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The Religion of a Sixteen-Year Old. Most-Commented Blog Post: #5

April 26, 2022

We are counting down the TOP TEN commented posts in our TEN year venture on the blog.  We’ve had a range of topics so far, and here now is Post #5, with 207 comments.




The Religion of a Sixteen-Year-Old

June 1, 2014

I just got home from spending a week in Lawrence Kansas, my home town.   As I’ve done now for years, I took my mom fishing in the Ozarks for a few days.  She’s 87, and on a walker, but still able to reel them in!

I go back to Lawrence probably three or four times a year, and each time it is like going down memory lane.  I left there to go to Moody Bible Institute in 1973, when I was all of 17 years old; I still called it home for years, but never lived there full time, not even in the summers usually.  I was married and very much on my own only four years later.  So my memories of the place are entirely of childhood through high school.   I can’t help reflecting on this, that, and the other thing in my past as I drive around town, remembering doing this thing here, that thing there, and so on.

This time, for some reason, there was an unusually high concentration of “religious” recollections, of my different religious experiences in one place or another.   As I’ve said a number of times, I had a born-again experience in high school, when I “asked Jesus into my heart.”  I must have been 15 at the time. The odd thing was that I was already a committed church person before that – for my entire life, in fact.  I was an acolyte in the Episcopal church from junior high onwards, every week praying to God, confessing my sins, thinking about the salvation brought by Christ, and so on.   So looking back, it’s hard to know what really I was thinking when I finally “became a  Christian.”  What exactly was I before?

But what really struck me this time around, in particular, was this.   Most of my family and friends who also became evangelical Christians – at least the ones who have stayed that way – are, naturally, upset and confused about why I left the faith.   In their view, the faith I had when I was 16 was the “truth,” and now I have gone over to the way of “error.”  I should stress that my mom and I never talk about such things – we both know it would do no good and that we would just both get upset.  So instead we talk about basketball, and family, and fishing, and lots of other things – but not religion.  Still, I know that she, like the others I knew way back then, think that I used to be right; that I made a terrible mistake when I became a “liberal” Christian in my late-20s; and that I really went off the deep end when I became an agnostic.

But here is what struck me.   About what other form of knowledge or belief would we say that it is better that we should think the way we did when we were 16 than the way we think now?

Would we say that our understanding of science was better then?  Our understanding of biology or physics or astronomy?   Were our views in 1972 better than our views now?   Or how about politics?  Or philosophy?  Would we be better off thinking what we did when we were 16?   Or what about our views of sexual relations?  Or literature?  Or economic investments?  Or … Or anything else?

Isn’t it very strange indeed that so many people of faith – not all of them, of course; and arguably not even most of them; but certainly some of them; in fact a *lot* of them in evangelical circles – think that even though they are supposed to grow, and mature, and develop new ideas, and chart new territories, and acquire new knowledge, and change their understandings  as they get older in every *other* aspect of their lives, they are supposed to hold on to pretty much the SAME religious views that were satisfying to them as a sixteen year old?

That is one of the things that I find most puzzling and dissatisfying and frustrating about many of the good, concerned, committed evangelical Christians who contact me via email or in person (say, at one of my talks): the views they put forth, in trying to “win me over,” are views that are at the intellectual and spiritual level of sophistication of a 16 year old.  They may be successful businessmen, or teachers, or investors, or … name your profession.  And in other parts of their lives they may have considerable maturity and sophistication.  But when it comes to religious belief, they are still back where they were in 1972.   There’s something wrong about that….

I should emphasize that there are lots (and lots) of theologians who are serious scholars, some of them quite brilliant.  They obviously do not work with a 16-year-old’s view of religion.  They are philosophically astute and intellectually impressive, people like Rowan Williams, Herbert McCabe, Fergus Kerr, and Stanley Hauerwas (they are not all like each other, either).   I have no argument with them.  My argument is with the intelligent Christian people who check their intelligence at the door when they enter the church, who think that it makes sense to have a sophisticated view of the world when it comes to their investments, their business practices, their politics, their medical preferences – but not when it comes to their religion.


Update, April 2022.  My mom just turned 95, and is in a facility in Kent Ohio, near my brother.  She still has her own apartment (independent living, with a lot of hel), and can walk up and down the halls with her walker.  Amazing!

2022-04-17T20:09:50-04:00April 26th, 2022|Public Forum|

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  1. JAS April 26, 2022 at 8:00 am

    Very little of what I thought at 16 is worth remembering.

  2. TomTerrific April 26, 2022 at 8:29 am


  3. Seeker1952 April 26, 2022 at 10:08 am

    I was raised Catholic in the 50s and 60s, went to Catholic schools, etc. While I was in elementary school I went to mass every day (including Saturdays, holidays, and summers) even though it wasn’t required. It’s hard to remember why but I think, when I made my first communion at 7, the good sisters strongly recommended daily communion as one of the best ways (though not a guarantee) to stay out of hell.

    Looking back on it though I’m not sure how much of Christianity I actually “believed”. I accepted it and was sincerely devout but mostly it was concern about obeying authority and doing the morally right thing. The one thing I think I truly did believe in was the love commandment/golden rule, itself a matter of morality. And, now that I think of it, I must have believed that hell existed—which is probably the biggest reason I was so concerned to obey authority and act morally.

    My question is whether you, at that age, actually believed Christianity, intellectually, or was it largely a concern to do what was morally right? And what role did any belief in hell play in your belief and morality?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:33 pm

      I’d say for me as a boy it was all of the above. I thought it was right (I didn’t know the word “intellectually” yet), tthat it was moral, and that it was important for when I died not to go to hell.

    • Tomaha April 30, 2022 at 9:00 pm

      Hello, Seeker1952, you are not alone. I am “Seeker1949”. The Catholic church of today is a mere shadow of the pre-Vatican 2 era. My wife and children will never understand, for lack of a kinder word, the “brain washing” that was the normal day to day life of Catholic school kids back then. Everyday started with a magic ritual done in a foreign language with a man in weird costumes ringing bells and spraying us with holy water, taking great care to wash golden dishes. He holds up a white disc and everyone beats their chest, saying “Lord, I am not worthy…” Haunting organ music for background themes. Black robed stern intimidating women as caretakers watching our every move, telling us death entailed not only ceasing of existence but ETERNAL torture if we died with a “mortal sin” on our souls, and “many are called but few are chosen.” Doubt was the work of the devil. Your Protestant friends were going to hell. Christ crucified stared at you from every wall. Of course you “believed,” this was what your whole family, and all the above mentioned adults believed. These were the “facts” of your everyday existence. The “Truth”.

  4. blclaassen April 26, 2022 at 10:21 am

    Bart, this is a page right out of my early life. Same situation, same wonderment about clinging to nearly infantile beliefs in religion but significantly advancing in all other areas of life and learning. My parents, both gone now, were disappointed but accepting and seeing the childlike attitudes of my three siblings still – even in their 60’s and 70’s – is a remarkable testimony to the power of childhood indoctrination. Have you ever delved into the social/psychological aspects of retaining religious ideals into adulthood even when all other aspects of life evolve?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:34 pm

      I”ve never written about it but I’ve thought about it a lot. I”m amazed how many of my friends when I was 17 still hold the same beliefs even though so much else has changed for them.

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:34 pm

      I”ve never written about it but I’ve thought about it a lot. I”m amazed how many of my friends when I was 17 still hold the same beliefs even though so much else has changed for them.

  5. jayakron April 26, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    I also got the religion bug when I was in my mid-teens.

    It was a non-Christian fringe religion. Up to my mid-20s, I was utterly convinced it was the absolute truth. Then I learned more about its founder and its history. At first, I dismissed these “negative” points as the criticisms of benighted minds. They couldn’t discern the Bigger Picture that clearly showed that religion was truth.

    After that stage, I had a major break where I realized that the religion I’d so been in love with was indeed a fraud. With the advent of Usenet discussion forums, I brought my wealth of critical info to current believers. confident they would surely come around to my opinion of this religion once they’d been presented with facts.

    Surprise! None of them were in the least impressed with what I presented them. Some of them eventually did come around, but it took years. Until then they were vociferously adamant that all my criticisms of the religion were absolutely wrong and I was a lost soul. It’s funny how people’s beliefs can endure, or perhaps one day pop like a balloon.

  6. RM April 26, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    If youtube is any guide, it seems the evangelicals really have it out for you. Going through the comments they have random frothing out of the blue hatred of Islam and Muslims(like really random even in contexts when we have nothing to do with the subject at hand) but you and the catholics get a lot too. Maybe that was the one part of their lives that was supposed to remain static, so the other parts could change. A lot of people (myself included) need a layer of stability based on certain knowledge.

    One thing that struck me is the good mythical morning pair (very popular youtube content creators) both had long standing doubts about Christianity and cited you as one of the aids on their journey out. It was a number of things including evolution and gay rights but I think he mentioned misquoting Jesus. So you’ve opened up the space for a lot of apostates to see things they were blind to before and I think this has their friends and family members very bitter at you.

  7. HollyJune56 April 26, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    Bart, I’m so happy to hear that your mother is still with us!

  8. RonaldTaska April 26, 2022 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the update about your mother.

  9. BritniPepper April 26, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    I’m unsure about your penultimate sentence updating your mother. You have omitted a letter there and I assume it is “p”.

    I spent my own teenage years in what might be described as a cult. At some point it is necessary to move on and find one’s own point of comfort and acceptance. Props to those who find that zone early and never leave – life is about happiness, after all, and there is much to be said for living amongst friends all sharing the same views – but for me the accepted path always fell short of completion.


  10. ChronoJesus April 26, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    Prof Ehrman, in Genesis 18:1-3 the passage seems to point to God being a trinity. How do Jews usually interpret this passage, and how do you interpret this passage?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:42 pm

      Not just Jews but historical scholars of the Bible do not think this is talking about a trinity, let along “the” trinity of later Christian understanding. It is the angel of the Lord and two other angels.

  11. dellajo April 26, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    God bless your wonderful mother.

  12. Seeker1952 April 26, 2022 at 8:16 pm

    In my earlier comment about growing up Catholic in the 50s and 60s, my point is that I “believed” in Catholic Christianity because i thought it would be morally wrong-and eternally catastrophic-to not believe. Even though I “accepted” that Christianity is true, it wasn’t really an intellectual belief about what exists in reality. That just wasn’t an issue. I believed in Christianity because it was the right thing to do. More than anything I believed in Christian morality and the consequences of following or not following it.

    But I suppose all that still implies that I intellectually believed that at least God, the incarnation, heaven, hell, and God-authored morality existed in reality. I think I got to the point where the only thing I was truly concerned about on a day-to-day basis was trying to love my neighbor as myself. I figured that if I did that everything else would be moot.

    Is that similar to why you believed in some form of Christianity at the age of say 15?

  13. HawksJ April 26, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    I wish you still had reason to come back once in a while. My wife is involved with the Lawrence Schools Foundation, and they have an annual fundraising breakfast featuring a now famous (to varying degrees, of course) alum of the school district. You would be fantastic as the guest-of-honor!

    Speaking of your former and present lives, I thought about you during the National Championship game. I’ve always wondered, have you ever talked to Roy Williams about where you grew up and how you share some divided loyalties?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:44 pm

      They inducted me into the Lawrence High School Hall of Honors some years ago! My picture is hangin’ up there somewhere. But no, I’ve never met Roy. I did send my NT textbook to Dean Smith when it first came out, and he wrote me to say how much he enjoyed it. But I foolishly threw away the note!

  14. holdco April 26, 2022 at 11:13 pm

    Dr. Ehrman:

    In your debate with Mike Licona, he mentioned that Paul’s secretary Tertius composed Romans, and that its literary quality is much better than Paul’s other letters. You strongly disagreed, saying that you didn’t want to get into whose Greek is better (probably because of time constraints!). Can you elaborate on this issue? Why do you disagree?

    Relatedly, can you elaborate on the issue of Cicero’s secretary Tiro, and the story of how Cicero said that he can’t compose without Tiro, which you don’t believe is true?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:48 pm

      Romans is a very different letter than the other six, carefully constructed so Paul can lay out a detailed theological argument. The Greek is not massively different, at all — not at all like, say, the difference between Paul and Ephesians. And of course every letter is different in ways stylistically. But the basic Pauline style is absolutely there in Romans. I’m not sure what Mike’s even thinking of.
      Tiro took dictation from Cicero nearly all the time. We have a few references in Cicero to him having Tiro write something for him, but it was always a basic short form letter sort of thing, a brief one pager. It was NOTHING like a detailed philosophical or theological essay such as the “letters” of the New Testament. I deal with the matter in my book Forged and at greater length in Forgery and Counterfortery. We have no analogy to what Mike is suggesting any where in the Greek and Roman worlds.

  15. timcfix April 26, 2022 at 11:42 pm

    If I thought at 16 the way I do now I would have come out of the wood shed alive.

  16. Ting April 27, 2022 at 12:46 am

    Why is there no audio access? Is it under repair?

    • BDEhrman April 28, 2022 at 5:49 pm

      Sorry, I don’t know what you’re asking. If you’re having a technical problem, click on Help and ask Support.

  17. mini1071 April 27, 2022 at 9:58 am

    1972. Fort Sill Ok. Cold… left Cp Carroll (Quang Tri) late December 71. 101went back to Ft. Campbell. My 2-319 ABNFAR being detached from the 101 after 5 years and deactivated. FO sections sent to Sill to serve out time to release from active duty as safety officers at the Artillery School. Boring. Front end of a long period of practical atheism and agnosticism based solely on yhe fact that it all sounded to pat.

  18. RRomanchek April 27, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    When I was 16 I knew everything but have become more ignorant with age.

  19. FrankLoomer April 27, 2022 at 2:04 pm

    I think the problem with a devout traditional, and current evangelical Christian view is that it is a paired high-level threat and promise, where you are committed to holding fervently to personal salvation because the alternative is total damnation. This can be a very hard thing to break from. This combo has made for a potent glue for most of 2000 years, especially once entire societies have wrapped themselves in it. Just read the NT to find numerous references to this promise/threat. These days many of us would call this fanaticism. Liberal churches have watered that down, maybe way down. ….

  20. joeydag April 28, 2022 at 12:14 am

    I would think there are possibly many forms of belief where one might wish to become as they were at 16. For example, if one were betrayed by someone near and dear, might one not wish they could recover their innocence or envy those who had not had a similar negative experience? If you followed a political thought that led to disaster? If you spent years following a philosophical pursuit and failed to complete the work or found your work was useless?
    I’m sorry that I may sound like a gloomy guy – I’ve had a very pleasant life but I often play a devil’s advocate.

  21. LawrenceG April 29, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    If I may, what are your thoughts on what prevents the growth of a more nuanced understanding of their faith? Is it something unique to certain flavors of Christianity?

    • BDEhrman April 30, 2022 at 1:44 pm

      I don’t think it’s Christianity per se; it’s religion in general. Basic major views about the BIG QUESTIONS, when instilled in childhood, simply continue to allow a person to make sense of the world and it is very difficult to change them.

  22. elizvand May 3, 2022 at 10:33 pm

    Professor Ehrman, I am very interested in your “born again” experience at 15. At 13 I *tried* to become “born again.” I’d gone to an event (sponsored by my public school, and this was in 1969!!!!) that ended in a full-scale “come to Jesus” sermon, assuring us that if we accepted Jesus our lives would be instantly changed, we would immediately feel His loving presence, etc.

    So that evening I fervently “asked Christ to come into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior”.

    And . . . nothing happened.. I felt nothing. No presence of Jesus; no change in my life; no inner peace; nothing. I kept hoping for days, but nothing ever happened.

    Evangelicals have told me that clearly I didn’t REALLY sincerely ask Jesus into my heart. Of course they have to say that, because in their world view, if I’d sincerely asked Him, He would have responded. But I am completely certain, and have been all along, that I was utterly sincere when I asked, and there was no response. From my point of view, of course, that’s because there was no-one there to respond.

    • BDEhrman May 5, 2022 at 3:56 pm

      Oh you certainly did as much as the others did. It’s just some people have a more psychological / emotional experience of it than others. I did, but others don’t.

  23. AQBill May 6, 2022 at 6:31 pm

    Very interesting, Bart. I, too, appreciate that my understanding of “religion” is much improved now than when I was 16, although, all things considered, I was a humanist agnostic then and continue on in this manner now. Of course, since I was raised by a Unitarian-Universalist minister father and mother, I came by that perspective quite naturally.

    I always remember that – at our church, anyway – school children were given Bibles (with our name embossed in gold across the front) when we completed 8th grade. And, then, upon completing High School, we were given copies of “The Religions of Man” by Dr. Huston C. Smith and “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. Both of these classics continue to inform my understanding of “religion” to this day. My favorite college class from my liberal, nominally Lutheran alma mater was “The World’s Religions” and Dr. Smith’s tome was one of our textbooks.

  24. TheologyMaven May 7, 2022 at 4:20 pm

    I know mysticism and born-again ism might be 180 degrees separate on some religious axes, but the question of why some people feel things and others don’t is a mystery. I think of the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, (1500s) and her discussions of basically “keeping at it, some people have visions and ecstasies and others don’t.” I guess the difference may be that with prayer you just keep at it, and other experiences are expected to be more instantaneous. One is more like the Spirit descending, and the other is like plowing the field for the Spirit to sow Her seeds in her own time.

    There is an axis to religious experience that involves similarities between the charismatics and mystics and perhaps born-again experiences. At my theology school, associated with a large private university, we had a very popular class on “personal spiritual experiences” but it was kind of an aberration in otherwise materialistic coursework.

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