Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, by Dan Barker (Berkeley, California: Ulysses Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-5675-667-5) 392 pp. Paper $14.95.
If anyone in cont emporary nonbelief has a more spectacular life story than Dan Barker, I’d like to meet that person. A teen evangelist, minister, and Christian songwriter whose youth musicals (with titles like Mary Had a Little Lamb and, yes, His Fleece Was White as Snow) are still performed before Christian audiences—he has the royalty checks to prove it—Barker began to lose his faith in 1979. After years of growing doubt and a tortured stint as a still-active minister who secretly disbelieved, he broke publicly with Christianity. His first television appearance as an atheist came in 1984 on a Chicago morning show hosted by an up-and-comer named Oprah Winfrey. He shared the stage with atheist activists Anne Nicol Gaylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the latter of whom would one day become his wife. Barker is now copresident of the organization Gaylor founded, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF). He is one of America’s most recognizable atheist spokespeople, while FFRF has carved a niche as a prolific and successful church-state litigant.
In Godless, Barker tells a brisk story of his Christian conversion, his years as an evangelical preacher and Christian musician-songwriter, his slow process of abandoning the faith, and his “new call” as an adult evangelist for freethought. And that’s just Part 1. In Part 2, he presents a lightning summary of the philosophical reasons for nonbelief, one of the best short summaries of the case for atheism I have seen. Part 3 debunks the Bible as a reliable historical document and guide to moral living, challenges the historicity of Jesus, and probes a representative biblical contradiction in depth. Part 4 completes Barker’s life story to date, including seeing one of his church-state cases argued before the United States Supreme Court; the near death of his wife in childbirth, a harrowing episode that the couple faced “without a prayer”; and some of the peak experiences he has enjoyed as a roving ambassador for atheism and freethought.
Throughout, the pace is rapid, the tone convivial, and the discussions of classic theological problems startlingly deft and concise. (His presentation and refutation of the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God is a marvel of clarity.) Contrasting believers’ traditional need for an external source of absolute morality and meaning with the humanist recognition that no such thing exists, Barker quips, “It must be frightening for those of you who need an anchor to realize that there is no bottom to the ocean.” After a forceful recitation of divine atrocities in the Old Testament, he reflects: “Hearing these indictments, some Christians might ask, ‘Why are you attacking God?’ I would respond, ‘Why are you looking the other way?’”
Barker’s account of his Christian years offers secular readers a vivid account of how it feels to live steeped in fervent belief. His deconversion story gives believing readers an insightful glimpse into the experience of (Barker’s phrase) losing faith in faith. And his discussions of the moral case against Christianity, steeped in implicit humanism, will bring many readers fresh insights into even such familiar controversies as the problem of evil.
This is Barker’s second autobiography—his 1992 Losing Faith in Faith is still in print. But Godless is a wholly new book of significantly broader scope. Fans of the earlier title won’t feel they’re repeating themselves while reading Godless. Recommended.