Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

05.15.09 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Paul Hovey | by Dan Barker

    Paul Hovey's review of "Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of American's Leading Atheists" by Dan Barker

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    Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008. $14.95, paperback. 376 pages. 

    In Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, Dan Barker has one overarching goal: to convert Christians to the atheist camp: “… my real desire is that a Christian reader will finish this book and join us” (Introduction, xv). This book is an expansion on his 1992 book Losing Faith in Faith. In Godless, Barker recounts his experiences of life in a Christian family, being called to the Christian ministry, exploring intellectual doubts about Christianity, and eventually abandoning Christianity and theism altogether, which gives him a platform from which to speak to Christians on their own terms. After all, he was a zealous pastor, evangelist, missionary, Christian song writer. And he believes that he was authentic in his faith in God and Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as anyone else. He desires to use this platform to speak “reason” and “truth” into the minds of Christians, convince them that their worldview is faulty, and that it is more rational to be an atheist than a theist. In the end Barker becomes the evangelist of atheism, recounting his tales fighting against the oppression that religious belief unleashes on this country, which in his eyes violates the constitutional rights and laws of the United States, as well as our common humanity.

    The forward of the book is written by Richard Dawkins, a very wellknown atheist and critic of Christianity. While atheists might be entertained by Dawkins’ introductory diatribe, Christians should be aware that he is very satirical and demeaning toward Christianity and its adherents. His tactics are surprising, given Barker’s hope to convert by reason and truth. Dawkins’ diatribe is detrimental to this cause because it seems to originate from hatred and scorn, not from a desire to reason with Christians. It is to the detriment of his message that Barker included Dawkins’ opening comments. 

    It is noteworthy that a part of his “Christian” belief entailed a general disdain for reason and clear thinking. He “wanted to be out in the streets preaching the gospel, not stuck in a classroom chewing over pointless history and philosophy. My attitude was that it is not… imperative to become a biblical scholar or theologian in order to save souls from damnation.  All of those ‘Christian evidences’ could be left to the experts (18).” Apparently, Christianity was never rational to him, even in his zealous belief. But his de-conversion experience calls attention to the fact that if Christianity is to be taken serious, it must be reasonable, not merely felt.

    In part two, “Why I Am an Atheist,” Barker gives his philosophical reasons for believing that Christianity is intellectually insufficient. The winsome attitude toward believers dissipates as he unfolds what he believes to be fatal attacks to common arguments for God’s existence. In chapter six, “Refuting God,” he summarizes and briefly critiques many common arguments for the existence of God, such as arguments from morality, religious impulse, and arguments from design. The following chapter attempts to show that the Christian concept of God is internally inconsistent.

    Barker also provides an in-depth critique the Kalam Cosmological argument for God’s existence as propounded by William Lane Craig, a leading Christian philosopher and apologist. The Kalam argues that because the universe had a caused beginning, that beginning is best explained by a personal creator. Barker asserts that the Kalam begs the question because it assumes from the beginning that the Christian God is the only possible being that fills the set of beings that do not begin to exist. However, Craig does consider the possibility that an impersonal being could fit into that set. However, the requirements for the nature of a being that caused the universe exclude an impersonal being (See Craig and Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, chapter 23). Besides, the Kalam only argues for a personal deity, not which personal deity (this argument was, after all, first formulated by a Muslim philosopher). Barker also asserts that the universe does not belong in the set of things that began to exist. But Big Bang cosmology, the prevailing scientific theory of the beginning of the universe, clearly shows that the universe is a thing that began to exist, making his assertion false. Metaphysically, the universe belongs in the set of things that began to exist. 

    In part three, “What’s wrong with Christianity,” Barker criticizes Christianity as internally inconsistent on a moral level, while the atheist is actually more moral than the theist by utilizing a consequentialist morality. He also makes the case that the Bible is full of discrepancies. His final intellectual task is to disprove the existence of Christ and the resurrection event. The assertions against the morality of the Bible are for the most part unfounded, such as the notion that God decides morality arbitrarily. This is false because the Christian God is bound by his character and nature as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. God is not whimsical as Barker claims. 

    Barker attempts to make the case that secular humanism can ground morality because we are accountable to others. However, he gives no philosophically compelling reason why we should submit ourselves to others in the sort of consequentialist contractarianism he proposes. True, people may be harmed if we rebel against humanity. But I find no compelling reason why this should matter on a naturalist worldview. People are just trying to survive as their determined brain tells them via the laws of physics and chemistry. For “A value is not a ‘thing’ – it is a function of a mind (which is itself a function)” (p. 213). And Barker is “using the word ‘mind’ as a function of the brain, just as digestion is a function of the stomach.” (p. 211). In his naturalist metaphysic we are controlled in all we do by the laws of chemistry and physics. If this is the case we have no freedom to act morally. If we have no freedom to act morally we cannot be held responsible for our actions. Justice is destroyed. On Barker’s metaphysic, we are locked into all our actions, fatalistically determined, or at the least given over to some impersonal combination of chance and necessity. It is wrong to hold one responsible for doing something they could not have possibly helped. 

    In part four, “Life is Good!” Barker concludes his testimony by sharing some of his exploits both in the public arena as well as some personal stories. His most prominent tale concerns his legal battles in the church/state separation debate, where he found himself in Supreme Court attacking then-president George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives program. Then he tells of some of his exploits in spreading atheism. He also shares a poignant story of how he nearly lost his wife and daughter to medical complications, which leads him to his final reflections on the possibility of meaning or purpose to life in an atheistic universe.

    Barker ends by suggesting that atheists have purpose in life even though there is no purpose to life. He lists famous musical pieces written by famous atheist and agnostic musicians. However, this does no intellectual work in supporting his arguments or position of atheism. If there is to be any purpose or value in human endeavors, there has to be a standard by which to measure purpose or value. Atheism has no such standard, so Barker’s blunt assertion that because we exist and act we have purpose is found wanting; there is no philosophical justification for purpose at any level on an atheistic worldview. But this list does suggest to theists that atheists are worthy of respect as human beings: as thinkers, as visionaries, as people who are as deeply concerned to contribute what they can to the world and human civilization. 

    This book raises some crucial issues that Christians need to consider: Is the Christian faith rational? Is the Bible hopelessly contradictory? Is God good? Did Jesus exist? Did the resurrection really happen? But on the whole Barker’s claims should not be considered a serious threat to Christianity. This book does more work trying to make one feel guilty and stupid for being a Christian than to do any serious intellectual undermining of the Christian faith; the number of straw men and ad hominem attacks is very high. However, reading this book might be a good springboard for pursuing an important endeavor. In his testimony, Barker recalls that he could find no Christians able to help him deal with his intellectual doubts. At some point every Christian needs to explore the intellectual justifications for their faith. Barker raises many primary intellectual objections to Christian theism in ways that are easy to understand. A reader who is interested in knowing whether the Christian faith is true and reasonable would do well to start exploring the many issues he raises. But if you want a balanced perspective, you will have to search for more resources than what he recommends because the resources in the selected bibliography support only his point of view. For example, try To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J.P. Moreland. This text contains treatments of many of the issues Barker raises, given by prominent Christian thinkers. Also, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design by Jonathan Wells provides criticisms of Barker’s evolutionary naturalism. The challenge is there, and once you take it up you learn that it is reasonable to hold to Christian theism, even in the face of Barker’s attacks.

    Paul Hovey
    Denver Seminary
    May 2009

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