Review: Godless by Dan Barker

Dan Barker is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but what makes his story interesting is that he was once an evangelical preacher. His latest book, published only last year is godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Barker’s earlier book, published in 1992 was Losing Faith in Faith and from the few online excerpts I’ve seen, it seems to have a lot in common with godless. However, as the more recent publication, godless appears more polished and up to date with plenty of additional content.

Godless is organised into four sections, the first describing his experiences as a preacher and his growing doubts. The second and third sections discuss the arguments for atheism and the problems with Christianity, while the final section covers some of his work with the FFRF.

Rejecting God

For me, the first section is the most interesting part of the book as it offers in insight into the mind of a sincere believer, detailing his lifestyle and thought processes during his five-year journey out of Christianity. What is notable from the introduction onwards, is that Barker was perhaps more rational about his reasons for believing than some. He didn’t believe it because he found it comforting, or because he wanted to fit in. He simply thought it was true.

I was always in love with reason, intelligence, and truth. I thought Christianity had the truth. I really believed it. I dedicated my life to it.

I seems to me that Dan’s desire for the truth was a factor in his de-conversion, as often seems to be the case. I am impressed by the honesty and modesty with which he describes his thoughts and actions as a believer. Some of these are no doubt embarrassing to him in retrospect, but he manages to have a laugh at his own expense. Of particular interest are the reactions of his Christian friends to his loss of belief. These range from total shunning through confusion, to amicable acceptance. My only criticism of the first section is that there’s not enough of it. At only 67 pages out of around 350, it is not the main focus of the book. This is partly because he avoids going into any theological arguments in the first section; it’s entirely about his experience.

Why I Am an Atheist and What’s Wrong With Christianity?

The largest part of the book is taken up by the two middle sections, in which the author covers in detail the arguments for atheism and against Christianity. I’m not entirely convinced by the approach of splitting the book up into personal story followed by the philosophical arguments. Sometimes I think technical, precise writing can become more readable when interspersed with human anecdotes – see for example Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the other hand, the volume of philosophy included would be in danger of drowning his personal experiences, so I can see why he did it this way.

Together, these two sections fill nearly 200 pages, which is perhaps justified. If they’d only been touched upon during the biographical first section, some of the finer points would have been lost. As it is, he thoroughly covers common theistic arguments, biblical contradictions and questions over gospel history in surprising detail. Additionally, one chapter titled “Dear Theologian” takes the form of a letter from God. This has a rather different style, asking questions rather than providing answers. At first this seems out of place, but I found it an interesting piece of philosophy and questioning things is exactly what free thought is all about.

In terms of arguments for atheism there is only a little in this section that will be new to a moderately well-informed atheist.  Nevertheless, he makes a comprehensive and convincing case for atheism which is as clear and relevant as any atheist book I’ve read.

Life is Good!

Appropriately, the book’s final section covers Dan Barker’s work with the FFRF trying to maintain the separation of church and state, fighting cases against organisations which use supposedly secular tax dollars for decidedly sectarian purposes. This is reasonably interesting, although there were no anecdotes which stood out as particularly memorable. Perhaps it would seem more relevant to those living in the US.

Overall I found the book an enjoyable and edifying read. I was a little disappointed by the briefness of his de-conversion story, but to be fair he probably wasn’t keeping a diary or holding a tape recorder during conversations, so it may be difficult to go into more detail without misquoting people. To some extent godless may be seen as a jack-of-all-trades – part autobiography, part philosophical debate, so may be unsatisfying to those who are not interested in reading both those things. For those who are however, it is both entertaining and informative. I would highly recommend this book to the recently de-converted or to Christians wanting to understand a different perspective.

6 thoughts on “Review: Godless by Dan Barker

  1. “…edifying read” Haha! That’s a familiar phrase.

    Good point about the briefness of his de-conversion story. It’s very difficult for someone who’s very particular about truth to risk recounting something wrongly.

  2. I was thrown into a panic when I started reading Godless, since it bore such a strong resemblance to Losing Faith In Faith that I thought I’d been hoodwinked into buying the same book twice! Thankfully, there’s just about enough new material in the later chapters to make up for the similarities early on, but there’s still a lot of crossover material. The deconversion story is almost word-for-word from Losing Faith… in places, and the anti-apologetics in the following chapters are nothing John Loftus hasn’t covered in substantially more detail. Really, the most worthwhile bit of the book is the third section, detailing the activities of the FFRF, but this is of less interest to a British audience, and contains a lot of rather tedious legal stuff. I thought Godless had moments of great beauty (the bit where he decribes standing on the two opposite edges of the Atlantic, for example), but overall, it’s an unecessary add-on to his earlier book.

    And yeah, he is pretty self-involved – but it’s an autobiography, what would you expect?

  3. Lorena,
    Thanks for the link, Athinkingman’s review is well worth reading as he has a different angle and some more detail than mine.
    Dan Barker was perhaps self-involved when it came to music, etc. (The thought of atheist music doesn’t seem any more exciting to me than the religious kind.) However overall I wouldn’t say it was excessive in that respect for an autobiography. It didn’t annoy me, anyway.

  4. I think I was one of the commenters at A Thinking Man’s blog who said that Barker seemed to be too self-involved at points. Granted, it’s an autobiography, so of course he’s going to talk about himself. What got to me, as I recall, were some of the details, along the lines of, “I did a concert in LA that night, then took the red-eye to get to an early morning recording session in NYC the next day,” sort of stuff. I felt like he was working a bit too hard to impress us with his status in the evangelical world. That’s what I was thinking of when I said he was self-involved.

    Disclosure: the LA to NYC stuff is totally fabricated and I don’t think Barker said anything quite that over-the-top in his book. It just gives an example of the feeling I got when I read some parts of the autobiography. Notwithstanding that, much of the book aside from the autobiography is pretty good stuff. It’s worth reading if one hasn’t read the earlier book.

  5. Hello, As a subscriber to the excellentFreedom From Religion newspaper I naturally had to obtain a copy of Dan Barker’s Godless. Also excellent and now…glad to read that it is much the same, but more complete, than his preceding book. I found the Dear Theologian letter (chapter 19)to be a hoot and a highlight. As a member of the Florida Humanist group, Sarasota/Venice chapter, I am recommending Dan’s book to our members every chance I get.