This book brought back old memories—memories of growing up in small town America. Even better than that—growing up in small town Texas. There’s no small town like small town Texas. One memory is palpable. I can, with little effort, drop into dialect as I sing the song:
I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light
This book is about—this book is by—an evangelical preacher man, a raised from the grass roots voice of the Lord, who looked up one day and didn’t see the light. If he did see it, he must have realized it was a train coming at him in a tunnel.
Dan Bark tells his story in Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. It’s a good book.
Growing up in small town Texas I attended Methodist church, not because I wanted to. Belief seeped into me, but by the time I and my brother, two of my cousins, and a mutual friend reached the questioning age, we began to talk, off the record. These discussions were far-fetched and we discussed topics never heard at the dinner table. One of items we considered was religion, and the conclusion was there was much to be doubted. After I left home forever and started my active duty tour with the Navy Reserve, the matter became sealed with me. It happened this way.
At reserve boot camp at the naval air station Sunday chapel was compulsory. We were nearly all just weeks out of high school, and there was a questioning spirit. Most were kids from the big city (that would be Dallas or Fort Worth), and one raised a hand and inquired whether we should question the orthodoxy. We were advised that questioning would be the first mistake. Questioning only leads to trouble.
My young life had been devoted largely to asking question, so I wondered at the value of something that could not be questioned. When our shipmate persisted and pressed the issue, he was further advised that he was being disrespectful to an officer, and disciplinary action could be taken. My deepest question had been answered, and the door to religion was from that moment forward inexorably closing. Months later, at sea aboard ship, alone in my bunk with my thoughts, I sought to put the matter to rest. I dove deeper into my own intellect and pulled up the obvious. It was all made up. It was a hoax. And that was the concluding moment for me.
It must have been thunderously more strenuous for Dan Barker:
When I was 15 I received a “call to the ministry.” It happened one evening in late 1964 during a week of revival meetings at Anaheim Christian Center in Anaheim, California. This was during the start of the Charismatic Movement— a slightly more respectable and less frenetic Pentecostalism within mainline churches that today sports hundreds of independent churches and loose associations of congregations around the world, but at that time appeared as a wild, exciting, uncrystallized phenomenon that woke up a lot of dull congregations. My parents, after years of mostly fundamentalist Christianity, had gotten involved with the Charismatic Movement because they were attracted to the “living Gospel,” where the presence of God seemed more real, immediate and powerful than in traditional worship services.
The meetings at that “spirit-filled” church were intense, bursting with rousing music and emotional sermons. Believers did not sit passively praying in pews. Weeping worshippers waved their arms to heaven. Some fell prostrate to the floor, in submission to the Creator. People stood to speak in tongues, and others translated the “heavenly language” into English. Some practiced faith healing, prophecy, discernment (diagnosis of problems, such as “evil spirits”) and other “gifts of the spirit” that accompany being “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” It was a night that changed my life.
I had already been “saved.” My parents were Christian, but belonging to a Christian family does not make you a Christian any more than having a baker for a father makes you a loaf of bread. Each person has to make his or her own decision. According to the teachings of the New Testament, I had confessed to God that I was a sinner deserving eternal torment and I had accepted the death of Jesus on the cross as payment for my sin. I humbly asked Christ to come into my heart and make me a new creature, and I became “born again,” by faith. I had been baptized and I knew I was going to heaven, but I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life— what little might remain before Jesus returned— until that evening in Anaheim.
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 3-4). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
Dan Barker forswore a commitment to formal education, believing the End Times were near, and there would be no opportunity to put scholarship to use. He did become a highly-successful disciple for Jesus, recruiting legions to the faith, even journeying to Mexico to convert Catholics to Christianity. He also became an accomplished musician and writer of religious and children’s tracts. He sold his sweat on the cheap, believing all was for the Lord, but he rose to prominence, and his works were in demand.
Then he made the mistake. He did what my Navy chaplain told us not to do. He began to investigate. It had to be a shock of the first order. None of it was true. The earth was over four billion years old, creationism was false, we are the products of biological evolution, the Bible is a collection of ancient hogwash—false at best, contradictory at worst. In the midst of a strenuous speaking tour he quit cold turkey. He finished out his commitments for the year 1983, standing before crowds of fervent believers, telling them stories he now knew to be false, waiting for the day to make the break:
I never preached another sermon. I never accepted another invitation to perform a religious concert. To be fair to myself and to everyone else, I knew that I had to cut it off quickly and cleanly. In January 1984 I wrote a letter to everyone I could think of— ministers, friends, relatives, publishing companies, Christian recording artists, fellow missionaries— breaking it off for good, telling them that I was no longer a Christian, that I was an atheist or agnostic (I didn’t have the distinction clear in my mind then), that I would no longer accept invitations to preach or perform Christian music, and that I hoped we could keep a dialogue open. I remember that moment, hesitating for a few seconds at the mailbox beside Chaffey High School in Ontario, California, holding those dozens of envelopes in my hand and thinking, “This is it.” Dropping those letters into the slot was a million times more satisfying than any religious experience. It was real.
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 44-45). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
Dan recounts the reactions of business associates, friends, close family. It was varied and seldom positive. The best he could hope for was acceptance, and he got some of that. From others he received patronizing sympathy. Some he never heard from again.
Remarkably, his devout Christian parents converted. But not his wife. They went their separate ways, and Dan has since married Annie Laurie, a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The two now head up the organization.
And that’s the first four chapters, and that’s the end of the story. The rest is a comprehensive treatise on biblical historicity, religious idiocracy, political duplicity, and an enlightened philosophy of life. The remaining fifteen chapters make for a priceless reference source, your go-to place for fact-checking religion, mainly Christianity. Except… Except Chapter 19 is a nice philosophical tour de force on religion and morality.
Yes, you should read this book. If you already know religion, particularly Christianity, is a fragile crust of fabrication, this will help explain how you may have gotten to where you now are. If you are a true believer, you will either:
- Quit several pages in and throw the book at somebody.
- Come at your atheist friends, screaming, calling them liars and blasphemers.
- March into church next Sunday and demand your money back.
Here are some choice quotes:
One of the indications that mentally ill people are getting healthy is when their obsession with religion decreases. When they stop saying they are talking to Moses, or that they are Moses, we take it as a good sign. Those of us who do not talk with a god are not the ones with the problem. The charge that atheists are handicapped and that theists are the truly “complete” human beings is unfounded and arrogant.
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (p. 112). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
Yet theists continue to describe this “timeless” being in temporal terms. Phrases such as “God decided to create the universe” are taken by us mere mortals to be analogous to such natural phrases as “Annie Laurie decided to bake a pie.” If such phrases are not equal or analogous to normal human language, and if they are not redefined coherently, then they are useless. We may as well say “God blopwaddled to scrumpwitch the universe.”
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (p. 136). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
Ironically, the first place the phrase “do right” is used in the bible is when Abraham questioned the morality of God. Abraham argued with God and succeeded in getting him to change his mind about slaughtering innocent victims in Sodom: “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee; Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18: 25) Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?
God did change his mind about the minimum number of good people required to prevent the slaughter, but he went ahead and murdered all the inhabitants of Sodom anyway, including all of the “unrighteous” children, babies and fetuses. It appears that Abraham was more moral than his god, a matter to be examined later. And his question is quite valid: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When a parent who smokes tells a child not to smoke, the child can be forgiven for asking, “What about you?” If the basis for morality rests with a single entity, then what makes that entity accountable? What makes God moral?
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 161-162). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
There is a subset of fundamentalists, called Dispensationalists, who claim that the Old Testament rules were in effect only for that period of history, and that we now have different rules because God’s plan is unfolding in stages, or dispensations. (Though Jesus said he came to uphold “every jot and tittle” of the Old Testament law.) Other evangelical Christians will assert that tougher measures were required during the struggling infancy of the besieged Israelite nation. God’s chosen people were at war so some “moral rationing” was justified— but that now that Christianity is on the scene such measures are no longer needed. (Though they still preach that the world is more corrupt than ever, and that the forces of evil continue to attack believers.) All of these liberal arguments, at minimum, admit that there are at least some parts of the current bible that are now no longer relevant to proper human behavior. All of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, whatever our reasoning, have to agree that the bible can be downright brutal.
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (p. 165). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
31a) The Golden Rule is not unique to Jesus, nor did it start with Christianity.
In Hinduism (Brahmanism), around 300 B.C.E.: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata, 5, 1517. The Vedic period of Hinduism goes back to 1500 B.C.E.)
In Buddhism we read: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga, 5, 18)
In Confucianism, which started around 500 B.C.E.: “Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.” (Analects, 15, 23)
In Taoism we have, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien. The date of this writing is uncertain, but it was probably between 900-1200 C.E. Taoism came into its own around the fourth century B.C.E.)
Zoroastrianism: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Dadistan-i-dinik, 94, 5. This particular quote came after Christianity, but the religion goes back to about 1500 B.C.E.)
Barker, Dan. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (pp. 192-193). Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition.
And many more useful references. This is the Kindle edition, which I found remarkably free of editorial defects. Get the soft copy of this book. Ebooks are searchable, and you do want to keep this as a quick reference. Barker has performed a formidable load of legwork for us, and we should make use of it. And join the FFRF. There have been times when this organization has been the only thing standing between concerned citizens and government-sanctioned foolishness.
[The author is a member of the FFRF.]