Bart Ehrman: Feather Ruffler Extraordinaire

Bart Ehrman: Feather Ruffler Extraordinaire March 9, 2020

Editor’s Note: Did you know that New Testament scholar and TCP member, Bart Ehrman, received the “Emperor Has No Clothes” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation?  I just learned it while perusing Bart’s Blog for posts to use here.  And it happened in 2014!  How could I miss such an event?  Don’t know, but will try to make up for it by posting his blog post that announces the honor and includes a YouTube of his acceptance speech.  It starts with an introduction by fellow Clergy Project founder and FFRF co-president, Dan Barker.  In case you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, I’ve also excerpted some content from a Q&A Bart did after the talk with FFRF Lifetime Member, Scott Burdick.  There Bart explains the true meaning of atheist and agnostic.  /Linda LaScola, Editor


Freedom From Religion Foundation Lecture

By Bart Ehrman

On May 3 of 2014 I gave a lecture at a meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Raleigh NC. The lecture is about what it is like to be an agnostic who writes about religion.  That’s an irony that I am constantly aware of and most of the lecture is about my experience as a non-religious person who is an expert in something he doesn’t believe in.

I also used the lecture to stress that being “free from religion” is not the same thing as “attacking religion.”  I absolutely agree with the founding principle of the FFRF that no religion (of any kind, Christian or otherwise) should be imposed on us by the state.  But I do not at *all* think that this is the same thing as being opposed to religion.  I am personally not opposed to religion or people who practice it (although I *am* quite definitely opposed to fundamenalist kinds of religion — whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever).  And I think organized agnostic/atheist/secular/humanist attacks on religion per se are wrong-headed and (just as important) counter-productive.   In any event, I get into all that in my lecture, found here.  (I hope you like the statue I was given for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award !):


Here are excerpts from a conversation that was taped and transcribed after Bart’s acceptance speech: . . .

Scott Burdick: I find it interesting, having read most of your books, how you talk about that you weren’t always an agnostic.

Bart Ehrman: No, I started out as an evangelical Christian. I got interested in biblical studies because I was actually a fundamentalist as a late teenager. That got me interested in the bible. But as I developed my scholarship through graduate school, I realized that my beliefs about the bible were completely wrong, that the bible’s not some kind of inherent revelation from God. And so for years I’d become a liberal Christian. I still went to church, I still believed in God, but I didn’t believe the bible was the inspired word of God. But after many years of being a liberal Christian, I finally became an agnostic for reasons unrelated to my scholarship, reasons having to do with why there is suffering in the world, if there is a God who is in control? I, for years, had thought about it, had read what the biblical authors said, what theologians, philosophers said. I got to the point where I just didn’t believe it anymore. So I just acknowledged at one point then that I’m probably an agnostic, and that’s what I’ve been for maybe 15 or 16 years.

SB: Sounds like it was a very gradual process.

BE: It was. I’ve heard people say that I went from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic because of problems in the bible. That’s completely wrong. It was a very long process. I was a very open-minded liberal Christian for many, many years. It was really the problem of suffering that ended up creating the big issue for me that led me to acknowledge that I am an agnostic. It’s very interesting being an agnostic scholar of religion. I’ll begin by explaining what I myself mean, by this term that I’m using, that we all use all the time, the term “agnostic,” because over the last 18 months or so I’ve come to think it means something different from what I used to think.

What I used to think was that agnostics and atheists were two degrees of the same thing. When I first declared myself agnostic, I was amazed at how militant both agnostics and atheists can be about their terms. Every agnostic I met thought that atheists were simply arrogant agnostics. And every atheist thought that every agnostic was simply a wimpy atheist. Two degrees of the same thing. When someone will say, “I don’t know,” the other will say they do know.

I’ve come to think that they are not two degrees of the same thing but are two different things. Agnosticism has to do with epistemology — what you know. Atheism has to do with belief — what you believe. I actually consider myself to be both an agnostic and an atheist. I am agnostic because if somebody says to me, is there a greater power in the universe? My response is,

“How the hell would I know!? I don’t know!”

So, I’m an agnostic. If somebody were to ask me, do you believe in the god of the bible? Do you believe in a god that interacts with the world, who intervenes in the world, who answers prayer? Do you believe in the supernatural divine being? No! I don’t believe it! So, I don’t believe, so I’m an atheist. But — I don’t know. So I’m an agnostic. And since I’m a scholar I prefer to emphasize knowledge rather than belief. And so, I tend to identify as an agnostic.      . . .

SB: You talk in your books about how many people become ministers and learn these same facts from the bible but seem reluctant to share that with their congregations. Why do you think that is?

BE: Well, pastors learn the kind of material I teach in seminaries and divinity schools, if they go to a mainline denominational school. If they go to a fundamentalist seminary, of course, they don’t learn this, unless they learn it in order to attack it. An evangelical school wouldn’t teach this kind of material, but Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries teach this kind of material. And yes, when the people who go through that training become pastors, they tend not to tell their congregations. I think it’s because they’re afraid to make waves. They don’t think that people will be welcoming of it; they don’t think people are ready for it. There are some issues of job security. They want to keep their job, so they don’t want to ruffle too many feathers.  ….

**Editor’s Questions** To current or former clergy: What is/was your position on ruffling feathers?  To current or former members of a religious congregation:  What experience do you have as a feather ruffler?


Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs, from The Bart Ehrman Blog.

>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0,


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