February 2009
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Dan Barker, Godless

Tonight I attended a nice speech, Q+A, and Booksigning given by the President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Dan Barker. His talk was basically the same as one that can be found elsewhere online, but I took notes anyway. Most of the stuff that he talks about is contained in his book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

  • The fastest growing religion in America is Non-religion. The number of checkmarks in that box has risen rapidly, more than doubled in recent years.
  • Atheist and non-believer groups are growing. They are sprouting up like mushrooms, and no single organization is behind it. This is good, it means that people are waking up, and questioning.
  • Suddenly there’s been this new market for Atheist literature. It used to be that a publisher wouldn’t touch the stuff, now a few are actively seeking it. Some bookstores have it as a whole section
  • Mentioned his book, and some nice blurbs. Thought that there should be something like an anti-blurb. Ex. Hannity or Bill O’Reilly saying “Do not read this book. It will corrupt the soul of America.
  • Shared a piece of the forward written by Richard Dawkins. It’s about the weirdest compliment he’s ever received.
  • Unlike Hitchens and Dawkins who were never really believers, His book is about an actual conversion, and explains what goes on in the mind of a True Believer.
  • As a believer, He was convinced that it was the end times. That his obligation was to preach the word to all of God’s children. He was chosen, at the right time, in the right city, in the right country, to be a soldier for God. He preached in the streets, and it was your lucky day to sit next to him on the bus (though you might not have known it).
  • Mentions that crude proselytizing works! You look at a person and say “I can tell you’re having real struggles. That you’re having a problem with a personal relationship.” The listener will be uncertain, and since the preacher is smiling and confident, people lay down their guard and give men of God automatic respect.
  • As a minister, he was seeing miracles, Pentecostal hand healing, Living in God’s light.
  • Churches love to put up the animated youngsters, it gets everyone excited, attracts more believer.
  • Anecdote: He had a friend, that was called on to preach. But had lost his voice right before it was his turn. They huddled, he reasoned that the Bible says believer will be healed, not maybe, not eventually but here and now, so he exclaimed “By the power of Jesus, I heal your voice.” His friend was suddenly able to talk, and gave his sermon. Now he knows this type of thing to be confirmation bias. It would be a true miracle if prayers were never ever answered. Rather when they aren’t it’s not remembered or the memory is transferred, God’s teaching me a lesson about patience. Much later, he was told by a doctor that sometimes when people are nervous, their vocal cords and throat can become restricted, and they loose their voice. This might have been the case.
  • As minister, he was really trusting his whole life in the hands of the Lord. He had no savings, no plans for the future, and lived from day-to-day, always hoping that collected donations at the end of his sermons could get him to the next preaching. He really believed that it was the end times, and that God would provide.
  • He eventually got into doing christian music. Did an album. Mary had a Little Lamb. Which, theologically, refers to the virgin Mary giving birth to the Lamb of God. This developed into a nice career, and he started doing music events and record production.
  • Not all of these events matched his belief system. He was a Biblical Literalist. Jesus said (Rev. 3:16) “But since you are lukewarm and not hot or cold, I’m going to spit you out of my mouth.” Things are really black and white in the mind of a Fundie. None of this metaphor stuff.
  • But since the people he met were mostly really nice people, his theology started to shift. He reasoned that a difference of opinion (Adam and Eve being historically real vs an Israelite parable) shouldn’t divide the community. Even though he was shocked by this grayness.
  • Eventually, in his deconversion, he realized that there are probably as many different types of Christianity as there are Christians.
  • Paul said “God is not the author of confusion.” Yet can you think of any other book that has caused more confusion?
  • As a travelling evangelist, the people he met were nice and caring. They weren’t evil, yet they also didn’t believe exactly as he did. He met enough people that eventually his brain started working. Like the environment of a Liberal University, the diversity got him thinking.
  • The frontal lobes of the brain are the last to fixate their wiring, especially for men. He suddenly experienced a hunger for knowledge, rather than feelings. His brain felt starved, he started questioning, reading, learning, science, philosophy, evolution, humanism, liberal christianity, completely other points of view and theologies.
  • His sermons migrated from preachings about Hell and the afterlife to Love and the good that should be done in this life.
  • But Jesus never came down from the heavens.
  • He learned that in every generation, even at the time of Jesus, there was a subset that believed it was the end-times. Paul thought this. (a few digs at Jehovah’s Witness’s for repeatedly giving dates) But it never happened. He realized that it was never gonna happen.
  • Anecdote, about seeing a sign in one of the churches, near the rafters. Cobwebs in the corner, paint peeling. It says “Jesus Coming Soon.”
  • He can still speak in tongues. Reasons that the susceptibility to mysticism is a natural part of being human, that there’s probably a bell curve. That the feelings are a function of the brain. Dopamine, love-making, laughing, chocolate, enjoyment is about the brain. Coupled with a belief system this allows people a false, but no less powerful, confirmation.
  • If anyone was a True Believe he was. He felt it, it was never fake, it was all real experience, but realizes now that it wasn’t the gift of a superpower.
  • He converted to Atheism all by himself. There wasn’t an atheist evangelist on TV, nor a visitor at his door. It was all by his own reasoning.
  • If the prodigal son was a parable, and Adam and Even a metaphor, then maybe God himself was a figure of speech? Where do you draw the line? What parts do you choose to be literal vs. metaphor? Where’s the evidence?
  • So he looked at the different denominations, what all the different religions had to say, what science had to say. He never intended to reject his beliefs, but wanted to find truth, and had a real hunger for knowledge.
  • He experienced a voice in his head: “somethings wrong with the way you think.” It wasn’t the Holy Ghost, but the voice of Reason, and it kept getting louder and louder.
  • Made a pact with himself about seeking Truth instead of God, following reason rather than feelings (faith). Would look at the evidence, even if it lead him away from God. It’s what he would want for a Muslim. For them to rise above their belief and culture.
  • The eyeball of objective rationality that the was using to parse the world suddenly got turned on him. He sought other reasons for stuff, and received no evidence for God.
  • Reasoned that if something must be taken of faith, then admitting such is demonstrating that it can’t be taken by evidence.
  • He dumped out the bathwater, and discovered that there was no baby. He was not convinced by any of the arguments (not the moral argument, argument by personal experience, ontological argument, argument by design, etc..)
  • Saw that there was no coherent definition of God, that there’s no solution to the problem of Evil, that there’s no coherent definition of morality. Just walk into any children’s hospital to see that there is no God. Why would these innocents be suffering, what are some spared while others are taken?
  • Realized that without God he could still lead a meaningful, moral, productive life.
  • At first he was a private atheist. It was his own freethinking that lead him this way, nobody else was responsible for coercing him.
  • Anecdote: He was alone in his chair looking at the stars, and it hit him. He was alone. Truly alone, there was no all-powerful observer with him. He was free. Saw the stars as natural bodies of gas consuming their elements, eventually dying out. Saw himself as a similar organism.
  • But he would still rather know truth, than fool himself into happiness.
  • He still had speaking engagements, so for 4 months, he was a real hypocrite. Giving sermons about a God he knew wasn’t there. One time, he had a woman come up to him and declare how she had felt the power of God in his sermon. His experience was completely different.
  • The last sermon/concert (at Christmastime) that he went to had a village atheist. Everyone in town really liked him, and were concerned that he wasn’t saved. During the event he wanted to just stop all the hypocrisy and come clean, out himself. But he didn’t, instead went through the performance as an act of showmanship. Afterwards there was a reception, where someone toasted “Isn’t it nice that we can all come together to celebrate the birth of our Lord.” The lone atheist interjected loudly: “Not all of us”, and Dan felt good.
  • He used to think it was tough being a christian in the world. Yet try being an atheist, a lone voice of reason that nobody wants to listen to.
  • He wrote and sent out a letter to his friends and family about his atheism. Writing it all out was a positive act (unlike praying). He received some nice letters from some friends, and some not-so-nice letters from people he thought were his friends.
  • He still had a couple christian songs to write, as he was under a contract. His employer, didn’t care that he was atheist, and still needed the songs. His craftsmanship was still good, and they were publish in the album Sonrise Island under the pseudonym Edwin Daniels. He still receives royalties.
  • His mom and dad eventually became atheist, which was unexpected. She had been a sunday school teacher, but flew out to talk about his new belief. When she got back, she never went into another church again. His dad took longer (2 years), as he was teaching seminary.
  • Realized that he didn’t have to hate anymore.
  • His youngest brother heard the news, and was “Me Too!”. But then he was never a hard-core christian anyhow. He thinks there are many people like this, that harbor internal doubts but that would give up their pretending if they had an example to lead them.

After the talk there was a Q+A session. A number of people asked about specific court cases that the FFRF is handling, I didn’t record those.

  • Why didn’t you bring a guitar to have jam session? Well, he has some cd’s like Beware of Dogma.
  • What does your organization focus on? They work to keep church and state separate, and educate the public about the views of non-believers. They have full-time staff to challenge Bush’s faith-based initiative, and religious symbology used in government functions. There’s a lawsuit about God being mentioned in the Inauguration. They are also joined by many religious groups, and newspapers are editorally in favor of their actions. They run billboards and other ads to raise awareness.
  • Doesn’t going after a nativity scene encourage negative publicity? In Washinton state, the legislature was pressured into allowing a nativity scene that the governor had previously rejected as inappropriate for a government building (indeed, this broke tradition as there had never been one before). After that the atheists decided that they’d get a sign that used rather strong wording for the Winter Solstice. Then dozens of others wanted signs too! Pastafarians, Festivus, etc… It caused such an uproar, they’ll never make the mistake of allowing such a scene again.
  • Do you ever miss the certainty of Fundamentalism? He needed time to adjust, early on he had nostalgia. But ultimately, he doesn’t miss it. Thinks it’s really dangerous in some ways. The recognition of uncertainty is what drives science, he’s not denying religious experience.
  • Since the value of a story is usually discussed in human terms, should we promote the idea that religion is a part of the human experience? Well religious people often play this game of “Love the sinner, Hate the sin.” We can play that too. Sure there’s room for ridiculing, but it’s not an argument that’ll sway everyone.
  • Before you were proselytizing, now you give regular speeches. Are you still the same way on the Bus? He’s still the same kind of guy, but it’s really toned down alot. He’s more courteous, but still takes every opportunity. Once at an airport he bought some food that rang up $6.66, and exclaimed “That’s the perfect number for an atheist.” The person behind him shared the amusement. Just as with the gay movement, the more people that are out, the easier it’ll be for everyone.
  • Are you absolutely certain there is no God? Well, philosophically no. He can’t be. He’s not absolutely certain there are no Leprechauns, they could be hiding. But he is certain that the personal God of the bible doesn’t exist. It has too many qualifiers and is logically inconsistent. As for the more abstract notions, the confidence level achieved by lack of evidence is high enough that we round up and say “God does not exist.” But this is no more absolute than any other thing in science. It’s not out of commitment to a particular worldview, we’re not hiding from acknowledgment. It’s just it’s an extraordinary claim with no evidence.
  • Have your ethics changed at all? On balance no. Most christians are good moral people, in spite of the Bible. He is more concerned though about issues such as women’s rights, oppression of minorities, etc. Thinks that we should judge people by their actions rather than their beliefs. If a religious behavior is causing harm then we should intervene (in accordance with the severity of the harm).
  • Where do you draw the line on that?Morality is about minimizing harm. It’s not a system of rules that are blindly followed. It’s relative and contextual. For example stabbing a child with a big needle is wrong, unless it needs a life-saving injection. Though not everyone will feel the same way about certain actions, we are obligated to at least denounce things like child abuse, and only interfere if the harm is great enough that it can cause real damage (christian science people not taking children to the hospital.)
  • From someone doing research on the perception of atheism and religiosity of the general public. Do you think that Fundamentalist consider atheists immoral/amoral? Where would you say morals come from? Well, first we can empirically point out that christians behave no more morally than non-believers (there have been social studies on this). We have the same rate of divorce, drug use, watch X-rated movies, same amount of crime, and atheists are underrepresented in prisons. So moral behavior is partially genetic. There are mechanisms in the brain that make altruism feel good. But not everyone has the same level of instinct about these things, so we can’t all fall back on an intrinsic sense of morality. Still, morals aren’t handed down to us, we are social animals and figure out this stuff as we grow up, we receive ethical training from our environment. Because we are following moral precepts/principals and not rules, we also have an obligation to be informed, so as to minimize our mistakes.
  • When you were young, why did you decide to persue ministry? In the Bible it says that faith comes through hearing, so it’s important to go out and preach. He really believed that we were all born as sinners, and that we needed the forgiveness of Jesus. You don’t have to have these feelings to preach, but he did. He also had confirmation: The Bible says that you shall know them by their fruits, and his life had all that; people responded positively to his ministry, it was never an act of deception. But doubts crept in and eventually he had to choose: Truth or God.
  • How has your perception of atheists changed between now and the height of your religiosity? He didn’t really know any atheists then. It was an abstract concept. He just knew that because they were without God they would have to be arrogant, evil, blind, deceived by Satan, etc. He was against it in principal, but didn’t know anyone in particular. The lack of specifics means he really didn’t have a good understanding. Now he recognizes that we’re all just people, not terribly different from each other, each trying to improve the world in their own way.
  • Since you left in 1983, do you think that Christianity has gotten stronger? In most ways, no. They know they’ve been loosing. Lost on all the major issues, Women’s rights, birth control, interracial marriage. Loosing on creationism, and soon homosexual marriage. Their political power has been terribly over-representative and it too is waning. It now seems like they’re trying to take down everyone else with them. Their anger is actually a sign of our success.
  • During your conversion to atheism, which questions did you find most convincing? The design argument. Was convinced by the argument present in one of Dawkins’ books. If a complex thing was designed, then it requires a designer even more complex. But why stop at God? should ask who/what designed God? But if God needs no designer, then why should we? He realized that much of his thinking was exactly backwards. Repeated the example by Julia Sweeney about human hands being perfectly designed to fit in gloves. He also misunderstood evolution. He thought it was a directed process or force that was always pushing progress. Also, recognizing contradictions, exaggerations, inaccuracies in the Bible was a big push. As a Fundie, he would either have had to reject it entirely, or pretend they didn’t exist through contortions of justification and theology.
  • Have you found it problematic that your change of mind might undermine your sincerity or imply a loss of credibility? Before many of his conclusions were based on faith. Now they’re based on reason. He’s not asking anyone to trust him as an authority. Most atheists say “don’t trust me” and promote thinking for oneself, following the logic, etc. He doesn’t require credibility, to promote freethinking.
  • How did you deal with the contradictions as a Biblical Literalist? First they were never pointed out. He assumed they didn’t exist, and would never himself have noticed such an imperfection. Second, even if it was pointed out, he could have claimed any number of things, like the out-of-context defense. Also, as a preacher, nobody asks you for your sources of information, or references. After his conversion, he found some of these contradictions and thought “How did I miss that?”. He’s convinced that anyone can perform reinterpretations, treat passages as metaphor, patch up the logic, etc. Yet that inventiveness doesn’t get around the fact that the Bible is contradictory, unhistorical, contains exaggerations (untruths), numerical errors, immoral behavior (even by God), human tampering, interpolations, it’s just plain unreliable; another book, written by humans. Glad that he doesn’t have to focus so much on it anymore.

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