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Why Would I Call Myself Both an Agnostic and an Atheist? A Blast from the Past

My personal beliefs came up in my debate with Dinesh D’Souza that I posted last week, and I received several questions about how I classify myself: agnostic or atheist?  I’ve talked about that on the blog a couple of times, but as I am constantly reminded, many of the people who are on the blog now were not on it a year or two ago, as there is turnover and our numbers continue to grow.  And certainly no one (well, almost no one) goes back and reads everything from, say five years ago!   So I thought it would be fine to repost my earlier comments.  It was in response to a question I received back then, very similar to the questions I’ve received over the past week.




If you don’t think God exists, why do you refer to yourself as an agnostic? If this is your perspective, why not refer to yourself as an atheist? Could it be that you don’t believe the Christian God exists, but are open to the possibility that some kind of higher power exists (this is my perspective) and this is why you call yourself agnostic?



The first thing to say is that I had no idea how militant both atheists and agnostics could be about their labels, until I became an agnostic myself!

Before that, when I was a believer, I pretty much thought atheism and agnosticism were two amicably related positions, one saying that there is no God and the other saying that s/he doesn’t know if there is a God.  But when I became an agnostic, I started getting some very spirited emails from atheists who were incensed that I called myself an agnostic, as if I were being intellectually dishonest (that’s not the case with the person who asks the question above – he is good spirited about it and just curious).

What I came to see is that many agnostics and many atheists think they have a corner on the truth.  And they think the other side just won’t come clean.   In short, many atheists seem to think that agnostics are just wimpy atheists; and many agnostics seem to think that atheists are just arrogant agnostics.   That is to say: atheists think that agnostics are afraid to follow the truth of their convictions; and agnostics think that atheists claim to know far more than they could possibly know.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about the terms.  For years I thought that an atheist was someone who said there was no God, and an agnostic was someone who said they didn’t know.  I’ve changed my mind about that in the past year or two.   Now I think that “atheism” is a statement about faith and “agnosticism” is a statement about epistemology (the “science of knowledge”).

If someone has a better way of explaining the terms, I’m open to it.  But for now, for me, the way it works like this.  An “atheist” is literally one who does not believe in a divine being.  That is, s/he does not believe in God and so is “without God” (the literal meaning of the term)..   An “agnostic” is one who says s/he does “not know” if there is a God (the literal meaning of that term; it’s about knowledge, not faith).  And so they are dealing with two incommensurate entities: faith (atheism) and knowledge (agnosticism).

When it comes to faith, I am an atheist.  I don’t believe in the traditional Judeo-Christian God (or in Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Apollo, etc) (I sometimes believe in Dionysus/Bacchus, but that’s another story…).   But as to whether there is some greater spiritual power/intelligence in the universe, I’m agnostic.  I don’t know if any such being exists.  And in my opinion, either does anyone else!

That means that I’m not sure what to call myself.  I suppose I lean toward “agnostic” rather than “atheist” simply because as a scholar and professional thinker I am, at the end of the day, more interested in “knowledge” than “faith.”   Moreover, the term does seem to me to convey a greater sense of humility in the face of an incredibly awesome universe, about which I know so little.   I happen to think that humility is a good thing in these circumstances.  At the same time, I can understand why others may want to emphasize what they do not believe rather than what they do not know, and so call themselves atheist.  (Why they are so incensed that I don’t follow suit, however, continues to be a mystery to me.)



Taking the Temperature of the Blog: June 2018
Self-Reflection on The Process of Writing a Book



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  June 10, 2018

    “If someone has a better way of explaining the terms, I’m open to it.”

    No, Dr. Ehrman, you pretty much have it right. When people ask me, I say I’m an atheist rather than an agnostic, not because I necessarily identify myself as such, nor that I think the labels are mutually exclusive. I think the label itself is irrelevant. The way I see it, if you live your life as if there is no “supernatural” or beyond nature — which includes gods, angels, demons, ghosts, spirits, “the force,” etc. — then you’re pretty much an atheist. And since I live my life as if there is no supernatural, I simply say that I’m an atheist.

    But there is another reason I say I’m an atheist. The label atheist has become such a pejorative amongst the faithful that I purposely throw it in their faces, so they have to deal with it, get past it. It’s similar to how members of the gay community have embraced the word queer. If anyone thinks calling me an atheist is an insult of some kind, well, I’m hear to say I’m not insulted at all. I’ll call myself an atheist, without qualm.

    • Avatar
      ardeare  June 11, 2018

      I’ll pray for you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that on the internet and watched atheists fly into complete rages. To me, that’s the difference. Agnostics take that comment in stride, reason it away, or laugh it off.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 12, 2018

        I do notice that those who embrace the atheist label do tend to be on the angrier side. Hence why you’re more likely to come across a “militant” atheist than a “militant” agnostic. There also seems to be a positive correlation between Mythicism and those who call themselves atheists. I’m the acception that proves that rule. I have no problem accepting the label “militant atheist” but I’m certainly not a Mythicist.

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 10, 2018

    I call call myself an agnostic also. I do like your point that Atheism is a belief and Agnosticism is a claim to knowledge. Yet, I have often lumped Theists and Atheists together because both are often very adamant that their beliefs are the only right ones…but both their positions are unfalsifiable for the existence of God is not something that can be proven nor disproved. I don’t believe in any God from any religion for they lack evidence and seem all too human with our human prejudices and frailties.

    So I don’t know if there is a God or not. However, somedays I do wonder though if the existence of the universe and humanity on planet earth 🌏 is simply some “accident” of science?

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  June 10, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When you were a believer, did you also have a total world view where god explained the beginning of existence, fine tuning, morality, etc.?

    When you lost your faith, how did your explanation of those events change along with you belief in the Judeo-Christian deity? Many agnostics still hold that a creator is the best explanation of our universe rather than cosmic chance.


    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      Yes indeed. I believe in a big bang for our universe, and a multi-verse, with probably billions of universes. So in our own we are in a galaxy with 200 billion stars (!); and it is one of 2 trillion galaxies (!); and there are billions of universes. So, it’s not at all implasubile that life appeared such as ours in one solar system. Maybe billions!

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 11, 2018

        The material universes never began and will never end? Not a direct question to anyone in particular.

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 11, 2018

        In my humble opinion, before the Big Bang Theory became generally believed in the world of science, the previous theory of cosmological origins was the Steady State Theory.

        The Steady State Theory totally did away with any need to believe in any God.

        Because the Steady State Theory said, it is the Universe itself which is eternal; it is in a never-ending cycle of expansion / contraction / explosion, expansion, etc. Such a theory eliminates any need to believe in God, since instead of God being eternal, it is the Universe itself.

        The Steady State Theory killed off Thomas Aquinas’ “proof” of the existence of God by arguing First Cause. Aquinas was dead.

        But the Big Bang Theory has brought Aquinas back to life — because, just HOW did that amazing singularity — the singularity of infinitesimal size but infinite mass , and a TOTAL LACK of Thermodynamic Entropy — HOW did it just come together?

        IMPOSSIBLE to believe it was spontaneously, sua sponte.

        ONLY a Creator, external to this singularity, could have put it together.

        Aquinas lives again.

        • Avatar
          prestonp  June 12, 2018

          Background radiation creates a problem if I want to believe the universes/matter are eternal, because it allows us to date the time (13.7 billion years ago) when nothingness became something and exploded. From all known laws of physics and science, that cannot happen. Nothing “happens” without a preceding cause or a preceding event. “Well, what created God?” By definition, God always was. That’s exactly what God must be to be God.

          • Altosackbuteer
            Altosackbuteer  June 14, 2018

            That is precisely the conclusion that Thomas Aquinas arrived at.

          • Avatar
            flcombs  June 14, 2018

            “by definition” is exactly the point: it is a definition designed to make itself true. You can just as easily define the universe as eternal and not need a creator. You didn’t explain why God should be an exception to rules you apply in other cases. Your explanation of the universe ignores multiverse or other explanations that would by definition make it eternal. I don’t mind what you want to believe. I’m just pointing out that your logic doesn’t make any proof of a creator and there are other explanations. If scientists at this point are required to prove where the universe came from or accept existence of a creator, then if theists can’t prove where God came from they must reject that theory. Not knowing or being able to prove something is not the same as proofing an alternative. So why not “by definition, the universe always was.” And like if a creator, we just don’t know what was before the singularity… By definition.

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 16, 2018

            Seems like you’re attacking science as much as religion with that post.

            Sure, there’s always going to be some doubt about everything.

            So aren’t atheists the most arrogant of all in insisting there is no creator?

            We’re all going to believe things, no matter what. We can prove small things, the big things will always remain fuzzy.

            If you’d tolerate the beliefs of others, maybe they’d be a little more tolerant of yours?

          • Avatar
            lasermazer  June 21, 2018

            There is also a theory of cosmic “inflation” which says that in the early stages of the Big Bang, the universe had a different “vacuum state” (the notion that the vacuum has a particular quantum state is part of quantum field theory) which caused space to be expanding very rapidly, until it experienced a “vacuum decay” to the current vacuum state. This theory was postulated to account for certain problems with older Big Bang models such as the “horizon problem” and the “flatness problem”, and it makes new predictions about the spectrum of the cosmic background radiation which seem to agree nicely with observations. But although physicists don’t have an exact model of the inflationary vacuum state (something that would require a future theory, like string theory, that unifies the basic forces of physics) apparently some broad plausible assumptions about the inflationary vacuum lead to the implication of “eternal inflation”, where even if any given region of inflating space is likely to experience decay to a non-inflating state very quickly, new inflating space is being generated so quickly that inflation would always be continuing in some part of the universe, constantly giving birth to new non-inflating “bubble universes” in different parts of the inflationary background (the ‘inflationary multiverse’). In this case the physical world as a whole could be eternal even if the non-inflating part of spacetime we can observe (the ‘observable universe’) has only existed for 13.7 billion years.

        • Avatar
          flcombs  June 12, 2018

          And where did “the creator” come from? What was the first cause for that? Something as powerful and complex as such a creator would have certainly require a creator and could not exist by chance unless a universe could as well.

          If it doesn’t require knowledge or proof of a creator’s creation to claim a creator exists, then there is no reason to require knowledge or proof to explain the “big bang” without including a creator. There are many things unknown or better known through time as history has shown. Not having all the answers to something doesn’t prove an alternative as true, especially when it has unanswered questions as well. After all, if theists want to claim that scientists have to have all the answers and totally prove them to be accepted, then theists must reject the Bible as being from the “true god” by the same standard. There are many issues about the Bible that are answered with multiple possible answers but no proof of any of them being the “true” answer.

          It doesn’t matter to me if there is or isn’t a creator emotionally: I just want the evidence and facts to decide. But the logic arguments often used to try to prove the need for a creator fail or are not consistent. Of course, then you have the issue of figuring out which IF ANY of the religions have anything to do with such a creator. It’s not like it is Atheist/agnostic OR Christianity. I may choose Venus given if I have to choose. The power of love has been proven many times over!

          • Altosackbuteer
            Altosackbuteer  June 14, 2018

            You asked, “And where did “the creator” come from? What was the first cause for that? Something as powerful and complex as such a creator would have certainly require a creator and could not exist by chance unless a universe could as well.”

            Ah — you have arrived at the whole crux of Aquinas’ logic. You are asking the same question Aquinas did, because you’ve realized the absurdity of his logic, reductio ad absurdum. Who created the Creator? Only a Creator who came before, right? But then who created THAT Creator?

            It goes on infinitely.

            This forced Aquinas to conclude that Whoever was the Creator of THE VERY FIRST THING that ever existed MUST Himself be UNcreated. NOTHING created Him; He ALWAYS existed. And therefore, according to Aquinas, God must exist and be real.

            The point I was making was that SOMETHING which is ETERNAL MUST be responsible for the Universe.

            In the Steady State Theory of Creation, that “something” which is eternal is the Universe itself — and therefore, there is no need for God at all.

            But Science has since abandoned this theory, and proposes a Big Bang Theory. But then, who created the primordial speck of infinitesimal size and infinite mass? Only something eternal could have.

            Aquinas lives again.

            PS: ALL the current cosmological theories depend on an ironclad assumption that the speed AND frequency of light are ALWAYS constant. In other words, light NEVER slows down or gets “tired.”

            It is true, we have never OBSERVED light slowing down. Not directly.

            But if light did slow down, what WOULD we observe? We would observe Doppler red-shifting. Just as, when the police car races past you with the siren going, all of a sudden, when it moves away, the pitch drops. What is happening? The sound is still coming at you at the speed of sound, but the pitch is lower because the emitter is receding from you. That is the Doppler effect in action.

            Why would light itself not behave like anything else that exists? We know that ALL things degrade and decay over time. Why is light any different? We KNOW that strong gravity can BEND light waves. Why would it not slow down the light too?

            In modern theory, all the red-shifting we see, according to our theories, happens because the objects recede from us at relativistic velocities. But if light itself slows down, what would we observe? Why, we’d observe RED-SHIFTING. How then, can we EVER tell if a given object is truly receding from us, or whether it is so far away that it’s very light has red-shifted? EITHER way, what we would observe is THE IDENTICAL RED SHIFT.

            In other words, while we can readily observe red-shifting of light, we will never be able to tell WHY the red shift is occurring — because the objects are receding at relativistic speeds, or because their very light is slowing down.

            By the way, some scientists are saying that the objects in question not only are receding from us, but that their very RATE of receding ITSELF IS ACCELERATING. Well — how can THAT be? SOMETHING must be PUSHING these objects to make that happen. God?

            If light itself slows down — and we can NEVER tell if it does or does not — then all cosmological theories belong in the garbage can.

          • Avatar
            prestonp  June 14, 2018

            Background radiation is evidence that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago.

            By definition, GOD always was. He never had a beginning. He doesn’t end. If you’d prefer to change the definition, that’s fine.

      • Avatar
        turtlepc  August 1, 2018

        Evidence weighs heavily on a simulated universe… simulated simulation actually… big bang / multiverse is somewhat disproven.. string theory.. disproven (imho).. hasn’t actually answered any questions… and that’s where the multiverse was born… they’re working on quasi-crystals now… we’ll see.. 8-dimensional universe concept… my larger concern is with climate to be honest… either way – love your work – thank you for opening my eyes

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 11, 2018

      Calling the scientific view of the universe “chance” has always seemed odd to me. If you don’t take into consideration the infinite number of “things” that can possibly “exist,” then, yes, the existence of those things that do exist seems rather unlikely. But if you take into account the infinite number of things that we can imagine existing — from cockatrices to planet-sized robots, from a planet covered in sentient jelly to a world inhabited solely by trillions of hamsters — then the likelihood of the existence of our universe doesn’t seem so odd.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 17, 2018

        What can be imagined is one thing. Can you make a universe? How about a star? A planet? A grain of sand, from nothing?

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  June 10, 2018

    Great post Bart! … I’m not even going to require your attention by posting a comment or question.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      Ha! And I won’t even acknowledge your decision not to comment by replying to your non-comment!

  5. Telling
    Telling  June 10, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    In Karl’s Marx’s — founder of modern communism — earlier writings, he speaks of “atheism” as being non-theist (a-theist like a-political). He lived in Europe where a belief in Jesus Christ was mandatory, the countries he lived under being Christian states. He identified the northern United States as being “atheist”, no required belief in Jesus Christ.

    “Agnostic”, like “atheist”, is such a term that, using same logical reasoning, should mean “non-Gnostic”. I suspect the root of the term must be something of that nature, perhaps a believer in “knowledge” without the requisite attached stories and founders. But the two terms defined this way are virtually identical. But you may be right that “a-gnostic” recognizes “knowledge” whereas “a-theist” recognizes only secularism.

    On a slightly different twist, this seems a good time to ask you about a book I picked up yesterday titled “John the Baptist and the last Gnostics”, by Andrew Phillip Smith. It is a scholarly researched book focusing on the “Mandaeans”, a small surviving religious group focusing on baptism on the Jordon River and having John the Baptist as their founder. I’ve read only the introduction. Are you familiar with it, and if so, do you find it credible?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      No, I’m afradi we don’t know it. My understanding is that our sources for *ancient* Mandaeism are very, very thin indeed.

      • Telling
        Telling  June 11, 2018

        I’m not far into the book, but from the start the author says essentially what you say, except that there are surviving Mandaeans still practicing the religion and it’s rituals, baptizing the flock in the “Jordon” river (actually any clean river available) and who see John the Baptist as their central figure. The author suggests that John the B. may not have been there to introduce Jesus but was actually founding or a part of a new religious movement. if Jesus was actually baptized by him as is in the Bible this would show a link to Gnosticism, for it is such ideas Mandaeans embrace. But being their present-day remnants were mostly in Syria and Iraq, they are among the displaced, victims of terrorism and losing their culture under Western homogeneous society. I’ll post anything more I find of interest as I continue reading.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 11, 2018

        I’m in the middle of reading the Pseudo-Clementine literature, and I’ve noticed some similarities between them and the Mandean literature. The two are more Jewish than the received orthodox literature, yet both seem to actively support some inchoate gnostic ideas of their times and places. I’m also in the middle of reading the Corpus Hermetica, which also seems to have a taste of gnosticism (particularly of the Alexandrian sort). I get the impression that between the 2nd and 3rd centuries gnosticism practically exploded onto the scene. We get the sense from historians that gnosticism was almost a fringe movement compared to orthodox christianity, but it looks to me like, if anything, the gnostics were gaining the majority in the beginning, while the orthodox were on the defensive. And the situation only started to reverse at the end of the 3rd century.

        Would you agree with that, Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2018

          Which Mandean literature are you reading? Dates? But yes, the Corpus Hermeticum is often understood as being a very early and different (non-Christian) form of gnostic thought.

        • Telling
          Telling  June 12, 2018


          I’m very certain Jesus taught the Gnostic (knowledge) message. He wasn’t teaching salvation by way of his own coming demise, nor was he creating a cult group by telling people fo personally follow him. If he was, then he was no Master, and I don’t feel that’s true (I don’t feel he was not a Master teacher).

          • talmoore
            talmoore  June 14, 2018

            My suspicion is that Jesus taught pretty much the same things as John the Baptist (and this is the Jesus I have chosen to put in my novel). Namely, Jesus “taught” — if he taught anything at all — that the only way to salvation was by returning to God (or as we would put it today, repentance), and that such a return required a handful of prescribed acts. The most important of those acts probably included (but were not limited to): Following the Torah; Admitting to God your previous transgressions and asking for forgiveness of them; Belief in the coming Day of Judgment, the Messiah and the Kingdom (or World-to-come). If you do those things, at the very least, you will be saved. Otherwise, you will be punished, either through a stint in Gehenna (i.e. Hell) or through obliteration.

            I say Jesus “taught” these things — in quotes — because these weren’t ideas that his disciples and followers needed to be taught. In all likelihood, his followers knew all of that stuff already. What probably drew Jesus’ followers to him was two claims: A) He had received the Holy Spirit (in a sign of the endtimes), which bestowed certain powers on him, such as the power of prophesying and healing. B) Along with these powers, Jesus was gifted with divine knowledge, which allowed him to expound on scripture without any previous education or knowledge. For example, before the Holy Spirit came to Jesus, he couldn’t tell an alef from a tav. But after, Jesus could recite the Torah and Prophets from memory, and interpret them better than the most learned scribe. That’s the kind of man that the historical Jesus likely claimed to be.

            I should be clear that I don’t think Jesus actually taught any of this stuff. He simply showed off his “skills” for effect — just like one would expect the typical charlatan to do. That is, he didn’t actually have any of these gifts. He only pretended to, because, as with most cults and their leaders, his followers like it and believed it, so he kept up the pretense.

            I would be very much surprised if the historical Jesus taught anything remotely close to what we would call gnosticism.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 16, 2018

            Hi talmoore,

            A book titled “John the Baptist and the Last Gnostics” published last year, link:
            tells of a small remnant of surviving “Mandaeans” in Syria and Iraq who’s central figure is John the Baptist.

            This sect follows a Gnostic message, something you might want to look at. If John the B. was living in the wilderness he was probably a believer in “knowledge” not church doctrine. The author considers that John the B. may not have been ushering in the Jesus ministry, but was of his own religious group or was founding one. If Jesus really came to him for baptism it would link Jesus too to Gnosticism,

            There is always a running thread of mysticism in any era, the Gnostics being merely mystics who were Jesus followers. The above book tells of how the Mandaeans came to reside alongside the Iranian Zoroastrian and Muslim religions, yet to this day their main religious practice is baptism. I’m just a chapter into the book now.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 16, 2018


            I looked back at the thread and I see it was here we were discussing the Mandaeans. The link I gave you above is by an author who has found surviving Mandaeans. He indicates some are refugees from Syria and Iraq living in the US.

          • Avatar
            prestonp  June 17, 2018

            “He wasn’t teaching salvation by way of his own coming demise, nor was he creating a cult group by telling people fo personally follow him”

            If I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

          • Telling
            Telling  June 17, 2018


            Sorry about the multiple replies.

            I looked at the sacred Mandaean texts link you posted. I write to try to take the “mystery” out of the substance of metaphysical information.

            I’ve mentioned the Jane Roberts/Seth Material here before. These are volumes of books explaining everything there is to know right down to the final nuts and bolts. My only unanswered question is “Why am I, I?” — also a Buddhist unanswerable puzzle used as a mantra: “Who am I”, but that can almost be answered whereas “Why am I, I” seemingly cannot. (I have one last unread volume to read, however)

            But anyway, there are multiple volumes of Seth Material that reduce the supposedly mysterious afterlife and spirit world and such into ordinary plain language, in a way that scientifically makes sense. You may be acquainted with the material, most people are not though.

            Link to his 2nd book:

  6. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 10, 2018

    Professor’s remarks about atheism v. agnosticism remind me of something a committed Marxist once told me about the differences between a Socialist and a Communist.

    REAL Communists despise Socialists. Why? Because they see the Socialists as wimps. The give the Socialists credit for seeing the problem(s) and the solution(s) the same way the Communists do, but despise the Socialists because they lack the testicular fortitude to ACT, to follow the course of action which their own logic ought to compel them to take.

    In other words — if the Capitalists are the problem — and both Communists and Socialists agree that they are — then the only reasonable, logical, and humane thing to do is to ACT on such a belief and stamp out the Capitalists, ruthlessly and violently, to swiftly transform the world and make it a better place.

    But the Socialists would rather sit back in tea parlors, and TALK about what the problem is, but not actually DO anything about it.

    • Telling
      Telling  June 11, 2018

      That “committed” Marxist is probably voicing present conventional belief, but it does not come from Marx or the major “communist” countries.

      Marx wrote, presenting the fact that 98% of the people (Europe I presume) owned only 2% of wealth while 2% owned 98% of the wealth (true in the 1800’s). He didn’t declare wealthy people as selfish (as is popular today). He said it was logical that this happened out of the normal evolution of society into the industrial age. But it was wrong and had to be changed. He said the only entity having power to change it is the State (seems reasonable on the surface, doesn’t it?). He proposed that the State confiscate the 98% of the property that just 2% of the people own and divide it evenly among the people in a one-time shot, at which point the people would all own their own property.

      The two major communist countries supposedly used Marx as their blueprint. A top official of the Soviet regime during the 1980’s said publicly in a statement (I heard it on TV) that the Soviet Union was not communist, they were socialist. And he said they are “on the road to communism”. This makes sense, given what Marx wrote.
      And it is in their name: “Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics” (USSR).

      It does seem that they got to the part of confiscating all the property and were then on the road toward distributing it back to the people, slowly, very very slowly. After 70 years the people got fed up and the rest is history.

  7. Avatar
    doug  June 10, 2018

    I’m a non-believer in God, and my views about “atheist” and “agnostic” are very much like yours. Even Richard Dawkins does not completely rule out the possibility that God (as it is commonly conceived of in the Judeo-Christian tradition) exists. But given the horrific and widespread suffering there is in the world, I think it is highly unlikely that such a God created it, allows it, or exists.

  8. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  June 10, 2018

    Most of these arguments can be reduced to the issue of “truth.” What does “true” mean, and how do we determine what is “true?” It’s one of the stickiest of problems. And rarely tackled. Very often, arguments revolve around the differing views among participants of what “true” would mean.

    • Telling
      Telling  June 11, 2018

      We can look at Descartes’ famous line “I think therefore I am”.

      Truth is we are “thinking things”, formless beings that think thoughts and then dream them in a three-dimensional “reality”, and this “hardens” (evolves from the inside) into what we believe is a physical world. Truth is, as formless beings we are potentially equal, the foundation morality derived from this truth; “All men are equal”, a creation (men and activity) founded on the truth that one awareness is no different than another awareness. They cannot be categorized, weighed, dissected, they are just things thinking thoughts. Take that to the bank.

      Well, you asked.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  June 10, 2018

    Terms are inherently muddy.

    People with radically differing ideas and approaches to life call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, pagans, etc.

    But at least those are, or have been, defined systems of belief.

    Atheism is mainly just a declared absence of belief–that then too frequently strives to be more dogmatic and hidebound than the theistic systems.

    Agnosticism is a redundancy. To be a finite being is to be incapable of absolute perfect knowledge, to always be uncertain of what you know–therefore everybody is agnostic.

    I’d be a lot more impressed with people who turn away from religion if they really did turn away. But they keep on defining themselves in opposition to it, and thus remain a part of it. Like someone who never stops complaining about his parents, and will go on blaming them for everything, even after they’re dead.

    People should worry about whether they are themselves. In the best sense. But lacking that sense of groundedness, they hide behind terms, and their identity just gets muddier.

    • Telling
      Telling  June 12, 2018


      Buddhism’s “nirvana”, too, is a state of mind that is absent of beliefs, and without beliefs the self ceases to exist. Yet it still perceives. This state, having detachment from forms, brings end to suffering and death, for with the endless cycle of temporal “narratives” ceasing, there can be no death and subsequent birth.

      It is a far cry from modern atheism, however, and “God” is a term not used by Buddhists. They call it “mind” or “big mind”.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 16, 2018

        But again, terms are muddy. If we all mean the same thing down deep, what difference does it make what terms we use?

        And I know a bit about Buddhism already–one of the things I know is that Buddhists don’t all agree with each other, and many venerate images of Buddha as if he was God, even though that’s not what Buddha intended, and isn’t what more sophisticated forms of Buddhism contend.

        As a (lapsed) Catholic, sounds familiar. Each understands in his or her own way, and practices in accordance with his or her needs.

        • Telling
          Telling  June 18, 2018


          There are many methods toward reaching the end game, but there can be only one end game.

          It is my opinion that people are utterly incapable of comprehending a continuing eternal life and so must have a birth and a death — placing artificial boundaries upon themselves.

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 25, 2018

            I don’t see how we can know how many endgames there are, or whether there are any.

            You don’t really think it’s going to be like South Park, and when we die we find out which religion was right (spoiler alert–The Mormons).

            I don’t believe we could have unending eternal consciousness, no. I don’t see why anyone would want that. To outlive the universe itself? No body, no new experiences, just hanging out with your loved ones forever? How is that even life?

            I don’t rule out an afterlife, but it would be nothing at all like this one, and we’d have to be changed to the point where we were no longer human beings. I think most people imagine heaven as just a continuation of the lie they knew, with the people they knew. But you had that already.

            It’s entirely possible to imagine (as many have) that there are many heavens, many hells, all tailored to the individual. So let’s just agree to disagree about what neither of us can rationally prove, eh? 😉

          • Telling
            Telling  June 26, 2018


            I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, that you cannot see an eternal existence as productive. As I said above, we must die because we are afraid to live.

            I’ve studied metaphysics for more than 40 years and I do see a convergence between the various disciplines and religions, Their methods are different, and are couched in stories and myths, but the end game, as I say, comes across clearly, particularly given that there are entities beyond the grave communicating with us, typically through automatic writing or a medium. There is a lot of fraud, of course, but there are authentic ones as well, particularly the Jane Roberts/Seth Material written in the 1970’s which I think is the best in the world, we’ll never find anything better or more thorough in answering every “unknowable” question,

            For example, Seth answers the unknowable question of whether computers can one-day think and reason like a human. Seth’s answer is direct and simple: “No,” because “computers cannot dream”. And he thoroughly explains why dreaming is so critical to human functioning.

            So the information is there, but the Catholic Church has instructed us to avoid that information, it is their turf, we’re to only trust the Church regarding other-worldly matters. But I’m not Christian and feel no need to obey them,

            So you and I can disagree, fine. But the “unknowable” information is readily available if you look for it,

          • Telling
            Telling  June 26, 2018


            In fact, (Jane Roberts)/Seth tells of a “direct knowing” that all life possesses, and of “human reasoning”, the latter of which only happens when the information is incomplete. All life possesses all knowledge within itself and thus has everything available to it. This is how a dog knows when his master is coming home for example, and why there are people who can add up complex numbers in their head instantly yet may seem otherwise dumb — it is through direct knowing, of which the dream state is involved.

            Reasoning, Seth says, forces out our “Direct knowing” heritage, and so we forget the intuitional things that are ours by right, But he also says reasoning is necessary for supporting the Human species. It explains the differences between animal and human processes of the brain, and answers why computers cannot ever duplicate human reasoning — because reasoning, unique to humans, is supported by an underlying “direct knowing” which cannot be duplicated externally.

  10. Robert
    Robert  June 10, 2018

    Some atheists can be as closed-minded and dogmatic as the worst religious fundamentalists, whereas belief in an actual God, infinitely beyond our ability to define or conceptualize, should require the most open-minded and humble attitude imaginable toward the unknown.

  11. Avatar
    Tricia  June 10, 2018

    The tendency to fight constantly to defend or argue a position can sometimes stem from insecurity. That’s my thought about argumentative Christians as well–to convince others helps them reassure themselves of their own believing.

    My thought on this topic is that believing in “something” is inherent in human beings. The early establishment of burial practices is evidence of some kind of belief. The deification of nature, the reliance on luck and fate, and even the defense of political views are all evidence that we believe things and can imagine things that don’t exist in nature.

    So, as I see it, an atheist believes there is no God. An agnostic believes “not knowing” is the more logical position to take.

  12. Avatar
    Tony  June 10, 2018

    Technically, all atheists are agnostic in some sense. The question: “is it possible there is a God”, has to be yes – because anything is possible. The real question is about probabilities. For example, does an agnostic thinks God is a 50/50 probability or one in a billion? If it’s one in a billion, which is very close to zero, the term a-theist would be appropriate.

    Most atheists fall into a theism trap and state they don’t BELIEVE in a God. A more accurate phrase for atheists to use would be that they see, “NO EVIDENCE for a God”. Natural processes, such as quantum fluctuations and evolution, can explain the universe and life on earth. Supernatural intervention is not necessary.

    Of course, Christian theism goes well beyond the basics and claims not only that there is a God, but that this God is good, cares about humanity and had a son who God resurrected after God sacrificed him first. Believing in this carries a reward of eternal life. Personally, I consider that scenario highly improbable and consequently I’ll take my chances of missing out on the eternal life promise.

  13. John4
    John4  June 10, 2018

    Perhaps, Bart, you’re familiar with the story Bertrand Russell tells about himself in the second volume of his autobiography. When Russell was imprisoned for his pacifism during World War I, there were forms to be filled out at check in.

    “Name?” asked the warden.

    “Bertrand Russell.”


    Russell gave his address.


    “Agnostic!” Russell replied.

    At that point, the good jailer paused, scratched his head, and commented, “Well, it’s all the same god, I suppose.”

    Thanks, as always, Bart! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018


    • Avatar
      godspell  June 16, 2018

      //The Los-Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance has acquired a 1937 letter written by Bertrand Russell in which the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher says if the Nazi army invades his native England the British should invite Adolf Hitler to dinner rather than fight.

      The museum, part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, announced Wednesday that it paid $4,000 for the letter at a London auction last month.

      “If the Germans succeed in sending an invading army to England we should do best to treat them as visitors, give them quarters and invite the commander and chief to dine with the prime minister,” Russell wrote to British critic Godfrey Carter. “Such behavior would completely baffle them.”

      Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founder, says Bertrand’s letter will be placed in the museum alongside one that Hitler wrote in 1919 outlining the anti-Semitic views that would lead to the Holocaust and killing of 6 million Jews.//

      Not AS funny a story, but it has a certain piquance to it.

      No idiot like an educated idiot, I always say.

      And there are much worse stories about Russell.

  14. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 10, 2018

    Funny enough, I think a case can be made that believers are also agnostic. I’m sure people can debate what it means to have faith, but doesn’t faith, by definition, require doubt? Whether it be lack of definitive proof, complete absence of evidence or having reason to doubt, I think a common thread of having faith is that you believe (for good reason or not) even though you don’t know for sure. If you don’t know, doesn’t that make you an agnostic? And if having faith means that you don’t know, then does faith require one to also be an agnostic? I’m not saying agnostics are also believers. There is still a distinction between agnostics who believe and those who don’t. But that is a matter of belief, not knowledge, which is why both believers and doubters can fall into the same category of those who don’t know.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  June 17, 2018

      Comes down to what you chose to do with what you believe, I suppose. To believe God is does not imply doubts won’t come. If God is, I bet everything I am and have–not much admittedly–that he can prove it.

      Quantum mechanics says there’s a calculable probability that leaning against a solid brick wall, you will pass through it one day.

  15. Avatar
    prestonp  June 10, 2018

    Bruce Metzger, “The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is overwhelming. Nothing in history is more certain than that the disciples believed that, after being crucified, dead, and buried, Christ rose again from the tomb on the third day, and that at intervals thereafter he met and conversed with them.”

    Bart and Bruce agree on most of the essential New Testament teachings.

    What and how does Metzger see what so few can see? The fate of the world hinges on whether or not the resurrection took place.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      Not sure what you mean. Most biblical scholars agree with him; it’s not a minority position.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 11, 2018

        Most people don’t. You don’t. Most of those who comment don’t. And he is “utterly convinced”. But you and he agree on the essential doctrines. Not a direct question to anyone> how is he so certain?

        “What” and “how” does Metzger see what he sees?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2018

          Well, two billion people in the world do, so it’s not a majority but it’s a plurality!

          • Avatar
            prestonp  June 12, 2018

            I’m trying to figure out how Metzger can be so emphatic about the resurrection after spending his life dissecting each word in the N.T. and as a recognized leading authority (now deceased) on text criticism? What is it/why is it/how is it possible what he finds so absolutely compelling that 5.6 billion people don’t/can’t/won’t see? Of those 2 billion who accept the resurrection as a real occurrence, only a handful believe it as if their lives rely upon it. When you were 14 and attended church faithfully, you believed in the resurrection, but it was irrelevant.

            I’m not asking direct questions to anyone, just to be clear. These are things my brain is thinking out loud.

        • Avatar
          godspell  June 12, 2018

          Metzger seems to have believed that scripture was not divinely inspired, but in the case of the gospels, was a reliable record (by the standards of ancient history) of the events of Jesus’ life and immediately afterwards.

          He personally believed in the Resurrection, but the factual statement he is making (as opposed to a statement of faith, which I hope you would not begrudge him, since we all believe things that can never be proven), is that the disciples believed the Resurrection had in fact happened. Well, that’s clearly true. It wouldn’t make sense to claim anything else, and Bart does agree with him about that.

          Many fine historical scholars of no strong religious belief still have prejudices, feelings about the area of their study, and it’s up to the reader to try and identify and then allow for those, whatever they are, wherever they come from.

          If we’re going to settle for nothing but complete and absolute objectivity about our history–in others or ourselves–we will wait a damn long time. Jesus might actually come back before that ever happens. 😉

          • Avatar
            prestonp  June 14, 2018

            “…but in the case of the gospels, was a reliable record (by the standards of ancient history) of the events of Jesus’ life and immediately afterwards.”

            By Metzger’s standards.

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 16, 2018

            By the standards of modern scholarship.

            Lots of things you think you know about ancient history are based on texts less reliable than the gospels. But they don’t offend you personally.

            It works about the same with theists and atheists, so really–what’s the difference?

            Some personalities are open to conflicting truths. And some want to believe they own the truth.

          • Avatar
            prestonp  June 16, 2018

            “Metzger seems to have believed that scripture was not divinely inspired, but in the case of the gospels, was a reliable record (by the standards of ancient history) of the events of Jesus’ life and immediately afterwards.”

            The point is that Metzger believed it was/is the most reliable historical fact. Jesus rose from the dead according to the disciples, no question, period. These were grown men. They knew the difference between ghosts and apparitions and fairy tales. They were with this guy for years. They could recognize him as well as anyone could. They had no clue what he was talking about when he referred to his death and resurrection; no idea, and one day he was executed and it was the end of their world.

            And then they saw him and heard him and Tom touched the guy.

            As we sit back and analyze these things from this great distance, how easy it is to lose sight of what was unfolding before their eyes. A man, claiming to be God, rose from Death

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 17, 2018

            I am only saying that with scholar, in any field, you have to draw a line between what they believe personally, and what they know factually. Ideally, the scholar also sees the line between the two, and allows for it, but if he/she doesn’t, you must.

            No less true of Bart than his teacher. Who he respects, and rightly so.

            But he had to move on, as any pupil must, if he is to become a master in his own right.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 18, 2018

            And don’t forget, Metzger had teachers too, who were world class scholars. And *they* didn’t believe what *he* did. Doesn’t make them right. But doesn’t make him right either!

  16. Rick
    Rick  June 10, 2018

    “He who knows not,
    and knows not that he knows not,
    is a fool; shun him.

    He who knows not,
    and knows that he knows not,
    is a student; Teach him.

    He who knows,
    and knows not that he knows,
    is asleep; Wake him.

    He who knows,
    and knows that he knows,
    is Wise; Follow him.”


    Sorry – could not resist

  17. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  June 10, 2018

    The redefinition campaign to make ‘atheism’ just lack of belief is one of the most frustrating things for me. Essentially nobody in the philosophical community uses that definition, it’s not the historical definition and it would lead to the conclusion that propositions cannot be atheistic as only psychological states can be atheistic. Furthermore, it seems that it’s mainly inspired with the intent to shift the burden of proof in discussion. I know that words change meaning and that if someone is consistent with their usage that it’s not that big a deal, but it seems like the vast majority of time people make statements like “Belief in God is delusional” or compare it to a flying spaghetti monster, and then retreat to ‘Oh I’m an *agnostic* atheist’ when they are asked for any evidence to back their disbelief. I’m not saying that’s true of you Bart, but it’s something that’s really annoyed me of late.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      Could you explain a bit more? Atheism as a word is Greek, taking the term theism (belief that there is a divine power who runs the world) and adding to it an alpha privative, which turns it into its opposite (one who does not subscribe to theism). What are you thinking of as a better definition?

      • Avatar
        Franz Liszt  June 11, 2018

        I would recommend the definition that has historically been used by great secular luminaries such as Bertrand Russel and Albert Camus and is advanced on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: a propositional claim that God does not exist. Think of it like this, theism is defined as a proposition that God does exist. It is not simply a psychological state one is in. If that were the case, then it wouldn’t make sense to speak of theism being true or false, as it is merely a description of one’s psychological state and not a proposition about the objective world. Then since theism describes a proposition about the actual world, the ‘a’ in atheism doesn’t describe a lack of a psychological state, but a negation of a propositional claim.

        I would also argue that this definition (the proposition that God does not exist) is the more popular and has been used universally historically. The only reason why there’s been a push by new atheists like Hitchens and Harris on this (in my judgment) is to shift the burden of proof. To make claims that belief in God is akin to believing in a flying spaghetti monster is not simply ‘lack of belief’ but strong disbelief. It seems that the only reason people have pushed for the redefinition (at least initially) is so that when pressed on arguments in favor of their proposition they can fall back on “I’m only an *agnostic* atheist.” Again, not saying that’s what you’re doing Bart, but I see that a lot.

        I’d also just add that regardless of the etymological structure of the word (which I still think lends itself to the more traditional definition, at least if we’re defining theism as a proposition), that wouldn’t necessarily describe the ‘proper’ definition. I consider you a wise person Bart, but I wouldn’t call you a ‘Sophist’, even though in a rigid etymological sense those mean the same thing. We know from historical usage that that definition is wrong.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 12, 2018

          I just think there is a difference between theism and gnosticism, both negated with an alpha privative, one dealing with belief in God and the other dealing with knowledge. But I see your point. It’s actually what I used to think, until someone convinced me otherwise!

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  June 11, 2018

      I think we’re agreeing that atheism is not a lack of belief; it is a belief—a belief that there is no God. In some of the discussions I’ve been in, someone will try to force a theist to provide evidence for God while excusing himself from explanation by using the term “agnostic atheist.” It’s a clever argument to confound the theist.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 12, 2018

        So when John Scot Eriugena (now revered as a Catholic saint) wrote “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”–what did that make him?

        It’s amusing when atheists think they invented paradox. Honestly, when it comes to ideas, the only thing they have invented is nothing. 😉

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  June 12, 2018

      It seems to me that your frustration stems from the mistaken notion that you could “debate” someone into becoming a theist. I doubt many (if any) converts have been made through quibbling over burdens-of-proof.

  18. Avatar
    GregAnderson  June 10, 2018

    I often wish the term agnostic had never been invented. People confuse it for the concept of being open minded. Of course rational people are open minded on the possibility of the occurrence of some extremely rare events. But they don’t keep an open mind for the absurd.

    I’m willing to wager, Dr. Ehrman, that you aren’t the least bit “agnostic” about the existence of Huitzilopochtli. Or Xenu. Or the Angel Moroni. Or Shambhu. Or even The Great Prophet Zarquon.

    No, I’m willing to bet that you don’t give any of those deities even a moment’s reflection or consideration.

    On the other hand, I’d also bet that while you’re skeptical that an original 1st century gospel will ever be found, you’re completely “agnostic” on the topic, to the point that you’d be very eager to hear any and all claims about such a discovery.

    But if I ran to you tomorrow with exciting news about new proofs of the existence of Cagn? I’m going to bet you wouldn’t find the time to listen to me.

    You’re an atheist. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      I’m an atheist when it comes to any particular god, yes, quite strongly. But in face of the wonders of the multi-verse, I simply don’t know what’s in or behind it all. No clue.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 11, 2018

      You get an Uptick for mentioning the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli!

  19. Avatar
    prestonp  June 10, 2018

    “But what about that poor three-year-old child who starved to death since you started reading this paragraph?”

    400,000 dollars would have kept her alive. $400,000 would keep many from starving. If we wanted to, we could feed all the world’s hungry. If WE wanted to. That’s “our problem” and the children who will awaken this morning in excruciating pain.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      I *completely* agree. On the other hand, for the entire 200,000 years of the existence of homo sapiens, only for about the past century has that been true. So I don’t base my belief in God on what’s just true for those in my lifetime….

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 11, 2018

        The time is always “now” to save starving children. There’s never been a rational reason for allowing the hungry to starve to death. If mankind throughout history decided to make food available for everyone, if this was a universal, top level and urgent concern of ours all along, we would have and could still feed everyone.

        • Avatar
          HawksJ  June 20, 2018

          Actually, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s quite rational- and precisely what one would expect in a world not controlled by a god.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 11, 2018

      There’s an enormous chuck of humanity that is looking forward to paradise after death, while a small minority of humanity is earnestly trying to create a paradise on earth, here and now. Alas, that’s part of the problem.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 17, 2018

        I have to be honest here.

        I believe Jesus was looking for paradise on earth, but he didn’t believe humans by themselves could create such a world, because of those damn goats.

        I’ve read a lot of history regarding people who group together to try and make paradise on earth, often after rejecting theistic religion.

        It’s very grim reading. Whole lot of death. Honestly, after reading about the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, The Third Reich, the Chinese Revolution, or whatever the hell happened in Cambodia, I might want to read about the Spanish Inquisition, just to cheer myself up. Maybe a little Dostoevsky, for laughs.

        Yes, we should work to make this a better world.

        But we should understand that perfection is not something that can ever exist in the mortal realm.

        So let’s imagine it somewhere else, if we must. Rather than force our fellow mortals into artificial molds they were not shaped to fit. We can all make our own paradises, march to our own drummers, and not worry if others see it differently. There is room in this world for a variety of life, and life, according to Darwin, never stops changing, so how could we ever find a perfect state, when we ourselves are in constant flux?

        Sartre wasn’t kidding when he said hell is other people.

        But so is heaven.

        It’s our choice.

  20. Avatar
    mikezamjara  June 11, 2018

    What if you call yourself an “Ehrmanist”? I think that is a more appropiate term.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 11, 2018

      Ah, I’m certainly that! As self-centered as they come!

      • Avatar
        prestonp  June 11, 2018

        “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?” Bart

        “For me, at the time, it felt like an enormous relief, a lifting of burden, a sense of connecting with the universe in a way I never had before. Very powerful!”
        “At that point Jesus became not only my Lord and Savior, but also my best friend and closest ally.”
        “Jesus was my model of self-giving love…”

        You were on a spiritual journey dedicated to a model of self-giving love you found in your best friend and closest ally. That’s an example of a form of belief and knowledge a 16 year old held that to me far exceeds what many adults or more “mature” people often think.

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