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Why Would An Atheist Teach the Bible? Readers’ Mailbag

I often get asked why I would be interested in teaching biblical studies if I’m an atheist; sometimes the question is a bit hostile, along the lines of “What would *you* know?  You don’t even believe in it”!  Or “Why should anyone listen to you if you’re just trying to disprove the Bible?”  At other times the questions seem fairly genuine.  Recently, for example, I’ve gotten these two:



Why do you bother continuing to teach any aspects of Biblical studies since you have decided that you are an atheist-agnostic? In short, what is the point?

Can you explain something to me?  Why should I send my son to study in your department when you don’t believe the book which your program is built on?



At first I thought these were hostile, but I corresponded with both of the people and I don’t think they were.  Let me answer them separately.

The first one is easier, though I get it a lot.  It seems a puzzle to so many people that anyone could be interested in teaching something they don’t believe in.  On one level that makes sense to me to: the Bible is a book of faith, and so if you don’t have the faith, why should you be interested in it?  On the other hand, the question completely overlooks what a university is.  It is a place of learning, where professors who are experts teach about all sorts of things they don’t “believe” in.

University education is not about instilling beliefs.  We’re not a brainwashing society or a religious cult.  We’re an institution of higher learning.  Students have four years to devote themselves to learning at a high level.  Many of simply them don’t appreciate it because they are way too young to realize how amazing the opportunity is (and since it’s their first time outside of the house and parental rule, other amazing opportunities seem, well, more alluring).  Later, when they hit their thirties, if they have any intellectual curiosity at all, they often begin to realize what they missed.

My view, to simplify it a bit, is that a university education is meant not to mold minds to think one way or the other but to convey masses of knowledge and, yet more important, teach students how to think.  There is obviously a lot more involved, but that’s at the heart of it.  University professors all have a narrow specialty within a wider field.  Or subfields within subfields.  My wider field is Religious Studies; within that: Christianity; within that: ancient Christianity; within that New Testament/earliest Christianity; within that … within that, the specific things I actually do, from manuscript studies to historical Jesus to Christian apocrypha and so on.   Professors teach their fields or the subfields within subfields within subfields because they are important.

In the humanities especially, thinking something is important does not mean “believing” in it or “practicing” it.  Plenty of people teach Marxist theory without being Communists, or 20th century German history without being Nazis, or criminology without being mass murderers.

In Religious Studies, just in my department, we have experts on Sumerian (the language), Ancient Greek philosophy, archaeology of ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, early modern Christianity in Spain, Medieval Islam, modern Japanese Buddhism, 19th century American religion, Christianity in the Caribbean, modern Jewish philosophical thought, Religion and American law, and lots more.

To be a world class expert on Buddhism in Nepal (we have one) you don’t have to be a Buddhist; to be an expert on 14th century Islam you don’t have to be a Muslim; to be an expert on ancient Hebrew you don’t have to be a Jew.  And if you’re an expert on the New Testament you don’t have to be a Christian.

We don’t try to convince people to adopt a religion.  We teach about religion the way our colleagues teaching about ancient languages, or philosophy, or literature, or history, or sociology, or anthropology.  In fact we have experts in all these particular fields in our department, but they focus on these areas with respect to *religion* in particular.

And so why bother to teach about the Bible?  The same reason other scholars in the university teach Homer, or Shakespeare, or Toni Morrison.  It is great and historically massively significant literature.  There are over two billion people in the world today who believe in the Bible on some level, and wo try, on some level, to follow it. Can someone seriously ask if this is an important something to know about, whether you’re one of the two billion or not?  The Bible has transformed our entire society and culture, and is by far the most important book in the history of our civilization.  And so there’s a question about whether it’s a significant and interesting topic of intellectual inquiry?  Really??

As to the second question.   Why should this guy send his son to take my class?  I wrote him to explain and it turns out we had a very nice exchange.

My first response to him was that he shouldn’t send his son to *any* classes!  His son a young adult with his own intellectual interests.  And it’s his education.  Let him choose.  (If anyone doubts the wisdom of this, then rewatch Dead Poets’ Society.  I saw it again last week for the heck of it, and it’s *fantastic*, still).

The fellow replied, “It’s his education, but I’m paying the bill!”  Fair enough.  So I replied, “Look I will never ever be speaking to your son, but if I did, I would tell him that he should follow his passions rather than follow the money.”  And then I explained why education was really about pursuing intellectual curiosity and passion.  This fellow seemed to get it.  But it’s a reality that almost all parents simply want what’s best for their kids, and he didn’t see why taking a class about the Bible from an atheist would make any sense.

As you might realize, his question itself didn’t actually make sense.  He seemed to think that a “Religious Studies” department is “built on” the Bible.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Bible is a slice of my slice of the department.  My slice of the department is Ancient Mediterranean Religions, and the New Testament is just a slice of that.)

But beyond that, it’s interesting that people who critique “non-believers” who teach the Bible don’t critique others, in religious studies, on the same grounds.  This person would definitely NOT want his son to take a course on Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or whatever by someone who was passionately devoted to that religion and was trying to convert his son into it.  Then why the New Testament?  Wanting only believers to teach it has nothing to do with education, but only with personal religious belief.  But universities are not about religious belief, they are about education.

And as it turns out the New Testament taught by an atheist is in some ways the *perfect* university course in the humanities, especially here in the South.  If one of the ultimate goals (*THE* ultimate goal) of higher education is to get a student to think, what works better than having them in a course where they hear things that are not just pieces of new information, but information that runs completely counter to what they’ve always heard and thought, so that it brings them up short and *forces* them to think about it and figure out how to deal with it?  The point is not to compel them to change their mind but to get them to work it out, intelligently.  And if people can learn how to work one thing out, they can learn to work other things out and bingo: on the path to a thoughtful existence, a lifetime of reasoning, reflecting, communicating – a far better life than the thoughtless existence of a couch potato.




Christianizing the Old Testament and the Museum of the Bible: Guest Post by Jill Hicks-Keeton
New Book on Museum of the Bible: Guest Post by the Editors Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon



  1. Avatar
    mjordan20149  July 19, 2020

    What does it mean to “believe” the Bible, anyway? The more I know about the Bible, the more complicated “believing” becomes.

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    Chasdot  July 19, 2020

    A great blog post. It begs the question, is the college student getting an education or an indoctrination? An education makes one think critically. An indoctrination makes one think correctly.

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    Matt2239  July 19, 2020

    Teaching the Bible from a religious perspective actually dilutes it. For example, revealing the discrepancies in when Jesus was actually crucified can be a big point to make. It reveals that the New Testament is not consistent even in some its most essential facts. What’s surprising though is that the leaders who assembled the first canons were responsible enough to let divergent views of reasonable quality co-exist at all. And if you’ve read or heard Bart describe some of the stuff that didn’t make it into the early canons, then you might be impressed by the quality control used by the early church founders. Seeing all that was accomplished about 2,000 years ago in an unhappy corner of the Roman Empire can easily lead one to conclude divine intervention, but that’s not a conclusion for historians or scientists to make.

  4. Avatar
    Christian David  July 19, 2020

    Thank you for this post, Bart. I am an undergraduate student at Grand Canyon University, and I can’t tell you how many times people give me a weird look when I tell them I major in religious studies. Its literally a conversation stopper lol. Although I use to be a religious person I am no longer, I have deep admiration, respect, and interest in early Christianity for the reasons you’ve mentioned. On some occasions, I feel isolated from people because they never care about what I am learning or religious studies. And religious people always want to argue, so I avoid any religious topics. So I appreciate this blog because here is one of the few places where I can interact with people who have common interests.

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    NancyGKnapp  July 20, 2020

    Amen. Having benefited from your teaching in the Great Courses and this blog, I now have a greater understanding of the New Testament and the development of orthodox Christianity. It is helpful to know how the doctrines evolved over time.
    I stayed with my church community because it has been my support network for almost 50 years, and for its history of working for civil rights and its continued work to dismantle systemic poverty. A Matthew 25 church, we are trying to follow Jesus’ mandate to provide food, drink and clothing to those in need, to
    welome the stranger., and to visit those sick and in prison. While I no longer take the bible literally or believe everything in the orthodox creeds , I still consider myself a follower of Jesus. I refuse to allow fundamentalists to tell me I am not a “real” Christian..

  6. Avatar
    John Morris  July 20, 2020

    As a person of “Faith” Who comes from 2 generations of Ky bible believers, getting me or those like me to think for ourselves about Scriptures is not a bad thing! If you believe, i happen to for my own reasons, your faith had better come from honest study and the ideas of those of different viewpoints and not just the “Well this is what my family thought so it must be right” silliness! I hope that “God” however you choose to define or not define the term. Would urge people to think for themselves! Put simply You Wanna find God??…. seek truth and wisdom!

    • Avatar
      John Morris  July 20, 2020

      One more thing that Non-believer can’t teach nonsense is dumb! I will use myself as an example I was born with Cerebral Palsy and have been in a wheelchair my whole life! I LOVE SPORTS! Using the above logic my opinion on a lifetime of following and having a passion for sports is invalid because i cant play them??? that logic is offensive to anybody with a working mind!

      • Avatar
        ecafischer  July 20, 2020

        An excellent example, John. Thanks for sharing.

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    GeoffClifton  July 20, 2020

    Looking at it from the other side, Dr Ehrman, do your colleagues who have strong religious beliefs sometimes get conflicted when teaching some aspects of early Christianity? For instance a devout Catholic may have to teach things that contradict his/her Church’s teaching, such as Jesus having siblings.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2020

      I’ve never talked with my colleagues (at least at UNC) bout their religoius beliefs, so I don’t really know.

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    AJ  July 20, 2020

    I’m guessing that each letter writer is a Christian. So studying the Bible….or New Tesament more specifically….is not just an academic exercise (like it might be in studying Buddhism)…..but also one that has direct faith implications. I think the fear is….no matter how objective you run the course….subtle biases will bleed through…..and these parents would probably have a preference for the thumb to be on the other scale. This might be akin to someone who is a passionate originalist taking a constitutional law class from Laurence Tribe….or a socialist taking an economics class from Thomas Sowell. I understand that this misses the point of an education….being able to defend one’s position (or any position) with evidence and logic…and not just passion and rhetoric, but absent being in the seat, parents will fear indoctrination. Let’s face it….there’s a lot of “probably” involved in Biblical analysis….significant evidence is simply lost to time….and muddied by oral tradition…and motivated authors with an agenda. Too, the supernatural evades historical analysis….and I would guess most parents do not know what to do with that. Subtracting the supernatural from the Bible is like subtracting magic from Harry Potter. Some would say, what’s the pojnt?

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    gwayersdds  July 20, 2020

    Bart, Your comment on subfields within subfields reminds me of something I heard a long time ago. Scholars, scientists, physicians, etc keep learning more and more about less and less that eventually they will know everything about nothing!!

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    JeffreyFavot  July 20, 2020

    As a conservative Christian, I would be uncomfortable sending my sons to a secular institution for learning anything about the New Testament. Not until they were mature enough and doctrinally sound enough to handle the onslaught by liberal Professors such as yourself. Even though you may profess, “we teach kids how to think”, that’s extremely untrue in the vast majority of educational institutions today. Kids are being taught “what to think”, without applying any critical thinking skills. Look at Berkeley and other places that are limiting free speech. These kids are being brainwashed. My sons will not be taught both sides of an argument in a secular university. They’ll be taught one side. This is why homeschooling is growing rapidly amongst Christians right now. This is the first year, my wife and I have decided to not send our kids to public schools. More than ever, Christians are confronting and discussing the views of skeptics such as Bart more and more. Dr. James White just spoke about you yesterday on the dividing line. He said, “Erhman is always right about the facts, it’s the application that’s the problem.” We’re addressing every objection.
    Perhaps it’s more prevalent in the Apologetics world though.

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    RICHWEN90  July 20, 2020

    It does make sense though that a person of faith would not welcome an objective look at their articles of faith. When Martin Luther anathematized reason he might as well have placed objectivity in the pillory as well. Reason, objectivity, and critical thinking– all are off limits in the faith-based universe.

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    Emmu  July 20, 2020

    Hi Sir,
    A silly type of question but I am asking this because of my curosity is there any verse in the bible which say that “even a small mistake can lead you to hell” because one of our pastor use this sentence all the time because of it i always fear in my every day life.Is there a sentence like this or he is made up this sentence to just to convince people.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2020

      No. Maybe he’s summarizing his understanding of a number of passages put together? But no, there is no verse that says that or anythign close to it.

  13. Barfo
    Barfo  July 20, 2020

    When I was in junior college in 1978 I took an Oceanography class and the first day the instructor let the class know that he personally believes in Genesis 1:1 but for the purposes of class curriculum and keeping in line with the class textbook evolution will be taught. Being a new Christian at the time (born again several months earlier) I absorbed the information that was taught but also disregarded much of it because the instructor validated my creation belief at the time. I’m of the opinion now that his setting the tone in such a manner did not help matters with me believing portions of the subject I was there to learn.

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    Mona  July 20, 2020

    I have no problem understanding why an atheist would teach the Bible! My question would be, can someone who believes (that every word of the Bible is the word of God) teach the bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2020

      They can certainly teach the Bible, but they would not be teaching in a secular research university. Lots and lots of Bible teachers aer in other contexts more amenable to their views, though….

  15. geomir
    geomir  July 20, 2020

    It is clear to me to study and teach your topics listed in response to these two guestions with the goal of teaching students to think with their head, etc. (not to rewrite your last paragraph)

    I wonder, if students have common sense, i.e. think with their head, it is inevitable that they go through the same path of thinking as you and become atheists and agnostics ??? Or not!!???

    It is not at all clear to me how mature scientists can be sincere believers ???
    For example: Jerry A. Coyne says – he can’t, John C. Lennox says – he can.

    I know that we humans still “don’t even know half the mass” (as they say in my area), but no smart person can turn the unknown into the known and the truth !!!
    I mean, religions do just that !!!

    Let this “problem” be the topic of one of your next blogs, please!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 21, 2020

      No, not inevitable at all. Most go a diffent direction! And yes, there are some great scientists who are firm believers — even if they believe also int he Big Bang and Evolution. For them (rightly, I think) that’s not what Christianity is really about. Fundamentalists disagree, but who gave fundamentalists the right to define what Christianity is?

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    Judith  July 20, 2020

    Really really good post but then they all are!

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    Robert1953  July 20, 2020

    Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who teaches the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter in England is an atheist who believes very little of the Bible is true but she clearly loves reading the texts and you can see the excitement on her face when she talks about her studies.

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    janmaru  July 20, 2020

    Edgardo Mortara was a Jewish boy who lived in Bologna in the 1850s and was forced to convert to Catholicism. His nanny declared that she had administered an emergency baptism to the boy when he fell seriously ill as a child.
    Since the Papal States forbade the raising of Christians by members of other faiths, Pope Pius IX ordered Edgardo to be reaped from his family and raised by the lovely arm of the church.
    Flattered by the benevolent caress of Pope Pius IX, who grew as a substitute father, the boy became a fervent Christian who learned by heart all the catechism and wanted his parents to become Catholics as well. Leaving Rome, after the Kingdom of Italy captured the city in 1870, he was ordained as a priest in France and died in Belgium at the age of 88.
    As shown in the question “Why should I send my son…” we should be very careful choosing our parents. For some people, children are a commodity, an investment. You put some money today and tomorrow you gain prestige, more money, security for the old age.
    Parents tend to corrupt, and caring parents corrupt absolutely.

    • Avatar
      janmaru  July 20, 2020

      Steven Spielberg, the famous American director, has definitively abandoned the project “The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” to which he has dedicated a lot of energy over the past five years, coming several times to Italy for casting. He could not find the right boy to embody Edgardo. His work is going to be continued by Italian director Marco Bellocchio, famous for the movie: Devil in the Flesh (Il diavolo in corpo) an adaptation of Raymond Radiguet’s novel, Le Diable au corps.

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    Kirktrumb59  July 21, 2020

    Atheist here. Can’t be more of one, let’s fight about it! The bible is, as is any scripture, mostly a collection of fairy tales addressing and supportive of what the authors believe are important, to them universal themes/”truths.”
    I have urged my kids to read the bible. Why? Because it reflects the default ethos of their community at large, the united states of america, the people they need to deal with. Ya wanna understand, in part, how other persons think? Try to understand what they believe. I’m particularly fond of recommending Genesis 39:5-20 (the story of Potiphar’s wife). “This” can happen to anyone; some people are thoughtless, conniving, selfish, up to no good when they can’t get what they want. Ever see Rembrandt’s (or Reni’s, or Gentileschi’s, etc.) depiction of this biblical episode? If you don’t know about Potiphar, you ain’t getting the picture.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 21, 2020

    Good post! Thanks

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