How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists
My holiday reading was Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I had travelled a similar journey (albeit in a less publicised way). Having made the change from being an evangelical leader, preacher, counsellor, and author (for over 30 years) to an unashamed, blogging atheist, I thought it would be interesting to read the human story. I wondered how far Barker’s experience would parallel my own, and if his analysis of his change would help me see my own in a new perspective. I am really glad that I read through to the end of the book.
The book is divided into four sections: his life as a believer; his loss of faith; more detailed reasons for rejecting Christianity; his present work for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
His faith didn’t disappear overnight, and I could certainly identify with the agony of the period where he felt so hypocritical. On the outside everything was OK and everybody was looking to him for Christian leadership and teaching, but on the inside the certainty of his faith was shifting dramatically. And once the faith had really disappeared, his experience certainly shed light on my own clinging to a pretence for so long. Not only was I clinging to a culture and people that I had known for most of my adult life, but I was also clinging to a public reputation that I had established. In our cases, faith wasn’t just a private matter, but it also came with a history, a community, and an important identity. The faith was private, but the ‘ baggage’ was public and, in some ways, was more ‘psychologically sticky’.
Once he had decided to ‘come out’ as an atheist and resign his Christian employment, he sent out over 50 letters to people just to inform them of the change. It was both amusing and painful to see some of the replies he received. Although some people have remained good friends, many tried to cope with the rejection of his faith (and of their faith) by saying the following kinds of things. You must be rejecting your faith because: you dislike authority; or, you want to live a sinful life; or, you like stiring up trouble; or, you are arrogant; or, you have been badly hurt by Christians; or, you are disappointed that your prayers haven’t been answered; or, you are an angry person; or, you have been seduced by scientists; or, you don’t know the meaning of love; or, you never were a real Christian in the first place.
Whatever the truth, or falsehood of those statements, Barker makes the telling point that they are all addressed at attacking the person, and not one of them seriously tries to understand or get to grips with the reasons he gave for no longer believing in the bible or the god of the bible. Barker lost his faith when he started to read and question what he had been given. But nobody in his associates were willing to engage in a debate with him about historical accuracy, textual criticism. or contradictions. To use his supposedly god-given brain meant that he was evil. I certainly have shared the same sense of disappointment and frustration at the unwillingness of believers to engage in a debate using reason and fact to consider claims of truth.
At this point, the book really started to take off for me. Barker spends some considerable time explaining in detail why he is an atheist. I found it refreshing to be reminded of familiar things and compelling to be taken in detail into areas that I hadn’t yet faced up to myself.
Examples of the familiar:
- Numbers don’t mean anything by themselves. Claiming that Christianity must be true because so many people believe it is pointless. Millions of people may be wrong (and have been in the past). And if numbers validates truth, what about the millions of people who believe in religions that are opposed to Christianity (Islam and Judaism, for example).
- Personal experience doesn’t prove anything. It is well documented that we create meaning by interpreting personal experiences, but those interpretations can be wrong, and we can have experiences caused by a whole range of things. Saying: “It must be true because I have experienced it!” can easily by countered by: “I have had an experience that proves that it isn’t true!”
As a believer I often used the books of Josh McDowell to argue the case for Christianity, especially on the historicity of Jesus, and on the proofs of the Resurrection. Barker carefully drives a coach and horses through this kind of material. What I found particularly sad is that many liberal Christians would also agree with Barker about the intellectual inadequacy of the evangelical case. The material has been around for years, but I, and many others, were far too willing to accept second-hand knowledge and not look at the foundation for it.
Examples of material that I personally found compelling, new, and challenging:
- There is no external historical confirmation for the New Testament stories, and the stories themselves are contradictory. Barker takes us through the references to Jesus in the later secular historians and shows the paucity of the evidence. The reference to Jesus in Josephus (so loved by evangelicals) magically appears in versions of Josephus two centuries after Josephus is supposed to have written it. The historical Jesus is far more a shadowy figure than evangelicals would have us believe.
- Barker also shows that the resurrection narratives are contradictory and inconsistent. He frequently challenges believers to write a simple narrative of the resurrection, using every simple detail from the New Testament, without omitting a single detail.
Both atheists and believers could learn from this book. Sadly, I know that very few of the latter will dare to read it. It deserves a wide readership amongst believers, not least because of Barker’s authority. He knew Christianity form the inside. He knows the bible inside out and can quote chapter and verse. Being a charismatic he knew about religious experience in a big way. Yet, despite that knowledge, the edifice started to crumble when he began to think outside the box of his culture and do the kind of thinking that has helped civilization move forward for millions of years.