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.

Counfounding stereotypes

Last Sunday I went to a friend’s Evangelical church. I know what you’re saying, “Eshu, what were you thinking?”. No, I didn’t go just so I’d have something to write about. I’m genuinely interested, although more in the people and why they believe what they do than the beliefs themselves. Perhaps weirdly, I don’t think I would’ve gone had I not spent the last year or two reading atheist blogs and articles; I would’ve felt unprepared. I probably would’ve just ended up disagreeing but not really being able to say why. Which would’ve been frustrating.

I was trying to step outside my comfort zone and I certainly felt pretty uncomfortable. Not that anyone made me feel that way. I get the impression most of them knew I was new there and not a Christian. However, everyone was friendly and welcoming, as I guess people tend to be when they’re trying to build a church community. It’s just that two hours of listening to people sing and pray and hold their hands in the air gets a bit tedious. So I stood there uncomfortably and observed.

It was mostly progressive, modern style religion. Forgiveness, love, healing – all that nice-sounding stuff. Praying handsSome people came up to the front to be prayed for. Periodically members of the band were passed the microphone to guess what ailments others in the church might be quietly suffering from before the audience was told, “If that’s you, please come forward and be healed”.  The guesses ranged from “A hollow feeling inside your chest” to “Stomach pain”. People came forward, but it wasn’t clear if the guesses were right or how much they were helped.

Feeling a little awkward after the service I offered to help tidy up and this gave me an opportunity to chat with people individually. They were all appreciative of my helping even though I’d never been there before. Apparently some church regulars had managed to shirk the clearing up rota for several years!

Notably, one woman whom I started helping asked if I’d enjoyed it and seemed concerned that I might have been bored or put off.

“I wouldn’t want you to leave here hating Christians or hating God!”

I replied, “No, everyone’s been very friendly and I could hardly hate something I don’t believe in – you don’t hate Zeus do you?”

(Laughing) “No, I suppose not!”

Not hating GodI continued to chat with her as I helped carry various bits of furniture back to the church’s garage. She was in her late thirties, friendly and apparently unconcerned with the details of her religion. She certainly didn’t come across as bigoted nor even suspicious and resentful, not that I expected her to be. I guess maybe I am lucky in finding the nicer Christians.

However, I was shocked that her opening greeting contained such a egregious misrepresentation of atheists – that we hate God and/or Christians. I doubt this was an opinion she came to through her own experience, so I guess it was suggested by others in the church group.

It seemed that she was genuinely surprised I was a thoughtful, decent non-believer who actually knew a few things about the Bible. I was a curiosity. Maybe I’m getting carried away with my optimistic speculation, but I thought that realisation – that I wasn’t actually evil – put some doubts or questions in her mind. Questions like, “Why is this guy nothing like the atheists I’ve heard about?”.

I suspect in the majority of cases, believers are more likely to have their minds changed by meeting decent honest atheists than the best of highbrow arguments. This seems to be supported by Kieran Bennett’s post on de-conversion based on a huge quantity of Christian de-conversion stories. In the list of reasons why Christians deconvert tied for first place was:

The realisation that religious dogma contradicted observable reality was the second most an equally common reason for de-conversion cited within the sample (also at 14.89%).

The illogical stereotype of atheists as misanthropic god-haters is so common it might be considered a religious dogma, at least one supported from the pulpit if not by scripture. Confounding this stereotype is important for many reasons. To establish dialogue, stand up for ourselves and especially to call into question the authority of those who spread these lies.

An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…