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Whom Do We Consider a Christian?

Who counts as a Christian?   When I was a hard-core evangelical at Moody Bible Institute, we had a pretty clear and straightforward answer:  if you have not been born again and accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you were not a Christian.  No matter what you believed or where you worshiped or how you lived.

This meant, among other things, that most people who called themselves Christian were not really Christian.   Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians – most of them were not really Christians.  Roman Catholics were certainly not Christians.   Greek Orthodox?  Not even close.  Mormons?  You gotta be kidding.

At the time I knew people who had an even more rigorous definition: if you did not know the exact day and hour in which you had accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you hadn’t done so, and were not saved.   Some were even more strict: you not only had to have accepted Christ, you had to have been baptized by immersion – dunked in the water, as an adult.  Anyone who had not been, was not Christian.

My father had a business associate who claimed that if you had not been baptized in his church (not in his denomination, but in his actual church) then you were not a Christian and were not saved.   In other words of the 4 billion people in the world (at the time), only a few hundred would go to heaven.  All the rest were going to spend eternity roasting in hell.  God loves the world that much!

Looking back on my own life, I have to admit that it seems a rather odd thing, now, in my own mind, to think that I thought that I “became” a Christian when, as a high school student, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.  What exactly was I before that?

Before that happened, I was a faithful church goer at the local Episcopal church.  In fact, I was highly active in the church.  I was an acolyte (altar boy) every week.  Every Sunday morning I fervently prayed, confessed my sins, said the creed, took communion, did everything one does in a traditional Episcopal church, and with real commitment and emotion.  But I came to think that I wasn’t “really” a Christian.  I hadn’t yet been born again.  Being born the first time in a Christian home and being raised as a Christian, and praying, confessing sins, worshiping every Sunday wasn’t the sign of being a Christian.  Being born again (by making a conscious decision for Christ at one point in time) was what made a person a Christian.  And if you didn’t do that, you were lost for all eternity.

As you might suspect, I no longer think that.  I don’t think Christians are the ones who happen to pass a particular theological litmus test.  Let alone a litmus test designed to exclude everyone except that very (very!) small and well defined group of people who happen to agree with *me*!   I myself left that narrow evangelical fold and became a liberal Christian, and then a very liberal Christian for many years, before I became what I am now, an agnostic.

I should say that sometimes I consider myself a Christian agnostic, since I still do try to emulate the teachings of Jesus as they can be translated into the modern idiom.  I do try to practice the Golden Rule and to follow the Love commandment.  But I do not believe Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead, so most people (not all) would not consider me Christian.   So am I a Christian?  I suppose it depends on whom you ask.   I certainly don’t believe traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus and I don’t worship in a Christian church (or anywhere else), so by my definitions, I’m not a Christian.  I’m an agnostic who follows (many) Christian ethical principles (while I disagree with others).

And now to my research question: When we ask about how many Christians there were in the ancient world, say, in the year 30, a month after Jesus’ death, or in the year 100, or in the year 312, when Constantine converted, or in the year 390 after Christianity had been made the official religion of the Roman empire – how do we answer the question?   How do we count?  Whom do we count?

My very strong sense is that we should not count by applying a theological litmus test, that someone is only a Christian if they really, truly believed x, y, and z.   To make that claim is to assume that you have some kind of insider theological knowledge about “truth,” and someone has to subscribe to that truth in order to fit in the category you’re trying to define.  To put it in the modern idiom, my view today is that anyone who really considers themselves as a Christian should be counted as a Christian.  And so, rather than defining Christians as those who agree with a certain theological set of views, I accept as Christian literally anyone who thinks they are Christian: Bible-thumping independent fundamentalists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, you name it.

As a historian, I think that’s what we have to do with the ancient world.  It’s true, there were Christian writers in antiquity who did not see it this way.  The fourth-century heresiologist (one who describes and exposes “heresies” or “false teachings” – that is, a heresy-hunter) Epiphanius wrote a scathing account of 80, count them, 80 heresies in a book called the Panarion (a word that means “Medicine Chest” – in it he claimed to provide the theological antidote for the stings of the heretics).  He did not consider anyone who subscribed to any of these heresies to be Christian.  In this respect, he was an ancient equivalent of a modern fundamentalist.  But as a historian, I choose not to follow his lead.   The people he was attacking were for the most part people who considered themselves faithful followers of Jesus.  For me that’s enough.  They weren’t pagans.  They were Christians.

And so I think as historians we simply count those who counted themselves as Christian.  What if they didn’t really believe?  Well, how would we be able to establish that?  We don’t even know their names, let alone their specific beliefs or internal psychological states.  What if they just went through the motions?  Well, if they went through the Christian motions rather than the pagan motions, then I think they have to count (since we have no way of knowing whether they were sincere or not).

What if they were Christian because the head of their household (the paterfamilias) was and they had to be what he was?  Well, if they considered themselves Christian for any reason, then we do too.  What if they practiced pagan rites in *addition* to Christian rites and believed pagan deities along with believing in the Christian God?  I’m sure there were people like that, but there’s really no way to know.  (There are certainly lots of people like that in the modern world!)  At the end of the day, if someone considered herself or himself Christian and engaged in Christian worship, then I think we count them as Christian.

And so when I’m giving numbers – such as “there were something like 5 or 6 million Christians at the beginning of the fourth century – I’m using this broad definition.  Anything more narrow would involve doing theology, which as a historian, I have no business doing; and it would involve, just as seriously, asking questions (such as: did those people really believe?  Or were they engaged in Christian worship for other reasons?) that we simply have no way of answering.

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How Significant Was Early Christianity?
Playing with the Numbers (of Christians)

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Comments

  1. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 18, 2016

    Speaking of the number of Christians….have you or anyone else considered how many might have been in the Jesus group the author of Mark belonged to? I’ve read a lot of Joel Marcus and Burton Mack over the past couple of years and if they’re correct (not saying both agree on all points) in that his community was 1) outcast from Jewish society due to the war, 2) living some kind of life in the hills, 3) were also separated because a rift with the Pharisees over cleanliness statutes, then it seems to me the community must have been quite small. A couple dozen? Less than 50? If so, it’s incredible that a Gospel written for such a small group would go on to become one of “the big 4”. I’ve also read a theory that perhaps they were in Tyre or one of the other Phoenician coastal cities so perhaps the community was larger.

  2. Avatar
    Elisabeth  May 18, 2016

    Ha – if you don’t believe Jesus died and rose for your sins/was divine, but still try to follow some his teachings, perhaps you should consider yourself Muslim agnostic, as that’s basically the Islamic view? I know for myself, being raised as an Evangelical, the question of Jesus’ identity and Islam’s take on theodicy and a few other issues had me Muslim agnostic for some time, though the more I study the more I’m ready to drop the ‘agnostic’ part.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      My background, heritage, and training are all in Christianity so it is Christianity, not Islam, that is “in my bones”

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 19, 2016

      Following Bart’s comment, I’d say that, for me, though never a religious Jew, Judaism is, in many ways, in my bones. And I always half-kiddingly say to someone who says they are a Christian but only because they try to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, “Oh, so you’re Jewish!”

    • Avatar
      Mak22  May 21, 2016

      That is interesting point. If you ever listened the famous Muslim apologist, Dr.Zakir Niak, he always asserts that Muslim are more Christian than Christian themselves because they follow the teaching of Jesus, not that of St. Paul, like most of Christian do. For example, he often reiterate that Muslim worship the one and only mighty God (as He mentioned in the old testament) in appose to the Trinity. They also follow other old testament commands as they are worded in their book such as abstaining from consuming alcohol, eating pork, and many other commandments. More importantly, he emphasizes that believing in Jesus miracles birth, ascension to heaven, second return, and being a word of God, not THE WORD of God, as well as being one of God’s mightiest messengers, not a divine being, is part of the Muslim foundations of faith. So based on that, you might want to add Muslim to the list of Christians’ broad definition.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 22, 2016

        Ironically, it might make more sense to add Muslims to a very broad definition for who is a Jew. What he taught was a form of Judaism. After all, where in all you (or Niak) listed, is the essential Christian teaching of Jesus as Savior of the world?

        • Avatar
          Mak22  May 29, 2016

          Or vice versa where you can include Jewish and Christians into the broad definition of Muslim if you go by the meaning of the name which, according to the Muslim sources, means “total submission to God’s will.” You did make the main point, not entirely though. The teaching of Jesus is not much different of that of Moses and Mohammad. They all called for the worship of one mighty God,although using different names (linguistic differences), repentance through prayers, deeds, and asking for forgiveness, and taught the commandments in one form or another. The main difference remain is that the Christian alleged Jesus’ divinity based on the Pauline theology, not Jesus claim or teaching, while the Jewish claim that Moses is the last prophet and the Torah is the last revelation. What we have is a man made theologies, for the most part, that evolved through out the centuries, not something neither Jesus nor Moses or Mohammad taught.

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    JR  May 18, 2016

    I find it rather amusing that Jesus, Paul and whoever wrote 1 timothy would be told off and possibly not allowed up the front again if they preached at the churches I have been part of. Matthew 25 – what you do is important for salvation, 2 corinthians 5 – reality of judgement should spur you on and 1 tim 2 – women need to be good housewives to be saved. If I said any of these things the pastor would be questioning if I had grasped the gospel!

  4. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  May 18, 2016

    I like the persecution test: Would someone out to persecute Christians target you as one? This has obvious relevance today, too, as seen in John Allen’s The Global War on Christians.

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    godspell  May 18, 2016

    It’s two different questions–the first is devotional, theological. The second is statistical, historical. I often find myself thinking about many prominent public Christians that they are as far as anyone could possibly be from true Christianity. But in fact, I myself don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of that faith. I can’t say if they do or not. No question, people will often pretend to faith in order to achieve power and influence. It’s happening now, and it doubtless happened then, even though it was in general a more believing era.

    You ever read The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud? The title character is a homeless Italian American who works for a poor Jewish shopkeeper during the early 50’s, and they talk about religion a lot–the shopkeeper feels that Jewishness is something you’re born with, and you have to keep the law–but at the same time, he says he shouldn’t feel like he’s less of a Jew for putting some ham in his mouth, that it’s really more about the spirit of things, about being a good man, and it’s enough for him if someone just wants to be a Jew–because at that time, being a Jew wasn’t easy, even in America.

    It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the pagan Roman Empire, even when they weren’t being thrown to the lions. It was hard, even if serious persecution was rare. So I’d say anyone who wanted to be a Christian then was a Christian. It was the spirit of things that mattered. And I think that’s how most Christians then would have seen it, but probably not all.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      I haven’t read it! But it sounds interesting.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 19, 2016

        It’s a great book, and one that has triggered many a helpful exchange of views between Jews and Christians, since it touches on the commonalities that unite the two faiths, rather than dwelling on their differences.

        To me, what’s striking about Jewish American literature of that period is what a deep sense of separation there is from the rest of society, even though there is no formal persecution or ghettoization of any kind (except a few restricted country clubs), and America had just finished defeating the single most virulent strain of anti-semitism in history.

        Seems reasonable to assume early Christians felt the same sense of separation, even when they weren’t being actively persecuted. The memories of mistreatment linger on for generations. Also true in the American South, but you knew that already. “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Faulkner.

        And yet, nobody with half a lick of sense would argue that anti-Jewish feeling wasn’t a very real thing in the 1950’s–or now. As the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies.

  6. Avatar
    dscotth  May 18, 2016

    As a Christian Agnostic, I sometimes count myself as a Christian and sometimes do not. I know many would not consider me to be a Christian, though I attend my Episcopal church more often than many more theologically “correct” Christians. I, in turn, believe that Fundamentalists Christians are not truly Christians because their Bible idolatry prevents them from hearing the “Word of God.” Regardless of how each of us excludes others as “genuine” Christians, I agree that Historians must accept that those who profess themselves to be Christians are counted as Christians, whether they are Mormons or Unitarians or Christian Buddhists.

  7. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 18, 2016

    How is it we know there were 6 million Christians? When calculating growth rates, is it by knowing there were 6 million in the 4th century and working backward to the beginning?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      It’s a highly complex affair, ancient demographics. The fullest attempt to establish the size of early Christianity is the classic by Adolf von Harnack, Misison and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 18, 2016

    I am a Buddhist and have been for many years now, but after being raised Catholic and then attended Fundamentalist churches where I never felt I was truly “one of them,” today my Christian beliefs mirrors that of yours.

    Anyway, isn’t another reason not to use a theological litmus test for Christianity is because that even at the time of Constantine’s conversion the faith was still in its proto-orthodoxy stage?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      Good point!

      • Avatar
        Eric  May 19, 2016

        Not to mention the original Jerusalem community wouldn’t have counted, and so starting from “zero” , the growth rate calculations wouldn’t work!

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    RonaldTaska  May 18, 2016

    The discussion about the growth in the number of Christians (stable growth versus variable growth affected by the killing of Christians, etc.) reminds me of the huge debates about evolutionary theory among biologists. On one side of the controversy was Darwin’s continuous gradualism with one species slowly developing from another species. On the other side, was Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” advocating sudden jumps in species development followed by subsequent stability of the new species until the next jump. The explosion of life during the Cambrian explosion followed by five mass extinction events probably fit best with the sudden jumps of Gould’s theory.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  May 19, 2016

      I may be wrong, but I’ve assumed Darwin’s theory was reasonable *in his day*, and later findings of more and more fossils disproved it (showed that there weren’t anywhere near as many “stages” between radically different types as he’d thought).

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 18, 2016

    I like the term “Christian agnostic.” Knowing your ethics of helping others, the term fits you well.

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    jhague  May 18, 2016

    In a previous post, I mentioned that Jesus’ original followers always thought of themselves as Jews and continued to follow Judaism. You said you still considered them to be Christians. Under your definition in today’s post, they would not be Christians since they did not consider themselves to be anything but Jews. Does this sound accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      My sense is that the earliest followers of Jesus, including Paul, continued to think they were Jews. But they also believed in Jesus as the Savior. So by my terminology they would be both Jews and Christians. These were not seen as separate religions.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  May 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, when I look at your opening list I can’t help but feel that Greek Orthodox are the most “christian” in the sense that if you were to drop them into the 4th century, they would probably feel more at home than any other denomination. (I might add Coptics to that list as well.) But that’s just my sense.

    As to who would count as Christian from 30 to 300CE, well, as you know, that’s quite a tough question considering the extreme evolution of Christian belief within those 300 years. For instance, if you believed in 30CE that Jesus was himself God, your fellow Jewish Christians definitely would have looked at you funny, if not outright excluded you. But by 300CE if you *didn’t* believe Jesus was himself God, you could have been excommunicated if not outright executed.

    That’s why I think that the first step in defining an early Christian is to define, ironically, a first century apocalyptic Jew, a la Pharisees, Essenes, et al. And then you add Jesus to make it “Christianity”. Lest we forget, the first syllable of Christianity is “christ”, which means the Meshiakh, the anointed of God, savior of the righteous. So the very basic minimum of Christian belief must start with a belief in such a thing as the Messiah or Christ, as well as everything that comes with the Messianic Age (e.g. the resurrection of the dead saints, the day of judgment, the saving of the righteous and the condenming of the wicked, the coming Kingdom of God, etc.). If one does not believe all of that, at minimum, then the idea of Jesus being the Christ is meaningless.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 19, 2016

      But if any such believer believed that Jesus would be the judge of the good and the wicked rather than that someone could be saved by believing in the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for people’s sins, where’s the Christianity? That’s just still Judaism.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 21, 2016

        I would say Christianity distinguished itself from mainstream Judaism the moment Christians proclaimed that Jesus was the executed and resurrected Messiah/Christ. But even then it was — and in many ways remains — an offshoot of Judaism. So, if we want to be pedantic, we can say that even the current Christianity is, in a sense, “still Judaism”.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 22, 2016

          I would say that it wasn’t Christianity, at that point, that distinguished itself from the Judaisms of its day but certain Jews who we could call a Jewish sect. I say this because, if you still don’t believe that Jesus was divine or that believing in his death as a sacrifice the blood of which could cleanse individuals of the wages of their sins, then all you have is some Jews believing the weird belief that, although crucified, Jesus was still the messiah because he was resurrected and redemption from sin would not be his purpose. Once you believe that Jesus was at least half-divine, part of the Godhead, and that salvation was not found through living by the Torah but by belief not in God directly but belief in an at-least half-human figure, I think you’ve gone beyond the bounds of Judaism.

  13. Avatar
    turbopro  May 18, 2016

    “I’m a Christian and so’s my wife…”

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    VEndris  May 18, 2016

    I relate to much of your story. I am from a fundamentalist background. After leaving it, I did not consider myself a Christian for the longest time. I recently found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and feel very accepted there. From your posts and books, its sounds like I believe a lot like you, except I do now consider myself Christian (Interesting). In fact, I’m now the pastor there (Even more interesting). My point in this comment is that I came up with a definition of Christianity much like yours – if you want to be a Christian, congratulation, you are. In fact, you were very instrumental in helping me come up with that definition so maybe one could say that Bart Ehrman saved my Christianity. After Jesus’ life, there were so many different kinds of people who followed him. Some believed very different things than others. Who are we or anyone to say which ones were or were not Christians?

  15. cheito
    cheito  May 18, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    To be a Christian one first must be saved.
    To be saved one must believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead.
    If one doesn’t believe Jesus is Lord and and that God raised from the dead then one is not saved.
    This is what Paul taught…

    Romans:10:9,10
    9-that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved;
    10-for with the heart one believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth one confesses, resulting in salvation.

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    screwtape  May 18, 2016

    In my Evangelical/Bible fanatic days I took to heart what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” enters the kingdom, but those who do the will of his father in heaven. So if you really believe Jesus said that and that he really was Lord then just saying you were a Christian wouldn’t make you one – nor would just having an experience of being “born again”. My take was that a true Christian followed the teachings of Christ.

    But for the purposes of your book I vote for whoever calls himself a Christian should be counted as one. Actually, I can’t see how you could handle the subject any other way.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 19, 2016

      Whenever anyone tells me they are a Christian and explains it by saying they follow his moral teachings, I laugh inside and think they are fooling themselves. If you have no belief that believing in Christ and savior–in his sacrifice, blood, and resurrection, how can you be a Christian?

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    Matt7  May 18, 2016

    Speaking of who counts as a Christian, would Paul have thought that the author of Luke/Acts was “saved”? I’m guessing he wouldn’t have, since Luke apparently didn’t believe that Christ’s death was an atoning sacrifice for sins.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      Good question! But Luke certainly thought that Jesus was the only way to salvation, so I’m pretty sure Paul would have not challenged his salvation, even if he challenged some of his theology.

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    billw977  May 18, 2016

    Great post! I have a couple of unrelated questions. (Sorry) 1. If I have a random question that doesn’t necessarily follow the present post, where do I ask it? 2. My random question(s) is based on what I read somewhere that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, that is, he preached that the end was near, but it never happened. For example, he said that “This generation shall not pass away until, etc. etc.” I’ve read that the Greek word for “generation” can also mean “race”, as in a certain ethnicity of people. So is it possible to say that his proclamation that the “Jewish race” shall not pass away until all these things have happened is still valid? Is it not unusual that the Jews have been able to keep there identity after 2 thousand years when most folks can barely go back 2 hundred years?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2016

      Yes, posting a random question in a comment like this is probably the easiest way. As to “generation/race,” it is important to read the context in which the statement is made. Jesus is telling people to prepare because the event is coming soon. It doesn’t really seem to make any sense to say that to get this point across he indicated that the end would come before the race of the Jews disappeared. No one thought the race of the Jews would *ever* disappear….

      • Avatar
        billw977  May 20, 2016

        I hear what you’re saying but I still have this “conspiracy” feeling that Jesus might have known exactly what he was saying, not only in this but “all” the sayings that we might find contradictory. If he truly was who he said he was then one shouldn’t be surprised to find all kinds of hidden meanings in his sayings. I mean come on, he who has sat at the right hand of God himself? Wouldn’t that make sense, also? Back to your original posting, I think you sometimes sound “or act” more Christian than “so-called” Christians I know. Also, I too have identified myself as a Christian agnostic in the past after reading a couple of your books, then to read you say it about yourself in your blog was interesting, to say the least…..

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2016

          I’m not sure what you mean when you say “if he was who he said he was.” Usually people mean that he called himself God and therefore if he was then… But I’ve tried to show in a number of my books (especially How Jesus BEcame God) that the historical Jesus said (and thought) no such thing about himself.

          • Avatar
            billw977  May 21, 2016

            Guess I’m going to have to read that book…..

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    Wijting  May 19, 2016

    Dear Bart,

    Your post brings to mind a conversation between Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister, and the late Christopher Hitchens, the famous athiest, In response to Sewell’s question of a distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion, he replied, “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

    Hitchen’s response isn’t what I’d call fundamentalist but it does look like a good litmus test of what would count. Of course, you, as a historian, would not be able to query whether those living 2000 years ago actually held such a litmus test. But still, I think it’s a reasonable litmus test to have.

    Yuri

  20. Avatar
    llamensdor  May 21, 2016

    As Dr. Ehrman seeks to determine how and why Christianity spread, I can’t help thinking that 20 or 30 years ago I wouldn’t have believed that in our enlightened era a new religion could be founded that would grow geometrically to rival Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. And yet it has happened before my very eyes. The new religion is Environmentalism, and the gospel (or badspel) is the Creed of Climate Change as we face the apocalypse threatened by the God of Global Warming. We must drastically change our way of life quickly or succumb. It is not just one nation or region or continent that proclaims the coming catastrophe—no the high priests of almost 200 nations have endorsed this holy writ—this founding myth. Where are the atheists and agnostics when we really need them?

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 22, 2016

      Environmentalism began more than 60 years ago. It came alive with the publication of Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring. If anything is a myth, it is to pretend that environmentalism is religion. It has no belief, essentially, in a supernatural being. It is founded on observation and science. Yes, it has its nuts and zealots: what doesn’t? Papers recently released show that the oil industry itself was well aware decades ago of potential atmospheric problems. The rate of global warming since 1800 is much higher than any naturally occurring global warming science is aware of. Using the term “high priests” is just sarcastic denial. And your point about atheists and agnostics makes no sense: they, much more than religious conservatives, are some of the people most likely to appreciate science and not pooh-pooh its findings.

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