Interview with UU-Infidels (Dan Barker Interview, May 2004)

Reprinted with permission from Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2004, of In Search of Reason, newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Infidels.

Interview with Dan Barker -staff member, Freedom From Religion Foundation, by Marilyn Westfall

MW – When we first talked about conducting an interview on religious language, you mentioned that you’d like to start it with the word “Infidel.” What are your thoughts on the word, and the use of it by a group affiliated with Unitarian Universalism?

DB – The word “infidel” simply means “without faith.!! However, as with many words that have a usage that is broader than the literal meaning–such as “godless,” which is defined in some dictionaries as “wicked”–“infidel” has been colored as a pejorative by many reigning religions around the world. It has come to mean “outside the true faith” or “one who has no religion,” and consequently, if morality is equated with religion, “immoral” and “evil.”
It is a relative word. In Alabama, a Muslim would be an infidel; in Kabul it is the Southern Baptist who is the infidel. Or the Unitarian Universalist.

This is not hypothetical. During the Crusades both sides called the other “godless heathens.” Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted equally claimed religious justification for trying to kill the other, each using the word “infidel.”

Personally, since I am without faith, I can wear “infidel” as a badge of honor. If such a simple concept can be turned into a pejorative, then why not try to reshape it as a compliment? I think this is what happened when homosexuals adopted the term “gay,” turning a dismissive label (“gay” “wanton”) into a positive name.

For most of us who might embrace the label “infidel” (I sometimes wear an FFRF t-shirt with the word), it is not simply because we have discarded faith–although that would be enough in itself to recommend it, since faith can be dangerous–but because we also champion reason as its replacement, as the only viable tool of knowledge.

So “infidel” can be heard as a positive concept, as a double negative: “without faith.” Many positive ideas are constructed as negatives: independence, nonviolence, antidote, for example.

The Unitarian-Universalist association has a proud heritage of religious diversity and openness, welcoming people of all faiths and of no faith. I am often privileged to perform or speak at UU fellowships, and in every single one I visit, I encounter a subset of atheists and agnostics, humanists and skeptics, mixing happily with the (mostly liberal) Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other religious identities. In some cases, these freethinkers comprise the majority of the fellowship. Certainly, “infidels” have always been a part of the rich fabric of Unitarian Universalism.
MW – Members of the Infidels regularly quarrel about the definitions of religion and spirituality. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you for comments on three questions pertaining to this matter:

1. All dictionaries (that I’ve read anyway) define religion as a “belief in a superhuman power,” “divinity,” or “divinities.” At the same time, the definition often is stretched to include the belief in any ethical system, including–say–Humanism. To your thinking, is this broad definition of religion confusing or maybe even dangerous, giving fodder to those who want to argue that scientific humanism is a “religion” taught in our schools?

DB – Yes. If any system of human morality, philosophy or common purpose can be called a “religion,” then the word does not mean anything. Stamp collecting might someday be a religion. Or potty training.

Most people understand the word “religion” to refer to a collection of beliefs and practices connected to a claim of transcendence: there is something, or someone, “out there” to give us direction and meaning–an overriding cosmic principle or personality. Secular humanism makes no such claim, and therefore is not really a religion. (There’s the old joke that if atheism is a religion then baldness is a hair color.)

Of course, as some might do with the word “infidel,” others might try to broaden the word “religion” beyond what has been historically understood. But good luck. To my mind, the word “religion” seems stuck to the supernatural. And since we already have perfectly good natural terms for secular philosophies and moralities, why make things needlessly ambiguous with such a loaded term as “religion”?

2. Some religious leaders and theologians, like the Dalai Lama and George Fox, are calling for spirituality distinct from religion. The Dalai Lama, in fact, calls for a “secular spirituality” based on compassion and love, and on scientific research into matters like meditation. Do you separate religion from spirituality? Do you think the American public, in general, makes this distinction, or is it too nuanced?

DB – I think the word “spiritual” is meaningless. No one has ever defined what a “spirit” is, except in terms that tell us what it is not: “intangible,” “ineffable,” “noncorporeal essence,” “non-physical personality,” and so on.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams (August, 1820), saying: “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.” (This does not mean Jefferson was an atheist: as a deist, he conceived of God as a material being, or as nature itself.)

Of course, we atheists and agnostics might borrow a religious word for a secular purpose. I could say that the “spirit of Thomas Jefferson is still in America,” and no one would think his ghost is floating in the air above Virginia.

The word “spirit” can be a synonym for natural concepts such as personality, liveliness, emotion, consciousness, love, or aesthetics. We infidels can agree with the Dalai Lama that such ideas can be championed. But calling this a “secular spirituality” has it backwards. We humans possess these things, naturally. Religious people are welcome to get into the act, and if they do, we might more accurately label them practitioners of “religious secularism” instead of accusing us naturalists of “secular spirituality.” Such things do not originate from religion or “spirituality” (whatever that means). We already own them.

When people like the Dalai Lama suggest that our values originate outside of ourselves–in some “spiritual” realm–they inadvertently insult our species, as if we are just too weak to figure things out on our own. I know he means his phrase as a compliment, and his motives may be truly humanistic, and I can join him in those activities I may deem to be truly moral and beautiful, but pretending to welcome us “secularists” as outsiders invited to his lofty “spiritual” table misses what it truly means to be human and moral.
3. You know that Unitarian Universalism accepts atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. Have you ever wondered why non-believers or skeptics would belong to a religion? Do you see a contradiction in an atheist reconciling non-belief with a religious tradition?

DB – Religion is one way (not the only way) to bring people together. A key component of religion is the sense of community it provides; but this can cut both ways. On the one hand, the clumping into groups can produce a dangerous “we versus them” mentality, as too often happens with fundamentalist and conservative religions. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with community. Many atheists and agnostics feel isolated in their (non) beliefs and long for an opportunity to socially interact with similarly open-minded individuals and join a group working for charitable, social and activist causes. We want to laugh, sing, learn, compare notes, and feel connected with the world.

The “religious tradition” of Unitarian Universalism–today a truly creedless religion–has consistently de-emphasized the polarizing and potential insular effects of community and re-emphasized the humanistic values that unite us all. For Unitarian Universalists, community means “open the gates and let everyone in,” not “lock the doors and keep the evil ones out.”

Many atheists and agnostics who love being around people are comfortable, indeed happy with this tolerant attitude. Although some infidels might squirm a bit while observing the symbolic religious rituals at some Unitarian Universalist fellowships, it is a small price to pay for the privilege of being a part of a quality congregation. This give-and-take works as long as the unbelievers know that their views are equally welcome, that they are not simply token outsiders.

I should point out that many atheists and agnostics do not feel a need for “religious community” and would never join a Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Culture or any other “church” no matter how nice the people are. Many infidels already have all the community and purpose they need without “playing church.”

But for those who do feel such a need– and it may be something as simple as wanting to sing in a choir–the Unitarian Universalist tradition is near perfect.

MW – Here are two questions about the controversy surrounding “the language of reverence,” which swirls within Unitarian Universalism. As you know, Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA, complained that the Principles and Purposes of the UUA were bereft of religious language. He then encouraged UU’s to “reclaim” that vocabulary, while mentioning his own strong belief in God.

Your organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to Sinkford: “Your proposal flies in the face of the UUA motto to affirm ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’ by slamming the door in the face of some of the nation’s most thoughtful and peace-loving citizens–those who reject belief in the supernatural.”

1. Is it possible that Sinkford’s proposal simply reflects the conservative trends within American religious groups, in general? On the other hand, could his be an attempt to “mainstream” UUism by making it “sound” like other religions?

DB – Yes, I think that is true. Many still have not shaken off the popular and erroneous conception that “religion = good.” This implies, of course, that being nonreligious is lacking something good–or worse, that nonreligion is bad.

But there are millions of good Americans who are not religious. (The “nonreligious,” by the way, are the fastest growing religious group in the country, currently at 14.3% of the adult population, up from 8% in 1990. American Religious Identification Survey, CUNY) We unbelievers vote, pay taxes, sit on juries, serve in the military, give to charity, work for social and political causes, contribute to art, literature, science, and education. We are good people, and we are proudly not religious. We think rebellion and nonconformity are good things.

The United States of America, for example, is a proudly rebellious nation. We fought a Revolutionary War kicking out the king, dictator, lord. There is value in not bowing to traditions that imply subservience to a Master–we are not slaves. Yet most religious language suggests the opposite: we must worship that which is above us and adore or obey the Father/Mother/Creator who guides our lives.

I do think the UUism has a problem. Since it is not really a religion–or just barely a religion–it is perceived as radical, liberal, challenging to conservative traditions; but this strength (in my opinion) limits the number of potential adherents. Wanting to increase membership, it is only natural for someone like Sinkford to try to broaden the appeal. But, then, what are you left with?

About twelve years ago I performed a concert at a Unitarian fellowship in the midwest where the minister is an open atheist. She told me that her board had cautioned her to downplay her atheism and criticism of religion before the congregation because they need to keep people in the pews. They had just remodeled part of the sanctuary and had a hefty mortgage to pay off and did not want to scare off any new young families who might be using Unitarianism as a transition out of a stricter more conservative religion. She felt muzzled, complaining that she thought Unitarianism was supposed to improve the world, not keep it ignorant.

But her board, and Sinkford, have a point. If your goal is quantity over quality, then you do what you have to do to get people in the door.

2. With Sinkford’s proposal, use of the word “God” is being revitalized. Some UU ministers are theists, but many define the word God conceptually, as “the ultimate” or one’s “ultimate concerns,” or as a yearning for the “sacred.” Of course, redefining God is nothing new, particularly since Paul Tillich, but what are your impressions of this attempt to reissue the word and definition of “God” for Unitarians?

DB – If “God” simply means something for which we already have perfectly good terms, then why not use those terms? Why muddy the concepts with such a heavily-loaded, ambiguous, sure-to-misinterpret label such as “God”?
MW – In some academic circles, particularly those with a postmodern bent, it’s suggested that Enlightenment secularism is at a dead end, and so we now are in the throes of a religious revival to fill the vacuum. There does seem to be an attempt to interface science with religion [Newsweek’s “Science Finds God”], with the upshot that our use of scientific and spiritual languages blur. Any thoughts about this?

DB – What is the vacuum, exactly? Someday, when sexism or racism are about to be finally eradicated from the planet, are some people going to step forth and say, “How do we fill the vacuum?”

Steven Weinberg, the physics Nobel laureate, points out that it is only the religious community making attempts to unite science and religion. Scientists generally are concerned with finding out the facts of nature and don’t feel this need to integrate religion and science. Why do it?

Carl Sagan was once asked by a college student after a lecture: “If there is no God, then how do we find a meaning for life?” Carl looked at the student and simply said, “Do something meaningful.”

There is no purpose of life: there is purpose in life. If there were a purpose of life, then that would cheapen life: it would make us slaves or tools of some “higher plan.” As long as there are problems to solve, facts to find, beauty to create, then there will be plenty of purpose in life.

Dan Barker was an evangelist at age 15 and received a degree in Religion from Azusa Pacific University. He was ordained to the ministry by the Standard Community Church, California, in 1975, and maintained a touring musical ministry for seventeen years. An accomplished pianist, record producer, arranger and songwriter, he worked for Christian music companies and also accompanied on the piano such Christian personalities as Pat Boone and Jimmy Roberts. One of Dan’s Christian songs, “There Is One,” was performed by Rev. Robert Schuller’s television choir on the “Hour of Power” broadcast.

Following five years of reading, Dan gradually outgrew his religious beliefs. “If I had limited myself to Christian authors, I’d still be a Christian today,” Dan says. “I just lost faith in faith.” He announced his atheism publicly in January, 1984.

Dan has been a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1987. He writes a regular column for Freethought Today, the Foundation’s newspaper. Dan’s letters and opinion columns on state/church separation have been printed in many newspapers across the country. He is featured in the Foundation’s 60-second TV/radio commercial.

The interview was conducted via e-mail. Many thanks to Dan Barker for his generosity.

Freedom From Religion Foundation