Why do atheists like Dan Barker abandon their 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?”.

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

  1. Thanks Wintery. I don’t know his story very well but I’m interested to hear he was connected to fundamentalist Christianity. I often find that people appear to think there is nothing between fundamentalism and atheism which is very weird to me.

  2. Very insightful, WK. Did the man miss the Book of Acts – how did he ever get a lovey-dovey view of authentic Christianity?!? This proves that every church needs required youth courses in apologetics (including Biblical apologetics, BTW), church history, and a subscription to Voice of the Martyrs magazine – as a minimum. (Adult classes would be helpful as well.) This posting is going to be VERY helpful to me – in my discussions with fellow Christians – thanks!

  3. I read his book “Losing Faith in Faith” many years ago. I think I read it before I read “The Case for Christ”, which was the first apologetics book I read. I was intrigued with the idea that someone who experienced the living God would walk away. I could not understand how someone could transition from knowledge to ignorance. He was very protective of his personal life in his book. He wrote about money, but I speculate that was not a major factor. We know his divorce and his conversion to atheism occurred around the same time, but he gave no hint on which caused the other.

    1. Just curious – if you don’t mind sharing, Todd: where were you in your faith when you read these two books? Did either one affect your faith in either direction? Your answers, if my questions are not too personal, might help a great deal in witnessing.

      I didn’t read anything Christian-related before converting from being an anti-Christian, but I did have some sort of intuitive (but not formal) grasp of Kalam, even though I had never seen the argument. (I heard Julie Andrews sing “nothing comes from nothing – nothing ever could…” in the Sound of Music, and this made rang true to me.) So, my conversion to Christianity was NOT purely emotional, but emotion did play a role.

      I’m very much interested in this, because I wonder what role, if any, intellect played in Dan Barker’s de-conversion, as well as the same for others who have gone one way or the other? Based on what I am seeing here, he made an emotional de-conversion, but is trying to back it up with some sort of “intellectual” approach – but it doesn’t seem like he has thought things through very clearly and is still more riding more on emotion and hatred of Christianity. (which is why I designate myself before conversion as an anti-Christian, not an atheist or agnostic.)

      1. Hey WGC. I was at a point where “Christianity works for me” just wasn’t cutting it. I figured God would honor my search for justification that my faith didn’t just work — that it was actually true. I found that Barker’s book was pretty shallow, though I hear that he’s gotten more sophisticated. The section on contradictions in the bible was particularly sophomoric. I figure since the majority of the so-called contradictions were easily explained, that I could reject the entire section.

        Like WK said, Barker was part of a very fundamental anti-intellectual movement. Once he discovered that there were Christians that held different interpretations on origins and other non-essential views, he describes his doubts as digging into layers of an onion and finding there is no core — only layers. Once he stripped off the last layer of his faith there was nothing left.

        It’s more prudent to speak loudly where the bible is loud, and softly where the bible is soft. If there is a doctrine that is repeated over-and-over, that’s important. If a doctrine comes from reading between the lines of a passage that can be interpreted multiple ways, that doctrine is less important, not important, or false.

        1. Well put, Todd – thanks! I just don’t get how he missed the core. I mean, we can look across the tremendous diversity of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox – different as they are – and still find an awfully meaty core, IMO. It seems to me that one doesn’t have to be an apologetics whiz to see that.
          Weird how he went from a worldview of “differing Christian faiths are fundamentally different and superficially the same” to one of “differing world religions are fundamentally the same and superficially different.” Seems he has that backwards – in a major way.

  4. I read Dan Barker’s book Losing Faith in Faith many years (probably 10 years now) and I was struck how bad his theology is as revealed in his atheist testimony. It was far too simplistic. I know years later he would drum the line that he had a Bible degree from APU, but Losing Faith in Faith reveal that he didn’t even finish his degree and that he went back to school to finish his degree years later when he was an atheist. There’s a lot of dishonesty I feel with his story.

  5. I see it differently. Imagine joining a group – only to later realize the group is not what you thought it was, and neither is the literature, nor the leader. This is more like what happened with Dan Barker.

    When I left Mormonism and became a Christian – they said the same thing about me when I left (the reasons you listed above for Dan leaving). This is just what churches say when someone leaves and rejects the group. But, its a double bind situation. Like a gang, once you are in – there is no legitimate way out. One example is how Mormons insist that if you read their book and pray – you will get a “witness” of the Holy Ghost. If you don’t happen to get the witness, after praying, you didn’t pray hard enough. Try again. And again. There is no valid way out.

    It looks the same here. We can’t blame the church or Christ – so, we fault the person for leaving. They just couldn’t cut it somehow. But, not every Christian does this – sometimes they acknowledge just a change of mindset. They see the person tried to figure it out. Maybe the timing wasn’t right – maybe it wasn’t meant to be. We need to give a person dignity and worth when they leave and not pretend they left for sinful reasons, just because we can’t tell or understand why. If not, we are the same as all the other religions. Join us – or else you are in error/sin. But really, is there no 3rd option….?

    1. I didn’t say he left for sinful reasons, I said he left because he was an impractical person who had a very naive and false view of the Christian life. He didn’t protect himself from the challenges of life (e.g. – providing for a family) by making sound, practical choices. It certainly wasn’t because he did any serious spadework intellectually.

      1. Well, then maybe I misunderstood the 4 reasons given at the beginning of the article: #1 – immoral, #2 – irresponsible, #3 – wanting people’s approval over God’s, #4 – not wanting to learn….

        Or maybe I misunderstood the these phrases, “I think he abandoned his faith because he wanted people to like him …. He seems to have thought that Christianity is about having his needs met… wanted to feel good.” Selfish and vain concerns.

        And, in the end, it’s just that he was impractical, naive, and had a false view of the christian life….. he didn’t protect himself from the challenges of life (which others can argue – God should have protected him from). We must give him credit for the intellectual work he did. Its more than most will ever do. To say it isn’t serious enough, is harsh and overall, my opinion is that this whole thing is too judgmental.

        He deserves the same respect and dignity of any of us who serve in the church – let alone for as many years as he did. So, in the end, he came to a different understanding. Is the only way to solve this puzzle is to judge and blame him? I am happy to be wrong – please correct me.

        1. He hasn’t done any intellectual work. He had no education in these matters when he left the faith. In his debates he takes positions that no academic atheist takes. He sings songs, and he wanted people to like him. As if the Christian life is about being nice and being liked. God doesn’t protect people from not wanting to know things deeply, and God doesn’t protect people from twisting truth in order to be liked.

          And you are talking about a man who – through his FFRF organization – has gone on to attack one of the fundamental liberties – religious freedom – intimidating Christians into silence to that he doesn’t have to feel offended by other people’s sincerely held beliefs. Making it harder for Christians to be who they are is the worst thing you can do in this world, and he has made a profession of it.

          1. Thank you for your reply. No Christian stands in faith – by education. He wouldn’t need to do any intellectual work – in the faith or outside of it. Professional apologists disagree with one another on everything and they are degreed. No amount of intellectual research would likely satisfy you because you can’t see how someone can change their minds. This is why you continue to put the blame on him.

            We gladly accept that he knew enough to soundly join – but he didn’t study hard enough to be able to reject it …..? Minimize him, his experience, and his singing of songs all you like – but I recommend to people – read it for yourself because this article is skewed. I stand by my comments, and I appreciate you taking the time to respond.



          2. See also this video of Dan Barker and his FFRF organization over the top attacks on a religious restaurant owner.

    2. I think, correct me if I am wrong, that WK IS blaming the Church, as well as the individual. He is blaming it for pushing the same touchy-feely, subjective, non-evidential, religious experience that Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and, frankly, a-theism (with rare exceptions) generally engage in. He is pointing out that the source of 2/3 of evangelicals leaving the Church in their early 20’s is the anti-intellectualism and aversion to apologetics that is so commonly found there.

      It’s a good point you are making here. I’m wondering, if in your case, it was, in fact, evidences that caused you to leave Mormonism? Would you mind sharing for us? Thanks and God Bless!

      1. WGC – I can see that. I have met people who are disillusioned with God for the reasons you list. However, I come from a very serious minded church. I have been OPC, and reformed baptist – where the intellectualism is higher than normal and subjective experiences are disdained. Because my family is all Mormon, I learned apologetics – how to compare and contrast my faith against others – to beware the subjective evidences – how to find real truth with a capital T. But those tools can also be applied to our own faith.

        A few months ago, I attended a sunday school called “Is God a Moral Monster” and it addressed what Dan Barker and new athiests bring to the table – mainly is our God moral? If so, how do we know? I was very disheartened at the end of the class because it all relies on the pre-supposition that God is good. But what makes Him good – how do we know this? Herein lie some very serious, unanswerable questions and the following phrase, “we just have to take it on faith”. I can’t tell you how painful that was to hear. We can’t back everything up with proofs? We can’t apologetic our way out of it? That’s right – and we have to be honest about it.

        All the top apologists and pastors (Sproul, McArthur, even Billy Graham) disagree on the details of doctrine. Why does that matter? Because it is the proof that things are not so easy to figure out. Yet, we still blame the regular church person who starts falling away – for not doing the serious work of studying it But often they do study and they study desperately – looking for validation. Instead, they start seeing more problems and begin losing their faith.

        Why would anyone be blamed for this? Dan Barker lost the thing that was most precious to him. His faith, his God – his purpose in life and even his marriage. It was horribly painful to him and I fear myself and others may be on this road because though they tell us there are good and satisfying answers, but in the end it is “just believe it”.

        I didn’t leave mormonism for another set of “just believe it”s. I study and scourge the scriptures – and in the end – only tears. My well-meaning Christian friends say things like – too bad you didn’t bother to actually read your bible, or too bad you didn’t even try to contact an apologist. They have no idea the steps I have gone to. Here are the 2 worst things to say to someone who appears to be falling away or troubled: Did you ever even know Christ? and…. You were never one of us. It is a sickening stab in the heart.

        They don’t know what else to say. But take the time to listen and just say – its okay – God has you – don’t despair. I will help you or at least love you no matter what. Don’t assign blame or assume immorality – or that they even wanted to find trouble – or lose their faith. I will try to keep mine – though I have come to what is called a low view of the bible and a high view of Christ. I no longer hold to inerrancy and could even be viewed as a universalist. All of this will be anathema to some of you. It used to be for me, as well.

        I wish I could tell you that any single member of my family ever became a christian – but they didn’t. But looking back – watching a show called “Heart of the Matter – where Mormonism meets Biblical Christianity” – I was able to build little bridges toward them. But if we want them to look at their religion more honestly, why can’t we do that with ours?

        I am ready for the responses – open to your thoughts.

        1. Prudence, thanks so much for opening up and sharing with us! I was wondering if your Sunday school class was based on the book “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God” by Paul Copan? I am reading that one right now, but it seems to me that Copan takes less of a “blind faith” approach and more of a Biblical hermeneutics approach – at least in my reading. He is also apparently anti-presupp, as WK is. It seems to me that the approach Copan takes is consistent with that of other authors of Biblical “difficulties” tomes, like Geisler, for instance.

          You write: “All the top apologists and pastors (Sproul, McArthur, even Billy Graham) disagree on the details of doctrine.” This is 100% true! Correct me if I am wrong, but none of these folks would even remotely disagree on the essentials of Christian orthodoxy, would they? They disagree, as we all do, on secondary and tertiary issues, right? That does not seem to me to be a reason for losing faith, any more than the fact that scientists disagree on the minutiae of “how” gravity works would cause them to lose faith in the fact that gravity is true. Is that a fair analogy? Thanks and God bless!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s