Words From a Former Fundamentalist

Dan Barker, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, used to be a fundamentalist evangelical preacher. He writes all about it in his book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

In the latest Secular Student Alliance newsletter, he explains the mindset of a fundamentalist:

It would be your lucky day when God directed you to sit next to me on a bus.

Maybe you didn’t consciously admit that you wanted the truth I was offering, but after sensing the Spirit of God in my words, you would realize that, “Yes, this is what I have been yearning for!” You were merely living in “the world,” and I was handing you the privilege to leave that sad, lowly, hopeless, empty domain and move into God’s fraternity. What a blessing that there were people like me on campus who had the goodness and courage to make you such a wonderful invitation.

It was more than that, of course, but you get the idea. You probably thought I was a kook, but I knew I was a humble servant of the creator of the universe, so laugh all you want…

It seems hopeless.

They won’t listen to reason or logic.

So is there any way to get them to listen to you?

Yes, there is, says Dan:

It would seem that a true two-way dialogue between fundamentalists and nonbelievers, with radically different approaches to epistemology, is difficult, maybe impossible. But I am going to tell you exactly what you could have said to me that would have made a difference, things that I now wish someone had told me years ago.

You can check out his advice at the Secular Student Alliance website.

  • cipher

    He seems to be saying two different things, Hemant. First, he says that

    Not all fundamentalists are the same. They often fight among themselves about various doctrines. They also differ in their style. Some are peaceful, loving, gentle believers who are genuinely good people trusting that their joyful and meaningful lives will be attractive to you. They figure it is God who is the judge. Others are intrusive proselytizers who sense a duty and a right to confront you in order to change your sinful ways and bring you into heaven.

    Then, he goes on to describe their tactics as though they are all alike – “Fundamentalists pretend to love you sinners while hating your sin”; “Their goal is to convert you”; “If you simply walk away, you deny them the chance to feed their attention-seeking needs. They want to feel important and useful to God. They hate to be ignored.”

    I have no problem if he wants to stereotype fundamentalists (as you know, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt, myself), but he should take a little more care to avoid ambiguity.

  • Awesomesauce

    Agreed^

    Now we just have to wait for the rest of it.

  • Richard Wade

    Well, I’m eagerly awaiting the next issue of the SSA’s eMpirical, and I imagine that a few fundamentalists are as well, ready to build defenses against whatever their fallen brother says would have swayed him.

  • justin jm

    From the SSA newsletter:

    It was exciting to get doors slammed in my face. It was affirming to hear ignorant college students arguing with me

    This is an attitude I’ve noticed among those who try to convert us. Victory in an argument is not victory per se, but just to not lose. If they never admit error, they will sincerely believe that we atheists have no good arguments.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    SUCH A TEASE.

  • Pseudonym

    cipher:

    He seems to be saying two different things [...]

    Yes, his piece covers a lot of ground, but I didn’t pick up any ambiguity at all. Not all fundies are the same; they believe different things and sometimes metaphorically fight each other about it. But they all tend to have a similar mindset and use the same tactics, and as such, can be responded to in the same way.

    At least, that’s what I figure. I don’t understand fundamentalists, and I’m hoping that this series will help a lot in understanding them.

    BTW: As with the battle over science education, the battle against fundamentalism is another one where liberal religionists and atheists are on the same side. (Moderate religionists slightly less so, but even there, I think there’s more common ground than most people think.)

  • Richard Wade

    The narcissistic vanity he describes in his old self is really over the top. I think either he’s exaggerating how self-obsessed he was or he was seriously disturbed, not just very devout. Either way I’m glad he’s over it now. It’s nauseating.

  • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

    I’m sure he was a devout believer, but it sounds like he wasn’t a very good preacher.

  • cipher

    Yes, his piece covers a lot of ground, but I didn’t pick up any ambiguity at all. Not all fundies are the same; they believe different things and sometimes metaphorically fight each other about it. But they all tend to have a similar mindset and use the same tactics, and as such, can be responded to in the same way.

    Right – but that’s not what he said.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    The main slip-up that I see is the line, “Fundamentalists pretend to love you sinners while hating your sin.” Somehow, it seems unlikely that not only are the more jerky fundies lying about loving sinners but also the “peaceful, loving, gentle” ones as well. You’d think that with such a wide range of demeanors among fundamentalists, at least some of them love the supposed sinners for real.

  • http://mylongapostasy.blogspot.com ATL-Apostate

    Richard Wade said:

    The narcissistic vanity he describes in his old self is really over the top. I think either he’s exaggerating how self-obsessed he was or he was seriously disturbed, not just very devout. Either way I’m glad he’s over it now. It’s nauseating.

    Speaking from my own personal situation, I can say that Dan Barker is probably NOT exaggerating. I saw much of my former self in his description of fundies.

    It is so embarrassing when I look back on who I used to be.

    Can’t wait for his next article where he lists what one could say to a fundy to get him/her to change. I honestly can’t think of a thing (one single word or argument) anyone could have said to me.

    Like Dan said, my de-conversion came from within, not due to any “atheist evangelism.” I suppose over time, arguing with atheists and “liberals” did cause me to question some beliefs.

    ATL-Apostate

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    I was left unsure of who he actually grouping under the word fundamentalist. I tend to use the word primarily in association with angry, militant Christians, in which case I find it somewhat oxymoronic to speak of peaceful fundamentalists. But he seems to be using the word more broadly. Is he suggesting that any Christian who is non-liberal is a fundamentalist? If so, that would be a rather black-white take on the world I would think, with distinct overtones of the pot calling the kettle black. For there are many of us evangelicals Christians out here who disassociate outselves from the extremes of fundamentalism and happily live with shades of grey. Maybe he hasn’t escaped his fundamentalist worldview as much as he thinks?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    ATL-Apostate: “Speaking from my own personal situation, I can say that Dan Barker is probably NOT exaggerating.”

    Speaking from the findings of cognitive dissonance theory, the memories of your and Dan Barker’s past experiences as Christians are probably colored to exaggerate the negatives:

    There are four ways to reduce the dissonance that comes from making a decision: revoke the decision, increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative, decrease the attractiveness of the unchosen option, or reduce the importance of the decision. One common way to reduce the dissonance is do both the second and third options: make the chosen alternative look better and the unchosen option look worse (White & Gerard, 1981) … This is called the “spreading effect”

  • http://mylongapostasy.blogspot.com ATL-Apostate

    Speaking from the findings of cognitive dissonance theory, the memories of your and Dan Barker’s past experiences as Christians are probably colored to exaggerate the negatives:

    That would certainly make me feel better if I knew that I wasn’t as bad then as I think I was(whether it’s true or not…).

  • SarahH

    Much of what Barker describes fits the way I grew up believing and the way many of my friends and family members still believe, although we really did love the sinners – which is what drove us to evangelize, really. I was never really under the impression that anyone could win extra brownie point with God. I just didn’t want the people I knew to burn in a fiery hell that I believed was literal and existed.

    I don’t know if anyone could have said anything specific to me that would have made me reconsider. It did take a lot from the inside (you can only really see faulty reasoning once you’re willing to critically examine it) and several semesters of philosophy and religious studies classes in college also contributed.

    I think the closest argument I can think of to something that would have derailed me is simply pointing out the plethora of popular world religions and the people who fervently believe they’re true. Most come with their own God, stories and Holy Books. They tend to run heavily in families. So how was I any different than a young Muslim woman who embraced Islam and the Koran and pitied Christians who were going to hell?

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    In my experience, new information rarely changes a person’s worldview. What more commonly precipitates change is new information in the context of a new experience. And that seems to hold true for whatever your converting to, whether that be Atheism, Christianity or whatever.

  • Tim Bob

    matt.. shouldn’t that be “reverting to atheism” instead of “converting” hahha after all we’re all born atheist. :P

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    I’d say that’s only half-true, Tim Bob. See Paul Bloom’s article, “Is God an Accident?”


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