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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.)

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

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Pegill7  July 17, 2019

    Bart,

    I take it you thought I was being presumptuous in asking you if you knew what Elaine Pagels found in the Nag Hammadi Library that brought her back to Christianity. I know you hold her in high regard, as do I.I know that you both have worked with these documents. Apparently she found something there that you did not.I just wondered what that might be. Please ignore my question if I’m getting too personal.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      I wasn’t aware that the NHL brought her back to Xty. I don’t recall her saying that in her recent autobiography.

  2. Avatar
    tskorick  July 17, 2019

    As someone who also used to hold passionately to general Christian views of life and the world, I do remember a tremendous amount of insecurity about my convictions and fear of death that powered my defense of my faith. I don’t know that confirmation bias and fear of mortality are everyone’s reasons for irrationally clinging to articles of faith, but I was certainly swimming in those waters.

    It took a few really shocking moments in my life to jar me awake and to force me to ask myself the Really Hard Questions (TM) and that might be what it takes for others also. I know that sounds a bit high and mighty, but it’s just from where I’m sitting now. Heck, I have a friend who was raised agnostic hippy and converted to Catholicism later in life. Others similar stories too, so people are motivated by things I may never understand 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  July 17, 2019

    Are there other ideas from your youth that you hold on to even though life shows they are untrue? Life is generally fair. If you work hard enough, you will succeed. People get what they deserve.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2019

      Sure, lots of them. I still believe in love and the capacity of humans to do good, e.g.. And in gravity.

      • JulieGraff
        JulieGraff  July 18, 2019

        Mr. Ehrman, I find it funny that you replied that, as the Rav was explaining recently that the reason why the jews follow so many laws is in part to point out the fact that “As above so below” .. as there are laws in the spiritual realms, so they are to follow down to earth laws in this one… and anyway the word Elohim reprensents G.od through the forces of nature so there you have it: Gravity!

        As for your post, two things came to my mind right away: Idolatry and past life traumas …

        I’m still reflecting on it…

  4. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  July 17, 2019

    “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 am sooo happy about this post as to me it is like the right side of the brain balancing the left side of the brain, of the blog!

    In all respect to it’s mission and content… 🙂

    I’ll reflect on this question (great question!) and I’ll reply at some point!

  5. Avatar
    JohnMuellerJD  July 17, 2019

    While I think fear of what might happen if one truly questions what was cemented into them as a child is a simple answer, I think the ultimate answer is the same answer to the question, why do some people derive pleasure from torturing puppies? Because God didn’t wire all of us the same way.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 17, 2019

    Do you think that your religious beliefs once met a need that you were able to meet in another way? I don’t think there is necessarily any one reason people are able to change vs. not. But I think one of the reasons people have difficulty changing is that the thing they don’t want to give up meets some psychological (or perhaps some other type of) need. I was a hard core Catholic once. In my case (again, I am not suggesting everyone else is the same), I was insecure as a child and found comfort in my religious beliefs. To some extent it offered me a sense things would be better one day, even if it was after death. There was even an arrogant aspect to it. I thought I was morally superior to others (aren’t Christians supposed to be humble?). As my life and self-esteem improved, I no longer needed religion to feel comfortable with myself. My beliefs didn’t change immediately, but when I read the Bible and noticed discrepancies, I was open to what that might mean rather than brushing it off. My beliefs continued to slowly change over years. In my case, I needed something else to meet the need my previous beliefs had met for me. At least I think so and perhaps that is true of others as well.

  7. Avatar
    dljohnston0890  July 17, 2019

    While I cannot identify with you from an academic standpoint, I understand the feeling you’ve expressed in this post. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical group (Jehovah’s Witnesses to be specific) and have experienced doubts ever since I have the faculties to reason. I was taught from a very young age not to trust anyone’s opinion who doesn’t believe in God because, as I was taught, God obviously exists and it’s inexcusable to think otherwise (I don’t think this anymore). In hindsight, I realized that every time I would research topics myself I was either listening to what I wanted to hear or I would reinforce my “castle” of faith with stone upon stone of faulty rationalizations, because I felt my salvation was at stake. It was only when I gave myself permission to look at the world unfiltered by rosy goggles that I realized that my castle of faith was no more than a house of cards waiting to crumble, and boy it crumbled. I’m happy with the path I’m taking now but my still believing family think I’m crazy, because if they admit that I’m not crazy they’re admitting a possibility that their castle is really a house of cards waiting to crumble. And that thought is unspeakable to them. Life, like the Matrix movie, is full of red pill – blue pill decisions. Some wake up believing whatever they want to believe. And some seek the truth no matter where the evidence takes them.

  8. Avatar
    Judith  July 17, 2019

    Thank you for sharing this with us. My hope is that we bloggers can be a support for you at such times as this. As you most surely know by now, you and your work have meant everything to me. No doubt there are many others who feel the same way.

  9. Avatar
    Andrew  July 17, 2019

    I think re your 70s friend that his reaction to you is almost exclusively tribal. And symptomatic of the political divide in America today. You are in his ‘out group’ and therefore need to be attacked.

    I’m from Australia and Evangelical Christianity here doesn’t have the aggressive edge that the American variety does. Having engaged with the British version, I think you’d agree that they too are polite with their evangelical zeal.

    One other thing: when I was in a similar position to you in the 1970s, I was a ‘fundamentalist’ Christian. I’m not sure when this became ‘evangelical’, but I wonder if it was a re-branding after 9/11….

  10. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 17, 2019

    All babies are born good and in the light. They are connected to Spirit. They don’t need to be baptized or believe in Christ. You can go to heaven without knowing Christ. I think you need to love others. Don’t discriminate, hate, rule, etc. Don’t put others down. Don’t think you are worse than or better than others. We were created equal.
    Loving-kindness.
    Most learned they were born sinners and can change that belief with daily prayers affirming they were good and did not sin. Remember we were all created good and equal. Tell yourself a success story of going to heaven.

    I don’t think you need to be in religion to go to heaven. Ideally, religion would teach people ethics and morals that help them in this world and in heaven.

    This was today’s verse of the day on Bible Gateway:
    “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Romans 1:16 NIV

    I was doing some research and about Genesis 1 and 2. They are suspected to have been written by different sources. Genesis 1 was actually written several hundred years after most of Genesis 2. This shows a change in beliefs at least for some (Priestly). We have always been created equal and good, that didn’t change, just our awareness and beliefs.

    I am currently studying the TaNaK ( Jewish Bible) and when it was written, what was going on historically at those times, and what the Jewish commentaries say. Doing it like a conversion which takes about 2 years, that is the only way I know to learn it and practice it to see if it works.
    I think there is both good spiritual food and some not so good spiritual food in the Bible. It is best to eat as healthy as possible as often as possible.
    I have good food that I can read and listen to daily. I think that helps me to recognize what is similar or not.

  11. JMJ
    JMJ  July 17, 2019

    We are programmed when we are young that as long as we continue to believe what the church teaches without question that is true faith, when in reality, it’s a counterfeit faith. But most people don’t question enough to see it. It’s very sad and frustrating. I think it was Mark Twain that said, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” So true.

  12. Avatar
    leobillings@cox.net  July 17, 2019

    I believe this is also true in other areas: politics, race relations, climate change, etc. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said: ‘…spend 40 years thinking about it.’ Unfortunately many, many people grow old never thinking about what they believe or why. It is sad and I think ‘questioning things’, critical thinking skills or even basic logic skills are foreign subjects in our education system.

  13. Avatar
    drumbeg  July 17, 2019

    THANK YOU! Your work and courage have meant a great deal to me. I look forward to your next book!

  14. Avatar
    collettmp  July 18, 2019

    I was once on the same Premier Christianity program to debate a related topic with the New Testament scholar Gary Habermas. I’d just written an article for ABC News which argued the very existence of “sincere disbelievers” like yourself was a real problem for evangelical Christians.

    Here’s a snippet:

    “It sounds strange, but the idea that there were people who had heard the Gospel and been left untouched by it was unfathomable to an evangelical kid like me. I always thought there must be other factors at play when it comes to disbelief.

    “But my [non-Christian] girlfriend showed me that there were unbelievers who hadn’t turned their backs on God in an act of grand Freudian defiance, or shunned their creator in spite of what they know in their hearts and minds to be true. That there were people who had looked at Christianity and been unmoved, unstirred; simply, unsold.

    “It was upon this realisation that the edifice of my faith began to crack.”

    The rest of the article is here if you’re interested:

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-29/god-and-the-problem-of-sincere-disbelief/8378108

    The point I made was that for many Christians, including me when I was younger, the idea that someone could be denied salvation not because of a moral failing, but because they simply disagreed about the evidence for God was untenable. And so, for many evangelicals, they simply can’t allow for the idea of genuine truth seekers like yourself who arrive at any destination other than Christianity. There must be something else going on in your heart. (As you might have guessed, in my case many evangelicals suggested the real problem was that I got a non-Christian girlfriend!)

    My guess is that many Christians are reluctant to change their own views for the exact same reason: when they come across evidence contrary to Christianity, it’s not that they can’t see it, it’s that they don’t trust their eyes. They see doubt itself as coming from a place of rebellion.

    It’s been a long time since my Habermas debate, but from memory, he didn’t really give a clear answer to my challenge: did he believe that it was possible to “sincerely disbelieve”, and if so, what did he think would happen to these sincere disbelievers when they die?

    Similarly, a theologian wrote a response article with this baffling suggestion:

    “Isn’t Collett’s protest really not an argument against the existence of God, but a protest against the God that exists? Isn’t there a tacit acknowledgement that God exists in this ‘problem’?”

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-31/is-it-a-problem-for-christianity-that-sincere-people-disagree/8404034

    Huh?! No wonder Christian/non-Christian dialogue is so tough.

  15. Avatar
    jaasher  July 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman – Thank you for posing this question. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sure that you have been called every name in the book by Evangelicals for leading the elect astray. I think your question goes much deeper than just Evangelicals. It really applies to all kinds of belief systems including religion, politics, climate change, flat earthers, conspiracy theorists, etc.

    That being said, I think that Evangelicals, in general, need to be given a measure of grace when it comes to belief (easy for me to say as I don’t have websites devoted to attacking me). First off, many believers never question why they believe what they believe – they just keep doing and thinking the same things they were taught as kids. They would never even consider that God’s Word could be inaccurate. Two, Christianity is the cultural heritage of this country – it is a part of our lives whether we want it to be or not. Three, for many believers Christianity is woven into the fabric of their family and social structure. Four, Christianity can and does regularly change lives for the better. Five, there are millions upon millions of people that practice religions that are on far shakier ground than Evangelical Christianity (e.g. Mormons, JWs, Scientologists). In my opinion, it is a rare Evangelical that swims against these influences to even start questioning.

    As for the thinkers, I know a number of brilliant people that are devout Christians. I have never heard any of them question the authority or accuracy of the Bible. Frankly, I doubt that they would ever go looking for Biblical criticism – it is just not an interest for them. I myself, until recently, was quite comfortable with a Bible that I knew was not inerrant, but I believed was generally accurate (at least some of the OT and most of the NT). It was not until I went searching for the historical Jesus that my thoughts changed. And I don’t really know why I started to look.

  16. Avatar
    meohanlon  July 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have an off-topic question I’ve never seen asked – that some of he names of the 12 apostles are apparently Greek, without obvious Hebrew equivalents, for instance Andrew or Philip (while the rest have Hellenized and later Anglicized versions of Hebrew names, like your namesake, Bar Tolmai 😉 )- now, assuming these were actually names of the apostles, I’m guessing its more likely they were Hellenized Jews (among whom such names may have become popular) than Gentiles, or were these invented names, or are they in some way based on Hebrew names?- just wondering what your view/the scholarly consensus is.

    And on the topic du jour, I guess for some people committed to their convictions (greater enemies of truth than lies, as Nietzsche aptly put it) it’s just that difficult to admit privately or publicly, that they’ve been lied to, or have lied to others, or themselves. for so long that they have to rationalize away what counts as evidence against their beliefs (especially if they hold any position of authority, or political office- for instance, those who deny global climate change- or speak of alternative facts – though they may know better, they also know they would lose all credibility and the power that the ignorant bestow on them)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2019

      Great question. My sense is that Greek names were becoming more widely adopted, but that the use of one does not *necessarily* indicate that a family had become fully Hellenized. I don’t really know. But today, at least, if someone is named Joshua or Samuel, it doesn’t mean their family is Jewish. Not sure if that’s a helpful comparison or not.

  17. Avatar
    rburos  July 18, 2019

    Or is it a point of reference issue? Maybe you didn’t change your mind on what you held dearest–acceptance of evidence. I have fundy friends who will never give up their version of the faith, but it seems more because they have so intertwined their Christianity with their definition of self that to give up their fundamentalism would be to give up on the one thing they truly hold most dear–themselves. And that can never happen

  18. Avatar
    Jacqueline3  July 18, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Three factors come to mind:

    1) Most people cannot or will not transcend the values and beliefs of their social networks. Paying bills and raising kids overwhelm them. They are therefore incurious about matters that offer no immediate payback. Social cooperation depends on it. But so does Arendt’s “banality of evil”.

    2)Among the minority vitally interested in religion, practicing a faith and studying the historical development of that faith are two radically different operations. To use an analogy, playing a Beethoven sonata in a way that moves audiences has very little to do with understanding how the sonata form developed or how Beethoven pushed this musical genre in new directions. The believer seeks transcendence and meaning. The historian wants a credible account of social reality. Not the same thing.

    3)Among academics specialized in religion, some may fear the professional repercussions of questioning the faith. Lack of confidence in one’s creativity or background knowledge can also be factors. Trying to change their beliefs is a bit like arguing about climate change with scientists financed by the oil industry. Self-interest and intellectual laziness obviously play a role.

    Just a thought…

  19. Avatar
    jmmarine1  July 18, 2019

    I am sure that most on the blog agree with you. I read an on-line eulogy after the passing, a few years back, of a very famous evangelical scholar/theologian/seminary prof and it was noted that he had retained, until his 83rd year (the age at which he passed), a firm commitment to premillennial dispensationalism. I guess that after his autopsy the pathologist must have pulled the family aside and said, ‘amazing, this man’s been dead for over 60 years…’

  20. Avatar
    turbopro  July 18, 2019

    “OK, I couldn’t hit a jump shot, but still, is that reason to be upset four decades later?”

    Yes.

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