Why Bart Ehrman is Wrong

CNN has an article about a recent atheist conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Much of it focuses on the difficulties of being an atheist in the Bible belt, but there’s one section in it that jumped out at me. I’m afraid I have to disagree with Bart Ehrman on this one:

Bart Ehrman doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who backs down from a fight.

The University of North Carolina scholar often seeks them out, regularly debating the Bible and early Christianity with evangelicals and other experts.

But Ehrman told the atheists gathered in Raleigh not to bother arguing with fundamentalists.

“You can’t convince a fundamentalist that he or she is wrong,” he said. Their theology is a closed system, according to Ehrman, and their social bonds with fellow fundamentalists are too tightly knit to admit any wiggle room.

“You can point to any contradiction in the Bible and it just doesn’t matter. They will either find some way to reconcile it or say that even if they don’t understand it, God does.”

Though I have in the past made similar arguments myself, I now disagree with him on this. There are undoubtedly individual people that it is pointless to argue with, but the idea that you can’t convince a fundamentalist that they’re wrong is clearly false. I used to be one and I no longer am and that is largely the result of confronting evidence and arguments to the contrary. In fact, most atheists in this country used to be Christian, many of them of the more fundamentalist varieties. To claim that you cannot change their minds, as a generalization, is simply to deny reality.

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  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    “You can’t convince a fundamentalist that he or she is wrong,” he said.

    I agree. But he does not consider that good arguments might make a dent; might form the first crack in their closed mind; might further spread a minor fracture…

    It might not convince them, but it might start the process.

  • hexidecima

    I agree with you, Ed. I was once a Christian (Presbyterian variety). I find Ehrman’s words to be simply lazy. One has to keep confronting theists at every turn. It does work.

  • raven

    There are undoubtedly individual people that it is pointless to argue with, but the idea that you can’t convince a fundamentalist that they’re wrong is clearly false.

    It can take years though.

    People rarely change their core beliefs quickly.

  • Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    Got it in one Ed. The man who set me on the path out of fundamentalism may have thought I was unreachable, and that the time he spent talking to me was wasted. But it started the doubts, chipped a little crack in my certainty. It took quite a few years, but here I am.

  • thebookofdave

    Bart Ehrman seems to have convinced himself, but his argument is challenged by his own biography.

  • Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm

    Any atheist who used to be a Christian has been convinced by something. Hell, Ehrman himself has a fairly fundy background.

  • acrawford

    I propose one thing fundamentalists have in common is that they feel bad about themselves (due to “Original Sin” or whatever). Instead of arguing facts, which is likely perceived as “yes, you are bad”, what about trying to counter being judgmental? If you don’t judge yourself as being fundamentally flawed or worthless then you won’t feel the need to judge yourself good (godly) or special.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360322113 aaronbaker

    I agree with the folks above. My very gradual withdrawal from religion had a lot to do with arguments and evidence. In fact, I realized at one point that I was kind of astonished at how weak the case for theism is; surely if so many people believed it, there must be some compelling reason in its favor. Didn’t see one, though, and theism seems more improbable to me by the day.

  • Artor

    I think he’s right in general. I too ditched religion for atheism after taking a serious look at the available evidence, but that mostly came from within, after I’d embarked on a search for reality under my own power. For someone happily swimming in the shallow seas of evangelical Xianity or whatever, it’s nearly impossible to rouse them from their state of blissful ignorance. If an outsider presents them with clear evidence that they’re wrong, they clam up and shout, “Get the behind me Satan!” inside at least, even if not out loud. It is a rare and determined Xian who sincerely examines the evidence, once they realize it leads away from their faith.

  • rabbitscribe

    A short time ago, on a website far, far away:

    Fundy: Rawr! Withhold taxes! March on Washington! Kick ’em out and install a Christianist junta, like the constitution says! Do it before it’s too late and they throw us in FEMA camps!

    Me: Romans 13 says the government is legitimate and only evil people have anything to fear from it.

    Fundy: BS! Link it!

    Me: Erm, seriously? OK:

    Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

    Fundy: (long pause) We are the authorities, and the passage is directed at the government. Because the government is no longer in subjection to the people it should be violently overthrown. The taxes refer to its duties towards us, which it’s failed to perform, which is just further proof it’s illegitimate. Checkmate!

    Me: Yeah, um, life is too short. Later.

  • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com/ Bronze Dog

    Plenty of ex-fundies out there. It’s not impossible to convince them, though it may be long and/or hard to do. We can plant the seed of doubt over a conversation. Or we might fertilize one planted by someone else. We’re not necessarily going to be there when it sprouts. It’s easy to get discouraged if we don’t personally see the results, but trends do seem encouraging.

  • Michael Heath

    Bart Ehrman is demonstrably wrong based on the evidence; sloppy indeed.

    Bob Altemeyer found that some of those raised in an right wing authoritarian environment, i.e., fundamentalist Christianity, do not have the psychological profile friendly to authoritarianism where some within this subset are:

    a) young,

    b) intelligent and,

    c) agree with their fundie authority figures that objective truth exists and that truth is incredibly important.

    This population scrutinizes fundamentalism, learn it’s obvious bullshit, and subsequently abandon faith at a relatively young age.

    Bart Ehrman is a prime illustration of this phenomena. So is Ed Brayton; both make a living exposing liars and their lies. However Mr. Ehrman also takes on arguments for which there is no evidence, e.g., Jesus’ existence and crucifixion.

  • nrdo

    I understand Ehrman’s frustration though. He’s probably experienced the “why am I talking to this brick wall?” feeling more than most of us. But yeah, we have to acknowledge and appreciate when we do get through.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    If you argue with a fundie in front of an audience (of 1 or 1,000), you may get a lot further with the listener(s) than with your debate partner.

    The latter won’t notice his own contradictions and blind spots as easily as the former.

  • abb3w

    It’s unlikely any single encounter will trigger a “road to Damascus” style change from religion to irreligion, and expecting one is foolish. Those are by far the exceptions even among the exceptions; the more common deconversion path appears to be incremental.

    Even instilling incremental doubts is challenging. While atheists may or may not be more effective on average at presenting arguments than the overall population, roughly half of atheists are less effective than the average atheist; and presenting a good argument poorly may inoculate against accepting it when more effectively presented subsequently. Additionally, challenges don’t have to be direct; it may sometimes be more effective to challenge their stereotypes of what an atheist is like.

    The talk on debating reminds me of a quote by Larry Niven:

    A novice writer should try anything, not just to pay the rent, but because he needs practice, versatility, skills. Later he must learn to turn down bad offers: the first bump. The second bump comes when he learns to turn down good offers.

    I suspect there may be a parallel in persuasion. Newbies argue with anything in sight, in large part because it helps them develop their own ideas. Those with more experience eventually start to let some idiots slide, since there are better uses for their own time — turning down bad offers for debate. Eventually, they also start turning down “good” offers, like Richard Dawkins refusing to debate William Lane Craig.

  • comfychair

    A whole lot of folks are taught and believe that doubt is a tool of Satan. Dunno how you break through that wall… they think you’re trying to push them over onto the dark side.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    There are undoubtedly individual people that it is pointless to argue with, but the idea that you can’t convince a fundamentalist that they’re wrong is clearly false. I used to be one and I no longer am and that is largely the result of confronting evidence and arguments to the contrary.

    Well, clearly you were never a True Christian.

  • http://famousatheists.net/ Famous Atheists

    I personally know many people who used a fundamentalist Christian and are now atheist, agnostic or deist. It’s not easy be certain is possible to talk sense into some fundamentalists.

  • cjcolucci

    In my own case, I may not have had a deeply-felt belief, though I did go through a phase when I thought the best thing that could possibly happen to me would be to be run over by a truck as I left church after communion, but I never seriously questioned what I had been told until someone told me he could prove it. The proof was not only so thoroughly inadequate as to be laughable, more important, it turned the matter into one of evidence, which it had not been before.

  • David Eriksen

    I wish I’d found this thread a little earlier. I was raised in a fundamentalist community (Southern Baptist) in rural NC. We were the type that went to church 3 times a week. My father even drove the bus for Sunday School. At one point in my childhood, my dream job was to write Christian music. I had drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid.

    Two of my 7th grade teachers created the first cracks in my belief system. I doubt it was their intent but, by the end of that year, I was privately considering myself an agnostic. It wasn’t an instantaneous change and it took years of more growth before I could admit that I’d been an atheist for a long time.

    Anyway, my point is that, just because Bart doesn’t see an immediate deconversion doesn’t mean that one isn’t slowly starting. Other commenters have already said it but chipping away at the walls of ignorance really does work. Like many others here, I’m living proof.

  • https://www.facebook.com/brooks.austin.52 Brooks Austin

    I don’t think Ehrman is saying that pointing out that biblical contradictions can’t shake a person’s dogmatic faith any. Ehrman himself used to be a fundamentalist that later converted to a more progressive Christianity before becoming an agnostic because of contradictions and historical inaccuracies in the bible. I think Ehrman’s point is more about the pointless of the formal religious debates like Ehrman’s own debate with William Lane Craig or the recent waste of time between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

  • wesleyelsberry

    I think it’s a bit over-simplified to simply say Ehrman is wrong. Certainly, a universal claim is probably hyperbole. But I think Ehrman is closer to correct there than not, in the sense that confronting a fundamentalist by direct denial of one of their faith positions is a non-starter.

    I’ve said something similar to what what Ehrman said before myself in comments on PT. The only tactic I see that has some general traction with a fundamentalist audience is showing that apologists that they have been relying upon have been lying to them. And usually this is over procedural issues, not the core faith issues. Being able to show that the apologists play fast and loose with sources, make things up entirely, or get things wrong that are easily checked will disturb a fundamentalist because they have been taught a revrence for truth.

    Now, it certainly might be the case that others here can speak to the fundamentalist conversion process with more authority than I can. I only have two years of attendance at a fundamentalist-run middle school as a guide. But I would ask (a survey would be a good thing) whether the path to doubt began with an attack on a central belief, or was it more along the lines of establishing a particular point of distrust in an allied source? I think that figuring out whether the manner of approach makes a difference could help improve how we go about being convincing in our arguments, even to a fundamentalist audience.

  • Kermit Sansoo

    Like David Erikson, I was raised Southern Baptist. Sunday school, Sunday morning services, Sunday night services, and Wednesday night Prayer Meetin’. Your best chances for introducing a True Believer to reality would be a young* one, intelligent, and one who values truth more than membership in the tribe. This last one is hard and difficult to discern from outside. I was not physically abused, but I was a military brat and moved around quite a bit. I may have Asperger’s. I never really felt at home. If I had been more socially typical, would I have dropped faith and embraced reason? I dunnno, but it would have been harder I think.


    I am of the opinion that most fundamentalists are unreachable. They would rather die than give up their tribal affiliation, and would rather die than give up their self image and certainty about how life works. But since we don’t know ahead of time who is educable, by all means keep trying. And yes, you may plant the seed which eventually leads to their enlightenment, but it may not show as such for a long time. I myself would like to thank Jubal Harshaw** for helping me see the ethical monster that the fundamentalist Yahweh is, and to all those pop science books I read in the 1950s and 1960s which assured me that some adults value the truth of how reality works.


    * “Young” includes young adults exposed to the world for the first time, often in college or the military.

    ** Yes, that Jubal Harshaw.

  • David Eriksen

    Dr. Elsberry,

    If you are interested, I can briefly describe my deconversion process. Those instructors I mentioned previously were my Social Studies and Literature teachers. What they did was show me the variety of faiths that have existed for all of human history. Showing that completely different religions were also based on ancient texts was the first step. However, I still believed that the Bible (KJV only) was the inspired word of God because it said so right there in the book. At least, that’s what I was told. I hadn’t gotten around to reading the whole thing, yet. For me, the concept of Biblical Inerrancy was the core faith issue that kept me holding on.

    Those two teachers had managed to create enough doubt in my mind that I felt forced to back up that core issue and started doing some clandestine research at the library. That’s when I found the works of atheist firebrands who were unashamed of their lack of faith and clearly pointed out contradictions in the good book. That was enough for me. My faith at that point was based on social pressure and a belief in inerrancy. Now the belief was gone and I knew it was possible to escape the social pressure. I started (privately) calling myself a deist and/or agnostic at that point and making plans to get out of that social environment as quickly as possible.

    That remained the status quo until college. I had to take a Philosophy of Science class there and the final project was to write an essay on “Why I am/am not a Dualist.” My ability to hold on to some sort of supernatural or deist concept had been growing weaker over the years and was now exhausted. I couldn’t defend it on any level. I was an atheist.

    It was only at this point that a lot of the other atheist arguments against all religions (i.e. Euthyphro) began to really resonate with me. Before that, I just wasn’t willing to see.

    That wasn’t as brief as I had intended but long story short, it was a two pronged attack that worked for me. Years of educators showing me the truth of the world combined with the aggressive types that force you to look at things for what they are rather than what you’ve been told.



    Did you find getting dressed up in church clothes on Wednesday as annoying as I did?

  • wesleyelsberry

    David Eriksen, thanks for the detailed description. That is helpful to know.

  • Matrim

    Also, aside from convincing the fundie, it’s useful to openly debate them because fundies often look patently ridiculous when faced with actual facts, and this can serve as a catalyst for other people who see/hear the argument to change their views.