Godless — From Evangelical Preacher to Atheist: Dan Barker

At the 2008 Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Chicago last October, Foundation Co-president Dan Barker talked (and sang and played) about the power of music, his writing, debating and his new book, Godless. His remarks are excerpted here.

I think music is immortal, if nothing else is. Music transcends. I get to play piano in a lot of bands in the Madison, Wis.-area, mostly jazz bands. Sometimes it’s a band composed of musicians of all sorts of different religious views (although in Madison, most of them are pretty liberal and, in fact, a number of the band members over the years have ended up joining the Freedom From Religion Foundation). But you never know. Some of them are right-wingers and some are very religious and some are people I’m not so comfortable with.

But when the downbeat starts the music, suddenly that’s all gone. Suddenly we are a part of this thing—the song, the music, whatever it is. We look at each other and we smile and we just know that, hey. It gives the illusion of transcendence, like there’s this wonderful thing out there. Have you ever been to a concert, and you just feel this? We know it’s an illusion (most of us, I guess), but it’s an illusion to live for. When you’re in the right band in the right moment playing the right song, wow, it’s amazing.

Yip Harburg’s been dead for more than 20 years, and yet his songs. . . . How many of you have ever sung “Over the Rainbow”? My goodness, how that song just gets into us and lives on. It is a kind of immortality, a natural form of immortality. I talk about that very thing in Godless. In the last chap­ter of the book—which is my favorite, so save it for the end—I mention how our world has been immensely enriched by the contributions of nonbelieving artists, songwriters, novelists and others who have created beauty. And you’d be surprised. I list all these well-known songs in history and ask, “What do they have in common?” They were all written by nonbelievers.

We owe a tremendous debt to people like Yip Harburg, and Irving Berlin, who called himself an agnostic. He didn’t believe in God, but he wrote “God Bless America.” Figure that out. He did believe in money. He told his daughter that he hated Christmas, but he wrote “White Christmas.” He knew it was going to be a big hit. He didn’t believe it, but he wrote it.

In any event, we owe a huge debt not just to the sciences but to the artists. Of course science has enriched our lives, but think about the arts. Giuseppe Verdi was an altar boy who grew up to say “stay away from priests.” He didn’t believe at all. His wife, who was a nominal believer, was surprised. “He’s such a good man! He’s so generous! But he doesn’t believe in God!” She couldn’t figure that out. He mocked the church. He was quite anticlerical in his day.

When I gave my first reading of Godless at Borders Books, I noted that two or three years ago if you were looking for an atheist book, you’d find it in the Religion section. But today, at least in the Borders in our town, there is an atheism section.

I remember the very first time I led somebody to Jesus Christ. I was 16 years old. That was my mission, to be a soulwinner, because Jesus was coming soon, and it could be tonight. What if you died right now, and you weren’t ready to go to heaven? What if you died right now, and Jesus came, and you weren’t ready? I wanted to make sure that you could be one of those who were ready. I did believe it. I was 15 years old when I was called to the ministry, and it felt great, and then I got in this big car and we drove to San Antonio, Texas, from California. When I got in the car, they told me I was the new leader of a soul-winning team. They had heard that I was an “on fire” young Christian who could replace the original leader who got sick. I was supposed to train the local churches’ kids how to win souls. I had never done that before, but I thought, well, “God called me. I’m gonna do it!”

One Saturday morning, a nice sunny day, we went out into a park, and there were these high schoolers standing behind me, watching how to win people to Christ. They were kind of timid. I went up to this guy who was riding his bike across the park, and I said, “Excuse me! I came here from California to talk to you about Jesus.” He stopped and looked at me, and I said, “Are you a Christian?” And he said, “No, I’m a Catholic.” He’s spinning the pedal of his bike like, you know, “What is this?” But he didn’t leave, so I said, “If you were to die right now, would you go to heaven or would you go to hell?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I hope I would go to heaven.” “Aha!” I said. “Then if you don’t know, you don’t know! You can know, if you accept Jesus into your heart. Do you want to know if you’re going to heaven?”

He said he did and I suggested we pray, right there in the park: “I confess my sins, and I accept you, your death on the cross, as payment for my sins.” And then I looked up and said, “So now are you saved?” And he said, “Yes. I think so.” Together we said, “Praise God!” and off he rode, and the high schoolers got really excited. They all fanned out into the park. Think of those poor people. You know, you get a day off and you’re going go take your picnic blanket to the park, and here we come. Well, that was the first of many, and I did that a lot, standing on street corners, and standing on park benches with my accordion, and going to churches, and walking up to people on the streets, and knocking on doors, and doing all of that. I loved it. I thought it was wonderful.

In Godless, there are four sections. The first is called “Rejecting God” and its third chapter is “The Fallout,” what happened in my life after I became an atheist. Chapter four is “The New Call,” which is a lot of new material. It’s kind of lessons from the debate circuit. To date, I’ve done 64 public debates as an atheist. I don’t know if anybody’s counting, but it might be a record. My goal is to get to 100 debates.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you find out you haven’t. Once after a long debate in Delaware, a man came up and said, “So, Mr. Barker, are you a practicing homosexual?” I was speechless for a few seconds and sort of mumbled a reply that I wasn’t homosexual and didn’t see what relevance it had to the debate topic. Later I realized I should have said “No, I’m not, but now that I’ve met you . . .”

The middle two sections of Godless are “Why I Am An Atheist”—that’s the philosophy, and “What’s Wrong With Christ­ianity”—bible criticism, the resurrection and that kind of thing, which is useful ammunition against the fundamentalists who believe the bible is literally true. Hardly anybody in the church pews knows anything about the bible. They’re surprised when you tell them things, and they’ll say, “That’s not in the bible! What bible are you reading?” And I say, “What bible are you not reading? Because look at it; it’s right there.”
The final section, “Life is Good!,” has three chapters. One of them explains our Supreme Court lawsuit, the Hein decision. It mentions Rich Bolton, our attorney, probably the country’s leading expert on the faith-based initiative. And then “Adventures In Atheism,” in which I list other clergy like myself who saw the light. I tell about 25 brief stories of other former clergy of various denominations. The first story is about Dick Hewetson (attending his 28th FFRF convention). Dick Hewetson was an Episcopal priest and one of the funniest guys I know. Paul Heffron was a United Church of Christ minister. I say in the book that Paul and I share notes, literally, because he’s also a very good jazz pianist.

Just before my book went to press—I don’t know if this is a miracle or not—I got a phone call from a former imam, a Muslim, who is now an atheist/agnostic. He lives in the United Kingdom and didn’t want to give me his name. He said, “You can just call me Ali.” But he told me his story, which I summarize briefly. “It’s so nice,” he said, “to be talking with you. You’re the guy that I was supposed to hate so much. It’s so refreshing to just be a human being and take down these walls that divide people. Religion is so divisive.” It was almost a tearful phone call.

The final chapter, my favorite one, is called “Life and Death Matters.” It tells the story of the day our daughter Sabrina was born. Sabrina helped me to proof that chapter, because it’s a story about her. Annie Laurie almost died, and would have died, without medical science, and Sabrina would have also. We went through a really traumatic experience, and after it was over realized that not once during that whole time did any of us think of invoking a god. What did we invoke? The best medical care we could get, that’s what we invoked, and, of course, luck.

I did a TV debate in 2006 with William Lane Craig. He is one of the better Christian apologist debaters. Afterward, he handed me a pamphlet, “Five Reasons To Believe and Four Reasons Why It Makes a Difference.” One of the reasons that makes a difference (he says) is that without god, life has no meaning. Oh, I guess we’d better believe. Maybe there’s no evidence, maybe there’s no good argument, but I need to have meaning in my life! Later I e-mailed Craig to point out that no, there is no meaning of life, and we should not want there to be. If there were a meaning, that would cheapen life. That would mean that we were tools or slaves of something else. It would make us secondary, it would make us less than real.

There is no meaning of life; life is its own reward. Life is life. Life is what it is. If there were a god, doesn’t he ask, “What is the meaning of my life?” He just gets to exist, doesn’t he? He just gets to have his life be its own meaning. It’s the same with us. But to say that there is no meaning of life is not to say there is no meaning in life. As long as there are problems to solve, hunger to lessen, inequality to eradicate, knowledge to gain and beauty to create, there will be plenty of meaning in life. Just because life is not ultimately meaningful doesn’t mean that it’s not immediately meaningful.

Carl Sagan was giving a talk at a university—his widow, Ann Druyan, told us this story—and answered questions after. A student came up to the microphone and said, “But, Mr. Sagan, if what you say is true, if everything I’ve been taught to believe is not true, then what meaning is left in my life?” Carl looked at the student and said, “Do something meaningful.” If you want meaning in your life, then do something meaningful. Make a difference.

Freedom From Religion Foundation