The future looks ominous for social liberals, even devout Christian ones, religious studies scholar and best-selling author Bart Ehrman warns in a thoughtful interview in the latest edition of American Atheist magazine.
The interview was conducted, incidentally, by another best-selling author (The Godfather’s Daughter), Natasha Stoynoff, the People magazine reporter who alleged that now-President Donald Trump French-kissed her forcibly and without consent in 2005.
The American Atheist interview focuses on the intellectual journey of Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, from a former Bible-thumping, evangelical fundamentalist Christian and pastor to a committed atheist.
Ehrman told Stoyoff that his “tipping point,” which nudged him over the divide into nonbelief, was when he realized, historically, that the purported Roman census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in biblical antiquity was a sham. He said the supposed census — which manifestly “did not happen” — was created to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy that required Jesus be born in Bethlehem rather than where historical evidence locates his actual birth, in Nazareth.
“The question is whether somebody sat down and plotted it out and said, ‘I think I’ll make this up,’ or if it happened as a rumor — somebody just tells a story, and somebody else tells a story, and after a while nobody knows where it came from. In either event, the census did not happen.”
But the real tipping point was when Ehrman’s penchant for reason and evidence in determining truth bashed into fundamental scriptural assumptions that were verifiably false.
“I’m a firm believer in knowing what you believe and why you believe it,” said Ehrman, explaining his deconversion. In his 2009 book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Ehrman wrote:
“Many Christians don’t want to hear this, but the reality is that there are lots of other explanations for what happened to Jesus that are more probable than the explanation that he was raised from the dead. None of these explanations is very probable, but they are more probable, just looking at the matter historically, than the explanation of the resurrection.”
When Ehrman slid into atheism, his family — who, Stoynoff writes, “became born again” thanks to him — were understandably baffled.
“They’re still evangelical Christian, and they wonder what happened to me. The truth happened — that’s what. …” Ehrman says. “Once I understood that evidence really matters, I started recognizing the counter-evidence. I ended up leaving Evangelical Christianity when I realized the evidence just isn’t there.”
It was a precipitously steep slope of belief the once devout scholar plummeted down. Before his apostasy, he had a blue chip religious education at Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton Theological Seminary, and served for a time as a pastor. In Stoynoff’s piece, she recounted how Ehrman once stared for a solid hour — “with the ferver of a come-to-Jesus moment” — at a few words in original Greek from Chapter 18 of the Gospel of John on a tiny scrap of papyrus.
Because a deep faith had always been “the very core of my being,” the long process of disentangling from the faith was “terribly painful,” Ehrman admitted.
“When [my Christian faith] disappeared, I felt the foundations of my existence shaken.”
Ehrman has written 30 books, five of them New York Times best-sellers and, Stoynoff notes, “none of them for the religiously faint of heart.” Various books are about how the mortal Jesus became divine, biblical contradictions on why God condones, even causes, suffering, and skepticism about whether Jesus existed at all.
His most recent book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, explains how the once-widely-reviled faith conquered the pagan Roman Empire as its civilization was imploding.
Although Ehrman says he does not actively try to deconvert believers, it still happens. Stoyoff said she is one of his deconverted devotees:
“About six years ago I picked up one of his audio lectures (in the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series) and began with his talk on the historical Jesus. After just one listen during a loop around Central Park reservoir, the deed was done, and I was no longer a theist.”
Ehrman says his focus is not on changing views but on helping his students become “more intelligent” about what they believe.
“If you’re not a knowledgeable Christian, then you’re an ignorant Christian,” he says, “and ignorant Christians are really dangerous.”
Yet, ignorance about Christianity among believers is rampant, Ehrman laments.
“My students have a far greater commitment to the Bible than knowledge about it, and they realize that pretty quickly in class, too, and are surprised by it.”
Ehrman says he fears for the future as churches that are growing tend to be evangelical, while “more open and affirming” liberal congregations with more concern about poverty and human rights are “losing numbers hand-over-fist.”
Stoynoff asked Ehrman where this reactionary trend might be leading us in the next 100 years?
“It’s a scary moment for Christianity right now because if the trend continues, the two billion Christians in the world will all have a very conservative social agenda.”
They will probably tend to follow demagogues very much like Donald Trump, he said. And “scary” leaders like Vice President Mike Pence, who reportedly believes Jesus tells him what to say and do, will not be outliers.
“The people who conducted the Inquisition [in the Middle Ages, when Christian authorities endorsed the burning of heretics] thought that Jesus was speaking to them, too,” Ehrman said.
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