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Christmas Longings

So we have managed to make our way through another Christmas season.  I had a number of posts leading up to the big day, and now I’d like to make a couple of others looking back upon it from this side.   But first let me say that I hope all of you – whether fundamentalist (not too many of *you* on this blog!!), liberal Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist,  or none of the above – had a very nice, relaxing, rejuvenating, and fulfilling holiday.   I did.

In the opening chapter of my book God’s Problem, I talked about going to church on Christmas Eve in 2006 with my wife Sarah and brother-in-law Simon, in Saffron-Walden, a market town in England where Simon lives, not far from Cambridge.  It was a somber but moving Christmas Eve service, and yet one that had the opposite of the intended effect on me.  It made me realize just how estranged I was from the Christian faith, from the notion that with Christ God entered into the world and took its sufferings upon himself.   I just didn’t see it, and it made me terrifically sad, resentful, and even angry.  There is so much pain and misery all around us, and yet the heavens – in my judgment – seem to be silent.

This is not what led me to write God’s Problem.  I had been planning to write it already for some time.  But the service encapsulated my feelings that eventually came to expression in that book.  I realized the other night that I have not stepped into a church since then, that Christmas Eve midnight service, six years ago.

But I went again this year – same market town, same company, same church, same service.   But it had a very different effect on me this time.   I think I’m less angry now.  Less mystified by the lack of a divine response to the horrible pain and suffering going on in the world – crazy gunman in Newtown MA; hurricane Sandy; wars in the Middle East; horrible tragedy of Syria; disaster in Congo; not to mention the daily ravages of starvation, epidemics, droughts, floods, and on and on and on, world without end.   But why *should* there be a divine response?  There appears to be no divine responder.   Not much to get angry about any more.

At the same time, I seem to be less antagonistic to the faith that I once held and cherished so dearly.   I realized three nights ago at the service that even though I still don’t believe it, simply DO NOT believe it, there are things about the Christian faith that I value very highly.  And I wish very much that I could still be a Christian, even if that means simply holding on to the Christian myth (I would never think that it’s some kind of historical, empirical, or even metaphysical reality) as the myth that I want to embrace.  And the reason is this.

On the way to the church, walking through the dark streets of Saffron Walden, we passed a pub open late.  The young people were lined up en mass to get in.  Christmas Eve is a night to get completely blitzed, loaded, drunk out of your gourd for many people (not just 19-year-olds) in England.   By comparison, the church in town, for this major service, had a good size crowd, but it was nowhere near full.   And I started thinking about the values represented by these two groups of people, and about which set of values I personally feel aligned with.

Let me be clear: I am not against a good bit of drinking and lots of good cheer.  Just the contrary.  Last month I had an occasion to get completely blasted myself – it hadn’t happened in years – and even though I think I’m now too old for that sort of thing (as my body insisted for the following two days), and I doubt if it’ll ever happen again (*that* carried away, I mean), in principle I’m not against it.   But what if my life consisted in doing that all the time?   And what are the values and the guiding life-principles of people who do so?  Or of those who do not do so, but live completely secular lives?  What exactly do people value outside communities of faith?  Some of us outside these communities, of course, value fairly traditional social values.  At least I do.  Good family relations; good friends; little pleasures in life; doing good for others.

But that’s not what society as a whole values and I might as well face it.  Most people in our society value THEMSELVES.   Egotism and self-centeredness rule the day.   Most people don’t give a DAMN about the pressing problems of our world.   Most are far more interested in how much money they can make, and spend, and how many great things they can buy.  They might give a buck to a panhandler on the street corner and feel good about themselves, or twenty bucks at Christmas to a charity; but basically they, most of us, want to earn all they can to use it for themselves.  (I’m NOT complaining about people who give 20 dollars and that’s all they can afford to give; I sit in wonder and admiration at *them*).   When I look at my own community of Durham NC, I see a fairly typical community where a very few people give a LOT for the sake of others (probably the majority, of these, however, are people of faith), but where there is an ungodly amount of money that is hoarded or spent on personal pleasure without a care in the world that less than a mile away people are sleeping on the streets in the cold without having anything to eat all day.

And what about the church?  Well, the church is a mess too, mainly because there are people in it and people, as a rule, are a mess.   But what I told Sarah after the service was that I wished I could believe, because the values that are espoused by the church are the ones I hold.  Not by the mega-churches.  Not by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Not by the Vatican.  Good god no.  But by the humble, local, church, which teaches people (whether they do it or not) that they ought to love their neighbors as themselves, that they ought to do unto others as they would have them to themselves, that they should clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, visit the lonely, and so on.  That they should give of themselves for the sake of others, and not simply live for the fleeting pleasures of this life.

Of course, I myself think this live is all there is.  I don’t think there is a reward for good behavior or generosity.   I don’t believe in a supreme being who created the world and will redeem it and who has given us the chance to spend eternity in heaven.  I think when we die, that is the end of the story.   But the values espoused in the form of Christianity that I am most comfortable with – good, liberal, humble, caring Christianity – are really the values that I myself treasure and that, frankly, I do not see expressed very often in the secular society in which I spend my life.

Why aren’t their non-religious social institutions on every street corner (with or without steeples) that embrace these values?  Why do religious people give so much more of their possessions (they do!) and of themselves than secular people (I know, I know: for many it’s because they’re hoping to early favor with God; but others are, quite frankly, simply generous and self-giving).   Why do religious people so much more frequently commit themselves to the good of others than secular people do (again, I know, I know, there are real jerks among the believers – arguably the majority –  and most Christians, at the end of the day, are not better people than the rest of us, and there really are amazing people among the secularists – think Doctors Without Borders for starters).   But why are so many people so obsessed with the fleeting pleasures of the flesh and the superficial enjoyments that the media crams down our throats?  Why aren’t their humanist and secularist societies that band together in fellowship with commitments to love others and do good to those in need and to live for the greater things in live,  societies as highly visible as the church (at least as the church used to be)?  It is one of my perennial puzzles and concerns.

I think the question(s) came so deeply and disturbingly this Christmas Eve because when I was a Christian, acknowledging that the myth of the incarnation was a myth, I accepted the myth as saying something very profound.   In that myth, the ultimate reality (call it God) did not come into the world in a blaze of power worthy of a Roman emperor or with an astonishing abundance of wealth worthy of, well, a Roman emperor.  He came as an impoverished child to an unwed mother in the midst of a world of pain and suffering; and this child grew in poverty and urged his followers to give of themselves for the sake of others, insisting that it was the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hungry, the sick, the demon-possessed, the sinners, the outcasts who were the concern of that ultimate reality.  That made a lot of sense to me.  It still does.

Responses to Reactions (on “Christmas Longings”)
Reflections on the Season



  1. gonzalogandia  December 27, 2012

    Bart, I’ve thought the same things myself very often. I spend so much time telling people why god doesn’t exist, but the truth is that I also miss the “small, local church” that I grew up in.

    Unfortunately, Christmas Eve is NOT a good time to look at the “balance sheet” of secular vs. christian lifestyles. It’s a very emotional time of the year, especially for those of us who were indoctrinated in christianity. Once the “nice feelings” inside about my old life as a christian subside (and they inevitably DO subside), I remember all that other political, hipocritical and political stuff that comes along with the territory.

    There are good people everywhere and in every idealogy of the world. Just because you haven’t felt “comfortable” yet in your new secular clothes (because of your OWN indoctrination), it doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who have little notion of god or the bible and are not doing things. They don’t get influenced about a way of life that they knew.

    Once last thing: I bet a lot of those youth lining up to go to the pub are Sunday morning christians!!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      On your last point: not in England!! (Far from it; this place is about as secular as it gets)

      And on Christmas Eve: actually at the time I didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did later. But I appreciate your point.

    • Just Sayin'  December 28, 2012

      “I spend so much time telling people why god doesn’t exist”

      “Pssst, here comes that atheist evangelist again!”

      • gonzalogandia  December 29, 2012

        Yup, that’s probably very accurate, Just Sayin’! That’s why I have to refrain myself all the time from becoming to militant about the topic. It’s certainly a delicate line between “too much” and “too ambivalent”. But I did laugh at your comment!

        • Vridar  January 5, 2013

          This is interesting. I also have had to temper my outpouring of secular exclamations. However, if we put our energies into having the corner secular helping hand Dr. Ehrman espouses maybe we could get organized. No, never happen. You know the story of organizing cats, right?

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  December 27, 2012

    Well said. Other than an occasional wedding or funeral, I have not been been to church in some 16 years. My wife is not Christian but very spiritual and extraordinarily giving to others, especially those in great need. I still consider myself a Christian, but I believe in a very mythological and nonmiraculous version of Jewish and Christian teaching that would not be recognized as Christian by most believers. I sometimes say that I am a Jewish-Christian atheist. There are some really profound myths that I just cannot let go of because they have helped define me for so long. The surprising thing is that I have believed like this even when I was living the monastic life and there seemed to be a lot of other monks who would agree with my crazy heretical ideas.

  3. donmax  December 27, 2012

    From what you write I get the picture of an ongoing struggle to make sense of the world combined with regret at how screwed up, unfair and back-asswards everything seems. It may just be your way of looking at things, something built-in and inescapable. Or it could be a non-alcoholic hangover from earlier Christian indoctrination. It’s probably why you started this blog in the first place, to see if you can do something to make things better. Nothing wrong with that, as I see it.

    D.C. Smith

  4. Just Sayin'  December 27, 2012

    Prof. Ehrman, with respect, it’s plainly obvious that you are still a recovering ex-fundamentalist.

    Also with respect, ‘God’s Problem’, while it contains much useful information for the general reader (like me), is by far your worst book in my opinion.

    As for your comments about giving $20 to the poor, I prefer the pithiness of the parable of the widow’s mite.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 27, 2012

      Could you explain what you mean, about me being a recovering ex-fundamentalist? And what your grounds are for saying it? (I haven’t been a fundamentalist for 35 years!)

      • Just Sayin'  December 28, 2012

        Your criticisms of orthodox Christianity, most plainly stated in God’s Problem (apparently it’s only his problem, no-one else’s!), still bear the fundamentalist mindset. In other words, you’ve left fundamentalism, but fundamentalism hasn’t left you, in my view.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

          I heartily disagree, but to explain it all would take a post, not a simple reply here. It does sound to me like you’re repeating something you’ve heard, though…

          • Just Sayin'  December 29, 2012

            No, I’m not repeating something I’ve heard. I’ve read all your popular-level books and inevitably that gives me an impression of the author of those books, especially when you spend quite a lot of time in them explaining “where you’re coming from” so to speak.

            If you’ve heard this elsewhere, it’s because others have read your books and come to a similar conclusion.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

            OK, then, consider this my rising to the bait. You haven’t explained what you mean, so why not tell us? What is fundamentalist in my book, in your opinion?

            Yesterday there was an article in the London newspapers about a nobel prize winning scientist accusing Richard Dawkins of having a fundamentalist understanding of religion. What he means by that is that when Dawkins attacks religion, as he is wont to do, he is really only attacking forms of fundamentalism, which think that the Bible is without error in every detail and that maintain that anyone who disagrees with them (or their interpretation of the Bible) is going to hell. The claim is that when Dawkins attacks *that* he thinks he is attacking religion. Which, the claim goes, is nonsense. I actually agree with this view; it is the argument I have had especially against Sam Harris, who also thinks that all religion is some form of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim fundamentalism, so that if he attacks *that* he is attacking religion. But the truth is that most thinking Christians (and probably Jews and Muslims, although I don’t live in those worlds) agree that fundamentalism in their tradition is insanity, and what he attacks is nothing like what they believe or practice.

            So I understand that Harris and Dawkins can be accused of buying into a fundamentalist paradigm themselves when trying to deal with religion. But I’m completely against that and certainly don’t do that.

            So if that’s not what you have in mind, why don’t you say what you do have in mind, so I can address it? Or if you want to just let it drop as a vague generality or generalization, that’s fine too.

          • gonzalogandia  December 30, 2012

            Bart, I think I’ve agreed with everything you said until just right now! I think what Dawkins and Harris do is extremely important. The truth is that any other form of religion that is not fundamentalist (“the holy scriptures are literal truth” type of belief), is really not worth saying anything against it. Who really has an issue with Buddhism? Nobody.
            Dawkins and Harris argue that there is something very wrong with actually taking the bible at face value. In “that” case, it becomes extremely dangerous. So it’s easier for these gentlemen to lump all beliefs of religion into one category. Otherwise, it would get very tiresome to define who you’re attacking every time you debate or public speak. In fact, I know for a fact that Sam Harris DOES try to point out who he is addressing most of the time.
            Don’t you think that if fundamentalism didn’t exist, there would be no need to actually really debate it? If everyone took the bible (and other holy books) as largely symbolic, there would be NO need to have conversations. There would be no one trying to ram creationism and “heaven and hell” into little children’s minds, and into society as a whole. It would become basically another ideology of good practices (once you eliminate all the bad ones) to follow.
            Unfortunately, that’s not what we have today. Thank god for people like Dawkins, and Harris…and you!!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 17, 2016

            As a Christian I bristle at the idea of defending the neo-atheists, because they do seem to say no theist can be smart or sane. BUT, they are leading the ideological defense of liberty in the West right now. So while they couldn’t hold their own in a debate on textual or historical criticism, they do make bold distinctions between Christian fundies and Muslim fundies that few have the insight and courage to make.

            After your critique of Harris, you say:

            “But the truth is that most thinking Christians (and probably Jews and Muslims, although I don’t live in those worlds) agree that fundamentalism in their tradition is insanity, and what he attacks is nothing like what they believe or practice.”

            I think this is wrong and exactly why Harris’ work is important. It’s simply not true that most Muslims agree that fundamentalism in their tradition is insanity, and so, what Harris attacks in Islam is very much like what huge numbers of ordinary Muslims believe and practice.

            For example, Pew shows that 86% of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy. What’s more, an NOP poll shows that 78% of BRITISH Muslims believe the Danish cartoonists should be prosecuted. We already see the cultural surrender in America. We need only look at the American free press censoring cartoons on CNN, Comedy Central, Borders books, etc. We’re not dealing with the fringe, and if we are, why are we treating the fringe as if it were the majority?

            I talk to Muslim Reformers and they can’t believe western liberals are ignoring them and siding with the illiberal mainstream of Islam. If we don’t acknowledge Islam has a unique need for Reformation, then we marginalize the brave Muslim Reformers as being unnecessary and paranoid. Harris is right that the biggest threat to Western liberty is that western “liberals” are determined to defend the most illiberal ideology the world has ever known, while labeling those who defend liberty as “Islamophobes.” That’s how I see it at least. I felt compelled to defend Harris on this one.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 18, 2016

            I”m not sure how many Muslims you actually know — but I would recommend it!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 18, 2016

            In your erudite circles (I mean that with zero disrespect) I can see how there are few problems that arise due to Islam (and because many Muslims like to twist your work in order to promote their claims about the Quran). But I’d be willing to bet if you were—let’s say—a political cartoonist for a major newspaper, who heavily relied on his first amendment rights, you’d quickly notice Islam’s unique need for a Reformation in the West.

            Try it! Draw cartoons of Moses, Jesus, Joseph Smith, Buddha, and Muhammad. I think you know what would happen. It’s not for nothing that Comedy Central forces South Park to censor images of Muhammad, and of Muhammad only. In the United States; in 2016? Such capitulation seems unfitting for a nation with a Bill of Rights like ours. Any American Muslim worth knowing will agree.

            Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains it well in five minutes: https://youtu.be/5AkAGc5nOXw

          • Bart
            Bart  October 19, 2016

            Most Muslims are peaceful and loving people. Really — you should get to know some. It would probably change your views.

          • TWood
            TWood  October 19, 2016

            This is the last I’ll post on this thread—and feel free to not approve it if you think it’s too long (which it is). I just want to fully explain myself because it seems like you’re seeing my comments in a different light than the one I’m shining on them.

            I appreciate your defending people, but I do know some Muslims whom I consider friends. I am having one on my podcast who’s from Egypt next week. He agrees with me on this. I get the sense that you think I’m being bigoted against people. I don’t believe that to be the case. I think it’s possible to separate people and ideas. I do NOT hate the people, yet I do hate censorship in America. I think all Americans should.

            I also have a close friend who’s a Roman Catholic (and he’s from Argentina no less), so this pope is a big deal to him and especially to his family. But I tell him openly that I despise the Vatican and the pope because it/he claims authority over Christians that prevents them from critically thinking for themselves (they aren’t allowed to believe 2 Peter is pseudepigrapha for example). BUT my friend never takes it personally because I don’t mean it personally. It’s like business. It’s nothing personal. It’s just religion.

            I want to make it clear that I’m not for any kind of laws or discrimination against Muslims as people. But freedom of religion includes freely speaking for AND AGAINST religious ideas. I consider religious ideas that directly cause demonstrable censorship in the American free press to be bad. I don’t see how pointing that out is wrong. I also don’t see how giving a voice to the Muslim Reformers who want to Reform their religion is wrong.

            I think if you look at the evidence I gave for why Islam is problematic in the West, you will not be able to disagree with such evidence. It seems your issue is that you think I’m calling for some kind of persecution of Muslims as people. I have no doubt some are doing that, but it’s not coming from people like me. I’m just defending the principle of free speech in American culture. I study this subject quite a lot, and I’ve got all kinds of evidence that shows free speech needs to be defended (kind of like the free speech movement at Berkeley of the 1960s—I wasn’t born then, but I’ve studied it).

            BUT, last thing I’ll say. I don’t believe that the primary problem is with Islam in America. Muslims are maybe 3% of Americans right now. The problem is the timidness of non-Muslim Americans who treat Islam differently than any other ideology/religion. What is that called, the bigotry of low expectations?

            This is why Comedy Central/South Park will draw Jesus but they won’t draw Muhammad (this literally illustrates my point). I’m for treating Islam like I’d treat any set of bad ideas. I don’t see how it gets special rights not to be criticised in the United States of all places. If you don’t see that as surrendering our free speech to Islam, then we’re just not seeing it the same way I guess. I will not South Park does see it as a surrender, and they’re not happy with Comedy Central because of it. This really isn’t too hard of a case to make.

            You don’t know me outside of the guy who asks you too many questions, but if you did, you’d know attack the bad ideas of my fellow Christians harder than I do the bad ideas of Islam. I think it’s easy to conflate people and ideologies, but that’s not always necessary (sometimes it is, like in the case of ISIS terrorists).

            Believe me, if Christians were causing people to be afraid of drawing cartoons of Jesus, I’d be all over trying to fix that problem too. For now, I’m focused on getting Christians to see the earth is 4.6 billion years old rather than 6-10k years old, that there’s no boat on that Turkish mountain, and that humans evolved and migrated out of Africa some 150k years ago. Christianity is to be blamed for its mainstream bad ideas also.

            You get accused of being anti-Christian all the time. But I don’t see you that way at all. I think in the same way you might think people like me are anti-Muslim. Yes, I’m against the worst ideas of Islam that happen to be mainstream. But that does not mean I hate Muslims as people.

            Okay, that’s it. I have a feeling that if you responded you’d say “get to know some Muslims” again!

          • TWood
            TWood  October 19, 2016

            Her colleagues were killed at Charlie Hebdo. She deserves to be heard (she lives in hiding to this day). It’s 4 minutes.


    • Peter  December 28, 2012

      With respect, it’s that kind of comment that makes me usually run a mile from discussions on the Internet.
      Thankfully, this site has largely remained free of such.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

        Well, don’t run too far. Most of this site has nothing to do with my personal feelings about religion….

        • Peter  December 28, 2012


          I wasn’t commenting on your post; I enjoyed it. I was commenting on the comment about your being a “recovering ex-fundamentalist”.

          Sorry for the confusion. 🙂

    • donmax  December 28, 2012

      The handle you’ve chosen goes far beyond Just Sayin’ something. Instead of offering reasonable insights and suggestions, it reeks of insults. Why? I suggest you examine your own background and motives rather than spewing out cheap shots like the one above. It’s unbecoming even if you are anonymous. D.C. Smith

      • Just Sayin'  December 28, 2012

        You object to me expressing an opinion you don’t agree with, while expressing your own. Interestingly, Prof. Ehrman’s reply was far more constructive and not ad hominen. I think a scholar of his repute can look after himself, don’t you?

        • donmax  December 29, 2012

          No, I don’t object to your having opinions and I agree that Bart’s responses are far superior to mine. It’s just that in this instance I reacted to the tone and the substance of what you had to say in your initial comments of Dec. 27. I still don’t understand your reaction (overreaction?) then or now. And it has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to look after his or herself.

  5. Adam  December 27, 2012

    Crossan doesn’t believe in a personal theisic God but he considers himself a Christian because he continues to embrace the Christian myth (without of course throwing out the “truth” of the other world religions). He said once, “Santa Clause doesn’t exist… get over it…Christmas is still here.” In other words, “God doesn’t exis…get over it…Christianity is still here” Ask Crossan, though he says God exists…if you press him on it he’ll admit that he doesn’t think God (in any sense of the term as referring to a separate reality) really exists, but is an interpretative construct or myth for interpreting or understanding the world in a way that remains (or should become) meaningful and helpful to human beings given our general state which you describe well (not too concerned with others in need…).

  6. tcc  December 27, 2012

    I can definitely empathize with how you felt about God back in ’06–where you really want God to exist (if only because you want to stay a Christian), but you recognize that there’s just too much evil in the World for you to revere this God in any way. He’d be a do nothing king.

    On your point about religious charity: even with the charitable donations, I think secular morals are superior to religious morals for one reason–religions have had to enlighten themselves to fit in with secular society, and not the other way around. The Bible–love it or hate it–says we can keep slaves, the New Testament is covered in anti-Jewish rhetoric and seems gleeful about the end of the world, and if we lived by the Old Testament we’d have a stoning every 5 seconds.

    Just imagine a society that lives strictly by The Bible or The Quran, then compare it to a society that lives by the ideals of Lucretius, Spinoza, Tom Paine and Voltaire. It’s no contest.

  7. Mikail78  December 27, 2012

    I think as people in general, we’re probably naturally selfish and have to give ourselves a kick in the ass to care about others. I know I do. As for the giving to charity of believers versus nonbelievers, I’ll say this. I suspect that most theologically conservative, church-going Christians give the majority of their money to their church. After all, the clergy encourages them to do this. Although it’s not written in the Bible, when I was a believer, it was just an unwritten rule that your main priority in giving is to your local church. Other charities are secondary. I think this is pretty messed up, but that’s not my point. My main point is that if theologically conservative church going Christians are giving mainly to their local church, then they are not giving to real charity. They’re giving to the religious-industrial-business complex, which is kept alive by promoting lies and putting the sheep on guilt trips for not doing enough….among other things.

    • Yentyl  December 28, 2012

      Giving to “the church” doesn’t mean they suck it all up into their coffers and bask in it. Giving to the church now days is the “safe” way to help the charities, missions, ministries as they have a way to check these places out and make sure it’s going to places that actually use them for the poor, sick, unchurched. We give to our church and list which charities through them we want to give to, such as the mission, because the mission is directly connected with the police department and the social services to investigate people who come through their doors and make sure these people aren’t users, of charity that is. There are some kind that go from town to town staying at missions and then move on when their allotted time is up, etc. A lot of them have schooling, farms for the homeless to work at while being housed and educated, venues for getting them into college and training, etc. So don’t just think when you plunk that 10% into the offering plate that the “church” is having a party. BTW, how do we know to give at least 10%? Tithe, maaser and asar in Hebrew means 10. Then there are the “offerings.”

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

        Good point! Thanks for making it. (And yes, ancient Israelites gave a lot more than 10%; and they didn’t pay other taxes, unless under foreign rule.)

      • Mikail78  December 29, 2012

        Yentyl, If your church is doing good things with the money, that’s great, but that hasn’t been my experience. I think I’ve read from conservative Christian sources (George Barna is one of them) that a good chunk of the money goes to administration, staff salary etc. and very little to actual charity. This is in most cases, and this has certainly been my experience. Many times when one gives to the church, they are just keeping an institution/business alive. Again, my experience has been pretty consistent with what sources like Barna report. Your experience may be different, and if your church is one of the few churches that is actually helping people and not just keeping an institution alive, then I salute you. As fo the tithe, my understanding is not too different from what you are communicating. To make it simple, my understanding was that the tithe was the old covenant rule. Now, under the new covenant, we are free to give as much as our conscience allows or as much as we are able. This is oversimplifying it, but you probably get my point.

        I must object to one point you made though. Since when is giving to the church necessarily the “safe” thing to do? We hear about churches involved in corruption all the time. In fact I witnessed it when I was in the church. Why should we trust a church to do the right things with our money? If this is the way you think, why trust a church to use your money appropriately? Why not think for yourself and do your own research on what charities will use your money in the best possible way? Why rely on a church/business to do this for you?

  8. mister.friendly  December 27, 2012


    Seems a little black and white to me. I live in a small English town (’bout 9000 folk) and we have about 9 churches. Many good folk hang out in those churches – many hippocrites too (I *know* them)

    We have about the same number of pubs. Many with heavy drinkers but also many thoughful folk discussing all kinds of philosophies and ideas.

    I prefer the pubs to the churches. Others the opposite but I can’t see one camp as being more/less materialistic/philanthropic tahn the other.

    My two penny worth

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Not sure I see the black and white; I’m talking about issues *deep* between the extremes….

  9. natashka  December 27, 2012

    Much needed transition sometimes creeps forward at a glacial pace.
    But the age of reason planted the seeds that the good values you speak of need not be linked to a man-made religion or myths and a truer belief system is emerging. You are so right—the time is ripe now for humanist/secularists to get to work building even more groups to help others, and community centers to build love and fellowship among all…without the psychological/emotional/mental fee charged by religion. That price is too high. (You have started this in your own way, with your proceeds from this site going to help others and that is a great example.)
    An agnostic friend of mine told me the other day that she intends to take her young son to church “for the community” aspect of it, even though he will be exposed to ideas and beliefs she thinks are non-truths.
    “There’s nothing else around that I can find that brings kids and families together,” she complained. But we can—and will–create them.
    The slightly wistful way you talk about missing how you once felt and experienced in church is similar to the sentiments of someone who divorced a spouse they once dearly loved and wrapped their life around. You know for sure they are not for you anymore, that the relationship was unhealthy… but one can’t help glancing at the old wedding photos once in a while and feeling the tug of the love moments that were real. But, as you said in your other post, you take the love part with you. Without the trappings.

  10. lbehrendt  December 28, 2012

    Bart, I think what you’ve written here should be expanded into a book. It is moving and touching.

    I am paraphrasing Rabbi Arthur Green here — I witnessed a conversation he had at my synagogue with about a dozen people, including a couple of devout atheists. He told the atheists two things: (1) the God that they didn’t believe in, he (Rabbi Green) didn’t believe in either, and (2) perhaps instead of asking if we believe in God, we might ask instead whether what we believe in might be God. I don’t know if these statements are original to Rabbi Green.

    What I’d like to read in your book is your examination of the content of your belief. For example: why do you believe in giving charity? If you think that there’s nothing more important than relieving human suffering … why do you believe that? It’s possible that you believe in charity as a matter of enlightened self-interest, in which case, are you essentially like the pub-goers, only you’re seeking your self-interest in (perhaps) a smarter way than they do? Or do you see charity as a moral imperative, and if so, why do you think so?

    It is not my goal to talk you back into belief in God. The God you stopped believing in, I don’t believe in that God either. I think you are an atheist for good reasons — at least, I respect those reasons. But clearly, you believe in SOMETHING that you saw more clearly in church than in a pub. What is it?

  11. Yentyl  December 28, 2012

    The goal of the study of Kabbalah is to unlearn “the will to receive for our sakes alone,” but to receive to give, not expecting anything in return. When the vessels were shattered when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they lost this ability. Our whole lives should be spent giving for the sake of giving itself. It sometimes takes a lifetime to rid ourselves of ego and some of us never even try. The study of Kabbalah will open our eyes to what’s going on. But be careful to choose a teacher that is authentic, not the Hollywood type guru, like one popular one in LA. Here’s one web site that seems authentic. There are many. The best thing to do is find a synagogue with a Rabbi that teaches it. I study with a friend.


    1. Sharing: Sharing is the purpose of life and the only way to truly receive fulfillment. When individuals share, they connect to the force of energy that Kabbalah calls the Light—the Infinite Source of Goodness, the Divine Force, the Creator. By sharing, one can overcome ego—the force of negativity.
    2. Awareness and Balance of the Ego: The ego is a voice inside that directs people to be selfish, narrow-minded, limited, addicted, hurtful, irresponsible, negative, angry, and hateful. The ego is a main source of problems because it allows us to believe that others are separate from us. It is the opposite of sharing and humility. The ego also has a positive side, as it motivates one to take action. It is up to each individual to choose whether they act for themselves or whether to also act in the well-being of others. It is important to be aware of one’s ego and to balance the positives and negatives.
    3. Existence of Spiritual Laws: There are spiritual laws in the universe that affect people’s lives. One of these is the Law of Cause and Effect: What one puts out is what one get back, or what we sow is what we reap.
    4. We Are All One: Every human being has within him- or herself a spark of the Creator that binds each and every person into one totality. This understanding informs us of the spiritual precept that every human being must be treated with dignity at all times, under any circumstances. Individually, everyone is responsible for war and poverty in all parts of the world and individuals can’t enjoy true and lasting fulfillment as long as others are suffering.
    5. Leaving Our Comfort Zone Can Create Miracles: Becoming uncomfortable for the sake of helping others taps us into a spiritual dimension that ultimately brings Light and positivity to our lives.

  12. Carolyn  December 28, 2012

    Bart you might be intersted in reading that in Islington, UK, some atheists are starting a “church”. I think their idea is to enjoy the things people had liked about church, but without religion. Im trying to recall the article I read, but I think they wanted to meet monthly, have an interesting guest speaker, communal singing and socialness/community.

  13. andymhallman  December 28, 2012

    I’ve had the same experience, Bart. Are there any Unitarian Universalist fellowships in Durham?

    The reason I ask is because the UU fellowship (at least the one I attended in Ames, Iowa), embraces the values you described but is also welcoming to non-believers. It is cosmetically like a church in every way except what is uttered from the pulpit.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Yup, I’m familiar with UU and there are good ones in my area. I’m not actually looking for a community; I’m complaining that secularists are so far out on the margins that no one takes them seriously as a force for good in the world…..

  14. LKlaskow  December 28, 2012

    Personally, I thought God’s problem was well done. What gets me is the dynamic of doubt (as related by Tillich) that fundamentalists will not even allow themselves to ponder. My view clearly is that religion is man made and I try to be tolerant but it is hard some times –very hard

  15. Glen Moody  December 28, 2012

    This is a good example of why Machen said that Christianity and liberalism are two different constructs and world views. You can still be a liberal, Bart, without being a Christian.

  16. Wendy  December 28, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,
    My main impression from this post is that you wish the world had more self-sacrificing and less self-absorbed people inhabiting it. Regardless of their faith, or lack of it. That when you were a man of faith, that you thought people should be about caring for one another above all, and even though you are now Agnostic, that wish is still present.

    I think people who care take action to make things better, and those who don’t, don’t. Whatever their faith, or lack thereof.

    I remember in the New Testament, the admonition to do your good deeds in secret rather than making a show of it. Do you think it’s possible that it only seems like people involve themselves less in good deeds because, faithful or faithless, they feel that an act of kindness is more genuine if it isn’t done to be recorded on the righteous radar? Maybe they don’t want to be a show off about the good they do? Maybe they don’t want or need the pat on the back, a handshake photo op for the local news? Maybe there are more people out there, doing good off the radar, with no expectation than the satisfaction of doing what was needed when the opportunity came their way? Working for public good: animal shelters, Children’s Advocacy Centers, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, etc. I would like to think so.

    This may not have been what you were saying, but I know that caring compassion, mercy, kindness, love, giving…all of these things transcend religion.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Yes, I agree. On not “showing your righteousness,” I’m not sure; I know religious people like that and secular people like that….

  17. maxhirez  December 28, 2012

    “Why aren’t their humanist and secularist societies that band together in fellowship with commitments to love others and do good to those in need and to live for the greater things in live, societies as highly visible as the church (at least as the church used to be)?”

    Local public radio just did a series on being an atheist/agnostic in Iowa and they addressed a group trying to do this, and what they said was that nonbelievers were uncomfortable with the “societies” aspect (ie, that an atheist church was still a church.) I think in the end it doesn’t matter that our charity is not as visible (should we blow trumpets?) or organized. What matters is each separate individual act of kindness, no matter who it is by or for.

    Glad to hear you went to the service without the anger. Was it aesthetically pleasing? Could you at least enjoy the service for ennui?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Yes, it was fairly pleasing aesthetically, but it could have been much better in my opinion (they didn’t really go for the aesthetics. Too bad….)

  18. Austin  December 28, 2012


    Loved the article, it was very interesting to me, especially as a student at UNC who is also a Christian. And while I read the article, I couldn’t but wonder if you have ever been to Summit Church, because I bet you would find it intellectually stimulating as well as socially different from the traditional church structure, background, and demographic that typically characterizes American Christianity. In regards for your concern for the community, it has been amazing to see the whole city of Durham respond to the generosity and involvement of this church, which–you will observe in the theology they espouse–is not motivated by the hope for reward or favor in return, but is motivated by the fact they believe they already have favor in God’s eyes, being clothed in Christ’s righteousness. In other words, they act not to gain anything; rather, they believe they have already gained everything in Christ, and that reality compels their actions. It seems backwards from traditional Christianity. (Not trying to preach, I know you were ordained and know your stuff ha). But in terms of seeing how this church’s theology directly plays out in tangible expressions of that theology in the community–which is reflecting grace to others because they have found grace promised through Christ–seems to suggest a motive to complete the social work you desire to see happen. I see this particularly in the Summit Church–their theology matches their community involvement. They are not two exclusive entities, but one and the same. I would just encourage you to check it, just to observe if anything. I think you would find it interesting in many respects.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Yes, I do know about the Summit church. But I have to say, I would mix in there like oil with water!!

      • J.D. Greear  December 31, 2012


        Considering all the things you could have said there, that (i.e. “I would fit in there like oil in water”) was rather gracious.

        While we disagree on some of the most basic issues of worldview and theology, we are grateful for the service you give to our community and for your continual admonitions to remember the poor.

        Much in your journey, such as your questions, and even your feelings of rage against God, I resonate with, very personally, as have many of the greatest saints in history, including some of the Bible’s own writers (Psalm 131; Psalm 73, etc). Furthermore, there are many things in your writings I have found helpful if for no other reason than that it moved me to delve more deeply into the resurrection of Christ and to stare with a greater sense of wonder at things like the incarnation. Clearly we disagree on the relevance, interpretation, and even accuracy of some of the data, but I have found you to be (in your writings and talks) a helpful dialogue partner.

        I hope some day we can share a cup of coffee. I would like to know you personally.

        J.D. Greear, pastor, the Summit Church

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 1, 2013

          Thanks! Glad to know of kind hearted Christians out there. 🙂 (you wouldn’t *believe* some of the mail I get….)

          • J.D. Greear  January 4, 2013

            Haha. Maybe if we get together we can compare nasty emails. I have a bulging file full of them I’m saving as a keepsake for my kids. Kidding about that last part.

            Sending you a follow up email to see if we can work out a cup of coffee sometime.

  19. Dan  December 28, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability about where you are with religion. I think you’re right about the way things ought to be, but I’m not sure your schema is consistent without holding the belief in the existence of some judging God that defines and imposes moral values upon his creatures.

    What I mean is that if there is no God, then what grounds can you provide for saying that people ought to adopt your preference for morality? If there is no God, it seems like people can behave as they wish, and you or me have no authority to say anything about it. What gives you the right to say that people in your city ought to behave one way rather than another? Without the existence of a God who defines right and wrong, the values you speak of are nothing more than personal preferences and tastes. You choosing altruism over egoism is like me choosing chocolate over vanilla. You may disagree with me over tastes, but you have no grounds to say I ought to choose vanilla over chocolate. I like chocolate and that’s the way it is and that’s the way I will live. Isn’t it narrow-minded and egotistical to say that your city ought to adopt love-your-neighbor-as-yourself-ethics over, say, exploit-your-neighbor-at-all-cost-ethics? Aren’t you simply playing god by choosing what morality you like most and saying that everybody ought to adapt to fit your view of things?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      I really don’t buy either the ideas that
      (a) God provides a clear basis for morality: if so, why are conservative Christians consistently against abortion and liberal Christians in favor of allowing abortion? You can pick lots of issues — and that’s just among Christians [imagine what happens when you bring in the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on!!] — and see different alignments. God obviously doesn’t provide the answers;
      (b) Without God there is no basis for morality: there are lots and lots of reasons to be moral whether or not God exists. Maybe I’ll post on this some time, but I think this is really wrong. I feel strongly about it because when I *did* believe in God I was afraid to disbelieve because I thought there would be no basis for me to live ethically, no moral compass. As it turns out, I was completely WRONG! For me that’s like saying that believers who think God created humans male and female for the purpose of propagation have a clear cut reason to have sex, but non-believers who do not think that have no reason to have sex. 🙂

    • Mikail78  December 29, 2012

      Dan, you are implying that God is the source of morality. Which God? The God of the Bible? If that is the God you are talking about, how can you say he is the author of morality when he blesses all kinds of immoral things, such as the slaughter of children and genocide? Are you saying these things are right if your God says they are?

      • Dan  January 1, 2013

        Good question Mikail. What I am saying is that without the existence of God there is no such thing as morality! If Joe loves slavery, and he kidnaps and enslaves people, you might say to him, “you ought not do that!” But Joe would look at you and say, “why?” Why should Joe bow down to your authority? Kidnapping and slavery make him happy. Who are you to get in the way of his happiness?

        The Christian answer for Joe is that every human being is created in God’s image and therefore ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Humans have what we call “rights.” These rights are real. When you kidnap and enslave a human being, you are destroying God’s image, God’s glory. Therefore Joe ought not to use and harm people like you ought not to smash my car. It’s my property and therefore, I have a right to its utility.

        If God does not exist, what right to you have to tell somebody they ought to abstain from their own happiness in order to create a world you wish to see? You know, don’t you, you know deep down that the Nazis acted wrongly. They believed that they were doing a service to humanity. But we all know that atrocities like genocide that you mentioned are evil, don’t we? Don’t we say that the Nazis were wrong no matter what they thought about it? Don’t you really know inside that human beings have a right to not be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered? If you believe that, then you have to ask the question, “where do rights come from?” You can’t say nature or evolution because the concept of human rights utterly contradicts the principles of darwinism. In nature, the strong eat the weak. Would you say it is morally wrong for the strong spider to eat the weak gnat? Of course you wouldn’t! On Dr. Ehrman’s view (materialism), we are only tissues and cells in motion. But if that is the case, where do rights come from!? It can’t be from evolution because evolution and nature display the complete opposite of preservation of human rights. Human rights say that the weak ought to be treated with dignity and protection against the majority strong. Evolution says the majority strong eats the weak and thereby progresses and adapts the species.

        So if you are going to believe in morality, the existence of human rights–the right of a newborn child to not be burned and tortured, the right of human beings to not be owned and kidnapped, the right of a woman to not be raped and beaten, or in Dr. Ehrman’s example, the right of the poor to share in the prosperity of the wealthy–if these rights really exist, where in the world do they come from if we humans are really cosmic tissue and cells in motion?

        The existence of human rights–the idea that you know you deserve to be treated with dignity just because you are human–is a clue that there is a divine arbitrator, a divine judge who has put his mark of dignity on us. The atheist seems to have two choices–either admit that there is no such thing as human rights and morality, that moral values like “don’t torture a baby” are simply agreed upon but have no real significant difference than my preference for pizza or ice cream or sushi over say dog food–or to supply a better explanation for why Joe ought to starve his happiness so you can live in the world you want to live in than the existence of God.

        I’d love to hear your better explanation.


        • Mikail78  January 1, 2013

          Dan, the fact that you totally ignored my questions and used this as an opportunity to give your sales pitch on how your god is the author of absolute morality shows that you have no real interest in a rational conversation and are only interested in using this forum as way to evangelize and proselytize. This is NOT the purpose of Bart’s blog. People like you are the reason I’m glad that there is a fee for membership here….because it weeds out evangelists like you who are just here to troll (evangelize). I was an evangelical/fundamentalist believer for just over a decade. Bart, too, was an evangelical/fundamentalist believer for a long time. Are you really that naive to think that we haven’t heard this spiel before?!?!?!!?

          I never said that “God” doesn’t exist, or that there isn’t absolute morality…so nice straw man there. Since you believe “God” is the author of absolute morality, which God are you taling about? The God of the Bible? Do you believe the God of the Bible is the author of absolute morality? If you do, then you must believe that there are times when genocide, slaughter of babies and small children, stoning rebellious children, making women marry their rapist, killing homosexuals, and adults having sexual relations with children (numbers 31) and other morally wrong activities are morally permissible Why? Because, you have made it obvious that you believe the God of the Bible and the Bible are the source of absolute morality… and the Bible, in various places says these immoral actions are right. Your God, who you believe is the author of absolute morality, condones and blesses these immoral things. So, it is YOU who is the situational ethicist. It is YOU who is the moral relativist. Why? It’s because you can’t say things like genocide are always wrong, because your God says there are times when it can be right.

          So, yes, I believe in absolute morality, and I think there are a variety of possible sources for this absolute morality….including the existence of some kind of higher power. Whatever the source of absolute morality is, your specific Bible god is most definitely NOT the source of absolute morality considering he himself violates standards of absolute morality.

          So, to sum it up. As Bart said, it’s becoming obvious that either one of us is not going to convert the other. You made this obvious by not answering my questions and proceeding on to your evangelistic spiel. Go troll someplace else.

          • Mikail78  January 1, 2013

            To Bart and everyone else here on this blog, I’m sorry if I sound like an a-hole, but I have little patience for people who give the impression that they want to have a constructive conversation, but then reveal that their true agenda is to engage in evangelism. In my opinion, this is what “Dan” did when he flat out ignored my questions to him and proceded on to his spiel. Dan’s behavior here is a good example of one of the main reasons why I detest the entire industry of Christian apologetics. If anything I said was out of line, I apologize.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2013

            OK, as I just said in reference to your other post, it’s all at an end now in any event!

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2013

            OK, guys — you’ve both made some terrifically interesting and important points. But I’m afraid I need to draw this back and forth to an end now. Thanks for your input. And may you both be converted!

    • Dan  December 29, 2012

      Good point Dr. Ehrman, but I’m not sure your arguments address my objection. Perhaps I didn’t articulate it clearly for which I apologize.

      For point b), I totally agree that there are lots and lots of reasons why somebody might choose to behave in any particular way. But b) why is anybody under obligation to adopt the behavior you deem moral? Why are the rich in Durham obligated (i.e, “ought”) to share with the poor? To make a moral assertion like “The rich in Durham ought not hoard their resources,” you are practically saying, “I see the whole picture of what is right and wrong, and the rich are behaving wrongly.” So by telling people how they ought to behave, you are assuming that you are able to see the whole moral picture. I think Christians are actually more humble in making claims about morality than an unbeliever. They admit that they do not have the whole moral picture but that a God has revealed it. But claims like you have made assume that you can see the whole moral pie and possess in yourself the authority to tell people which slice they are right to eat. It seems like your only out against this objection would be to say that there is no authoritative moral law that all people ought to follow. But if this is true, then to say, “you ought to give to the poor” is no morally different than saying “you ought to tie your shoes.” You can tell somebody that they ought to not stomp on your toes, but you can’t get mad at him for doing it. You are just an obstacle in their biologically determined course of behavior. And if that’s the case, you certainly can’t get mad at God for all the evil in the world–it’s simply the result of darwinian progress.

      And a) If an all-powerful God is an unreliable source of morality, how much more unreliable is any human being like you or me? How sure can you be that reason or pleasure or experience is a reliable moral guide? Are you not exercising as much faith as a believer in God?

      In summary:
      a) You are trusting in your senses, experience, reason, intuition, and feelings as your moral compass. How can you be sure they are a reliable guide to morality? You are standing on faith (not science or evidence) just like believers in God.
      b) You are trusting your own viewpoint of morality and claim to have a whole picture of the moral pie. This is both a faith commitment and more of a narrow-minded claim than saying, “I don’t know what is right and wrong, but there is a God who has made it clear to everybody.”

  20. Billypaul49  December 28, 2012

    Thanks for Christmas Longings. One of your best blogs yet. I know that you miss that loving side of the church but I don’t think that you have to have been a liberal Christian to feel that way. I feel all those things and I never been a believer. I disagree that ‘Gods Problem’ was your worst book. You haven’t written your worst book yet. Just promise me that you won’t go back to the church – no matter how liberal it is. If you think you might flip back – call me first. I’ll try to talk you down over a glass of good scotch.

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