At the regional Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) convention in Raleigh, North Carolina in early May, Bart Ehrman received the Emperor Has No Clothes Award for plain speaking about religion, one of which resides in my office as well. I was thus especially interested to see what he said in his acceptance speech, as I am not completely down with his views on atheism and agnosticism, or with his almost cocky assurance that there was a historical figure on which the myth of a divine Jesus was based.
And, sure enough, in the talk below, which is largely about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, I was intermittently peeved. In general, the talk was good, and I like hearing from an “agnostic” Biblical scholar who can tell us his view on how historical and psychological forces turned a renegade preacher into a God figure. But Ehrman also seemed he seemed a bit preening and arrogant in the talk, seeing himself as someone superior to both the religious and the atheists. And the last bit of the talk, in the Q&A, will certainly re-ignite our debate about Jesus’s historicity. (After this I’m not going to post on that for a while.)
Here’s the hourlong talk and Q&A:
And here are a few of my impressionistic notes:
One of the bits that bothered me (and perhaps I’m being overly petulant) is Ehrman’s distinction between “agnostics” and “atheists,” with the former saying they don’t know, while the latter say they don’t believe. Since Ehrman claims that he neither believes nor knows, but prefers to see himself as a “scholar emphasizing knowledge”, he says he’s an “agnostic.” I wonder if he’s also an agnostic about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or the Tooth Fairy. From what he says, I suspect he has as little belief in a God or a divine Jesus as he does in Nessie. But I doubt that Ehrman would call himself an agnostic about Nessie.
I also suspect his self-characterization is also a bit self-serving, because saying he’s an “atheist” would alienate much of his constituency: those who buy his books, many of whom are believers. “Agnostic” is a far safer term. But in fact, all scientists are agnostic about all knowledge if you take Ehrman’s “scholarly” tack seriously. I would have to say, for instance, that I’m an agnostic about evolution, because I don’t know it’s true with absolute certainty. But I’m as certain that evolution is true as I am that there’s no God. (NOTE TO CREATIONISTS: those who take the next-to-last sentence out of context to imply that I have serious doubts about evolution, read this comment below.)
Ehrman clearly accepts the existence of historical Jesus, but says he didn’t think Jesus thought he was God because neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke say that. The Jesus-as-God part was added by John, and Ehrman argues that Jesus would have been stunned to hear that he was God.
Ehrman further notes that “Faith is not a matter of smarts,” for “smart people” (his wife is an example) can be religious. He sees only fundamentalists as stupid, and decries both religious and atheistic fundamentalists, the latter apparently on the grounds that they “don’t have enough ‘mental'” and are harsh and overbearing. Here Ehrman shows signs of the xkcd Syndrome. So Ehrman rejects fundamentalists, but, as I always say, every believer is a fundamentalist (or a literalist) about something. Why reject Genesis but accept the Resurrection? Is that a lot better than buying the whole hog?
Ehrman repeatedly says throughout his talk that he is not trying to convert people to nonbelief, but merely to educate them so they can have a basis for deciding what they believe or don’t. That’s fine, but he says it so often that he starts sounding smug and arrogant. Ironically, he then takes it upon himself to tell people how to sway believers toward nonbelief: you do it not by using “hate or harsh, browbeating rhetoric,” but through love. Apparently we atheists always use hate. But Ehrman’s advice on how to convert the faithful conflicts with his claim that “If we don’t want religion forced on us, then we should not cynically or hypocritically force our atheism on others.” I don’t quite get that, for if we think (as does Ehrman) that religion does bad stuff, what’s wrong with trying to eradicate it? Granted, I wouldn’t require or ask others to do so, but I think that doing so effectively is a good thing for this world.
Finally, Ehrman raises the old idea that nonbelievers won’t make headway unless we “replace the good that religion does in the world” with some secular alternative. He asserts that a leading goal of humanist organizations should be to provide the same social goods as does religion.
What he doesn’t seem to realize is that these statements completely undercut the very organization, the FFRF, that is giving him this award. While the FFRF does try to keep religion out of the public sphere, there’s no doubt that it works actively against religion, what with its many atheist billboards and “you-can-be-good-without-God” campaigns. And the FFRF is not, in general, in the business of providing secular alternatives to religion.
The first listener’s question, at 51:15, is about the existence of a historical Jesus. Ehrman says this is “an issue for scholars of antiquity”. Hie evidence for Jesus in the talk is simply that no such scholars doubt that a historical Jesus existed. He admits that that is not really evidence, but says that there is plenty of evidence in his books for a Jesus-figure, and if you want to claim otherwise, you have to muster some “evidence.” I would have thought that what we need to do to doubt Jesus’s existence is emphasize the lack of evidence, and critically examine the evidence that is offered. And that in fact is what the “mythicists” are doing.
Ehrman claims, and I quote, the evidence for a historical Jesus is “abundantly attested in early and independent sources.” He says (and I’m not sure who he’s referring to) “One author knew Jesus’s brother and his closest disciple Peter.” I am not sure what the “independent sources” are, but as far as I know there are not abundant and independent sources. Finally, Ehrman ticked me off by saying, “Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism. . . It makes you look foolish to the outside world.”
Too bloody bad! What we want is evidence for a historical Jesus, and we suspect that many Biblical scholars tout a historical Jesus because to question that would deeply offend many believers, even if we didn’t see Jesus as divine. I haven’t come down completely on one side or the other, but I must say that I don’t see the “abundant and independent sources” that Ehrman claims. Until I do, I will continue to be a historical-Jesus agnostic, and if that makes me look foolish, so be it. There’s been no smoking gun for me supporting a historical Jesus, unlike the genuinely abundant and independent evidence for someone like Julius Caesar.
Finally, Ehrman did a short interview during the convention, which I present below but haven’t had time to watch. The notes on YouTube say this:
Bart provided Scott Burdick an opportunity for a short interview about his personal beliefs and religious experiences. Recorded at the FFRF (Freedom From Religion’s) Raleigh Regional Convention 2014 conference held in the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel, Raleigh N.C. on May 2-3, 2014. The interview will be part of FFRF and the Dawkins Foundation’s Openly Secular coalition campaign. Presented by Triangle Freethought Society.