Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists
By Dan Barker
Though I haven't read all the recent tomes on the subject (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), I doubt there's ever been a more devastating critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular than Godless, a new book by Madison resident Dan Barker. Why is it, then, that I feel there's something fundamentally (pun intended) sad about this book? And why has my own concept of God survived intact?
It's complicated. Let me try to explain.
Barker's story is familiar to me, and I share many of his views, though not his passion. I wrote a magazine article about him in 1991, and read parts of his earlier book, Losing Faith in Faith, published shortly thereafter. Barker was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and called by God to the ministry; for 19 years he was an ordained minister, endeavoring to save souls. He was, in his own words, "the kind of guy you would not want to sit next to on a bus."
His belief in God was so strong he even converted his high-school Spanish teacher. He began doing missionary work, assisting a charlatan faith-healer, and playing piano for Christian luminaries like Pat Boone. Later he wrote Christian musicals and helped produce Christian records.
But beginning in the early 1980s, when he was 30 years old, and continuing for several years, the edifice of Barker's faith collapsed. It began when relaxed his fundamentalist views to be a better, less judgmental person. This led, via a "slow, sometimes wrenching, halting circuitous process," to his total rejection of belief in God. As he's fond of putting it, "I threw out all the bathwater, and discovered there was no baby there!"
Barker's lack of belief was so strong he even de-converted his parents.
The story of Barker's embrace and then rejection of theism takes up the first quarter of his book and it's a thrilling read, peppered with insights like: "It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith." Barker found his way to faithlessness on his own, unassisted by other atheists. "That is what gives it strength ... the precious process of being forged and proved in my own mind."
But the faithless Barker is not immune from the desire to win others over. Indeed, as he says in his introduction, "I hope Godless will be helpful to atheists and agnostics who are looking for ways to talk with religious friends and relatives, but my real desire is that a Christian reader will finish this book and join us."
This dual goal proves ultimately unworkable. Barker has a couple of strong chapters explaining why he is an atheist and why arguments for the existence of God cannot withstand scrutiny. But he proceeds to delve deeper and deeper into these issues, establishing that the Bible is full of horrors and bad advice and that Jesus Christ was kind of a jerk. Then he really drives the book off a cliff with chapters investigating whether Christ actually existed and whether he rose from the dead.
As someone who doesn't believe in a God who watches over us and answers prayers, but who nonetheless feels comfortable recognizing a greatness in the whole of creation worthy of the G-word, I found these chapters depressing. (Actually, what I was thinking was: "You had me at 'It's bull.'") Why does Barker try to reason believers out of their faith, even though he fully grasps that faith is belief in the absence of reason? Why screech at the choir when he could sing to the heathens?
I rejected belief in an interventionist God, the God of my parents, early in life. But I long ago learned the futility of trying to argue with believers. Instead, I simply say that I have my own concept of God. And I do: One based not on heaven and hell and angels and wrath but on stars and trees and puppies and notions of kindness. Whatever other people want to believe is fine by me.
I know Dan Barker also holds the wonders of life dear, but much of his energy is spent probing the minutia of religious belief. Perhaps there are good reasons for this. For one thing, Barker knows a heck of a lot more about the Bible than most true believers.
At one point, he presents a list of biblical contradictions that's like a Springsteen finale it just goes on and on. As I read through it, three thoughts occurred to me:
Everybody who calls themselves a Christian or considers the Bible a fount of wisdom ought to read this.
No one who does will.
Doesn't Dan Barker have better things to do?
There's a place in the book where Barker crows: "Rejecting religion can be a positive and liberating experience that allows you to gain perspective and freedom of inquiry. Freethinkers have been in the forefront of social and moral progress. Nonbelievers have more time!"
That's true, potentially, but does it really make sense to spend that extra time on this?
I'm posing the question, not presuming I know the answer. Barker's book concludes with a triumphantly good section about his life as a nonbeliever, his fights to preserve the separation of church and state, even some invigorating speculation that human beings have an evolutionary predisposition to belief in God. I learned a lot from reading it.
Maybe it's a good thing that Dan Barker trains his brain on these matters, dusty and dreary though they may be, because there's always the chance that he'll get through to someone. Maybe he's sacrificing himself so that others may live.