Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin

This blog piece is a continuation in a series of articles commenting on the podcast interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. We trace Bart Ehrman’s early fundamentalist experience through the “loss” of his faith and the fundamentalism that still informs Ehrman’s view of the Bible, albeit not from a believing position anymore. I explore some factors from Ehrman’s story that may explain his turn away from belief in God, and the “exceedingly high” bar skeptics set for miracles that allows them to discount the Bible without seriously considering the evidence.

Ehrman suggests, reasonably, that the resurrection is the foundation for Christian belief, but he and Harris quickly gloss over the evidence. From the resurrection, the discussion turns to focus on heaven and hell.  Erhman remarks that, when he was a fundamentalist Christian, he believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell.  He described a literal hell with traditional fire and brimstone.

I have noted, as have other people in the past, that atheists and agnostics often take the same literal approach to scripture as “fundamentalists” do.  This is an example of what I mean by that. It’s possible that hell is literal fire and brimstone, but it’s possible it isn’t. That isn’t only way to interpret scripture.

Many Christian scholars do not believe that hell is literally fire and brimstone.  They make a good case that the language is metaphoric, rather than literal.  One of the hallmarks of a fundamentalist (as with an atheist or agnostic) interpretation of the Bible is the lack of nuance and distinguishing when a provision has metaphoric import.

Of course, sometimes a text might be taken literally and metaphorically, and a text may have literal meaning and metaphoric meaning that are both appropriate.  A fundamentalist, though, tends to want to read everything literally, and atheists and agnostics do the same thing.

The result for the fundamentalist is a kind of belief that ignores evidence to the contrary, and for the atheist the result is total rejection of the Bible.  The fundamentalists and the skeptics, in this way, approach Scripture in the same way. This leads to a false dichotomy: we either must accept everything (regardless of the evidence) or accept nothing (in spite of the evidence).

Erhman talks about the arrogance of believing that certain people are going to heaven and certain people are going to hell.  And certainly there is arrogance to the notion that we can make those judgments, ultimately, even if we are quoting the Bible. Only God sees and knows the individual, human heart.

Erhman’s observation prompts Harris to ask whether “good people” with whom Erhman had connection were the ones who challenged that “arrogance”.  Harris’s question is loaded with the assumption that only “good people” are judgment free (and don’t believe in hell). Packed into Harris’s question is the assumption that he (and Ehrman) are reasonable arbiters of goodness.

It seems very odd to me that modern atheists have such an overtly moral tone. Whether hell exists (regardless of what it might be) has nothing more to do with us and our morality than gravity does. If there be any reality to hell, it simply is whatever it is.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing exchanges begins with a question by Harris to Erhman about what one would believe after reading the Bible from cover to cover without the aid of interpreters (like Dante or Milton, says Harris).  Erhman’s immediate response is that “it depends on the assumptions of the reader”.  I think Erhman is exactly correct.  We often do bring our own assumptions to the text, and we filter our understanding of the text through those assumptions.  A case in point would be the a priori assumption that miracles can’t happen and don’t happen, and therefore the miraculous things described in the Bible didn’t happen.

Of course, someone could come to the text with the exact opposite assumption, already believing in the God of the Bible, and in Jesus, and a skeptic would be correct in saying that such a person is predisposed to believe everything that it says.

I suggest that both approaches are faulty, though that approach (bringing our assumptions to the text) is a very modern and post-modern way of reading literature generally.  It’s just that skepticism is more in vogue today than it was once. Modern literary criticism doesn’t care to let the text speak for itself; it is more interested in what the reader has to say about it. Ehrman’s approach to the Bible is very post-modern.

Harris asks Erhman throughout the interview to describe what a fundamentalist Christian would believe, or what Erhman did believe as a fundamentalist Christian, as a way of gaining some understanding of what Christianity is.  Of course, Erhman doesn’t consider himself to be a Christian.  He doesn’t believe.  Yet, Harris assumes that Ehrman can speak adequately for people who consider themselves Christians and who do believe.

The exercise would be similar to asking a Young Earth creationist who does not believe in evolution to describe what it’s like to believe in an Old Earth and in evolution.  I am sure that such a person could probably give a summary that is partially true, but it would be colored by the obvious disbelief in those positions.  It would tend to be oversimplified, without nuance or depth or any real force, precisely because they don’t believe it.

In this context, Erhman gives a “biblical” defense of the apparent progression the notion of hell in the Old Testament notion of sheol (a grave, or pit) into the idea of hell that suggests eternal torment in a “lake of fire”, which we see in Revelation.  Erhman says that a Christian would explain this by a process of progressive revelation where the truth only unfolds progressively over time from sheol to a lake of fire. He says this is similar to the doctrine of abrogation that Muslims use in regard to the Quran.

Ehrman does exactly what we might expect of someone trying to explain something he doesn’t believe in. He grossly oversimplifies the discussion, and he compares it to something else he doesn’t believe in.

The fact is that there is no one way that Christians view and try to make sense of hell, as it is mentioned in the Bible. Ehrman (and Harris) hold up a “fundamentalist” (literal) interpretation, as if there is no other way of making sense of hell.

The abrogation doctrine involves statements in the Quran that expressly reject earlier statements in the Quran. The doctrine of abrogation, as it is stated in the Quaran, is nothing like what we read in the Bible. Ehrman should know that. In fact, he probably dos know that, but he isn’t forthcoming about it.

The Quran is one writing authored by one man during a short time span. The Bible is many writings written by many people over more than one thousand years. No one taking either book seriously would lump them together like that.

Erhman’s description of progressive revelation is very wooden, without any nuance or depth. For one thing, he makes no distinction between genres in the Bible. The Book of Revelation, for instance, is apocryphal literature written in very symbolic and metaphoric language.  If there is any book in the Bible that should not be taken “literally”, it is the Book of Revelation.

Revelation is similar in genre to the Book of Daniel, except that Daniel provides the interpretation for the visions Daniel describes.  The interpretation Daniel provides is extremely metaphoric and symbolic. Of course, we don’t have any interpretation of the Book of Revelation.  Extrapolating from Daniel suggests that we should not take Revelation “literally”.

It’s curious that Erhman, being a New Testament scholar, does not address any nuance or depth in Biblical understanding. Ehrman has continued to hold onto a fundamentalist mindset, not even acknowledging that most scholars, most believing scholars, do not view the Bible that way.

In regard to the sweep of the Bible, from Adam and Eve to the Kingdom of God on Earth that Jesus spoke about, Erhman describes a very fundamentalist, young earth creationist kind of view.  He says that Christians believe that the Earth was originally created as a paradise in which Adam and Eve lived, and the Earth will be returned to the paradise it originally was.  This is in keeping with a “literal” reading of Genesis championed by young earth creationists who have a fundamentalist view of the Bible.

I put “literal” in quotation marks because, frankly, a literal reading of Genesis suggests something very different than what Ehrman (and young earth creationists) state. (See Is Young-Earth Creationism another Gospel?) All of this just emphasizes that Erhman is still very much a fundamentalist. He has just switched camps from believer to nonbeliever.

I will wrap this series of comments up in the following post. I don’t mean to judge Bart Erhman, but to comment about his explanation of what is Christianity, which is the topic of the interview. If Sam Harris wants to view Christianity from a “different angle”, he should interview a scholarly believer. Not another unbeliever like himself. And if he does that, I encourage him to have the same kind of generous conversation that he has with Erhman in which he contends, seriously, with that different point of view.

I also don’t mean to judge “fundamentalists”. Frankly, I could not even define that term or describe exactly who those “fundamentalists” are. It’s a term that has taken on very different meanings over the years, and carries a lot of confusion and misunderstanding today. Most skeptics us the term synonymously with “Christian”, but I doubt most Christians (like myself) could even identify what it means. But, that is a subject for another article, perhaps.

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3 Comments on “Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May Be Two Sides of the Same Coin”

  1. Considering that a Google search reveals over 30,000 denominations of Christianity, I don’t know how ANY single interview can truly represent what it means to be “Christian”. In some cases, various perspectives AMONG self-proclaimed Christians are polar opposite. Example… is it ok to kill someone? If you ONLY read the Gospels, it is hard NOT to conclude Jesus was a pacifist… love your enemy. A fundamentalist view typically STARTS with the old testament and then interprets everything in the new testament in such a way as to remain consistent… and will therefore conclude Jesus didn’t REALLY mean NEVER kill you there are MANY examples in the old testament on God INSISTING on killing.


    • Of course, you are right about there are being many denominations, though I don’t know what the number is. Many of the denominations are based on differences in organizational structure and other such things. More significant differences have to do with things like and if it says on missions, or an emphasis on Holiness, or believing in the gifts of the holy spirit, or an emphasis on the sovereignty of God, Etc. Most of the denominations would be considered Christian by all of the other because of certain fundamental views, such as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The idea of a fundamentalist originally came from this notion that there are certain fundamental principles that all Christians hold in common. Of course, that idea has long been lost to history. It is now a derogatory term used by non-christians, and only a relatively small group of Christians today would Define themselves as Fundamentalist. The fact that there is a lot of nuance in the world of Christianity it’s not even hinted in the interview.


  2. […] A view of the world through the eyes of faith « Sam Harris Podcast Interviews Bart Ehrman – Part 5 – Atheists & Fundamentalists May … […]


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