Why do atheists like Dan Barker abandon their Christian faith?

Unbelievable’s latest radio show featured a discussion with former Christian Dan Barker, the founder and co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The MP3 file is here. (60 minutes)

I thought that I would make some general comments about why I think that many people leave the Christian faith, and what you should be careful of in order to avoid following in Dan Barker’s footsteps, specifically.

Basically, there are four major reasons why people leave Christianity.

  1. They want to do something immoral with impunity. This type of person wants to do something immoral that is forbidden by Christianity, like pre-marital sex. They dump Christianity in order to feel better about seeking happiness in this life, apart from God and his moral duties.
  2. They want to pursue happiness in irresponsible ways. This type of person thinks that God’s job is to save them when they act irresponsibly while pursuing happiness. When God disappoints them by not giving them what they want in order to be happy, they leave the faith.
  3. They want to be loved by people, not by God. This type of person thinks that Christianity is a tool that they can use to become popular. When they first try to articulate the gospel in public, they find that people don’t like them as much, and they feel bad about offending people with exclusive truth claims that they cannot back up using logic and evidence. So, they water down Christianity to get along with atheists, liberal Christians and other religions. Finally, they jettison Christianity completely and focus on making everyone feel good about whatever they believe.
  4. They don’t want to learn to defend their faith. This type of person is asked questions by skeptics that they cannot answer. Usually this happens when people go to university after growing up in the shelter of the Church. The questions and peer pressure make them feel stupid. Rather than investigate Christianity to see if it’s true and to prepare to defend it in public, they dump it so they can be thought of as part of the “smart” crowd.

Now listen to the discussion and see if you can identify some of these factors from Barker’s own carefully-prepared words. He is trying very hard to make himself look honest and moderate, because he wants Christians to be sympathetic with his story and his motives for leaving Christianity. But I think that there is enough in his statements to construct a different hypothesis of why he left Christianity.

I’ve grouped the data by risk factor. (These are not his exact views)

Non-rational, emotional approach to Christianity

  • he was raised in a devout Christian family where he probably wouldn’t have faced skeptical questions
  • he converted to Christianity at age 15 as a result of a religious experience, not a serious investigation
  • his idea of God was probably idealized and uninformed, e.g. – a loving God who wants us to be happy
  • he wandered around from church to church preaching, with no fixed address or source of income
  • he earned money by collecting “love offerings” from churches where he performed his music
  • he wrote Christian songs and Christian musicals, but nothing substantive on apologetics and theology
  • he worked in three churches known for being anti-intellectual and fundamentalist
  • there’s no evidence that of any deep study of philosophy, science and history during this time

Desire to gain acceptance from non-Christians

  • he began to notice that some people were uncomfortable with sin and Hell
  • he began to avoid preaching about sin and Hell in order to make these people comfortable
  • he watered-down the gospel to focus on helping people to be happy in this life
  • his manic approach to Christian ministry was challenged by the “real life” needs of his growing family
  • he met liberal pastors while performing his music in their churches
  • he found it difficult to disagree with them because they seemed to be “good” people
  • he watered down his message further in order to appeal to people across the theological spectrum

Ignorance of Christian apologetics

  • he began to think that if there are many different views of religion, then no view can be correct
  • he was not intellectually capable of using logic and evidence to test these competing claims to see which was true
  • he decided to instead re-interpret Christian truth claims as non-rational opinions, so they could all be “valid”
  • he became a theological liberal, abandoning theism for an impersonal “ground of being”
  • he embraced religious pluralism, the view that all religions are non-rational and make no testable truth claims
  • he began to see God as a “metaphor” whose purpose is to make people have a sense of meaning and purpose
  • he jettisoned God completely and focused more on helping people find meaning and morality apart from God
  • seems to think that religion is about having a “great life”, and felt that you can have a “great life” without religion
  • seems to think that religion is about being “good”, and felt that you can be “good” without religion
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them what to do instead of letting them do anything they want
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them what is true, instead of letting them believe whatever they want
  • religion makes people feel bad by telling them that God will hold them accountable for their beliefs and actions

So what do I think happened?

I think he abandoned his faith because he wanted people to like him and because he needed to be invited to liberal churches in order to make money to pay for the “real life” needs of his family.

He seems to have thought that Christianity is about having his needs met and being liked by others. I think he wanted to feel good and to make people feel good with his preaching and singing. He seems to have become aware that the exclusive claims of Christianity made other people feel offended, so he cut them out. He hadn’t studied philosophy, science or history so that he would have been able to demonstrate to other people whether what he was saying was true. It’s hard to offend people when you don’t really know whether your claims are true or not, and when you don’t know how to demonstrate whether they are true or not.

I also think money was a factor. It seems to me that it would have hurt his career and reduced his invitations from liberal churches if he had kept up teaching biblical Christianity. In order to appeal to a wider audience, (like many Christian singers do – e.g. – Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, etc.), he would have felt pressured to water down the unpleasant parts of his preaching and singing. Lacking apologetics skill, he instead abandoned his message. He needed to account for his family’s needs and “real life”, and exclusive truth claims and Hell-talk would probably have reduced his ability to do that. It seems to me that he should have scaled back his extreme schedule of preaching and singing, and instead gotten a steady job so that he could afford “real life” and a family without being pressured into altering his message.

Life isn’t a fairy tale. God isn’t there to reward risky behavior. We need to be more shrewd about financial matters so that we have the ability to not care about what people think of us. Look at this blog. I work all day as a senior software engineer with two degrees in computer science so that I can refuse donations. I save most of what I make in case a tragedy strikes. Since I am financially secure, I can say what I think, and disregard anyone who wants me to change my message because they are offended. Becoming a Christian isn’t a license to behave irrationally and immaturely with money. For some people, (like William Lane Craig), stepping out in faith works. But if it doesn’t work, it’s better to retreat and re-trench, rather than to compromise your message for money.

Barker didn’t seem to make any effort to deal intellectually with typical challenges like the existence of Hell and religious pluralism. He just wanted to be liked by people instead of being liked by God. He seemed to have thought that being a Christian would make him happy and that other people would all respond to him and like him without having to do any work to explain why Christianity is true. But that’s not Biblical. When the singing and preaching is over, you still have to know how to give an answer to non-Christians. But Barker couldn’t give an answer – not one that allowed him to retain his beliefs. He had not prepared a defense.

What does Dan Barker think about Christianity today?

Many atheists today are interested in eradicating public expressions of Christian beliefs in the public square, because they hate Christianity and believe that Christians should not be allowed to make them feel bad by exercising their rights of free speech. Is Dan Barker one of these militant atheists?

Well, take a look at this video, in which he objects to a nativity scene and demands that an atheistic denunciation of theism be posted alongside it. In the video, Barker explains that the nativity scene is hate speech, and that the baby Jesus is a dictator. He seems to be totally oblivious to the the idea that if Christianity is true, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s mean and exclusive. And this seems to me to have been his problem all along, from the day of his “conversion”.

So the real question is this: is it true? Barker seems to be much more interested in asking “is it nice?” and “will it make me happy?”.

21 thoughts on “Why do atheists like Dan Barker abandon their Christian faith?”

  1. It sounds like he was hanging out with Charismatics, Arminians, and Quakers, and even accepting works-salvation himself. I’m not one who believes Christians cannot lose their faith, but it sounds like he may never really have been saved. “How much sin can I commit and still get into heaven?” “It seemed to me like he was crossing that line way too much”? Please.

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    1. I think this Bill Craig interview that makes the point that Barker did believe in works-based salvation. (I’m listening to it now, and I highly recommend it!) It’s just insane to try to do more than your convictions warrant – you just burn yourself out trying to earn your way into Heaven and then get angry with God when he doesn’t “rescue” you. Life doesn’t work like that.

      I agree with your view that he was never a Christian in the first place, and like you I am no Calvinist. I’m sorry, but real Christians move on from conversion to build up a knowledge of theology and apologetics. They don’t cave in their beliefs to the first religious pluralist who comes along and acts “nice”. Christianity is about truth, not being “nice” to others and being “happy”. This guy sounds like the typical Christian who embraces their own projections of love and good works and calls it Christianity. But Christianity is about truth, and our definition of love is not making people feel good regardless of what they believe.

      I think Barker wants to do “good works” and not worry about about being sent to Hell for not being “good enough”. He seems to have a poor understanding of grace and forgiveness. Good works proceed naturally from your convictions. If he wants to do good works, he should study and convince himself that these things are true, and then pray about it to God to ask God to help him to act on what he knows to be true. And he should accept that good works are not necessary to save him.

      By the way, I liked listening to that female radio show host (Lael Arrington) in the Craig interview. She sounds nice, and she really understands these things enough to conduct a good interview. She has a great voice.

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  2. Wintery,
    You’re on fire recently, mate. Between this and your post on what your relationship with God is like, you’ve recently separated yourself from the apologetic ‘herd’. Great stuff and many thanks for the useful info!

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  3. I’m an ex-Christian, and some of your “four major reasons why people leave Christianity” are spot on. In fact, all of them are, in varying degrees, and for different people. However, many of us leave simply because we stop believing — frequently after a lot of soul-searching — and often with much regret. They leave sometimes precisely because they have built up a knowledge of theology and apologetics, and found both wanting.

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    1. I’d like to talk with you about what arguments you’ve looked at but I’m swamped. Too much to do, and other people write long comments! Even a point form list of the arguments you’ve disliked and a bullet point about which premise/evidence fails.

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  4. I’m a full-time student, and I write for a plethora of different purposes to the amount of several thousand words a week, so I am likewise swamped. But I’ll see what I can do over the next few days.

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  5. People don’t necessarily decide against ‘Christianity’ due to looking for an easy way out…That is absolutely ridiculous..Yes maybe maybe a handful..But the majority leave due to the fact that there is absolutely no ‘proof’ of God….Whether God exists or not is not relevant. They leave due to the ‘fact’ that there is no ‘proof’…Granted, some people believe in certian scientific matters with even less ‘proof’, but it is a fact nonetheless…I believe that intelligent design is a possibility..It has its merits..A logical mind can see that.But there still is no ‘proof’….So until people can stop bashing others for not believing in something that can’t be proven one way or another, we will always have hatred in this world…Deal with it..You can’t prove the existance of a supreme being and neither can I..We can’t even disprove it…It is ludricous to judge others based on a desire to believe in a supreme being..I think that most of us would really like to believe there is meaning beyond our lives here on earth. It is human nature to want to live on…No matter what the truth may be, we must learn to be tolerant…Period…

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    1. Do you think think that people do a good job of trying to find evidence in favor of Christian theism? For example, do you think that the average atheist has a library containing debates on the existence of God and the resurrection and the problem of evil and suffering? How about you in particular? Can you tell me which arguments you have studied in detail which you did not find convincing? I want a list. And give me a list of debates you’ve watched.

      You say there is no proof, but on my blog I talk about arguments for and against every day. So I am asking you. Tell me which arguments you’ve studied and what was wrong with each of them that they were not convincing to you. And tell me where you have seen these arguments deployed in formal debates.

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      1. I’m 49 years old, and I realize now with some surprise that I have been an atheist for half of my life. Any honest person, regardless of the subject, never stops examining the arguments of his adversaries. No one is excluded from holding an erroneous belief, and the honest person knows this. So the answer to your question is, no, the average atheist hasn’t done a very good job of trying to find evidence in favor of Christian theism.

        However, there comes a time when even the most sincere seeker becomes jaded. After decades of searching — and this is for the existence of UFOs, the reality of miracles, or the divinity of Jesus, etc. — eventually the seeker recognizes that all of the new arguments are really the old arguments regurgitated. Further, for the atheist seeking evidence in favor of Christian theism, all of the questions ultimately coalesce into one: was Jesus who he claimed to be, or, more precisely, was Jesus what his followers claim him to be?

        For myself, I don’t believe in miracles. At all. I discount the supernatural entirely. No one has ever risen from the dead. The effectively negates any belief in a resurrected Savior.

        If an atheist doesn’t believe in the miraculous, then nothing else is convincing. C.S. lewis addresses this in his work, “Miracles.” Lewis inadvertently was instrumental in my conversion to atheism.

        When I was a Christian, I was an admirer of Søren Kierkegaard. Actually, I am still an admirer of Kierkegaard. He wrote about what he called the “leap to faith” (commonly misquoted as the “leap of faith”). When I was a Christian, I gladly took that leap of faith.

        For some Christians — for most, probably — that faith is enough. But not for everybody. So they read Irenaeus, Tertullian, Aquinas, Chesterton, maybe Josh McDowell, and Craig, and many others. The majority of these doubting Christians stop there, or take final refuge in Pascal.

        Pascal was adequate for me, for a while. But one day I stopped believing. Perhaps unfortunately, there isn’t a switch in the back of my head to toggle it again to “Faith.”

        Two final notes: First, believers aren’t my adversaries. The use of that term above was purely rhetorical. Second, I don’t identify myself as an atheist, but as a non-theist. “Atheist” is convenient shorthand, and saves time when I am not prepared to get into any philosophical debate about the details.

        Thank you for this forum.

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        1. I don’t mean to be mean, but I absolutely dislike fideism. I don’t like Chesterton, Tertullian, and I especially loathe Kant and Kierkegaard. Their religious epistemology is not Biblical. Lewis is OK for new Christians, but he’s merely suggestive and also wrong on a great many things, such as God being outside of time subsequent to creation. Josh McDowell is not a professional scholar and makes too many assumptions to be useful to someone who is on the outside looking in.

          If you’re going to get good evidence for supernatural activity, the best evidence we have are the kalam and fine-tuning arguments. Not trying to debate them with you, just saying, take a look at how these arguments shake out in debates with William Lane Craig against physicists and philosophers like Victor Stenger and Quentin Smith.

          No one is asking you to commit intellectual suicide – far from it. The case for Christian theism is strong.

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  6. You aren’t being mean. We are having a gentleman’s disagreement.

    The fine-tuning argument doesn’t work for me at all. The universe exists. If it could have existed in any other way, it would have existed in that way. It isn’t remarkable that it exists in this way versus any other. The “odds” are irrelevant, and entirely incalculable.

    Still, you have been intellectually honest, so I am intrigued by your claim that Christian theism is strong. I will follow your link.

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  7. Reasons for loss of faith are too numerous to cover as briefly as you attempt here. See Ruth Tucker’s good book, “Walking Away from Faith”. She nails it.

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  8. I basically agree with the four reasons why individuals leave their Christian faith, but know there’s more.
    Entering into a sexual affair, betraying your wife and children, brings on rejection from Christian friends, and divorce. Then, finding consolation and acceptance from liberal and non-christian friends is the best way to accommodate the guilt..
    A person unwilling to renounce or repent of their sin is in the position to have to renounce what/who labels it a sin. This includes Christian friends, the Bible, church, and ultimately, belief in God. Atheistic thinking results.
    The strong resentments that develop, and are even seen in public demonstrations against Christianity, reveal some of the base attitudes that lead to irrational thought processes, and to wrong deductions about what is truth. It reveals a biased hate rather than indifference. Otherwise, shouldn’t a true atheist just be indifferent? Why have to have a cause?
    “A man’s morality dictates what he chooses to believe.”
    Discovering the truth, and faith, depends on an honest, humble, and repentant condition of heart. God loves, forgives, and accepts all who come to Him in that condition of heart. Truth about God, and faith in Him, are then restored and preserved.
    Eternity is ahead for everyone. This then, is important!
    I pray for my old friend, Dan.

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  9. People who “leave” the Christian faith were either never born-again, authentic Christians to begin with, or they’ve “walked away” like the Prodigal. Looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is clear that a Spirit-filled Christian will persevere. It is both explicit and implict in the New Testament. There are several passages that attest to the fact. With all due respect to the writer of this blog, I have family members who have suffered a great deal and have remained strong Christians – as a matter of fact, they have clung to the Lord when times have been particularly challenging – and believe me, they don’t know anything about “evidence for or against God”. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to be intellectualy savvy or a Bible scholar to cling to God when times get rough. Consider the people who are persecuted for their faith all over the world – they have every reason to walk away but it is the Spirit of God that upholds them and gives them strength. Though I myself have studied apologetics, logic, and philosphy, and enjoy engaging in debates with atheists, the Holy Spirit upholds me and spurs me on to rise above devastating circumstances. The Bible is pretty clear on that point. It is God’s promise that he will never leave me or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6, quoted also in Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:9-10, 26-27, 31-38, Ephesians 1:11-14). I think the most significant passage is: Matthew 18:1-5 “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
    Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” This implies that children don’t have intellectual knowledge – that their faith is simple – they trust without having to “investigate” the evidence.

    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog. I wish you the very best. I pray that God will bless you with this ministry.

    Mimi

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  10. i dont think he wanted to help people but gain recognition from them as someone great. to gain respect instead of please god in short.

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  11. i can tell why he left by just looking at his background. he had no solid foundation to begin with. it’s easy to become disillusioned with a teaching that offers nothing to fall back on. there was no push to test the spirits. he swallowed and followed man’s interpretations, always a let down.

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