That old existential feeling: Dan Barker

Denmark arrival, June 17

Dan Barker with a statuesque King Frederick V outside the Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. “If you look at my Facebook page, you will see 20-plus os of me like that from around the world,” he says. The symbol  \o/ is shorthand for “I claim this planet in the name of freethought!”

I’m in Denmark for the first time ever, arriving in Copenhagen for the “Gods & Politics” conference put on by the Danish Atheist Society and Atheist Alliance International. After reading Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman, I’m happy to know I’m in a country where most people are nonreligious.

On the ride into town, with PZ and Mary Myers, I ask the driver, whose name is Jasper, if he knows any churchgoers, and he said yes, his grandmother goes to church sometimes. He thinks she might actually be a believer.

As soon as I landed, I went to the “Black Diamond” national library, right by the Parliament, for an interview with Laura Schnabel of the Christian Daily newspaper (Kristeligt Dagblad). They took some photos for a story that will run Saturday, June 19, although I won’t be able to read what they wrote! (In one photo, I’m standing in front of the circular lights in the library’s ceiling, which casts a huge, funny-looking halo over my head. I hope they use that one.)

Schnabel was very nice and admitted that very few Danes actually go to church. She asked me why the conference does not have any balance ­— why we did not invite any bishops or religious leaders — and I replied that I couldn’t speak for the organizers, but I couldn’t remember the last time any bishops or religious leaders invited us atheists to their meetings for “balance.” Christianity is old news, I told her. Atheism is different, refreshing. When she said that we only have a few hundred people while the church has thousands, I reminded her that Christianity started with just a baker’s dozen.

In the bookstore at the Royal Library, I bought a book about Søren Kierkegaard, who lived and worked in Copenhagen. I haven’t read anything by him for 40 years, and maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not impressed. It seems like he was the Christian pop psychologist or Oprah of his day. I’m all for “stepping into existence” and making those “either/or” choices and all that, but why should we have to reconcile existence with the “true Christian message”?

If we strip out the religion, he was actually saying some profound things, although I wonder if those who understand him are the ones who don’t need to hear it, and those who need to hear it will never understand him.

After that I went to Tivoli, the famous amusement park, just two blocks from the Hotel Danmark where the conference guests are staying. Tivoli is lots of fun, a bit Disney-ish, but very Copenhagen, with some great restaurants. Everybody speaks excellent English here. I don’t even have to open my mouth. They look at me and just know I’m American (is it that obvious?) and start talking English.

Conference day 1, June 18

21 freethinkers (speakers and organizers) gather onstage in Copenhagen during the World Atheist Conference. Dan Barker is fourth from the right.

This morning I went down to the hotel restaurant and met James Randi, so we ate breakfast together. He told me his grandfather was raised here. He told a great story about when his grandfather was a little boy in Copenhagen, but it’s too long to relate here. Randi is recuperating from surgery — heart bypass and other ailments — and said he was on a strict diet, which basically means if it tastes good, spit it out, and if it tastes like cardboard, he can eat it.

I asked him, since he’s a magician, if he could make the Church disappear, and he said, “Yes, I can, but you can’t afford it.”

Right off the bat, Roy Brown called for the conference to produce something like a “Copenhagen Declaration,” so now everybody is taking notes for what might end up in that document. (See sidebar on next page.) Brown gave a sweeping overview of religion’s influence in Europe: the concordats with the Vatican, the influence of money, the power of the Holy See, religious indoctrination in public schools, the rising influence of Islam and the growing need to strengthen critical thinking and humanist ethics.

Gregory Paul gave us loads of statistics, many original to his own studies, about the state of belief and nonbelief. He challenged whether religion is universal and whether it is good. Religion, he concludes, is easy to change, maybe not within an individual, but within a society. It is not innate. Look what happened in Europe. The single most important thing that can change the world and diminish religion: universal health care.

My talk was about FFRF’s National Day of Prayer victory. I was pleasantly surprised by the international excitement over our win in the courts. “When all is said and done,” I remarked (quoting Aesop), “usually more is said than done.” That truism fuels FFRF’s philosophy: do something!

Democracy by itself is no guarantee of freedom. (What if a country contains a majority of theocrats? They can use democracy to destroy democracy.) We need democracy tempered by an enforceable governing document that guarantees hard-wired freedoms and rights and limits the power of government to influence religion.

Philosopher A.C. Grayling had some great lines: “Faith is an intellectual crime.” “Science is simply applied intelligence.” “Bernie Madoff’s big mistake was promising returns in this life.”

He told a funny story about a woman at a conference dealing with Islam’s influence in the West. When told that the reason women should cover themselves is because Muslim men are sexually tempted at the sight of their faces and bodies, she said, “Maybe a better solution is to keep Muslim men indoors until they can learn how to control themselves.”

PZ Myers is always funny and gets straight to the heart of the matter, with lots of science and disdain for irrationality. He asks his students to “be an atheist for [at least] an hour, during my class,” and when they leave they can go back to whatever view they choose to hold. Atheists need to speak out, he said, because atheism is the only view that is true to science. “Besides,” he said, “religion is just plain goofy.”

This evening we went to the PH Caféen for some “Godless entertainment,” including hilarious British stand-up comic Robin Ince. My favorite line from his routine: “Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ is wrong. A lot of people don’t think, yet they are.” Rasmo Fynbo and his group Carbon Traders performed a variety of music, including the powerful freethought song “End of Faith,” written by Fynbo. It was a blast being in that room full of atheists from all over the world, laughing and enjoying life.

Conference day 2, June 19

The article about me ran in Kristeligt Dagblad today, but I can’t read it. If you can read Danish, and can find it online, go for it: Fra overbevist kristen til ateistisk bannerfører.
I overslept! Due to jet lag, I got up at 10 a.m., which is 3 a.m. back home in Wisconsin. I rushed over to the conference site in time to catch Richard Wiseman’s incredible show about skepticism, fire-walking, “good luck” and other dubious claims. His “boy on the elephant” metaphor for the mind is going to stick with me for a long time.

Rebecca Watson ( gave some useful life tips on how to respond to comments like “I’ll pray for you,” and what to say when someone sneezes, showing some fun videos she made of hilarious reenactments of “real life” skeptical and atheist moments. Aroup Chattejee’s presentation about “the real Mother Teresa” was eye-opening. He’s a doctor from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) with a book crammed full of facts about the exaggerated “demi-god” (as he calls her) who was more interested in politics and money than helping people.

This evening was a doubleheader: Richard Dawkins and James Randi, back to back. Dawkins’ talk, “Is Religion Good For Nothing?”, presented the clear case that religion is a kind of “gratitude firing in a vacuum” that goes off because we inherited social dispositions from our ancestors who needed a “debt calculator” to keep track of who owes what to whom.

Randi, looking smaller due to illness but lacking none of his original vigor and humor, gave us something of a “life in skepticism,” including clips of his appearances on Johnny Carson, exposing fraudulent (aren’t they all?) faith healers. He showed us a “paranormal” magic trick, which I have added to my repertoire.

After that most of us went to dinner at the Harbour Restaurant, where some “Godless” beer (Gudeløs and Origin­­Ale) was available, produced by the atheist brothers involved in the conference. During dinner I sat with Dawkins and a couple of Danish students. We talked about a possible plan to “redeem the clergy.” (Stay tuned.)

The funnest part of this conference (and yes, “funnest” is a word — I looked it up) is hanging out with people from all over the world, people from all levels — students, professors, scientists, activists — mingling and espousing atheism and freethought. After dinner, a draft version of the Copenhagen Declaration was passed around, and we all made notes with suggestions. Tomorrow it will be voted on and announced.

Final day, June 20

This morning there were three final talks, followed by a closing ceremony. Novelist and philosophy professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein gave a wonderful lecture about the life and views of Baruch Spinoza. The urge to “expel the arbitrary,” Spinoza said, “pushes people toward God.” He proposed a substitute: the principle of sufficient reason. “Reason expands the person.”

“We can’t fight religion,” Rebecca said, “without offering an alternative vision of grandeur,” and pointed out that science does exactly that, only better.

Irish writer Michael Nugent, of Atheist Ireland, gave an informed, passionate and inspired talk about the challenges to/by secularism in Europe, especially the current referendum to remove the crime of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution — a “crime” that is being used by other countries, including Pakistan, to justify discriminatory religious laws.

Physicist Victor Stenger wrapped up the conference with a heady talk about his upcoming new book, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity. Heavy on science, including slides of mathematical equations, he demolished the silly “design” arguments used by unsophisticated apologists. “Faith is foolish,” he said, “and should not be treated with respect.”

Then we voted on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life. I voted yes, as did other non-Europeans, so it is truly an international document.(See declaration below.)

After a group photo, many of us jumped on a tour boat that took us through the canals and waterways of Copenhagen as we ate lunch, followed by a 90-minute historic walk through the capital. One old church in the downtown area had actually rarely been used as a church: It was a market, then a warehouse and now is a restaurant, and that seems to suit the Gudeløs Danes just fine.
Tomorrow I fly back home to the U.S., where we face the daunting challenge of trying to catch up with Europe.

Declaration of Religion in Public Life

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics,” held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:
• We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
• We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
• We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
• We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
• We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
• We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
• We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
• We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
• We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
• We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths.  We oppose state funding for faith schools.
• We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is author of Godless and Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist. This is adapted from Dan’s blog at

Freedom From Religion Foundation