11 votes, average: 4.82 out of 511 votes, average: 4.82 out of 511 votes, average: 4.82 out of 511 votes, average: 4.82 out of 511 votes, average: 4.82 out of 5 (11 votes, average: 4.82 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Teaching Religion as an Agnostic

When I finally admitted to myself that I was an agnostic, I had already been teaching New Testament and the history of early Christianity for ten years or so, first at Rutgers in the mid 1980s and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill starting in 1988.   It comes as a surprise to some people when I tell them that my decision to leave the Christian faith made absolutely no difference at all, of any kind, in either what I taught or how I taught it.  I think people find that very strange indeed because they have a rather serious misconception about what it means to teach religious studies in a secular research university.

Many people imagine that teaching religious studies is simply different from teaching anything else.  I think in part that is because they really haven’t given it much thought.  Religion, in this common view, is different from other fields of study and inquiry.  Political science, or history, or literature, or anthropology, or classics, or even philosophy – any of the other topics that in one way or another are related to the reality and effects of religion in the world – all these are imagined somehow has objective realms of study.  You study *about* other cultures, or historical events, or political movements, or philosophical traditions.

But religion, in this view, is different.  Isn’t it?  Isn’t religion …

To Read the Rest of this Post you need to belong to the Blog.  If you don’t belong yet, get with it!  It won’t cost you much, you’ll get tons for your money, and every sweet nickle goes to charity.  So JOIN!!!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

Threads and Comments on the Blog
Was There a “Moment” When I Left the Faith?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  July 23, 2017

    It’s kind of impacting what you’re doing on this blog now.

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 23, 2017

    I don’t know how it is at UNC, but where I live, most professors at the university level are agnostic. That goes for the one where I received my undergrad and the one I teach as an adjunct. (don’t know much about where I earned my master’s) The dynamics among colleagues is totally different at the university compared to the K-12 education sector. In K12, the topic of religion comes up often, and at some point, everyone will know your religious views. It’s all very precarious.

    Teaching is vastly different too. At the university, my supervising professor checks in via email offering assistance. Or, we meet at the pub two blocks away to discuss student progress. It’s okay to have a drink. It’s practically encouraged! The majority of the time I’m on my own, and there’s more trust that I will do my job effectively. In contrast, K12 operates in a frenzied state of paranoia, mania, and suspicion. Meeting at Applebees doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to order an alcoholic beverage. Just play it safe and order a water or diet soda. K12 has got to be the only entity in the world that requires multiple mandatory meetings about data driven research only to turn around and do the exact opposite of what that research tells us.

    I’m sure a lot of it depends on my location in the U.S. I’m not full time faculty at the university, so there’s probably a lot more stressors involved if I was. Still, the atmosphere is much more positive and uplifting at the university level. It’s life and death in K12.

  3. Avatar
    Fishhead  July 23, 2017

    “Religion is something you choose to have and to believe and to practice.” Choose to have and to practice, yes. Choose to believe, not so sure.. We can choose to profess belief, but is belief or non belief in a god really a deliberate decision? I’m doubtful but willing to consider.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I would definitely say yes. You can choose to believe something else, so belief is a choice. Of course, we are all raised to believe one thing or another, but once we are adults we are able to evaluate our beliefs — just like other things (political allegiances, social concerns, and so on — all are “given” to us, but then later we make up our own minds)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 25, 2017

        I disagree. Of course, the *word* “believe” is used in different senses – “I believe” *can* mean simply “I guess.” But when we’re using the term in its most serious sense, what it implies for me is something a person *can’t* choose or not choose to do. You can choose to *act as if* you flat-out believe something – *proceed on the assumption it’s true* – but for me, at least, that isn’t “belief.” “Belief” requires being *utterly convinced*, and a state of utter conviction isn’t a choice.

      • Avatar
        justyn  July 26, 2017

        I really disagree that it is always the case that you can “choose” what to believe.

        If I offered to pay you a lot of money to believe in the Tooth Fairy, and to cause harm to those you care about if you don’t, you might very well *wish* to believe in the Tooth Fairy, but you cannot just choose to (let’s imagine I have you hooked up to a perfect lie detector).

        I do not think that my belief in the non-existance of the Christian God is a choice. It is not something I wanted to happen, it is something that I “realised” against my wishes.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 27, 2017

          Good point. I guess choice maybe isn’t the right way to express it. But “rational conclusion” may be getting closer. At some point, based on what you came to know, you no longer believed what you previously did, and it was a rational exercise based on evidence presented to you (such as your parents telling you they themselves had put the quarter under your pillow; or your seeing them do it; or your just working it out for other reasons).

          • antoinelamond
            antoinelamond  August 2, 2017

            Religion really shows us how complex the mind is in so many ways.

      • Avatar
        Tony  July 26, 2017

        For the vast majority of people religion it is not a choice. They got their religion courtesy of their parents and their religious early environment. As a rule, religion will stick with them for life. Religion is a meme that gets implanted early. It is similar to a physical gene. It is variable, subject to selection, it is self-serving, competes with other religious memes and makes copies of itself to be passed on from generation to generation.

        A small minority of religious people are able to shake it. Some strong religious meme varieties are programmed to kill those who do.

        I’ve found “The God Virus”, by Darrel W. Ray, to be an easy read that explains to concept well.

  4. Rick
    Rick  July 23, 2017

    Ahhh but Professor. Where is the cart and where is the horse? Are not your abilities to teach in a secular manner, as you do, the same abilities ( in some part) needed to consider objectively the issues behind agnosticism vs faith? Ultimately, are both “abilities” not grounded in being able to objectively consider evidence and being skeptical of what someone else is telling you?

    Notionally, I fear there is a large cohort in this Country that either lacks or has no will to consider skepticism…….

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I don’t know what you mean by “objectively.” It’s a word I used to use, but I’ve become very suspicious of it! (The people who claim to be “objective” often make the claim just so you now that what they are claiming is true!) I’m not saying that I don’t think there is an objective reality; I’m saying that I’m not sure how we can approach reality without always being a “subject” doing the looking. That’s why very smart people can be fundamentalists and others atheists.

  5. Avatar
    bamurray  July 23, 2017

    OK, makes sense. But just as a matter of empirical fact, do you think that your religious background gave you any (intellectual) advantages, or disadvantages, in your work over someone who lacked that background?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I’d say it gave me both advantages and disadvantages both. The reason would take a while to explain: maybe I’ll add your question to the Mailbag!

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 23, 2017

    I understand what you’re saying. But I think the reason most people expect an expert on religion to be a believer in that religion is that we don’t expect anyone who isn’t a believer to have that much *interest* in it.

    And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you chose to devote your career to the study of a religion you originally believed in, rather than, say, Islam. I’m sure that isn’t the case with *all* specialists in one religion, but might it be true for the majority?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I guess so. But I don’t know why we don’t expect that. Most of my professional colleagues in my university (and in universities throughout the country) are interested in religion because it’s important, not because they are religious. You can’t understand the geo-political situation of the Middle-East if you know nothing about religion; or the history of the Middle Ages; or the Holocaust; or the conflicts in South Asia; or the history of Western civilization; or … or lots of things that most of us think are important. I think the problem is that people don’t *realize* that religion is not simply something that one person or another happens to believe or practice, but a massively influential set of historical, political, social, cultural, and economic forces.

  7. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 23, 2017

    The belief of the instructor affects the way he interprets the information and subsequently teaches. For example an atheist who doesn’t believe in existence of God will refer to supernatural events of the past as myths that are conveying a true lesson about religion but may not have happened. A believer on the other hand would attribute them to God’s infinite capabilities.

    Personal bias inevitably shows in person’s writing and speech.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I’m not so sure. I’m an atheist but I teach the same thing about miracle stories that I taught when I was a committed Christian.

      • Avatar
        hasankhan  July 24, 2017

        That would be your unique quality then.

        In practice, I’ve seen that most instructors phrase statements in a way that reflect their belief (and hence bias) rather than being completely neutral. A person would have to make conscious effort in that case I think.

        So if someone asks you, “Prof, how could Jesus walk on water?”, would you say that, “He is could have the power to defy laws of physics, since they are applicable to us and he was special”

        Or would you just say “I don’t know”, or “It’s possible he didn’t, and the apostle thought that he did and the water level was quite low”, etc.?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 25, 2017

          I wouldn’t say it’s unique. It’s fairly common in secular departments of religion — that is, in major universities and colleges throughout the country. It just seems weird to people who have learned their religion in religious contexts.

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  August 2, 2017

      Not necessarily, if I taught the Quran or Islam I would be impartial and just teach it from a historical point of view. My views would be pointless in that regard.

  8. Avatar
    TBeard  July 23, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I understand your wife is a Christian. Do you still attend church with her and if so, how does that work out? I’m a former Christian and agnostic now myself and my family members keep trying to get me to come to church.
    I have a good excuse not to because I work nights as a dealer at a casino.
    They don’t know I don’t believe anymore.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Typically I go to Christmas eve services at the Episcopal church, but that’s about it for the year. Love the Carols, the stories, the myth behind it all — the whole thing.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2017

    It does not surprise me that what you teach and your passion for teaching did not change, but it does surprise me that your faculty colleagues and you do not discuss your religious beliefs with each other. I even do that with my golf buddies. It just seems like an important part of life. I also think that religion should be based on knowledge not just faith. It’s frustrating for me when religion goes contrary to out best knowledge.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      Oh, I’m *far* more likely to discuss my religious views with golf buddies than with professional colleagues. Funny, but that’s just how it works. (I suppose physicians don’t discuss anatomy with their colleagues at cocktail parties either!)

  10. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 23, 2017

    I kinda went off on a tangent with my previous comment. Oops!

    I understand that someone who was never a Christian can teach the New Testament but should they? How can that person truly grasp the subject to its fullest extent without having personal experience with it? So, intellectually they’re teaching the subject but the emotional, personal component would be missing. I was a CPR instructor for a year but had never given CPR to anyone. I only taught information but could not teach what to do if they ran into a problem that was outside of what I read in a book or saw in a video. I stopped teaching it because it didn’t seem right. So, I don’t see teaching religion the same as other disciplines or that it should be compared to something like economics. There’s no personal connection to economics. With your background as a Christian, you are able to know what sort of pre-conceived ideas students will have, head off misunderstandings from the get-go, and understand on an emotional level where they’re coming from. I’m not sure I would be confident in a professor who taught the NT but had never been a Christian at some point in his or her life.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      If truly grasping the New Testament requires a person to be a believer, why is it that committed believers have so many absolutely fundamental different understandings of the New Testament? Being a believer doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on interpretation! (And it’s not as if there is *one* Christian understanding of a passage of the Bible, or the overall point of a biblical book, or the overarching emphasis of the entire Bible, or … of anything else!)

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  July 24, 2017

        I’m talking about the emotional, personal connection to the subject and understanding where the students are coming from. You’ve said before that they’re mainly conservative Christians. I wouldn’t want someone teaching me how to bake a cake who had never eaten cake before. So, intellectually, it’s correct. The cake turned out okay, but the teacher–the expert–taught me how to bake a cake but had never eaten a piece. But, here I am, a student who eats cake on a regular basis while my professor is telling me all about what he/she has never experienced. So, the expertise is still lacking in a sense.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  July 24, 2017

          “If truly grasping the New Testament requires a person to be a believer, why is it that committed believers have so many absolutely fundamental different understandings of the New Testament? Being a believer doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on interpretation!”

          In my previous comment, I gave an analogy using cake as an example. Hopefully, it’s understandable, and I *get* that from a secular standpoint, religion can be taught by someone who is not or was never a part of the tradition. But, in all honesty, who wants to be taught the New Testament by someone who was never a Christian at some point in his or her life? No matter how the NT is understood, a person who becomes a believer is drawing the NT into him/herself in such a way that s/he is experiencing the book firsthand…its primary intention.

          The first book I read of yours was Misquoting Jesus. If I had got to the end of it and found out that you had never been a Christian but had always been an atheist, I would have probably dismissed you entirely as someone who just didn’t *get it*. How many on here have asked you over and over again about your beliefs as a Christian? What led to you becoming a Christian, for how long, how did your views change, what made you become an atheist, and so on….You’ve written in detail about it, but the questions keep coming. You really don’t think your past Christian lifestyle is not part of your expertise?

          I can spend fifteen years learning about Islam in a secular environment, but when I walk into a classroom, I’m only teaching my students conceptually but not experientially. I think that’s a disservice to them, especially since they’d most likely be Muslim. They’re going to look at me and think, she doesn’t understand because she’s not one of us and never has been. I don’t see religion as a hard science nor do I think it should be treated that way.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 25, 2017

          Yes, I see what you mean, and it’s a good point. But I would say that teaching about how to back a cake is different from teaching about a religion. I suppose it depends on *what* one is teaching about a religion. If the point of the teaching is to encourage a student to experience the religion (as in experiencing the tasting of a cake), then yes, someone who has never experienced it is not the one you want to learn from. If I were to teach, say, about Christianity spirituality, and I had not spiritual experience, that would be a disaster. But when I teach about Christianity, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not teaching it as an experience my students should have, and I’m not even teaching that it is *true*. I’m teaching what it is *about*. For that, I don’t need to have experienced it, any more than a professor who teaches about the Holocaust has to have gone through the camps herself, or one who teaches about Stalinism needs to have spent years in a Gulag, or one who teaches about the prison system in the U.S. needs to have spent serious time behind bars. I’m not saying that what I teach is the only way one can teach and study CHristianity — but in a secular research university, you simply will not find religion taught the same way it is taught in, say, a Christian church or a synagogue, etc., where the goals and purposes and methods are very different. It’s not that one way is better than another, but they are different, and for what I teach, a personal experience of the religion simply isn’t necessary. (I have an Israeli colleague who is an orthodox Jew who is a professor of American Christianity knows far more about the fundamentalism that I came out of than I myself know!!)

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  July 25, 2017

            What is your Israeli colleague’s name?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 27, 2017

            Yaakov Ariel.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  July 27, 2017

            I put one of Ariel’s books on my wish list.

            Okay, so are there other professors you know who teach about early Christianity, who are atheists (as in–were never Christians at any point), and also teach a young, conservative Christian population such as yourself? What is their level of success with student learning?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 28, 2017

            I think that would be true of almost all my other colleagues in the study of Christianity at UNC, though I’ve never had an explicit discussion of faith issues with them.

        • Avatar
          dragonfly  July 26, 2017

          As far as I can tell, in the secular university setting Bart is teaching in, he’s not teaching anyone how to make a cake. He’s teaching how people 2000 years ago made cakes from ingredients we no longer have, using techniques we don’t fully understand. What does it matter whether he’s once eaten the same sort of cake you particularly like? Everyone in the class might like different types of cakes, but no-one has eaten the same type of cake baked by the people Bart’s talking about.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  July 27, 2017

            It’s not really about the cake that I like so much as the common, shared experience of eating cake in general.

    • Avatar
      Mohammed Musa  July 25, 2017


      Well-spoken, i totally agreed with you, but one of the advantage that Bart has is that he was a believer.

  11. Avatar
    Reasonoverrevelation  July 24, 2017

    Great blog Bart! Thanks to the technological revolution – the last 20 years have made knowledge increasingly accessible to all! We don’t need the “experts” to tell us we can’t be expert just because we don’t subscribe to their worldview!

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  July 24, 2017

    Dr, Ehrman said:
    The Gospels actually are not produced in their names. No one calls them Matthew and Mark until decades after they were in circulation.
    I do not see any full copies of the gospels in the List of New Testatment Papyri https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Testament_papyri. Then there is a jump from New Testament Papyri to the four uncial codices.
    Question: Is there an extant complete manuscript of the gospel of Mark before we get to the four uncial codices (Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, etc.)?

    = = =
    “Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus on the Euphrates in upper Syria in 423, suspecting Tatian of Adiabene/Syrian/Assyrian of having been a heretic, sought out and found more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron (circa 160 Common Era), which he collected and put away, and introduced instead of them the Gospels of the four evangelists.”
    = = =
    Wait a second. So Tatian happened to pick the same four gospels that were picked hundreds of years later as canonical?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      The four-Gospel canon was already secure in proto-orthodox circles by the end of the second century (Irenaeus and Tertullian, e.g.). It has sometimes been argued that Tatian may have used at least one other now lost source in other places.

  13. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  July 24, 2017

    I do think membership in a religious entity or beliefs, and particularly materialism, can change the topics you choose to study or research and the way you think about them. For example, I have a theory that women tie more easily into the spirit world based on brain chemistry. A materialist person may think women are more involved in churches because it was an outlet when their agency was suppressed due to patriarchy. A materialist prof would be unlikely to generate my theory, because they don’t believe a spirit world exists. So perhaps diversity of belief systems would be important to have in a university department?

  14. Avatar
    godspell  July 24, 2017

    I don’t see why this is even an issue. You can teach the history of monarchies without being a monarchist. Nobody who teaches the history of labor unions, at a university, is a member of the working class, by definition. Honestly, there are plenty of atheists out there who are much more interested in the history of religion than most churchgoers (it’s not that hard).

    And some people with theistic leanings have done a fine job teaching the history of Marxism, and other atheistic creeds. They tend to be more objective than practicing Marcists, frankly.

    Just know your stuff, and be fair.

  15. Avatar
    silvertime  July 24, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman: Please add me to the long list of blog readers that appreciate, with great interest, your personal religious journey. I have observed that most people are proud of their belief in their particular religion, political affiliation, and national citizenship. This allegiance does not allow them to question or analyze their beliefs because this would indicate a unallowable weakness in faith. Critical thinking in these areas is not mentally allowed.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 25, 2017

      Yes, this is very true–and it applies as much to some atheists as it does to anyone living.

      Like, you know, the ones that refuse to admit Jesus was a living breathing human being?

  16. Avatar
    steppencat  July 27, 2017

    I don’t doubt at all that this was your trajectory. You are clearly brilliant and have always been brilliant, whether you were “actively religious” or not. And yet, part of me feels like there’s a key point that’s missing here.

    For example, take Martin Luther. As a priest obsessing (literally, as I understand it…he was apparently a very “fun guy”) over scripture, he made this “scholarly” call about the sacraments:

    “If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking. For humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly seen because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace. Therefore signs instituted without the command of God are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps serve to teach or admonish the common folk'”

    From there, he “objectively” and “logically” determined that the only three sacraments that “mattered” were Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance.

    To be clear, I’m not trying to catch you in a “gotcha” here. I very much believe that someone can be an expert on a religion that they don’t believe in. I think I’m just trying to emphasize that the very act of Being in the World (with a big capital existential “B”) in turn informs who we are, and in turn, what we believe to be objectively true, and in turn, what we teach. For Martin Luther, his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture led him to what eventually became Protestantism. For you, it led you to your own beliefs, which led you to the objective scholar you are today.

  17. Avatar
    stevenpounders  August 11, 2017

    I think your definition of seminary – “a free-standing institution of higher education, not connected with a college or university” – may not be correct in all cases?

    I teach at Baylor University, where George W. Truett Seminary is completely connected. The seminary is listed as one of the “colleges and schools” that make up the university and even has joint degree offerings listed with the School of Music, the School of Business, the School of Education, the Law School, and the School of Social Work. Curricular changes in degrees and course offerings must be approved through the graduate curriculum committee of the university.

    Baylor is, of course, a Baptist University, and I’m sure such relationships with seminaries don’t exist for public universities.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2017

      Interesting! I wonder if they started off as two separate institutions that were later combined? But yes, major (secular) research universities that have a divinity school call them divinity schools, or schools of theology, not seminaries. (Think Yale, Harvard, Emory, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Duke, etc.). Maybe its different with religiously affilitated schools? I don’t really know.

You must be logged in to post a comment.