Book Review: Godless by Dan Barker

I just finished Dan Barker‘s excellent book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

Dan is the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the author of Losing Faith in Faith. Much of that book is reprised in this more updated version. But if you haven’t read the older book, now is the time to check out version 2.0.

Unlike most books written by atheists, Dan was the real-deal fundamentalist Christian. He was Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron rolled into one. He was the guy “you would not want to sit next to on a bus.” He preached, wrote Christian music, “saved some souls,” and felt the presence of God… all before he came to the understanding (on his own) that it was all just in his head. Over the course of several months, he became an atheist and slowly removed himself from his former world, losing many friends in the process.

Now, he is a fervent evangelical atheist, if you can say that. It was FFRF that fought the Bush adminstration in the Supreme Court over the Faith Based Initiatives (FFRF fought for standing to have the right to sue the government over how our tax money was spent — they lost in a 5-4 decision). Despite the setback, Dan helps lead the largest atheist organization in the country and can be seen speaking or debating at campuses across the country.

The book consists of several smaller parts. In the first, Dan tells his story of going from Christian to atheist. In the second, he explains his rationale for being an atheist. That’s followed by a long series of arguments against Christianity. Finally, Dan discusses his Supreme Court case and the state of atheism in America today.

The first section alone is enough reason to get this book. For anyone who is deeply religious but has those occasional seeds of doubts, Dan knows where you’ve been and how you feel. It takes serious courage to drop the life you’ve been living for so long to pursue something that seems to be the polar opposite, but that’s what he did. In case anyone thinks he “lost his faith,” Dan corrects them:

I did not lose my faith — I gave it up purposely. The motivation that drove me into the ministry — to know and speak the truth — is the same that drove me out.

I lost faith in faith.

Dan spends quite a bit of time discussing debates he’s had, arguments he’s heard, and ways to rebut the common Christian talking points. One of them was genuinely frightening:

During cross-examination, I asked [Christian philosopher Peter] Payne, “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was (thankfully) hesitant to answer, and said something about being certain God would never ask him to do such a thing. I repeated the question , stressing the first word: “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was still reluctant to respond, but finally admitted that if he were certain God were telling him to do it, he would “have to consider it”…

Yikes.

While many of the arguments for atheism and against religion are rehashed versions of things you may have heard before, it’s nice to see them all in one place, with commentary. They’re easily understandable and new atheists would do well to familiarize themselves with the arguments. That said, those sections get very long and don’t make for easy reading — however, they do make for a great reference.

If you haven’t heard his story, you need to read the book. I’d love to hear from life-long Christians about how accurate Dan’s depiction of religious life is, though I suspect they would be all too familiar with Dan’s brand of Christianity.

I should mention that Dan is an acquaintance of mine (the Secular Student Alliance helps coordinate many of Dan’s talks to college groups across the country). I have also received a scholarship from FFRF in the past.

That said, this book is one I would pick up even if I didn’t know who Dan was. I think this is one of the few books offering an explanation of why atheism is inspiring and rational instead of simply attacking religious people and focusing on the fringes of faith. Godless is a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a fundamentalist Christian and a useful instruction booklet for anyone needing help to break free from that world.

  • http://ichthyologistbright.blogspot.com Laurie Soule

    I’ll ask my husband to get it for me for Christmas! :-)

  • http://pastorwick.blogspot.com WICK

    Looks like it’d be a book worth reading. Although from what I heard of his experience of religion, I’m not sure I would’ve kept participating either.

  • Polly

    but finally admitted that if he were certain God were telling him to do it, he would “have to consider it”…

    Duh! People kill because a ranking officer orders them to. People kill because the government tells them to. People kill to protect mere consumer goods even if their lives aren’t in danger.

    Why the hell wouldn’t someone kill if GOD told them to?!?

    The problem is the externalization of moral authority. Religion is a big part of that. But, it doesn’t go away (completely) with the ejection of religion.
    Thankfully, I’m free of all the mind-rape bullshit of society’s authority worship. Religion was just the first domino.

    • http://twitter.com/BillyReuben Billy Reuben

       Yeah, but an entity that is by definition beyond rationalisation provides a nice warm dark place for all sorts of things to grow that would otherwise look completely insane in the light of day. As much as people are indeed sheep, there is a spectrum of susceptibility to control. Anything that allows neuroses to masquerade as religion is dangerous.

  • cipher

    You know, there’s a very easy out for them; they could simply say, “If I heard a voice telling me to kill you, I’d have to assume it was a psychotic episode – so, no, I wouldn’t kill you.” But they never think of that, which tells me that they really are waiting, praying, hoping for that voice.

    As I keep saying – it’s an addiction.

  • Scott Lichtenstein

    I bought Dan Barker’s book “losing faith in faith” back in 2002. With all due respect to Dan Barker, it sounds like he basically rewrote his first book. Aside from the interesting legal aspect of the book, is there anything fresh?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    I bought Dan Barker’s book “losing faith in faith” back in 2002. With all due respect to Dan Barker, it sounds like he basically rewrote his first book. Aside from the interesting legal aspect of the book, is there anything fresh?

    This is that first book — rereleased by an actual publisher (instead of FFRF itself). There are several updates to his autobiography and some new material, but most of it is from Losing Faith in Faith.

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

    read it, loved it.
    Legal stuff was actually the least interesting part to me.

    As a former fundy christian, I would say Dan nails it with his description of fundamentalist christianity. He was a bit more extreme than me, but I knew / know many like him.

  • Purple

    During cross-examination, I asked [Christian philosopher Peter] Payne, “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was (thankfully) hesitant to answer, and said something about being certain God would never ask him to do such a thing. I repeated the question , stressing the first word: “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was still reluctant to respond, but finally admitted that if he were certain God were telling him to do it, he would “have to consider it”…

    I have actually asked several close Christian friends the exact same question… and they all answered without hesitation, “Yes”. And that freaked me out.

  • Jeff

    I have actually asked several close Christian friends the exact same question… and they all answered without hesitation, “Yes”. And that freaked me out.

    I think this gives us an enhanced understanding of the Nazis’ rationalization, “I was only following orders”, and what it tells us (a great deal, I think) about human nature.

    Christianity sees itself as the cure, but I see it as the most egregious manifestation of the brokenness of which humanity needs desperately to be healed, but of which it probably never will be.

  • llewelly

    Purple:

    Purple Says:
    October 14th, 2008 at 6:36 am

    During cross-examination, I asked [Christian philosopher Peter] Payne, “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was (thankfully) hesitant to answer, and said something about being certain God would never ask him to do such a thing. I repeated the question , stressing the first word: “If God told you to kill me, would you do it?” He was still reluctant to respond, but finally admitted that if he were certain God were telling him to do it, he would “have to consider it”…

    I have actually asked several close Christian friends the exact same question… and they all answered without hesitation, “Yes”. And that freaked me out.

    Dan Lafferty once said to a sheriff’s deputy:

    If God asked me to, I’d kill you right now.

    Those who don’t know who Dan Lafferty is, should read Jon Krakuer’s great book, Under The Banner of Heaven .

    ‘God’ commanded Ron and Dan Lafferty to murder their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her 15-month old baby. Brenda, you see, was trying to persuade her husband (Alan Lafferty) and the other wives of the Lafferty brothers to scale back the more extreme religious practices of the Lafferty brothers. Brenda was beaten and strangled with a vacuum cord, and Erica’s throat was cut, almost to the point of decapitation.

  • chancelikely

    The book’s subtitle raises an interesting question – who are “America’s Leading Atheists”?

    Where would you put Dan Barker on that list?

  • llewelly

    Where would you put Dan Barker on that list?

    Right behind Annie Laurie Gaylor, obviously.

  • Diane G.

    Just returned from a week-end FFRF conference in Chicago. I’ve been aware of Dan for quite a while, but this was the first time I’d seen/heard him in person.

    Me being me, I approached even this week-end skeptically, being as adverse to any “atheist preaching” that might occur as I would be to the other kind.

    I was totally won over by the end of the day Saturday. Barker’s mien is gracious, humorous, self-deprecating, and humane. He let the guest speakers shine, and played the consummate host, even tho, as I discovered later, he had a bad cold at the time.

    I’d have a copy of “godless” if they hadn’t sold out long before I got to the book table. So I’ll have to order it.

    Meanwhile, I am ineffably grateful that there are people like Dan (and Annie Laurie Gaylor) in the world!

    (BTW–he’s a delightfully entertaining musician, as well!)

  • T’s Grammy

    Loved the original. Been a long time member of FFRF and have his book and CD and working on getting the other CD.

    And love that story about the debate. When I was about 7 or so and read that horrible story, I was terrified — to say the least.

    Keep in mind my holy roller mother was a bit extreme to put it mildly. The mother in Stephen King’s Carrie reminds me of her. She actually use to run around the house screaming “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Though, to my knowledge, she never came after any of us with a knife — just shoes. :)

    So when I read that Buybull story, I of course asked rather fearfully asked her that exact same question and got the same lame answer. I was not reassured let me tell you. Unlike Dan’s debater, she wouldn’t answer beyond that no matter how many times I asked.

    I had a very scary childhood.

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  • http://www.Aceriterbooks.com Aceriter

    Guys like Barker are a dime a dozen. Cute little comments like “If God asked you to kill me…” aren’t much of an argument. Remember, you are listening to a man who obviously believes he owes his existence to two bugs fornicating in a mud puddle a few million years ago. That should tell you something.

    • http://twitter.com/BillyReuben Billy Reuben

       I know, how could anyone believe that we came from bugs? Anyone with any sophistication whatsoever knows that we come from dust and rib bones.

  • nhuck77

    Guys like Barker are a dime a dozen. Cute little comments like “If God asked you to kill me…” aren’t much of an argument. Remember, you are listening to a man who obviously believes he owes his existence to two bugs fornicating in a mud puddle a few million years ago. That should tell you something.

    Which is way more extreme than a man being born from a virgin, but is actually God himself, and is the only man to ever come back from the dead. Nothing more believable than talking snakes, talking burning bushes, and the same story that was circulating the Mediterranean region for a thousand years before “Jesus” came along.

  • Los Angeles Doug Now Living In New Orleans Area

    Just finished reading “godless”, outstanding book! I have been a non-believer since my teens back in the mid-70′s, and mostly kept it to myself until the early 2000′s. It was then that I became a very outspoken atheist. So, it was gratifying to read that someone had come to the same conclusions regarding god, religions, & humanity that I had long ago. The chapter on the legal battles though had my blood boiling and me at the edge of my seat. I was up, then down, then surprised (you know, the same feelings you get when watching a very close football game in the 4th quarter!). In any case, thanks to the book, I learned of & have become a member with the FFRF. Live long & prosper everyone!

  • Bonzerino

    In the mid 90′s my best friend and myself were seeking the truth. I already had one foot in as an atheist. While my friend went on to study fundamentalism, I studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses for two years. With studying, I became a born-again atheist, while my friend embraced fundamentalism. The friendship suffered, because for the first time ever, I had to screen my conversations with her in order not to offend her Christian values. Godless was instrumental to me in understanding where she is coming from, and also makes my own convictions more solid. I am only half-way through the book, and am struggling to understand his philosophies. Takes me several readings to grasp his concepts! I am looking forward to the chapters of his insights on biblical lore.

  • Raul Valdez Jr.

    Sadly he is indeed accurate since I was a fundamentalist


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