I've been reading a book that I doubt many Christians have read. That book is Godless, by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
I first heard of Dan Barker in college (my sophomore year, I think) when Cru and CASH (Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists) co-hosted a debate between him and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza. At the time, the very existence of people like Barker who went from being believers "just like me" to staunch atheists genuinely frightened me. Copies of this book were on sale after the debate, but I stayed well away. I think it's an indicator of growth that I've now not only bought bought the book but find it fascinating, if challenging and troubling. Unlike most of the books I post about, I wouldn't recommend it to every Christian.
Barker divides the book into four sections: his personal "testimony" of de-conversion, his reasons for not believing in God and refutations of lots of apologetic arguments, his arguments against Christianity, and his life as part of the "new atheism" movement. It's a tough read because there are nuggets of truth that Christians need to hear in the midst of seas of statements and arguments I disagree with. I've learned a lot from reading it, though (as is often the case) not what the author was trying to teach.
I mostly bought the book for the first part, which takes up surprisingly little of its length. I was interested in the similarities and differences (for clearly there had to be some) between "deconversion stories" and my own struggles with doubt. Clearly our stories had to diverge at some point, but where?
In the first part, it soon became clear that Dan Barker as a Christian, was never "just like me". He grew up in a highly charismatic, fundamentalist branch of evangelicalism that focused on spiritual experiences and gifts and believed that since Jesus was coming back in the next decade or two, now was the time not to make any preparations for the future but to win souls. He decided to start preaching at the age of 15--because "I didn't think the world would last long enough for me to go to college or get married or raise a family". Trusting in God to come through despite his youth and lack of experience, he would go on frequent soul-winning expeditions in southern California and Mexico, trying to convert the unchurched and Catholics, bringing the Truth to poor, lost souls. He used his talent for music in church, revivals, and faith healing sessions, as well as writing Christian songs and musicals. He was "the kind of guy you would not want to sit next to on a bus."
Eventually he did get married and, rather than settle down and focus on providing for his family, stayed on the road, working with her as "musical evangelists" from church to church while supplementing their living writing and producing Christian music. He describes one particular incident that summed up his "life by faith". While driving he heard a voice saying "turn right". So he turned right, into some farmland. He kept following these directions by faith, excited to see what God had in store for him at the end, until he arrived at a dead end in a cornfield. When nothing came of this, he realized God had merely been testing his faithfulness and obedience!
Barker is clear that his apostasy was a gradual process; he didn't suddenly realize that God didn't exist. He seems to view fundamentalism at one end of a spectrum that he gradually slid down via a series of concessions, through moderate and liberal Christianity to agnosticism and atheism. The first step came when he decided to maintain fellowship with some Christians who didn't believe Adam and Eve were historical people, despite thinking they were "lukewarm" (Revelation 3:15-16) in their liberal beliefs. For the first time, at around 30 years old, he started asking questions (not having doubts) about Christianity, feeding an intellectual hunger he'd been ignoring for years in his fundamentalism and evangelizing. He started reading philosophy, science publications, psychology, and the newspaper(!), seeking an intellectual dimension to his faith that had been missing. At each little step, he thought his faith was being strengthened or maturing, "when it was actually my knowledge that was being strengthened." This perception is troublingly like what I've been doing lately. (I don't consider this ominous, but it raises the question of whether my story is just his at an intermediate stage)
He also began studying what Christians of other traditions and denominations believed and realized that "there is no single Christianity--there are thousands of Christianities", each with their own, "correct" theology and interpretation of the Bible. This denominational pluralism clashed with how he knew that "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Corinthians 14:33). How could they all be right? To me, this seems like the result of a very simplistic view on hermeneutics that views the Bible as existing primarily to define a single, precise body of doctrine--if this precision and univocality are absent, as they seem to be, then clearly the Bible and (God, its heavenly author) has failed at its purpose.
Anyway, Barker began to swing across the theological spectrum from fundamentalism to liberal theology. One day, while driving and arguing with God and himself about emotion and reason, he had one thought that seemed to come from the voice of honesty, not God: "Something is wrong. Admit it." It was then that he committed to "follow reason and evidence wherever they might lead, even if it meant taking me away from my cherished beliefs".
He started thinking of different denominations as being distinguished by where they drew the line between essential and nonessential doctrines. He was drawing this line higher and higher, "discarding many lesser doctrines as either nonessential or untrue." (I'm not sure how considering a doctrine nonessential equates to discarding it) He came to respect the more liberal theologians he was reading rather than seeing them as evil heretics, even while not agreeing with them fully.
He began questioning not just his beliefs, but his inner spiritual experiences. Interestingly, he claims to be able to duplicate those feelings and experiences today, which of course raised doubts as to their authenticity. If so many people of other faiths could be wrong about these experiences, why not him as well? He started having doubts that a personal God really existed at all. He describes the process of reason taking the place of faith and the Bible in his life as being like a fossil slowly turning to stone. Here his perceived dichotomy between faith and reason is clear. "Where did we get the idea that words on a page speak truth? Shouldn't truth be the result of investigation and analysis?" To look at the issue from all sides, he began reading books by non-Christian authors with "facts that discredited Christianity", which he tried to ignored because they didn't fit with his religious worldview. "Faith and reason began a war within me". He kept crying out to God for answers to these questions--just as I have done--but none came. This is one of the hardest parts of the book to read as a believer. Why me and not him? I don't think I am qualified to answer.
The only answer he saw from Christianity was "faith", which became to him like a "cop-out, a defeat--an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith." It seems like he saw faith and reason at this point as diametrically opposed, and saw an undeniable need to make a choice between them. He makes it clear that this choice was not easy--"It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt badly." All the connections and the career he had built on his faith made it harder. and choose he did. "I did not lose my faith--I gave it up purposely. ... I lost faith in faith."
In answer to my original question of how our stories differ, I think the answer starts with relationship we see between faith and reason. His search for truth seemed to be based almost from the beginning on the belief that faith (which sounds a lot like my definition of blind faith) and reason were fundamentally opposed to each other (see below). My questioning has been guided from the start by the assumption that faith and reason are inextricably linked as two ways of apprehending the same truth, and must either stand together or fall together. My experience has served to reinforce and affirm this assumption, just as it did Barker's. Am I only self-deluded in this? His conclusion that thousands of denominations meant "thousands of Christianities" is also a point of departure; he thought it meant God was divided or confused, I think it means people are divided and confused.
He expressed resentment over a lot of the responses to his apostasy that assumed that he somehow wasn't a "real Christian" or he would never have turned away. And, indeed, no one can no whether his faith was real except God and Dan Barker. But, though he does mention how hard the process was, the fact that it happened and then was over, and that the unpleasantness seemed largely due to the difficulty of completely reorienting one's worldview, seems like a clue. There isn't the kind of bottomless loss or grief I would expect from someone who really believed the gospel, the real gospel, but lost that belief. If I stopped believing Christianity, I would mourn for the rest of my life that a worldview as fundamental and wonderful turned out not to be true. The promise of building a peaceful, rational society of liberty, equality, and prosperity utterly pales in comparison to the glorious, eternal hope Christians hold to.
Atheism and Agnosticism
I'm not going to cover the whole book in that much detail. Parts 2 and 3, which take up most of its length, are persuasive, not narrative, and I'm going to be selective about what I respond to in no particular order. For a while he argues more philosophically about his reasons for atheism and against Christian apologetic arguments. One interesting thing is the difference he draws between agnosticism and atheism, which conflates them more closely than I would. He says "agnosticism addresses knowledge; atheism addresses belief." (I would not draw so sharp a line between knowledge and belief) So, to Barker, being an agnostic means you don't know with reasonable certainty that God exists, and atheism means you don't believe he exists.
He further defines agnosticism as "the refusal to take as a fact any statement for which there is insufficient evidence"--which is much closer to my definition of skepticism. In my view, agnosticism is simply the lack of knowledge of (or belief in) something for whatever reason--the statement, "I don't know." (Which seems closer to the Greek root of agnosticism, a-, meaning "without", and gnosis, meaning "knowledge", but anyway) Atheism, then, is not knowledge or a religion but simply a lack of belief. He distinguishes between the soft, "small-a" atheism he holds and the hard, "capital-A" atheism that positively denies the existence of a God. (Of course, in all the rest of his rhetoric Barker assumes the nonexistence of God, so he doesn't seem very on-the-fence about the question)
The Burden of Proof
Anyway, this contrasts interestingly with my argument that moving either way from the purely agnostic position of claiming no knowledge about the existence or nonexistence of God requires a reason (the "burden of proof"), and I know of no reasons to move towards belief in the nonexistence of God. He would say that everyone agrees without argument that the natural universe exists, but that anything beyond this is not obvious and needs to be proven. "We should start with nature. We should start with the nonexistence of God and then the believer should argue for God's existence, not demands that atheists argue against it. The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it." This is a clever, almost undetectable bit of philosophical sleight-of-hand. Barker conflates the agnostic, "I don't know whether God exists or not" view with the negative, "I don't know that God exists, so prove it" view. Since the existence of God and the supernatural are not obvious, the reasoning goes, we should assume they don't exist and work from there. While claiming to be correcting Christians who were misusing the "burden of proof" argument, Barker misuses it himself.
The Kalām cosmological argument for the existence of God is the reason I know I will never be an atheist (at worst, a deist), so I was interested enough to see what Barker had to say about it than I read ahead to that chapter. I can't say I was disappointed that his argument against it wasn't very convincing. The basic thrust of the argument can be summed up with the question, "Where did the universe come from?" In more logical terms, as apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig puts it:
- Everything that begins to exist had a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Barker argues that Kalam begs the question (presupposes the existence of God) with some set-theoretical smoke and mirrors. He says it implies that the first step of the argument assumes that reality can be divided into two sets: things than began to exist (BE), and an implied set of things that didn't. (NBE) For the argument to work, he says, NBE must not be empty and must accommodate (conceivable contain) more than one item (God). If NBE only accommodates God, it is effectively synonymous with God and so Kalam implicitly begs the question, assuming that God exists in its formulation.
Notice how Barker has to transform the argument to get to this point. First, he assumes it is making a statement in set theory, even though the original, Islamic argument greatly predates set theory and the argument can just as easily be stated with propositional logic without sets.
- If something began to exist, it had a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe had a cause.
The only thing this version says about NBE is the contrapositive of the first statement: "If something did not have a cause, then it did not begin to exist." Then he begins to reason "behind the scenes" of the set theory version of Kalam and base his whole argument about a purely implicit set (NBE) that the argument itself says nothing about. It's hard for me to believe that Kalam "begs the question" if if can conceivably be transformed into a form that does so, no matter how much work it takes to get there. It's also debatable in the first version whether NBE should also include things that did not begin to exist and don't exist, like dragons, in which case it certainly accommodates things more than one item. As well, even if all his set theory logic is correct and the argument does assume an implicit set NBE that only accommodates God, it does not "beg the question" of God's existence; it only assumes the existence of a concept of a beginningless first cause (who himself may or may not exist) that is coherent enough to be reasoned about. Reasoning about God is not the same as assuming his existence. If Barker really thinks existence is a property that God has, maybe he'll be convinced by the ontological argument?
He then gets at more of the argument's premises. He argues that Kalam is self-refuting or internally inconsistent, based solely on a materialistic understanding of the cosmos and reality. "If an actual infinity cannot be a part of reality, then God, if he is actually infinite, cannot exist." If we use words like "decided" and "create" differently than how they are used to describe human actions, he says, they are meaningless and worthless. So if something is incomprehensible to us (or to Dan Barker), it is meaningless and can't be true; apparently the presence of mystery in Christianity is enough to condemn it. He argues that the impossibility of traversing an infinite amount of time also applies to God's non-temporal existence, so God had to begin to exist. He says that existing "outside of time" is impossible: "To say that God does not exist within space-time is to say that God does not exist." (How is this not begging the question of metaphysical naturalism?) None of these arguments should be convincing in the least to Christians.
Lastly, again restricting Kalam to being defined in set-theoretical terms, he says that the universe is not a "thing" and is the "set of all things", so it is not part of "everything that began to exist" and applying the first statement to it is like comparing apples and oranges. I'm really not sure why the universe must be a set and not a "thing", and I have no problems with treating it as such. As well, there are versions of the cosmological argument that only refer to objects within the universe rather than to the universe as a whole; Barker pays them no attention. Throughout the chapter, he either misses or refuses to address the real force of the question: "How did space, time, and everything begin to exist?" or simply "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and its implications.
Faith vs. Reason?
It seems that the wedge of evidence that led Barker away from faith was driven into the dichotomy he saw (and still sees) between faith and reason, or belief and knowledge. He views reason as the gaining of truth from empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Faith, then, is just the opposite, believing claims without this sufficient evidence. He claims this willingness to believe without evidence is not only foolish, but even dangerous: "Without faith, anything goes" is a phrase he repeats several times. If you believe without having sufficient evidence, the thinking goes, you can believe anything you want and no one can disprove you! "With faith, everybody is right." (This is a slippery slope fallacy)
Unfortunately, many Christians (like Barker as a Christian) also perceive this false dichotomy between faith and reason. I randomly stumbled upon a blog post that expresses it from a Christian perspective: "Truth doesn’t need credentials, it just needs to be believed."
Attacking Biblical morality
Much of the third part (arguments against Christianity) contains Barker's issues with the view of morality presented in the Bible. Bizarre rules with disportionate penalties (Numbers 15:32-36), lots of smiting (in the KJV), God-sanctioned violence, and seeming disregard for human rights--it's easy to see how a modern, skeptical reader would find these things detestable. Barker contrasts this with the humanistic view of morality, which "comes from within humanity" and "implies avoiding or minimizing harm". Later he says it is "simply acting with the intention to minimize harm". He resents the common apologetic jab leveled against atheists that without God, there is no way to hold to any system of morality. The humanistic system of morality Barker presents is simple and, I think, inernally consistent.
But I think this question still has significance. Yes, humanists like Barker are able to develop and hold a nice-sounding, coherent definition of morality. But, unless they already agree, why should anyone listen? What makes this picture of morality, centered around the value of minimizing harm to living beings, any more "right" than any other that could conceivably be proposed? Consider ancient Near East cultures, where the highest "moral" values were legitimation of the reign of the king and giving honor to the gods. What gives humanists any right to judge this morality as any better or worse than their own? Because it contradicts theirs? (But the ANE cultures could say the same thing) Could the humanistic valuing of prevention of harm above all else be just as culturally conditioned as ANE cultures' devotion to gods and king? For this reason among others, his constant comparing of the moral values seen in the Bible with humanism or common sense fall rather flat. If you claim reason has a monopoly on morality, your claim is at least as arbitrary as Christians who claim that God does. (Of course from within the humanistic worldview this questioning of ancient morality is quite justified, but the same could be said of judging humanism from a Christian perspective)
Barker also shows that he doesn't seem to understand how Christian ethics actually work. To him, Christian morality is based entirely on blind, unquestioning obedience to absolute, timeless commands issued by ultimate authority. Christian love is not authentic; it is "because God said so". He asks Christians in debates, "If God told you to kill me, would you do it?" and points to the ultimate answer of "Yes" by some of his opponents as evidence of Christianity's depravity. If God told me to kill someone, I would seriously question whether it was actually God speaking to me, or check myself into a mental hospital!
I won't go over his chapter on Bible contradictions (most of which I was already aware of) in too much detail. It was a mixture of uncovering real tensions in the Bible (which he says immediately undermine its credibility) and blatant misreadings that are often based on the specific wording of the KJV (which he uses exclusively). e.g. Saying that John 8:14 ("Though I bear record of myself, [yet] my record is true") contradicts John 5:31 ("If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true."), even though in 5:31 Jesus is stating an untrue hypothetical ("I" is implied to mean "I alone") and He is in fact making the same argument in both passages. These misreadings were somewhat surprising as he does demonstrate some hermeneutical ability, including Hebrew and Greek word studies, elsewhere.
He also argues that Jesus probably did not actually exist, and even if He did the accounts of His resurrection are myths. (Taking the fourth option, "legend", in C.S. Lewis' "lord, liar, or lunatic" trilemma) I'm not sure Barker is aware, but Lewis actually does address this possibility in his essay, "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?"
What are we do to about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena [Jesus' moral teaching and claims to be God]? One attempt consists in saying that the Man did not really say these things, but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. this is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God--that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.
Another point is that on that view you would have to regard the accounts of the Man as being legends. Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.Barker also argues that the existence of miracles make the gospels unhistorical; that is, because miracles have not been credibly observed, they can be assumed to be extremely rare, if nonexistent, so accounts with miracles in them are more likely to be myths or fabrications than true. "History is limited; it can only confirm events that conform to natural regularity." He quotes David Hume: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." And Hume elsewhere in his essay On Miracles writes:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as could possibly be imagined.I would recommend that Barker read more of Lewis, who in his book Miracles also directly addresses this argument:
Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely "uniform experience" against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.He goes on to argue, in more words, that the naturalistic assumption that nature is uniform ("natural regularity") which Hume assumes cannot be known except by circular reasoning: "Experience therefore cannot prove uniformity, because uniformity has to be assumed before experience proves anything." And, "No study of probabilities inside a given frame can ever tell us how probable it is that the frame itself can be violated."
One other thing of mention is that, while going over possible naturalistic explanations for the resurrection, Barker brings up the "swoon theory". This is the theory that after the ordeal of being starved, severely flogged, crucified, and impaled by professional executioners, after lying in a tomb with no food, water, or medical attention for over 24 hours, Jesus somehow started feeling well enough to escape and convince people He had "miraculously" risen from the dead. This is absurd. Barker calls out Christians for applying "healthy" skepticism to other religions but not their own, but here shows himself to be similarly selective.
Though he never explicitly explains it, I think I arrived at a decent understanding of the worldview Barker is writing from. Since all we can directly see evidence for is the natural world and evidence for the supernatural is sparse and explained more easily by naturalistic explanations, it is unjustifiable to assume that anything beyond the material world exists. Since science and reason have proven to be by far the most useful tool we have in understanding the natural world (i.e. the universe), they are the best possible yardstick by which to measure all claims of truth. Religions fails miserably at meeting the criteria for a good explanation of phenomena like being falsifiable, simple, and internally coherent, so it should be discarded. Morality should be defined in terms of measurable, even quantifiable effects, with the goal being to minimize harm to living beings like humans.
I think many "endless debates" are endless because what is always discussed is not the underlying assumptions by which the disparate positions differ, but the implications and results from reasoning by those assumptions. So with Calvinism and Arminianism, where (I have found) the real difference lies in underlying philosophies of free will, determinism, and God's sovereignty, but what it usually debated and contrasted are the five points. And so with the theism-atheism conversation. I think the deepest difference between the above way of thinking and Christianity (I won't speak for other worldviews) is one of epistemology--the study of knowledge and how we come by it.
Atheism enthrones human rationality, human senses, human understanding as the ultimate standard of truth. The only valid conclusions are those that can be based on empirical evidence that is developed via sound, tried-and-true reasoning. The body of truth and knowledge begins with our senses and expands outward from us via reason. The scope of truth is that which can, potentially, be observed or induced from evidence. Logical devices like Occam's Razor are assumed to be universally applicable and binding. The supernatural, by definition that which is not part of nature and cannot be directly sensed, can safely be assumed not to exist because we can't directly sense it. So religion, which makes claims that can't easily (or at all) be supported by evidence seems absurd.
Christianity, on the other hand, believes that the human intellect and senses are not perfect and that the nexus of truth is located outside (and is larger than) ourselves, though it is still possible to interact with it (and the natural world) via reason. The empirical-rational epistemology of atheism is not wrong, but incomplete, and the mistake is in making it the scope of what can be considered true. I'm especially confused as to how atheists can claim to know so much about what is true while believing that their "knowledge" is a series of biochemical reactions in the brain that has evolved to be able to parallel situations in the material universe. In this view, why should these chemical reactions be able to "work" when dealing in abstractions or things not directly sensed?
ConclusionsThe above was not meant as a comprehensive refutation of Godless, just as an intellectually honest response to the book as I read it and an encouragement to Christians who may be afraid of reading the views of atheists. But I am a bit nervous about including it because what I ultimately got out of this book is rather opposed to it. Which is simply this: the basis for Christianity's relationship with atheists cannot, cannot, cannot simply be debates and conversion attempts. Christian apologetical arguments, which are presented as valuable tools to correct the falsehoods believed by atheists and bring them to the truth, are revealed, by actually reading the thoughts of an atheist, to largely be tired, smart-sounding, slogans being thrown around in an echo chamber, unaware that many of them as stated are completely unpersuasive to actual skeptics.
Godless begins with a rather off-putting, acerbic foreword by Richard Dawkins who, in the most condescending terms possible, expresses the need to actually understand Christians in order to reason with them. And Dawkins is right. Relationships between these two disparate worldviews can't be built on canned arguments and intellectual potshots aimed more at readers within the writer's own community than at the other one. Real dialogue and mutual understanding are necessary. Simply confronting the naturalistic worldview from the perspective of our own is not sufficient. For example, atheists like Barker don't see themselves as hopelessly lost, rebels, depraved sinners, etc., so addressing them as such is at best counterproductive, at most hurtful, even if we think we're being loving by presenting the truth to them.
In a sense, there is a difference between belief and knowledge, as Barker argues. If we dialogue with atheists while "knowing" we Christians are right, that we alone have the truth and anyone who disagrees is wrong, end of story, so therefore atheists must be proved wrong on every point...well, you can see how this "dialogue" would be a sham. Atheists, with their exaltation of reason and disregard for superstition, are guilty of this as well, even in this book, which is happy to evaluate Christianity almost entirely according to humanistic morals and naturalistic reasoning. By allowing "orthodoxy" to dictate that Christians must be right and atheists wrong, we lose the ability to learn from them. I think the very existence of a "Freedom from Religion Foundation" is not simply an occasion to cite Matthew 5:11 and consider ourselves blessed, but a sobering indication that something may be wrong with Christianity in America. Barker's synonymous usage of the terms "freethinker" and "atheist" should be an indication that our way of reading John 8:32 as emphasizing the need to believe the right things may need to be rethought. Critiques of the church are not automatically sin or persecution, no matter where they come from. If Barker allowed some credibility to the Bible, he might have closed as I am about to, by citing James 3:17: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere."