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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  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.”

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

        Somehow I don’t think either of us is going to convert the other! 🙂

        • Dan  January 1, 2013

          May be true, but you’re not arguing with my logic!! 🙂

  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.

  21. Charles Leonard  December 28, 2012

    You might like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held every Christmas Eve at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. I’ve attended every year for the past 20 years. I can provide details if you’re interested.

  22. Christian  December 28, 2012

    I am not an American, so please excuse my ignorance, but would you really qualify the society you live in as “secular”? Seen from Europe, America sounds very religious, at every corner. As far as I understand it, and as indicated by polls, the American society is pervaded by religious beliefs. That would explain simply why many charities are religious in your country: sheer numbers. I think that charities are a way to cope with lack of justice. Instead, people should require the state, representing the nation, to act on poverty, to be just. But perhaps people want to feel better about themselves by giving to the poor directly, and would feel bad to give the same amount in taxes?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      Yes, from an outside perspective, America as a whole may seem very religious. But there are clear and pronounced pockets of secularists within it.

  23. oatz01  December 28, 2012

    You might like this TED Talk on ‘Atheism 2.0’. Basically it’s the idea of stealing the best parts of religion for the secular world.

  24. Xeronimo74  December 28, 2012

    I get what you mean, I think … But isn’t it also because you/we compare the best of ‘them’ with the worst of ‘us’?
    I mean, there are a lot of non-drunk non-Christians too on Christmas! Just as there are drunk Christians on Christmas. Or hateful Christians that want to restrict other decent people’s liberties etc.

    I wish though there were more intelligent, nice, caring and compassionate people out there, religious or non-religious!

    As for caring/compassionate people: isn’t it that maybe they tend to be attracted more by religion or find an easy framework there to do good? So correlation is not always cause? It’s not because they’re religious that they’re good or compassionate. It’s rather the other way around (for them; other good and compassionate people find other ways than religion).

    As for the allure of the Jesus’ story, isn’t that because we all tend to root for the underdog? The guy from the slums making it to the top etc? Although that ‘underdog’ argument implodes, imo, in Jesus’ case if he was anything MORE than a human!

    I also think that one of the disadvantages of secularism/humanism at this moment is that it doesn’t have a real moral and social framework that people could use as a reference or guide. And people LOVE to have that! Hence the continuing attraction of religion: there people get their black and white answers to their questions and worries! That’s also the problem with movements to eradicate religion: you can’t just say ‘Stop doing X’, you also have to offer an alternative instead! Otherwise most people will stay with X.

    Anyway, just rambling …

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      No, I’m really not comparing the really good Christians to the really awful atheists! But thanks for the ramble!

  25. Bernd  December 28, 2012

    Dear Prof. Ehrman,

    do you have a (good !) study that shows that religious people (want to) give more that non-religious people?

    I could imagine, that if you are in church and a bucket goes from person to person that you are more likely to give money because of the pressure of other people looking at you. Also, I could imagine that some people give money away because they fear hell and want to make points in front of god.

    All these things change the behaviour of giving money of people, but does it change how caring and empathic those people really are? So a study, if it is a good one, should somehow cancel such effects out. May be one should then interview only people who do not often go to church and do not believe in hell and compare those with non-believers.

    I would bet that the degree of how caring and empathic one is for other people is independent of a belief in a deity (without dogmas).
    I also simply cannot believe. I have never believed in a God.
    But i think non-religious people could learn much more from religious ones.
    F.e. there are no atheist churches. How about meeting every sunday in a big room and having a lecture
    on the moral life, on things that people concern, something to pause. May be a moral philosopher could do such a lecture. Then one could also use the bucket. What do you think of that?

    By the way I love you lectures and your books prof. Ehrman.
    By the evidence I know from you, I am no mythicist. I think there was a historical Jesus.
    Carrier was on the unbelievable show with a prof. of Duke. This might interest you.

    Many greetings and a happy new year to you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 28, 2012

      I suppose the most controversial book is Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares? If someone knows a good refultation of it, I’d be interested in knowing!

  26. Trevor  December 28, 2012

    This is beautiful.

  27. Matt Ackerman  December 28, 2012

    Pejorative comments always seem to come from anonymous sources. I am an ex-fundamentalist and don’t think there is anything wrong with using past convictions as a source for intellectual progress as Just Sayin implies, I think. Having officially and recently deconverted from “the faith” at the age of 25, this Christmas was different from any other and I really appreciated the last couple posts. Thanks Professor Ehrman!

  28. DarylIverson  December 28, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I still believe Yeshua is the promised Anointed One of YHWH (who does exist); however, I completely understand your points of view and don’t disagree with most of them. I plan to read your subsequent posts along this thread and comment further afterwards.

    Thanks again,


  29. Norm McBride  December 29, 2012

    At the risk of being too simplistic I think it is a matter of perspective, not religion. The Bible describes a War that involves us, and started by Lucifer. It is about God and His character and whether his form of government is trustworthy. It involves the whole universe. A third of the holy angels believed Lucifer and were cast out with him to this little planet. The reason, I think, that God doesn’t intervene more in our suffering is that He must let the war play out to its natural conclusion. All the angels are watching, (and I believe they were convinced at the cross when God let His son be killed by angry devil possessed sinners), possibly other unfallen worlds are watching as well and I believe everyone has to make up their own mind about God and then He can say “It is finished”, and end the war, for good. Something to think about. God bless.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

      Actually, I think you’re describing Milton’s Paradise Lost more than the Bible!

  30. Questions  December 29, 2012

    First off, i’m surprised no had mentioned it, but I just wanted to remind the readers that the shooting was in CT, not MA. Being from CT, it really hit home and makes one wonder about where God was and why he didn’t do anything. But God has been strategically removed from our society for decades, slowly and surely. Suing to get rid of a manger scene and other such occurences are taking place over the entire country. I believe it is silly and arrogant to say “Where was God?” when the American population is so set on removing him from our country. Piers Morgan even said he think the Bible should “be ammended” in order to condone homosexuality. To say where was God and not want him here is like an overweight person throwing out all of their junk food then when he has a craving, says, “Where is my ice cream?” It’s just a strange notion to me.

    Next, would you not agree that in order for there to be light there has to be darkness? Of course, solely light can exist, but we would not know it as light – it would have no special meaning to us if there was no darkness – it would simply exist. I took an anthropology course this semester by Dr. Evens (ANTH 146) in which he made the case that every individual is made up of two components – self and other. I am not at all claiming to be an expert in the field, but I believe I have a strong grasp on the concept. Dr. Evens’ point was that man is made up of “self” and “other”, one man thinks with and the other man thinks about (within himself). Essentially, this is arguing that if nothing besides a single human being existed, she would not be able to differentiate herself from anything else. She would have no sense of self because there is nothing to compare it with. The point being, you need one end to have another. I think it is indisputable that the world is not completely evil, there is also good in this world. If there is an evil as heinous as murdering 20 children in cold blood, there must be an opposite good which is just as good as the degree of evil that exists in the evil crime. What would you argue gives a rational human being there sense of good and bad? There is an undeniably innate human reaction to evil crimes that one sees, so where does this moral code come from? I think this is a fairly strong case for God, but am very interested in your response.

    All the best and Happy Holiday, sir!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2012

      Thanks to you and to the others that pointed it out. Yes, my very big mistake, CT not MA. Many apologies.

      On the other point, yes, I can see that there must be darkness for there to be light. And I think if everyone had just my share of darkness, that I could accept the fact that it’s necessary in order for the light to shine. But I flat out refuse to believe that a child has to starve to death every eight seconds in our world so that I can enjoy that filet mignon I’m about to have for dinner. The dark is incommensurate with the light, in my opinion. (And I get *very* nervous when people — I konw you’re not doing this, but others do — talk about how the suffeirng of *others* has benefits for *us*! I had a radio debate with Richard Swinburne, the Oxford philosopher, who tried this one on me, trying to say that we can explain the Holocaust because it has helped make us all more noble. Good God. How heartless and self-absorbed can a person be??? I about blew a gasket. Haven’t been that angry on the air probably *ever*….)

      • Wendy  December 30, 2012

        Dr. Ehrman,


        Do you remember when the little girl, Shasta Groene,was saved after she was spotted in Denny’s with her abductor in 2005, after he had killed her entire family and the brother with whom she was abducted? It is a horrific case, and as we all know, there are so many of those.

        In Sunday School, just after that happened, back when I still went to church and tried to believe, we were doing a Bible Study which heavily leaned on that premise (sickening to me) that “Everything happens for a [divinely intentioned] reason.” A woman present asserted that this event had happened for a reason: to teach children about stranger danger. !!! I nearly vomited. I was shaking. No one called her on it, That was the last day I attended that church.

        One of the aspects that began my journey out that door was the church’s determined stance to make a tragedy somehow worth it because we learned a lesson from it (at the innocent victim’s horrific expense) or as evidence that we have turned our backs on God. Oh Sinners, Repent! And God will turn away from his wrath…So Big God takes revenge on little children worldwide (or any age group for that matter…) because we didn’t worship him properly? Really? That is so pathetic an idea it actually hurts. That a ‘God’ could do such a twisted, sadistic thing and even be worthy of our worship?

        And I have seen those upsetting posts that supposedly the violence such as in Sandy Hook happened because God has not been allowed in the schools. There have been a lot of shootings in churches. Where God has a front-row seat of honor. What sense does that make then? God is allowed there – supposedly lives there – and it still happens. Isn’t he Omni-present anyway? Supposedly? I remember being taught that one in church as well, but it seems it is only as valid as it is useful to the point at hand. Selective Doctrine.

        So I identify with what you said about the Holocaust idea. People can be cruel and do horrible things. It’s as simple (and tragic) as that to me. To try to make it somehow falling on the side of good? [Shudder, shudder, shudder]

        Thank you.

  31. RonaldTaska  December 29, 2012

    Isn’t this the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson reached with his “Jefferson Bible”? Thanks so much for sharing this. Church people are always the first to respond during disasters. So, it’s a mixed bag. Christianity provides comfort to many and makes many better people than they would be without it, but it also results in much harm including the abuse of women, the abuse of gays, the abuse of critical thinkers like yourself, the abuse of teachers of evolution, and even complete disasters like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Maybe a more inclusive approach, like that of the Unitarians, makes some sense. I still doubt that all of this complex world could just come from nothing. So, deism with seeing Jesus as an important teacher, may be reasonable.

    I recently read, online, a Christian Post Opinion article by Jerry Newcombe. He gives the usual criticisms of your Newsweek article that people usually give (and I hate these unfair criticisms) on the Internet, namely that you have an “agenda” and are “biased” (you seem anything but “biased” to me). Unlike most such critics, however, he also includes a couple of historical arguments as follows:
    1. There really is evidence of a historical census close to the time of the birth of Jesus. Newcombe states that, after Caesar Augustus died, two bronze plaques were erected at Caesar’s Rome mausoleum describing 36 of Caesar’s accomplishments and accomplishment #8 is that Caesar took a census of the Roman empire 3 times. Then, Richard Bucher, on the “Our Redeemer Lutheran Church” website adds that the dates of these censuses occurred in 28 B.C., 8 B.C. (with it taking awhile, namely years, to complete), and 14 A.D. Bucher also states that there is a translation problem with the Gospel of Luke about the Quirinius issue and that the correct translation should read “before” rather than “when” Quirinius was governor solving the “Quirinius could not have been governor when Herod was alive” discrepancy in Luke’s Gospel. I also found these three census descriptions listed as # 8 on “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” website.
    2. Then, Newcombe states that it was the practice, when writing a woman’s genealogy, in the first century, to list her husband’s name rather than her name thus explaining the name of Joseph rather than the name of Mary in Luke’s genealogy of Mary.

    Do these two criticisms have any historical validity? I still don’t think that such a census seems very likely to have occurred because of communication and transportation problems and I have no clue about who was doing genealogies during the first century much less how they did them. Please clarify if you can. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 30, 2012

      I think he’s making all that up. There is no record of a census of the entire Roman empire from any reliable source. No historian of Rome thinks that hte Res Gestae is a reliable source. But even if it was, it wouldn’t matter. Read it more carefully: this was (allegedly) a census of Roman citizens. The vast majority of people in the Roman Empire were not citizens. Rural Jewish peasants from Galilee were *certainly* not citizens! This is not a disputed point.

      His explanation of the Greek about Quirinius (Luke 1:2) is just wrong. Does he know Greek? It is a present active participle which indicates action occuring at the same time (not prior to) the main verb.

      On the “practice” of how to do a woman’s genealogy: he’s must inventing that. Does he have examples of it? I’d love to know them.

      Obviously he has to make things up to make the passage “work” since it otherwise contradicts what is otherwise known historically. But you would think he would be so shameless about it!

      • bobnaumann  December 31, 2012

        At the time it was believed that the womb was merely an incubater for the male seed and therefore the female did not contribute genetically to the offspring. Hence, a genealogy could not have been traced through a woman.

  32. donmax  December 29, 2012


  33. keith colter  December 30, 2012

    I too spent some time over the holidays attending church with some of my Christian friends, right here in Durham. I even went to a Bible study group’s Christmas party (a formal dinner) where I felt a little guilty enjoying the delicious food, as I was the only non-believer attending. I thought later that it was silly to feel guilty as I didn’t come under any pretense and besides everyone had apparently been fore-warned about me ….as one one delightful elderly lady that I had been chatting with said, when she realized who I was…..”Oh….I’ve heard about you!” I wonder if she had ever spoken with a real live atheist before…..or had only seen them in the zoo? I felt decidedly like a specimen for a few minutes there.

    In any regard I have also thought a lot about the dichotomy between secular and religious charity and agree there is no better time to reflect on Christian good works than at Christmas time. But I am still absolutely convinced that there is never a Christian who gives of his or her time, money or emotions who doesn’t do it on a strictly calculating basis, although that calculation may be so deeply ingrained in the religious training of the individual that they would deny any such motive. To me though, they appear so completely selfish in every charitable thing they do. Whatever they give is always a partial payment on their ultimate entrance fee to Paradise and I have yet to hear a Christian say, ” You know I don’t really believe in all this malarkey but I like to help people because it makes me feel good.” That answer is the secular explanation for charity, giving is rewarding because it reinforces our belief in the basic goodness of our fellow humankind and we do it because we get an emotional high from it. When the recipient of the food basket or warm coat or the child with a new toy, breaks into a happy smile and gives you a sincere and heart-felt thank you, you in turn feel good for making them feel good and the essential human bond is strengthened. That is as good as charity can be, when it is given without any expectation of a return on investment in an imaginary afterlife or any subtle (or direct) suggestion that the recipient change his religious ideas. Do Christians give gift baskets to Hindus and then encourage them to have a good time worshiping Lord Shiva in the New Year? Absolutely not! There is not a single Christian who performs a charitable act that doesn’t come with two sets of strings attached: the first (always unspoken) that registers a heavenly reward for the giver and a second (often insinuated or implied, “Hope we see you in church…”) that nudges the recipient toward accepting Christian beliefs. All charity is actually a form of proselytizing for Christians and all good works are building blocks in the selfish elevation of the practical Christian towards a heavenly reward.

    It is only the completely free, secular and rational humanist who gives out of the goodness of his heart with absolutely no expectation of any reward (except perhaps better conduct among humans someday in the future) who practices actual charity. All religionists have a built in bias first toward their own success and then to the success of their system of belief. When Jesus was at the Temple and saw the widow who gave a mite ( the smallest denomination coin in Ancient Palestine) because she was so poor, he praised her to the Disciples and correctly so. Her gift showed more faith than the gift of the rich man who could afford to give as much as he pleased. But if Jesus had seen a Greek philosopher, maybe a travelling Cynic come by and throw a decent sized coin in the charity pot what would he have said then?


    “Here is the greatest man of all, because he doth not believe in God, yet still gives to help the needy, expecting no reward in this life or the next.”

    Probably not… but all modern Christians can be identified as essentially selfish although they have buried their striving under so many layers of piety that they would never think of themselves as greedy or self-serving or anything but kind and well-meaning all through the Christmas holiday.

    Thanks for reading and a tardy…. but still Merry… Christmas to all! KC

  34. samchahal  December 30, 2012

    Great post Bart! I often do wonder the same things about why it is that atheist/agnostics dont “seem” to offer similar moral support to fellow humans , I think mainly its beacuse religion has had a much bigger nad longer part to play in the history of mankind and has evolved in it its moral grounds/practices over time.

    We , agnostics/atheists need to get more involved with each other and to join togther to make more sense of this world and to offer the “gospel of humanity” and “the good news” that we are all one species and that we need to help each other and try to stop being so selfish (even though we are a selfish species with a programmed genome to act that way!)

    keep up the good work!

    ps loved your explanation of xmas crackers btw , are they just over here in the uk?? wow , strange , i thought they were worldwide and I have would have most certainly imagined them to be in America! guess i was wrong , lol!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 30, 2012

      I don’t know where else crackers reside, but they’re definitely not an American tradition. And it was not easy to describe them!!

      • samchahal  December 31, 2012

        ha! i know but you did great… and i learnt something too that they may be unique to the UK , having been born and bred in England I should have known that but oh well!

  35. RonaldTaska  December 31, 2012

    Your point that Jewish peasants would not be taking part in a census of Roman citizens is quite helpful. I also doubted that there was any evidence that genealogies of women were done using the name of their husband and wanted some examples that this was a common practice. Thanks.

  36. Diana  January 6, 2013

    I have heard your name before, Dr. Ehrman, but never read anything of yours until I found this blog. I have been moving away from the church – I no longer feel I can call myself a Christian – and I feel quite alone in my beliefs (or my questions.)

    Anyway – one of the reasons I joined Rotary International (rotary.org) in the last year is because it DOES a lot of good, internationally, without religious overtones. “Service Above Self” is the motto – for me that group meets some of what I WAS missing from church, the camaraderie combined with service. It might be a worthwhile organization for others to explore.

  37. revneil  January 8, 2013

    Thank you for this post: as a working pastoral minister, it is good to reaffirm that the Christmas-cycle of worship generates all manner of reflection in folk–to those conducting, it can just seem like a whirl, at times.
    Your comments brought this to mind, William Warburton, Bishop of Glocester, ca, 1760’s: “The church, like the ark of Noah, is worth saving; not for the sake of the unclean beasts and vermin that almost filled it, and probably made most noise and clamour in it, but for the little corner of rationality, that was as much distressed by the stink within as the tempest without.”
    To find even that little corner in a Church is startling–by all accounts, it should not be there. But, as you deftly point-out, it is, and we do not yet have a full and sufficient accounting for that fact. Facts being relatively rare in faith-matters, I take the time to wonder about them.

  38. webattorney  January 27, 2014

    I like certain things about the church (I don’t like many things), but I know that doesn’t make me a Christian. However, I do have a problem because my spouse is a Christian, so I attend Church service regularly and try to find something I can use. My spouse somehow thinks I will convert from being an agnostic to a Christian before I die. I don’t think so, but I have a great deal of sympathy for Christians.

  39. John4
    John4  October 1, 2015

    “Why aren’t [there] non-religious social institutions on every street corner (with or without steeples) that embrace these values?”

    Yeah, when I was in high school, I went down and joined the local Unitarian church. I liked church, but I didn’t believe any of the supernatural stuff. I didn’t have to believe *anything* to be a Unitarian. I thought that would solve my “like church but don’t believe” problem.

    The Unitarians were good to me. I stayed with ’em six years and even taught a middle school Sunday school class for ’em one year when I was in college. But, in the end, I concluded that the Unitarian church really didn’t do for me whatever undefinable thing it was that a regular church did for me. So, when my first child was born, I swallowed my misgivings regarding my lack of faith and went back to the Presbyterians. And, I’ve been pretty happy with them for thirty something years now.

    My conclusion has been that, for reasons I don’t understand, you gotta have the mythical stuff (and people who believe the mythical stuff) to make this sort of “social institution” work. Well, at least to make it work for me.

    And, as for the pub goers, I gave up drinking entirely, finally, five years ago and haven’t regretted a day of it.

    Thanks so much for your good work, Bart. 🙂

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