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The Giving Season


The season of giving has come upon us!   I have to admit, even though I am not a Christian, I absolutely love the Christmas season.   I know there are a lot of things wrong with Christianity, just as there are with every religion.   The harm, the evil, done in the name of Christ is enough to make my skin crawl.  But at the same time, there is a lot of good, and I see no reason to deny it.   At its very best, Christianity is all about giving:  God giving his son, his son giving himself, his followers giving themselves to one another, and even to strangers in need — giving of themselves and their worldly goods for the sake of  others.    This is the part of Christianity – which I consider to be true Christianity at its heart – that I completely resonate with and cherish, even though I no longer consider myself to be among the faithful…..

The Christmas season is a giving season.  I completely detest the crass materialism.  But the real message of giving doesn’t have to be about Black Fridays (and now Black Thanksgivings….), piles of useless *stuff*, greedy hoarding.  It can be about thoughtful gifts to people we love – especially family – to show that we care for them, we think about them, we want what’s best for them, we are wanting to bond with them.

In my undergraduate class yesterday – the last class of the semester – we had a very interesting talk about why I believe (or disbelieve) what I do; it ended up being a discussion of why we should value the things that we do, why we as humans should be interested in helping others in need, why we should behave morally and lovingly, fighting oppression, working for justice, giving to those who are in dire circumstances, suffering from hunger and homelessness or meaninglessness and despair.  A lot of my students – maybe most of them – had trouble understanding why I would bother to try to be a good person or to help others in need if there was no God ordering me to do so.   In their view, if there is no objective standard by which to judge our actions – no God giving us directions concerning right and wrong – then it must be a free-for-all and we should/could simply live out our selfish lives anyway we want — the rest of the world be damned.

When I was a Christian, that’s more or less what I thought as well.  In fact, that was one of the main reasons I was afraid to *stop* being a Christian, because I thought that once I did, I would lose my moral compass and have nothing to guide my actions, and it would lead to a profligate, hedonistic, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic life.   I was completely wrong.   In class yesterday I tried – not every well, I’m afraid – to explain to my students that there is no need for some kind of “objective” standard or reality out there to provide us guidance for how to live.  We’re humans, and we’re wired as humans, and it’s part of being human to feel love an sympathy for those in need.  If I had been a bit quicker (I wasn’t prepared for the direction of this final conversation on our final day) I would have talked at some length about evolutionary psychology and about why it is that we – many / most? of us – are wired this way.  But in my view, we are.

We as humans very much want to live happy, productive, fulfilling, and useful lives.   And we do – we simply do – feel pangs of conscience and even wrenching pain when we know that others are suffering and yet we do nothing about it.  It’s not hard to figure out on evolutionary terms why were are this way.  If we weren’t, we never would have survived as a species.  But even if we take a step back and think about our evolved sense of wanting to be happy and wanting others to be happy as well, it is easy to see that this sense is a very good thing indeed.   This is one evolutionary impulse we should give in to.

So, it is the season that celebrates this very fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.  I hope all of you can be in a giving mood this season, whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a pagan, an agnostic, an atheist, or, well, just a human.   There are, obviously, lots and lots of ways to give – not just getting everything on everyone’s Christmas list.   If you do feel so inclined, please do give to a charity of your choice.   It’s a great thing to do and if you’re like me, you’ll feel very good about it and about yourself doing so.   Of special relevance to this blog, if you make a donation here, every penny will go to help those in need, to charities that fight hunger and homelessness.   I would personally appreciate it very much indeed, and will in response send many happy thoughts your direction, my gift to you…..


Video: Ehrman & Evans 2012 Debate – Part 2
The Gospel of Peter in a Papyrus Fragment?



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    jebib  December 4, 2013

    I’m sold. Donation sent. thanks!

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    eppic  December 4, 2013

    Although I don’t comment very often on this blog, I do read your posts and find them insightful and thought provoking. Your books have provided excellent food for thought and have been instrumental in helping me through my own journey out of evangelical Christianity and into a Deistic worldview. For these reasons and others I decided to send a donation to your foundation as a way of thanks for all your hard work, but of course also to give something to those who are less fortunate than we are.

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    maxhirez  December 4, 2013

    The thing that strikes me about being an ex-Christian is that now I know that the good I do for others is because I have some kernel of decency inside me and not because I’m trying to bank “Jesus Dollars” up in a Heaven Safe.

    I’m fascinated by what you said here about the best of Christianity/true Christianity-can you really draw a direct line from the apocalyptic message of Jesus/early Christianity to the modern ostensible altruism that sells the religion?

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    judaswasjames  December 4, 2013

    I give you my book on the true interpretation of the New Testament. Seriously. It’s free. Took three years of hard work to write. Just browse the excerpts at my website, and send me an email at AOL. It’s done. Merry Christmas. It’s the best gift you could receive, and I mean that.

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    Alfred  December 4, 2013

    I agree with you about evolutionary psychology: on the whole we are nice to each other, and get pleasure from it because it builds a societal unit capable of raising our young. On the other hand, it is apparent that people can do things to each other that we generally agree are bad. However, the observational evidence seems to be that religion is not particularly good at restricting these tendencies. But – and here’s the hopeful bit – secular and democratic societies (both seem to be needed) seem to be quite good at avoiding these evils. For example, no democracies have yet gone to war with each other. And Bart I agree with you about giving and Christianity: all religions have good things about them, and the Christmas story as culturally transmitted is a great inspiration. I still sometimes get called on to reach Dickens on Christmas Eve! And thanks Bart for making my year more interesting! Best present ever.

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    Christian  December 4, 2013

    After reading the opinion of your students, I feel sad and concerned. How self-righteous can these Christians get? How dangerous would they get if they lost their faith? What part of the Golden Rule (found across all cultures in the world) they don’t understand? Don’t they know about morals in billions of persons identifying with non-Abrahamanic (including pre-Christian) religions or existential philosophies?

    By the way, isn’t Christmas mainly about receiving (Jesus), not giving (gifts)? Seriously.

  7. Robertus
    Robertus  December 4, 2013

    “… This is the part of Christianity – which I consider to be true Christianity at its heart – that I completely resonate with and cherish, even though I no longer consider myself to be among the faithful…..”

    Why let fundamentalists define the true heart of Christianity? If you are right about what you consider to be the fundamental truth of Christianity, and I for one think you are, and you believe that, why not consider yourself to be a Christian believer? All of the mythological stuff about God is, at best, merely evocative, symbolic, metaphorical language about this deeper truth that we cannot fully comprehend with our partially evolved brains. Even a traditional theologian like St Thomas Aquinas would have to agree that all thinking and talking about God is merely analogical. He believed that Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite was actually a convert of Paul and is one of his most frequently quoted authorities. My favorite quote of Psuedo-Dionysius: It is more true to say that God does not exist than to say that he exists.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

      I have no problem with that in theory. It’s just that I don’t believe in being a solepcist when it comes to religion (since I don’t see the point). And yes, Pseudo-Dionysius was pretty amazing….

      • Robertus
        Robertus  December 5, 2013

        I don’t think it’s solipsism. Truth be told, I think there are an awful lot of us who believe in a nonmythological nonmiraculous Christianity.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 5, 2013

          Yes, I don’t have a problem with that. I just don’t like to define a religion the way I personally want to and then say I adhere to it. But it’s true, sometimes I think of myself as a Christian atheist.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  December 14, 2013

            I am a Christian atheist too, but I’m not a very good atheist because I can’t keep myself from lapsing into frequent strange feelings of inexcusable belief in a transcendent and especially immanent mystery of love and respect that keeps me humble and feeling close to God, a God I don’t know very well but meet often in others. Yes, I’m weird, I know.

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          willow  December 10, 2013

          Robertus, I am one of them, and I deeply suspect that Jesus was too.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  December 14, 2013

            Nice to meet you, willow! Have a merry Christmas, everyone!

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    mister.friendly  December 4, 2013

    Thanks for this Bart…

    Here in the UK on the TV this evening there was a report about the situation in the Central African Republic where there is conflict – with a religious foundation – that is tearing that country apart. We saw a young boy – perhaps 5 years old – who was orphaned within these last several weeks. He fought back his tears as he told the cameras he didn’t know what would become of him.

    There is much bad in the world, often caused by those who claim a sanctified position because of their religion.
    Yes there is much that is good about the Christian religion and I, like you, appreciate Xmas. On balance however, I have to say, the world would be better off without organised religion.

    Never mind. Call me Ebeneezer. I’ve enjoyed travelling with you this year. Best wishes to you and yours

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    Wilusa  December 5, 2013

    I support you wholeheartedly (just donated). But personally, I don’t see Chrstmas the way you do. I’m more inclined to think of “giving” when we hear of terrible calamities, like the typhoon that struck the Phillippines. When I think of Christmas (no reason not to call it that, since my calling today “Thursday” doesn’t imply belief in the god Thor), I’m really thinking of the winter solstice – the beautiful symbolism, faith that light will always triumph over darkness, because (at least in the literal sense involving the length of days) it always has.

    But even though I’m an agnostic, I’m really offended by things I’ve heard on TV recently. There are plenty of secular holiday songs that can be used in commercials. But some company (I can’t remember what one) has a commercial jingle using the tune of “Do you see what I see?” Using those opening words, too, with everything that follows referring to their product or products. And the ASPCA’s obnoxiously cloying pitch for aid to needy cats and dogs is now accompanied by “Silent Night” – all the original words to that! I think hymns should be respected, and not misused. (They’re an aspect of the holiday I love, despite not believing the underlying doctrines.)

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    jmorgan  December 8, 2013

    “In their view, if there is no objective standard by which to judge our actions – no God giving us directions concerning right and wrong…”

    If anyone believes either that (1) there is no objective standard to judge our actions or (2) one needs religion or God to establish an objective standard of morality, I highly suggest he read “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, the book will probably change your mind.

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    kwdaniels  December 11, 2013

    Added to my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WhyIBelieved:

    The best I can do at this point to make up for my long stretch of online inactivity is to refer you all to a great resource on early Christianity I’ve been enjoying for the past year or so: Bart D. Ehrman’s blog. He tirelessly posts quality, interesting articles six days a week. I look forward to catching up with is blog every day, and bit by bit, I’ve found my knowledge of the New Testament and its background grow. He also engages with his readers, so if you have burning questions and want thoughtful, respectful answers from one of the world’s leading NT scholars, look no further! The catch? If you want to read beyond a teaser paragraph or two each day, it’ll cost you $25 a year to become a full member. But wait! There’s more! Bart donates 100% of the member fees to charity, to helping the homeless in the Raleigh-Durham, NC area. So you get to enjoy an intellectual feast while providing physical food and shelter to those in need, all for only $25 a year! Since you can’t read a full post without becoming a member, I’ll whet your appetite by pointing you to a recent post where he links to a debate on the reliability of the Gospels with evangelical scholar Craig Evans at https://ehrmanblog.org/video-ehrman-evans-2012-debate/. I also enjoyed his debate on theodicy (suffering and the goodness/omnipotence of God) with Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Isg6Kx-3xdI. Are you weary of mean-spirited invective in the religion wars? Ehrman is the consummate gentleman, even while pulling no punches.

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    fmurphy925  December 19, 2013

    Dr Ehrman,
    Regarding your discussion with your undergrads about moral behavior absent a supreme being (God or whatever), I refer you to an excellent book recently published by A.C. Graying called “The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism.” If you are already familiar with Mr. Grayling’s book, so be it. If not, I recommend it, at least the portion where he lays out a very cogent argument for moral behavior without God being in the equation. He even touches on the evolutionary evidence to support his argument. Enjoy the holidays–giving and receiving gifts.

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    RonaldTaska  December 21, 2013

    I think I am in the “just a human” category which sounds better than the “none” religious category even if “none” is pronounced with two syllables.

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    RonaldTaska  December 21, 2013

    Well, there are many difficulties with Christianity, which you understand far better than I, but you still seem to be a Christian, both in heart and in action, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. It seems to me that Christianity has more to do with actions than with having the correct beliefs.

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