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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?”.