship, I am mindful that in replying, I am treading on ‘holy ground’. All I can do is to share that I started out my ‘Christian life’ at age 13 in a similar fundamentalist ‘stable’. However, as a bit of a rebel, I think my questioning began earlier and has continued all the way through my life, rather than my accepeting everything and then throwing it out ‘lock stock and barrel’ at one point like you, though I did do this at medical school for a few months at one stage. When I was 17 for example, I recall being quite inspired by the biography of James Hudson-Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission (now OMF), but having very strong feelings that he was so, so wrong in his motivation for evangelism that thousands of Chinese people were ‘passing into hell’ every day. And for me, it’s been like that all the way through: evolution, neurosceince, philosophy, the problem of evil, the apparant randomness in the world, the parochiality of the Judaeo-Christian herritage, Biblical errancy and, more recently, a really big dose of critical theological scholarship reading 2 of your books and joining the blog :-). All these have made me question and change aspects of my theological and philosophical beliefs quite a bit, but have not extinguished my belief in a beneficient creator-God and his lamb-Messiah. As for the way you describe having been treated at times by certain old evangelical friends and colleagues, I think it very sad, but that would not be my focus. ‘Christian humans’ and the text of the ‘humanly’ written scriptures are not inerrant (as you have convincingly shown) and nothing in the scriptures says that either are completely inerrrant either. That is why I try to place my faith is in God himself and the person of Jesus, which indeed comes to us through the imperfect vessels of scripture and other people. His glory is indeed veiled, but I believe shines through. Best

  10. Avatar
    Duke12  July 17, 2019

    Rulon James Downard who runs the anti-Creationist site “Troubles in Paradise” coined the term “Tortucan,” derived from the Latin name for Turtle. It describes an otherwise intelligent person who was built a strong mental “mindshell” to protect his or her deeply cherished beliefs from any information that might be detrimental to it, no matter how evidence-based. He describes it at
    http://www.twowordculture.com/tip/files/An-Ill-Wind-in-Tortuca-2009-Lecture.pdf

    Or a 3 minute video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOuCmIDKEkg

  11. Avatar
    gbsinkers  July 17, 2019

    I’ve been working on a similar thought process myself for quite a while now and have come up with two answers: experiences and authority. As Christians, we experienced things “of God” that strengthened and confirmed our faith. Talk to any strong Christian and they can recount many “miracles” or answers to prayers they have seen/witnessed/been a party to/or simply heard about from other committed Christians they trust. So to put those experiences up against the scholarship of a “turncoat” like you, well, most will probably go with what they have experienced.

    Second, for some reason many of us see (saw) pastors/priest/clergy as truthful authority figures. At some point we were exposed to these men (usually by others we trusted such as grandparents, parents or close friends) and we believed them. Why would they lie? And they told us that others WILL lie to us and try to tell us that what the Bible says isn’t true. So again, people like yourself, who point out the inconsistencies, are doing EXACTLY what these implicitly trusted men told us would happen. So they dismiss it as the work of the devil and don’t lend any credence to it and will refuse to even consider it.

    For those who do think about it they end up back at point number 1, their personal experiences.

    I credit you for ruining my faith. 🙂 But it took a few years before I could actually say “I’m no longer a Christian” and the biggest reason was my experiences. I have made a list of these “miracles”. Things that I experienced directly that are unexplainable in an otherwise logical world. If I try hard I can explain away most, although I’d rather not, but there are other things in this world we cannot explain like deja-vu, consciousness, how the universe and life got started, etc. So now I leave room for these unexplainable things and wonder what if any outside forces are responsible for them. And because of my past traditions and inability to know what they really are I still attribute them to “God”, just not any current or previous theological God.

    The Christians I cannot explain are your peers who do the same kinds of scholarship, see the same discrepancies and retain their faith. And I know it wasn’t those things that caused you to lose your faith, but why not???

  12. Avatar
    Monty  July 17, 2019

    This would be a great area of study for you I think. I personally am of the opinion that the apparent inability to consider the possibility that you might be wrong is to a great extent hardwired biology, although it is undoubtedly facilitated by a close-minded support system that reinforces the natural bent of these folks. I was raised in the Church of Christ in West Texas. Need I say more? I was not hard- wired, and had doubts even before I was willing to admit them. I recently looked up a number of my high school and college classmates on Facebook, and was dismayed to find that the religious intransigence of my former church friends often translates directly to political attitudes, i.e., all liberals are the spawn of Satan. No less disheartening (maybe more so), but I have come to see this as a largely intractable neurological issue that you were possibly in large part spared by your genetic makeup. Disclaimer: I am in no way a scholar, either Biblical or Biological. Merely an open-minded observer.

  13. Avatar
    Apocryphile  July 17, 2019

    Yeah, hard for me to understand too, especially how highly trained scholars can stick to fundamentalist beliefs. They seem to have some sort of mental filter in place which is more porous in some places than in others. It seems to function by allowing certain information to filter through, and by blocking or deflecting information that is more threatening and strikes closer to their chosen worldview – though ‘chosen’ isn’t exactly the correct word, as it implies a conscious decision. Whatever is going on is largely unconscious, I believe. More of a question for psychoanalysts to answer, I guess.

    Those people I find the hardest to understand are what I call “educated idiots”. They may be highly trained and educated professionals, but will still cling to childish belief systems. They may be rocket scientists, but still believe that Christ needed to sacrifice himself on the cross to redeem them in the eyes of God. There is still much mystery about ourselves and the universe, so I understand the need to remain humble in the face of the vastness of our ignorance, but I think we need to consign clearly primitive worldviews to our primitive past.

  14. Avatar
    Jayredinger  July 17, 2019

    Bart, I am so glad you touched on this, having come from a very conservative evangelical/charasmatic background, I can relate. It is totally incomprehensible for me to think that scholars who have so much historical knowledge at their disposal can still hold on to their Christian beliefs. It is absolutely beyond logical reason to me and is one of the greatest puzzles I can think of. Is indoctrination so complete that even when faced with evidence to the contrary one cannot shake oneself loose from these beliefs? I have come up with many reasons, but in the end they don’t seem strong enough to be able to have such strangleholds on people. I am really looking forward to your next few posts on this subject, hopefully you will give me some answers. Keep up the good work of educating people.

  15. Avatar
    cancilla  July 17, 2019

    There are more people who seek to justify what they already believe than people who seek the truth, even if that truth is not what they would want. A common example of this that I see is Christians who begin an argument for belief in God with a phrase like, “Would you want to live in a world in which…” They honestly, sincerely seem to believe that my liking or not liking something should in some way inform my understanding of the world. In my opinion, it doesn’t work that way.

    One thing I look for when I’m trying to see if someone is honestly searching for the truth is how they react to counter arguments. If they engage with counter arguments, refute them (even if I don’t agree with the refutation), and do not change their beliefs but take those counter arguments into consideration going forward, then I can respect for their opinion, whether I share it or not. On the other hand, if they dismiss counter arguments, keep using arguments that they have clearly been shown are inaccurate, or have disdain for disagreement, then I have more trouble respecting their opinion, even if I agree with their conclusions.

  16. Avatar
    forthfading  July 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I really empathize with your journey and your reflections. This past September I was lucky enough to be one of the few blog members who got to have dinner with you in Durham. It was an amazing evening with you and your wife. I got to share my story with you that night but I feel I should give a general recap of it here because I want you to remember how your life story and scholarship really has made a difference.

    I was a committed fundamentalist Christian for 20 years. I obtained a BA degree in Biblical Studies from a small conservative Pentecostal Christian college. The degree was really more of a ministry degree than a true Biblical Studies degree because I was not exposed to any critical scholarship on any subject. I first came to know your work through a book tilted “The Case for The Real Jesus” by Lee Strobel. Lee writes great book on apologetics and makes the best case possible for the evangelical world view. You became enemy number one in my book because Lee mentioned you over and over as a scholar who had lost his way and was helping other lose theirs.

    I started watching your debates with conservative scholars (admittedly just so I could see them destroy your arguments or in your words…”see you get creamed”) but something happened. As much as I wanted your arguments to be weak and easily contested, that was not the case. I found that your opponents really never could offer plausible or logical arguments that held water. Most of the time they just avoided your arguments. Over the course of a couple years I shifted from being a hard core fundamentalist to being more moderate to now being a very liberal Christian. I am still a believer but I do so not on historical grounds but on social grounds and simple faith, and love Bible history more than ever!!

    Thank you for your work and for being willing to debate and write. The truth really matters! You made a difference in my life and there are other I know that have learned so much because of your debates and books. I know every time you debate you think “Man, what am I doing?”. Remember, you are making a difference!

    So, any chance of another blog dinner?

    Thanks so very much! Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      Thanks! Blog dinner. Maybe so. Need to think about it. I’m out of the country for another month….

      • Avatar
        ksgm34  July 18, 2019

        Blog dinner in England? 😄

        • Bart
          Bart  July 19, 2019

          Ha! Interesting idea.

          • Avatar
            TimKendrick  July 19, 2019

            Count me in!

      • Avatar
        photosmike  July 19, 2019

        This could be a fundraiser for your charity.

  17. Avatar
    Actual_Wolfman  July 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    A good question indeed. Why do some change their minds and others don’t? I honestly think it comes down to individual genetic disposition. How one is “hardwired” you might say. Maybe nothing could change your colleague/debate opponents mind because of a difference in “wiring” from you.

    But keep on asking the questions and hopefully one day we’ll have a satisfactory answer.

  18. Avatar
    joncopeland  July 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, what are your thoughts on Sabine Huebner’s published dating and claim to the oldest authentic handwriting of a Christian on a papyrus dated to 230? If this is true, what are the implications for NT scholarship?

    https://international.la-croix.com/news/swiss-university-hails-oldest-christian-letter-found/10548#

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      I’m afraid I haven’t studied it yet. But I don’t know why New Testament manuscripts produced before 230 wouldn’t be earlier forms of Christian hand-writing.

  19. Avatar
    KSS  July 17, 2019

    I was having the same feelings/thoughts the other day about some decisions I made at 18 that changed at 20 yo; then again at 52 after much research myself on the topic. Just finishing Sam Harris’ book “Freewill” maybe it’s the way we are “wired”? Often I wish I could have “faith” or better “hope” to the degree many do, and not be so afraid of commitment, but I can’t. Reflecting on a comment my 3rd grade teacher made on my report card one term, I can see I had that trait issue even then.

  20. Avatar
    gavriel  July 17, 2019

    I suppose this is a parallel to political sectarian thinking. Arthur Koestler, the influential Hungarian-English intellectual of the mid past century, wrote extensively on the blinkered mind of communists. He,himself once a brilliant Komintern propagandist, describes how it was possible to travel through Soviet areas with mass starvations in the nineteen thirties and still not waver from the party line.
    May be you would like to consider writing a book on the religously blinkered mind?

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