The Future of Religion (Dan Barker Debate, August 2003)

This keynote speech was delivered at the “Humanity 3000 Seminar 4” in Bellevue, Washington, August 22, 2003, sponsored by the Foundation For the Future. 

SESH VELAMOOR (FACILITATOR): Let me introduce Dan Barker. He is our first keynoter, and the broad subject is the future of religion.

BARKER: I am Dan Barker, with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Our group is composed mostly of atheists and agnostics, working to keep religion and government separate. We think that one of the greatest factors for the hope of human survival is secular governments where religious opinions are left to the freedom of the individual, where there is no coercion from the government to believe or not to believe. You can believe in as many gods as you want, or no gods at all. We work for that. It turns out that most of our members are atheists and agnostics, but we are open to anyone who supports that worthy purpose of the United States, the First Amendment.

This has been a fun conference, and there has already been one “miracle” for me since I have been here. I have something called synesthesia, which is a mental thing I have had all my life, and I finally met someone else who has the same condition: Paul Davies. Last night we discovered that we both have synesthesia. This is a rare mental condition where, in my case, I see numbers and digits in color. Researchers have been studying it. It is kind of fascinating. But what are the odds that both of your keynote speakers would have the same rare mental condition? That has to prove that there is a god or some kind of intelligence designing all of this.

BOB CITRON: His name is Sesh.

SESH VELAMOOR: When I was deciding who should be the keynoters, I started seeing all these colors and numbers.


BARKER: I received an email a few months ago from a woman in Australia who was wondering: “What is wrong with your country up there, the United States? You have a secular government, but why is there so much religion? Why is there so much interest in it in this President of yours?” She was hypothesizing that maybe it is because we didn’t switch to metric.


BARKER: She was gloating in the fact that she is Australian, pointing out that each of our countries was started with cast-offs from Britain, and Australia got the better deal. “We got the prisoners,” she said, “but you got the Puritans.”


BARKER: Maybe that sums it all up, I don’t know. Religion is something very powerful; there is no denying it. All through our history and even today, religion is a very strong, powerful influence, in all of our lives. Even if you are not religious, religion is a very powerful influence in your life. Look at my story. I was a bright young kid in high school. I should have been a scientist or I could have been an astronaut, or who knows what. Some teacher, some counselor, some relative should have encouraged me to do something useful for the real world. Instead what did I do? I spent 19 years preaching that there is no world to worry about. Jesus is coming any minute. And I believed that. I didn’t know if I would live long enough to go to college. I thought the angels were going to come down. I would go up to people and ask: “If Jesus came tonight, would you be ready? Would you go to heaven or would you go to hell?” That is a surprisingly effective evangelistic technique to people who have already bought into this idea that there is this supernatural judgment in the world.

As you know, I spent a lot of years preaching and traveling and writing Christian music. Eventually I changed my mind. I wrote a book called Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. It is just my own simple story; it is not a deep, philosophical work, but it tells my story. Fundamentalist Christians put a heavy emphasis on personal testimony. Now, working with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I am doing a kind of reverse penance, trying to undo some of the damage that I did before. Now I get to do public debates. Next month I will be doing my 40th public debate against a religionist. In November, in Indiana I am doing another one. I write freethought music. Some of my song titles are “You Can’t Win with Original Sin,” “I’m Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” and I have a new album coming out called Beware of Dogma, which has a tango on it that I am looking forward to doing.

People who can’t find a naturalistic basis for morality have been inspired by their religious tradition to do some wonderful things. There is no denying the fact that most religious people are good people. Conversely, though, people have also been inspired by religion to do some horrible things. I don’t think I need to convince this group about some of the horrible effects of religious dogma on the world. On balance, I think that religion has been more harmful than good for the planet.

Since you can be good without religion–you can, and millions of good Americans and millions of good citizens of this planet have demonstrated a high level of ethical standards without religious teaching–then actually we don’t need it. We don’t need it to be good. We might want it for aesthetic reasons or personal, cultural reasons, but we actually don’t need religion if on balance it is more of a harm.

It is an interesting question, when we say, “These are good people.” When I say, “Most religious people are good people” or “That’s a good religion” or “That’s not a good religion,” how can I say that it is a good religion or a good religionist if I don’t have a standard of judging that is outside of those religions? We can’t use the standards from within the religion to judge whether the religion is good. I might say, “I like that one; I don’t like that one. I think he is good; I think she is not.”

We are using an external standard to the religious system, which basically, I think, boils down to the simple humanistic principle of morality, which is: To be a moral person, you intend to minimize harm. You can go beyond that and you can be compassionate and giving and charitable, but at its core, I think we all agree that the basic moral principle (understood long before the Israelites told us that they had the copyright on the Ten Commandments) concerns killing and stealing and perjury. By the way, those are the only three really relevant commandments of the ten to modern law. The principle of avoiding harm or minimizing harm is something that guides all of us. We want a future in which there is less violence, less harm, more harmony, more peace, more understanding. We don’t want a future where there is more tension and divisiveness.

Thomas Jefferson was wondering about this–as you know, he was a deist–and wrote a letter to Thomas Law, Poplar Forest, in 1814:

“Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to-wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”

Condorcet–I didn’t know much about him, so I looked up a little about him. He died in 1794. He was a French mathematician and philosopher. He was jailed during the French Revolution and they found him dead in his cell. They also found some notes for a book that he was working on. He was one of these virtuous atheists that Thomas Jefferson talked about. He had a little sketch of the book he was working on. The year after he died, they published it: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. He said:

“Our hopes for the future condition of the human race can be subsumed under three important heads: the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.”
Religion at its core, I think, is a number of things, but these three things, I think, define virtually all religions.

1) First of all, religion is divisive. It sets people apart. It builds walls between people. It makes an in-group and an out-group. It makes believers and infidels. It makes us versus them. Historically that is what religion has done. I was just reading in Matt Ridley’s book The Origins of Virtue [Viking Penguin, 1997] about how generally that is what religion has done: It has set up a differential between groups of people. “We are chosen,” or “We are the holy ones.” “We are the saved and you are the damned.” And that differential is a common cause for conflict.

2) Religion is also–most religions–transcendent. Most religions claim that there is something above and beyond the natural world, something that transcends what we know to be natural: a supernatural or some other metaphysical thing that is out there. And most of them claim that our basis for morality comes from whatever it is that transcends; it comes back and tries to tell us how we should live, or gives us principles, or guides us. Otherwise, why have religion, unless you have some kind of guidance, some kind of moral teachings?

Most of us in this room, I think, whether we believe or not, think that the important progress is to be made in this world. As Robert Ingersoll said, “One world at a time.” Let’s work on this world and work on solving the problems here and now. The women in the Suffrage Movement were all like that. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: “Who knows if there are gods are not, but we have problems to solve now. We have to work on these problems here, and prayer is not going to help” [paraphrase].

3) Also religion is–whatever you want to call it–conservative, traditional, resistant to change and progress. It has been historically shown that most religions want to keep things the way they are. One example is the lightning rod. For years the church taught that we shouldn’t put up lightning rods and interfere with an act of God. That would be wrong. If God wants to strike you, then that is His business, right? Until they realized that most of the buildings getting struck were the churches, because of the tall steeples and the bells.

Suddenly God changed His mind.

Anesthesia in childbirth–you know, the Bible says that women are supposed to suffer. Eve brought original sin into the world; they are supposed to suffer, and if you use anesthesia in childbirth, that is against God’s law. Birth control and the church’s opposition to birth control are, I think, very important to population control. The Bible says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and even though the Pope might be a good man, even though the hierarchy of the Catholic Church might actually be good people, their teachings, their doctrines, their practices have consequences that are–if I can borrow a religious word–evil. They contribute to more misery in this world. The Pope is too religious to really care about the real world, I think, on these issues.

Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was at a conference in 1999 on Can Religion and Science Interact? He was basically one of those who said, “No. There is no real dialogue between them.” He made a comment that went all over the world:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With religion or without religion, you will have good people doing good things and you will have evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
He would point to someone like the Pope, who probably does have good motives and probably wants the best, but religion is stopping him from being a better person. Religion is hindering our progress.

Let me read a little bit about what Elizabeth Cady Stanton said. She worked for half a century:

“I have endeavored to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women and base their faith on science and reason, where I have found for myself at last that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church. The less women believe, the better for their own happiness. For 50 years the women of this nation have tried to dam up this deadly stream that poisons all their lives. Thus far they have lacked the insight or courage to follow it back to its source and there strike the blow at the fountain of all tyranny: religious superstition, priestly power, and canon law.” [From “The Degraded Status of Woman in the Bible,” 1896].
She could hardly write anything without going against the Bible and against the church, saying that we need to rise above that: that there is a hierarchy, that there is some master above humans, that men are masters over women, that some humans are masters over others, that we are not all equal.

About ten years ago I read in the newspaper that somebody had done a poll of eminent people: “What do you think is the hope for the future of the world?” Isaac Asimov immediately shot back: “Women. The status of women in societies . . . controlling our reproductive futures. In societies where women have a better status and are higher and more respected, development proceeds; we have more rationality to our decisions; we view each other as equals” [paraphrase]. I like that and I think that is true. When I was a fundamentalist preacher, I thought there was a structure to the world: I over the woman, and the woman over . . . which is ancient and harmful to our understanding of relating with other people.

What do I think about the future of religion? I confess that, like Condorcet and like others, I am an optimist. The optimism might be misplaced, I don’t know. But I happen to think that optimism is more useful than pessimism, so I am optimistic in principle. If you are a pessimist, you prepare for disaster. If disaster is coming, maybe the pessimists will be the winners, because they have prepared for it. But if we are going to avoid any type of future disaster, like run-away population, then I happen to think that religious views will moderate; religious views will improve.

In fact, it is happening. What if we were having this conference 2,000 years ago? What if we were in Rome or Athens 2,000 years ago having this conference, thinking about the future? Would we have envisioned the Dark Ages? Here, learning had advanced: philosophy, mathematics, and science. We would have thought we were on this crest of a wave that was proceeding forward–but look what happened in the centuries after that. The power of religion to control what people thought, what they read, how they acted . . . the power of religion to suppress knowledge was overwhelming. Perhaps today knowledge is too wide-spread to suppress, but there are some . . . . Taslima Nasrin, for example, the woman from Bangladesh, the author and doctor who cannot go back to her country now because there is a fatwa over her head. I got to meet her and present her an award in San Diego last year. She thinks, from her perspective of the Muslim-Hindu tensions in the world, especially in Bangladesh, that it is not unlikely that another Dark Age could approach on our planet, due to religion. Look at the headlines right now: Almost every headline has something to do, either directly or indirectly, with religious divisiveness, religious intolerance, or historical religious traditions.

Ruth Green, author of the book The Born-Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible [Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1999], said: “There was a time when religion ruled the world, and we call it ‘The Dark Ages.'” She was talking about the Western, mainly European world.

Condorcet, the virtuous atheist, was speaking about population. Condorcet influenced Malthus, who influenced Darwin quite a lot. Mathus was more of a pessimist. Condorcet was very optimistic, but I think Malthus was probably more realistic. But Condorcet said, in his Sketch:

“But even if we agree that the limit will one day arrive, nothing follows from it that is in the least alarming as far as either the happiness of the human race or its indefinite perfectibility is concerned . . . . [They used that phrase a lot, “the perfectibility of our species.” They talked about: “Can we become more perfect?”] . . . if we consider that, before all this comes to pass, the progress of reason will have kept pace with that of the sciences, and that the absurd prejudices of superstition will have ceased to corrupt and degrade the moral code by its harsh doctrines instead of purifying and elevating it, we can assume that by then men will know that, if they have a duty towards those who are not yet born, that duty is not to give them existence but to give them happiness; their aim should be to promote the general welfare of the human race or of the society in which they live or of the family to which they belong, rather than foolishly to encumber the world with useless and wretched beings.”
Of course, he was talking about population, but these virtuous atheists back then never hesitated to be openly critical of religion. I think we need more openness and unashamedness to say: “That’s bunk. That’s harmful.” The beliefs of religious people are their own.

People should be judged not by their beliefs, but they should be judged by their actions. If people want to stand on their heads and worship Mother Goose and speak in tongues, I don’t care. That is their own private thing, if they want to believe in two gods, or three gods, or the Virgin Mary. But when their actions, coming from their religious teachings, result in consequences that cause avoidable harm, then we as moral people have an obligation, I think, to speak out against those actions.

One of the signs by which I think there is hope is that in the United States . . . What religious identification in the United States is currently growing the fastest?

VARIOUS PARTICIPANTS: Muslims. Buddhist. Mormons. Evangelicals.

BARKER: Wrong, so far. CUNY, City University of New York, did two surveys, one in 1990 and another in 2001–a definitive survey with I-don’t-know-how-many tens of thousands of people. They compared between 1990 and 2001 in the United States. Mormons went down; Christians went down; Muslims grew a tiny bit; they are now 0.5 percent of the population. Jews went down. The only group that grew (significantly) was the group identified as nonreligious. In the year 1990, nonreligious were seven percent of the population. In the year 2001, 14.3 percent said, “We are nonreligious.” It more than doubled. It is a significant minority. It could influence an election, but sociologists and politicians don’t seem to realize that.

What is happening in the United States is similar to what happened in Europe, which does have state religions. What happened in Europe? Even though they have these established churches, most of the people in Europe now–because of the wealth and the development and the opportunities and other factors–are pretty much either areligious or if they are religious, it is very liberal. Religious extremism in Europe is a small minority, compared to the United States. We are seeing a trend now in my country where this lack of religiosity is increasing. From my perspective, that is hopeful; that is good, because it means more of human morality and less religious teachings.

Let me end with three points for possible discussion. The first one that we could discuss: What place do religious values have at the table in discussing the future of the human race? By religious values, I mean those values that go above and beyond the basic humanistic principle of intending to minimize harm. The religious teachings that are unique to each religion: what place do those values have? Religious people have a place, of course. We are a free world. But what place do religious values have at the discussion of our future?

Number 2: This is a little bit off, but I am wondering about it myself, because I don’t know. Suppose we did find a gene or a cluster of genes that affected a person’s religiosity. There are some suggestions that we might. There are some states of the mind in which people become more mystical or less mystical and brain damage that causes a person to become more or less religious in some way. Suppose we did find such a gene or part of the genome, would we alter it one way or the other, and should we alter it one way or the other? Or is that something that parents would decide for themselves: “I want my kid to be more mystical or less.” I don’t know. If I had a chance to make my kids less religious and make sure that this gene was turned off, would I want to do that? I don’t know.

Finally, I’ll end with this recommendation: I think all of us here who consider ourselves moral and ethical, which I think we do, have an obligation to openly denounce those religious practices that are causing harm. I would recommend that all of us take some time and say, “Wait a minute. Just because it is religious doesn’t mean it is good. Just because it is religious doesn’t mean it is untouchable–it’s not nice to criticize someone’s religion.” We need to say to the Pope: “What you are doing is evil. What you are doing is wrong.” We need to say to other groups that have harmful teachings, “This is not right and we object and we are going to work against these practices of yours. You are free to think what you like.” Either do it directly, or if that is not your cup of tea; if you don’t like the confrontation of going in a religious person’s face–I happen to love it, but we are not all the same. It is probably good for the world that there is not a whole lot of people out there doing too much of this antireligious stuff. But indirectly we can still do it by promoting education, by promoting humanistic morality, because in societies where people learn more, their religious extremism declines. We know that.

You know the famous study, in the Academy of Sciences, showing that only seven percent of the eminent scientists in the world believe in a deity, which is sort of the flip of the United States population, where it is seven to nine percent who will say that they are atheistic. It seems to be a correlation that the more you know, the less you believe. Another way indirectly to fight religion, which is hindering human progress, is to push for a secular government, make sure that all governments everywhere . . . what kind of government will there be in Iraq? Will it be run by a religious group? And if so, which religious group? What if the theocrats have their way in my country? Which religion would be in control? Don’t we all agree that religion is better left to the private sphere?

I will end with Weinberg again. I got to hand Steven Weinberg an “Emperor Has No Clothes” award for his outspokenness on religion. During his acceptance speech he said:

“I don’t know whether or not we are headed for another Dark Age, when people do start crusades and jihads and pogroms again, or whether the course of rationalism and humanitarianism is going to continue and religion will gradually dwindle into something much less important.” None of us knows that. “From my own point of view,” Weinberg says, “I can hope that this long sad story will come to an end at some time in the future and that this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas will come to an end, that we’ll see no more of them. I hope that this is something to which science can contribute and if it is, then I think it may be the most important contribution that we can make.”
Thank you.

FACILITATOR: Let’s have some questions. Russ?

RUSS GENET: You mentioned that religion had a stronger in-group/out-group influence. Is it true that prior to organized religion, there were still in-groups and out-groups, but the groups were smaller, so in a way could you think of religion as giving a cohesiveness to a larger group of people–so that although it was still in-group/out-group, the in-group was a larger group?

BARKER: Yes, religion does bring people together. Cohesiveness: the teachings about “love your neighbor” that the Israelites had, and then Jesus repeated. Really, the word “neighbor” meant your own neighbor within your group; it didn’t mean neighboring tribes. You can see historically that they did not love their neighboring tribes, but they loved their neighbor. Every group you are a part of, you see that “loving your neighbor.” Jews love each other; fundamentalist Christians love each other; they help each other; they support each other. I did a debate in Queens at the Islamic Center last January, the first time I debated a Muslim scholar, and I could see that: the warmth and the love and the giving and the sharing and the family and the community that these people had. But it is insular. It’s like: “We are surrounded.” My Jewish friends really think that they are part of a chosen people who are surrounded by this outside group.

Ridley talks about that here. Ridley says: “As for irreligion itself, the universalism of the modern Christian message has obscured an obvious fact of our religious teaching: It has almost always emphasized the difference between the in-group and the out-group, us versus them, Israelite and Philistine, Jew and Gentile, saved and damned, believer and heathen, Hindu and Muslim . . . ” He goes through a big list. “There is nothing especially surprising in this, given the origins of most religions as beleaguered cults in tribally divided, violent societies” [The Origins of Virtue]. You want that togetherness; you want some motive so that if your young men go out and get killed in war, what is going to happen to them? They are giving their lives for some value.

The terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center believed that they were going on to some future religious . . . . In fact, the day after that happened, we (Freedom From Religion Foundation) put out a press release saying that that was a “faith-based initiative,” basically. They did it for their faith. And if they hadn’t thought they were going to live on beyond, would they have been as violent? Would they have been as eager to obey the rulings of this religious leader?

GARY SCHWARTZ: Dan, thank you very much. For me, it was a very cogent statement and an enjoyable presentation. I have a question for you about whether you and your organization draw a distinction between religion and what people call “spirituality.” That is Question 1. Question 2 is: If scientific research itself were to lead to certain principles in the universe that happen to have been part of what was the essence of many different religions–we are all clear about what the problems were–would you advocate that we consider the spiritual implications of what science was teaching us?

BARKER: To answer your second question, yes. If science led that way, of course. Science is knowledge, and if there were strong evidence for something like that, that met the scientific tests–it was internally coherent; it was repeatable and falsifiable; and if I could duplicate it myself–then, yes, of course. We want to know. We atheists don’t have our heads in the sand, saying, “We don’t want a god.” Some people think atheists are fighting against this god-thing. But, yes, if there is evidence, of course. It would be silly to ignore something as powerful as that. It would be dumb. If there were some deity, I would have a million questions for it, so, yes, of course. Most atheist friends I know are immensely open to that, and some of them might even wish for it to be true. I know some atheists who wish that religion were true, because they feel that they are missing something in life–but they can’t force themselves to believe it just because they wish it were true.

The first question, regarding the word “spirituality”: I can speak for myself; I can’t speak for all other atheists. But I think the words “spirit” and “spirituality” have never been defined. The word “spirit” has always been defined in terms of what it is not: It is intangible, non-corporeal, ineffable. But whenever someone tries to define what a spirit is, there has never been . . . even Thomas Jefferson wrote about that: “How can there be an immaterial existence? If God is an immaterial existence, then he doesn’t exist” [paraphrase]. That is what Jefferson said. Jefferson wasn’t an atheist; he believed in the deistic god. I think most of us atheists and agnostics borrow the word “spirit”–with a lower-case “s” or we put it in quotes–in much the same way that we might talk about “the spirit of Jefferson is still with us today.” We don’t mean that he is floating around the room, but his “spirit,” in a naturalistic sense.

People often ask me, “Since you no longer pray, and you no longer have faith, and you no longer have this (supposed) connection to a transcendent realm, where is your meaning in life, where is your spiritual connection?” I can only talk for myself. For me, it is jazz piano. I play jazz piano, and it is a wonderful, aesthetic . . . . It gives the illusion of transcendence to me when I am in a wonderful combo with really turned-on musicians, and we all know that we are participating in something that feels like it is above and beyond ourselves. It is a “magical” thing. But I would never insist that you would have to become a jazz pianist in order to share in my “spiritual” experience. What I am saying is that this illusion of transcendence, the song we are playing in the combo–there is somehow this song “out there” that we are relating to–I think God-belief is the same idea. When I was a believer, there was this image that there was this reality above and beyond that gave me meaning and to which I was relating and integrating. Religious believers have no corner on “spiritual” experiences. I think it happens to religious or nonreligious alike, but nonreligious wouldn’t necessarily use the word “spiritual.” They might say emotional, or aesthetic, or community-bonding, or some other naturalistic term. To me, it enriches my life. It gives me just as much feeling. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that throwing off the yoke of bondage gave her more happiness and hope than she ever had when she was religious.

SCHWARTZ: I am a jazz guitarist, so I can appreciate what it is like to be a jazz musician and have those experiences. I would just like to suggest for you and the group that we keep this as something open for conversation. Those of us who have pondered, for example, the nature of light and looked at how physicists speak in terms of photons, which are “immaterial” objects of no mass, that are infinitely small and yet enable us to “see.” We discover that there are lots of concepts in physics that have the same kind of qualities that also relate to people who talk about spirituality. I think that is meaningful for us to reconsider in light of what science is potentially teaching us.

CARL COON: I was interested in the statistics you gave of the increase of nonbelievers from seven percent to 14 percent. I have the other impression–that within the ranks of the believers there has been a movement toward the center, that tepid believers, a lot of them, have become fundamentalist, that the fundamentalist movement has grown in strength. Now, is this a correct or an incorrect impression, and is this impression due to the fundamentalist core becoming more effective somehow, or are their numbers increasing?

BARKER: First of all, that survey reported the religious identification, and some of those people who are non-religious might in fact be believers. We don’t know. They are not all atheists. That 14.3 percent, who have no religious identification at all, might have some beliefs and they just didn’t want to reveal that, but they are nonreligious.

But, yes, today in my country fundamentalism has more of a political power than it used to have and we are seeing it more and more. As an optimist, I tend to interpret it as the death throes: a wounded animal gets fiercer as it dies. That is the way I tend to see it; I might be wrong. They are losing power; they are losing influence; society is becoming more secular; they are not having as much control as they used to over women’s bodies and over gay rights and over all these different things. They are losing that and they realize it and so they are screaming louder and louder as they are going down. And what damage might they do, as they are going down? Angela?

ANGELA CLOSE: If you look through the history of religion, as we can see it, there has always been, until recently, a very tight relationship between religion and political power. The earliest political power of the earliest complex societies, anywhere in the world, is based on religion. There is this divine right of the ruler: this is what justifies it. It is all a political thing. And this is where there is a difference between the United States and the Old World. In the Old World you have the state religions. I grew up in the Church of England, and it is a social club. No one takes this religion seriously, but you have the state religions, and people have got beyond it, and that it is just politics.

But here you have people coming who thought it was a religion, a power thing, and so they are here being religious about it. Maybe this is what is happening with the fundamentalists now: They are beginning to say, “Oh! Political power! We can do it with irreligion.” But historically there has always been this very tight link between the two. It is not about gods.

BARKER: Yes. Power and control. Some of my friends think that what happened in Europe needs to happen here in the United States, that we need to fall into that trap of having a state religion so that the citizens can become apathetic. Then we can say: “Okay, we have a state religion. Let’s get back to living our lives.” I would hate to see that happen.

JOHN SMART: Dan, I had a question on this issue of religion doing more harm than good, in a historical reference. My impression of it is that it has been the most effective form of social, collective computation about human values and about standards of human behavior, until very recently, and probably still is, in terms of numerical numbers of human beings. That’s why so many people still use it, because we are very pragmatic people, and when science is silent about values, and silent about the kinds of conduct that we should have . . . . It has a few simple principles like the munificence principle that you mentioned, but in terms of lots of specific codes of conduct, science is still decades away from a mathematics of morality or a calculus of civilization, if you will.

In the face of that silence, it really seems that religion provides tremendous value there. From my perspective on the big picture of cosmology, I was very gratified to see that if this multiverse model is true–which I believe it is, this kind of eternal recurrence–and if also some form of accelerating change is going to lead us to something very different, very soon, then the Eastern models of cosmology of eternal recurrence and the Western models of spiritual cosmology of transcendence were both right much earlier than science was, in a broad computational sense. They saw something that the scientists have yet to quantify. So, I am wondering if you think that religion has a lot of deeper value still and will in coming decades.

BARKER: Yes, and your point is stronger in the more developed, liberal religions–the more universalist religions that are not so fundamentalist–as a gathering place. Look at the civil rights movement: The churches were used as a gathering place. I have a friend, Tom Malone, who is an atheist, who marched shoulder-to-shoulder with the Baptists in the civil rights marches. No one asked what his religion was, and it didn’t matter. It was the issue that was important, and the principles they were using, religious or not, were basic humanistic principles of equality and fairness. If you use the Bible as your guide, some of the strongest sermons in favor of slavery came from the Southern churches, because the Bible is very strongly pro-slavery. So, religion in that sense was retarding progress.

Cosmology: I tend to agree with you about the multiverse. I have been reading about that, too, and of course we don’t know, but the multiverse answers a lot of questions. Maybe in my case, it is wishful thinking because it answers all sorts of questions of coincidence. What are the chances that the fine-tuning of this universe was the way it was? Well, if there were n number of chances . . . in order to say its chances, you have to have one number divided by another, if you are ever going to use the word probability. So, where do you get that top number? What is that top number? It is at least one. Is it greater than one, and how much greater? If it is much greater, then the chances are that this universe had to happen. It might be wishful thinking on the part of some of us thoroughgoing secularists to want an answer like that.

Again, even if it is right that these models of spirituality and values converge, that doesn’t mean I should write out a check to my local Baptist church. We still live our lives; we still have to mow the lawn and pay the rent and change diapers. We still have to live our lives in this world, and what difference does it make if we provide a living for some priests and ministers?

ADRIANA OCAMPO: Thank you. I enjoyed your talk. I was interested to hear how you portrayed the single entity, when you were a preacher. Do you think that we are perhaps undergoing a revolution in the infrastructure of our beliefs as a species–that that infrastructure is in itself being reexamined and changed, and that the frameworks and thoughts on how that has been used in the past are not really fitting anymore the evolution of what is happening in the world today?

I was curious to hear your thoughts in trying to determine what gives us life, the essence of life, perhaps that energy that is shared by all humans. Those are paradigms that now we are learning more about and understanding, and it is making us rethink the way we thought about religion and those breakthroughs.

BARKER: Yes, I think that is probably true in the Western world, where religion is becoming more liberal. I don’t know if that is true in the Islamic world. I don’t know if it is true in the Christian world in Africa or other parts of the world. Christianity is growing in other parts of the world, even though it is shrinking in the United States. Christianity is growing in an older-fashioned, primitive way. I don’t mean primitive culturally, but in primitive Christianity, Christianity is gaining strength.

Yes, in my own evolution: I used to read the Bible stories as literal; there was a Prodigal Son. Adam and Eve were literal people. But then I became more of a liberal believer, and I thought: Well, the Prodigal Son was just a parable. Jesus didn’t mean us to think it was true. And Adam and Eve were just metaphors the Israelites used to explain . . . . And if that is true, then maybe God himself is one huge figure of speech. We are just using this metaphor, this figure of speech, to try to give some kind of meaning to our lives. If you take it as a figure of speech–fine, then you are a liberal theologian. There are a lot of them. I have debated liberal theologians, and it is kind of like nailing jello to a tree. What do they believe? And what are we debating?

Yes, I think that does happen. The more you know, the more you have to recast what you thought you knew in the past, so some religions are improving. I would say improving; others would say they are falling apart. But from a liberal point of view, yes, some religions are becoming more and more open. In Islam you see the same thing. There are many Islamic groups that are also welcoming of diversity. It is just the extremist Muslims that are causing most of the problems. Historically, I think, Islam does have a rich history of inclusivism and welcoming other points of view. I didn’t really answer your question.

JOHN HARTUNG: Dan, as a fellow atheist, I appreciated your real appreciation for and tolerance of agnostics, which is a skill I have yet to learn. But I was concerned about one part of your talk. I think you were in favor of the notion that ensuring the happiness of future generations of descendants is more important than ensuring their existence. It seems to me that without existence, there won’t be any happiness, so the first responsibility is to ensure existence. I am really deeply disturbed by the Hume happiness notion–isn’t there something more than that?

BARKER: Well, that was Condorcet I was quoting, . . . .


BARKER:. . . the virtuous atheist who is an optimist, and he was talking in the context of reaching a point where overpopulation becomes critical. He was thinking into the future, and Malthus used a lot of his ideas, too, when he was thinking about how agriculture increases arithmetically but the population has increased geometrically. He was projecting into the future: What is going to happen when we reach that point? Are we going to just keep plugging away? Is existence more important than happiness? That was basically his point, arguing that we should stop before we get to that point. So, I don’t think Condorcet would advocate “be fruitful and multiply” to the extent . . . well, in his day, they didn’t have the problem. They thought there were limitless resources, especially where he lived. He thought that we could double, triple, quadruple our population and we would have enough to sustain it. But in our day, I don’t think we can look at it the same way he did.

FACILITATOR: Something I would like you to comment on: This is from Walter’s book Reflections on Life, where he states: “Some of our best minds have given up and simply abandoned religion altogether.” I imagine you fit that description. “That is all right for them, perhaps, but it exposes society as a whole to the poison of moral relativism.”

BARKER: Moral relativism. I think moral relativism is infinitely superior to moral absolutism. Look what absolutes have done morally. If something is a moral absolute, there is no debate with it; there is no argument; there is no changing it. When I was a fundamentalist Christian, everything was absolute. It was either right or it was wrong. It was either true or it was false. There was no middle ground in my thinking. The Bible says that God said, “You should be hot or cold, because if you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” If you ever talk with a fundamentalist extremist of any religion, the mindset is absolutistic. There can’t be any gray area.

I think in the real world, though, moral choices don’t always have the same answer. There are some times when the most moral thing you can do is to tell a lie. You can’t say, “Thou shalt not lie” always. Sometimes a lie is the best, most ethical thing you should do, and telling the truth might be the worst thing to do. One example: a woman comes to your house and she is bleeding and she is bruised, and she says that her husband is trying to kill her. So, you bring her in, give her a place, clean her up. Then later her husband comes knocking on the front door, saying, “Do you know where my wife is?” I think, in my case, I would lie to the man, proudly, as a moral act, I would say, “No, I do not.” I wouldn’t pull a list from my back pocket and say, “Let’s see. What is the absolute rule here? Oh, don’t lie. Okay. Yes, I know where she is. She is upstairs.” Every moral decision is made in context.

OBSERVER: How about pulling a .44 Magnum from your back pocket and telling him: “Make my day”?

BARKER: Well, “thou shalt not kill.”

WALTER KISTLER: There are certain distinctions you have to make when you look at the world. One is science; one involves creations of the human mind. What you said about this wife who could get killed, that is not science, and, sure, I would lie and I do not normally like lying. But it should be very clearly distinct: In science, there are only two things: it is true or it is false. There is no relativism in science. Or, we can say it another way: Science is defined. It is only science if it is clearly true or false. Look at Einstein’s view that a beam of light gets bent in an astronomical body. People judge: Is this true or is it false? It is not in between or maybe. Of course, when they made the test and saw that it is correct, then Einstein’s view was true. What people lack is seeing the direct distinction. With the photons you mentioned and other things in the physical world, there is no question: It is not relative, even though Einstein’s theory is called the Theory of Relativity. But things in science are not relative. It is true or it is false.

When people change science, which is done a lot today by scientists and I strongly object to this–to have an idea of what is good and then adjust facts and adjust the interpretation of facts so that they make science to be good–this is horrible in my view. Science does not differentiate between what is good or bad, what is pleasant or unpleasant. Science is absolute.

But when you get into the other realm of the human mind and its creations–and religion is one of the creations–then things are totally different. Religion and many other human views, such as what is good socially and what is happiness, these are made by the human mind. And purpose in life–that is not nature; nature doesn’t have any purpose–that is also a creation of the human mind, and different rules apply. You cannot mix creation of the human mind with creation of nature.

FACILITATOR: Walter, perhaps the question should be: Should the advantage or desirability of moral relativism at any given point be allowed to compromise scientific truth?

WALTER KISTLER: Exactly. That is the key point. I fear that that is done a lot today by many scientists. They have an idea of what is good, what is socially good, what is good for society, so they suppress certain facts, amplify others, distort and interpret, and they call it science. That is religion, in my view. That is not science. Science doesn’t care if it is good or bad, if it is compassionate or not compassionate. Nature is very rough, very cruel. Truth is sometimes very unpleasant, as people in Darwin’s time found out. They didn’t like Darwin’s theory at all, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. People made it wrong because they didn’t like it. That happens today in science, unfortunately very much, and my great effort is to fight this. Science is true or false; it doesn’t matter whether you like it or don’t like it.

BARKER: I think I agree. We all want truth, no matter where it leads–at least we all claim to. Maybe we don’t know our own biases. But at least the pursuit of science is to know what is true, what is confirmable. But the question of morals, I think, is the other way around. I think moral choices are informed by science. If you are faced with two or more choices of behavior–“I will do that action or this action”–you need to know what the consequences are of that action and what the consequences are of this action. In evaluating the consequences so you can make your value computation — a value is not a thing; a value is a function. We apply value, and value is relative to whatever environment we happen to be in — but when you try to assess the relative merits of the various consequences of different actions, you need to know, in fact, what are the consequences of that action and, in fact, what are the consequences of this one. If you don’t know that, if you are not informed by science, then you might make a decision and even though your intention is right, you might be poorly informed in your intention to be a moral person and you might make a decision that results in more harm than you had wished.

So, I think it is incumbent on moral people to know as much as they can. Like Sesh tells these students: “Before you make up your mind, learn as much as you can about this. You might change your mind and say, ‘Wait. That action actually doesn’t result like I thought it did. I am changing my mind.'” If you have a religious morality, you can’t change your mind. You have to follow this course; it is dogmatic; no matter what happens you have to follow it.

I did a debate once with a Christian minister, and I asked him point-blank: “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” And he said, “Yes, I would.” Right in front of a public debate, he said, “Yes, I would.” If he believed that God told him to kill me, he would do it because God told him and that is an absolutistic thing to do. I responded that he doesn’t have a concept of morality. He is morally bankrupt. If he is not able to weigh choices in context, he is only going to follow directions from a dictator.

Thank you.

FACILITATOR: Thank you. We will take a short break and then come back to the other side of the coin.

Freedom From Religion Foundation