The fundamentalist Christian preacher who became an atheist
After 19 years as a self-proclaimed "extremist", Dan Barker renounced his faith – and he wants everyone to know about it.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Few atheists know the Bible as intimately as Dan Barker. Few, after all, can profess to have begun their careers as fundamentalist Christian preachers. Currently co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an American non-profit organisation, Barker was a self-proclaimed “extremist” for 19 years, until he renounced the faith.
Given how vehemently the 66-year-old now defends a life free of any supernatural authority, I ask him if he regrets the consequences that his Christian ministry may have had on people he would now describe as vulnerable. “Yes, I do regret a lot of it,” he says with candour. “I would counsel people to pray for healing. That’s dangerous. That’s harmful. People die from that. And I acted irresponsibly with my health, because I knew that God was going to take care of me.” This is a window that, once opened, is difficult to close. Barker reels off multiple instances in which he believes that he seriously damaged the lives of his parishioners.
In Arizona, a woman approached him, looking for faith healing to cure her of an illness. The two prayed together and when, inevitably, it did nothing, he said, “Let it be unto you according to your faith” (a reference to a line originally found in Matthew 8:13). “In other words,” Barker says, “it was her fault. She walked out of that meeting not only not healed but feeling chastised. It’s not a kind way to treat another human being.”
In his mid-twenties, he counselled a woman who was struggling with an abusive husband. Barker told her to persevere with him because, as the Bible says, he would eventually see the light. “So I counselled a woman to stay in an abusive relationship, because the Bible says that you are married for life.” What would he say if she approached him with the same problem now? “I would tell her to run for the nearest shelter and get out of there.”
Barker may have left religion behind but he is still a preacher of sorts. His latest book, God: the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, draws on his knowledge of scripture to attack the Bible’s claim to moral authority. If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a phrase that Richard Dawkins uses to introduce the second chapter of The God Delusion. There, he accuses the God of the Old Testament of 19 character flaws, among them jealousy, sadomasochism, caprice and ethnic cleansing. In a foreword to Barker’s book, Dawkins writes that The God Delusion’s reputation for stridency owes much to this one sentence.
Barker’s goal is to present direct scriptural evidence in support of Dawkins’s 19 accusations. He does this and adds his own entries to the list, including one from the New Testament. He tells me, “You can learn a lot about the psychology of the writers of the Old Testament when you look at the God they’re creating. It seems like he’s a projection of their own desire for patriarchal wealth and control.” In Barker’s view, the anti-egalitarian ideas contained in the Bible stem from this desire. “Religion is really a tool to control not just the access to females but also to control their lives,” he tells me.
And Barker perceives the homophobia in the Bible to be born of a desire to control patriarchal property and wealth, rather than of a repulsion by the physical act. “I think it’s about the fact that they’re not breeding,” he says. “If men are not having male offspring, that’s a threat to inheritance.”
The book aims to shake the faith of readers who believe in the literal truth of the Bible – a 2014 poll by Gallup found that 28 per cent of Americans fall into this category. Barker, who has met many such people over the course of his career, believes that they are sincere, if mistaken, and does not hold them in contempt. “I used to actually believe it,” he says. “I believed that a snake spoke human language. I believed that a fish swallowed a human being. It was stupid. Something happens to the brain. You get delusional.”
If you press these Christians, Barker explains, it often transpires that they haven’t thought much about the claims. Barker’s rhetoric is a little softer than that of some of the more prominent atheist authors; his temperament is closer to Daniel Dennett’s when he says that most religious believers are good people who use the Bible as a vehicle to express their goodwill. “But if we have risen above the Bible,” he says, “shouldn’t we know what we have risen above?”
Are projects such as this and his work with the Freedom from Religion Foundation a form of atonement on Barker’s part? He tells me that he thinks this might be “exactly true”. His training as a minister has turned him into a formidable force for secular justice and a relaxed and experienced public speaker. (The religious often cursed their bad luck that Christopher Hitchens’s oratory skills were never exercised from the vantage of a pulpit.) Although Barker does not feel that he changed when he shrugged off his faith, he says, “Maybe I’m trying to make some things right.”
These efforts come not just on the page but in court. At the time of our interview, Barker and his team of attorneys are knee-deep in two lawsuits: the first involves the denial by the chaplain of the House of Representatives of Barker’s right to open Congress with a prayer. (The reason the chaplain denied him the opportunity was that Barker does not believe in God.) The second, however, is weightier: Freedom from Religion is challenging the right of ministers and priests to benefit from the housing allowance to which they are automatically entitled in the US. If the organisation wins, “many billions of dollars” will be recouped. The victory would be historic – “a serious blow”, in Barker’s words. Were the government to lose, churches would have to start paying their clergy more. An alternative outcome is that all non-profit organisations benefit from the same loophole. Barker would be happy with either result – the Church would no longer be granted special treatment.
Amid these long and technical lawsuits, Barker is cheerful about his organisation’s fight for the separation of Church and state. He quotes his wife (and co-president), Annie Laurie Gaylor: “There’s nothing more fun than suing the government.”
I am interested in Barker’s views on Donald Trump, the man taking alarmingly large strides up the escalator of US politics. “It seems to me that there’s an awful lot of shallow support for people like Trump,” he says. The Republican candidate has appealed to the supposed “Christian” character of the US as a way to mobilise prejudice against Muslims. His followers seem to believe that he is a Christian but Barker sees this more as identity politics than evangelism. “He doesn’t know that much about the Bible. He doesn’t speak the Christian lingo.”
Unsurprisingly, when reading about politics, Barker is frustrated by the use of phrases such as “evangelical vote”, “Jewish vote”, “Muslim vote”, and so on. “When are they going to start asking about our vote?” he says. “The non-religious, the secular, the freethinker. When are we going to be taken seriously enough, when right now about a quarter of our population on this continent is thoroughly non-religious?”
The situation seems worse in the US than in the UK, I suggest. Two recent party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, have been openly atheistic. “We’re kinda jealous of you guys,” he says, “that you’ve risen above that simplistic ‘religion equals good’ mentality.”