Why did Dan Barker leave Christianity for atheism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Unbelievable’s  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 or getting drunk in clubs with friends. They dump Christianity in order to have freedom to seek happiness in this life.
  2. They want to make decisions based on their emotions, rather than wisdom. This type of person thinks that God’s job is to save them when they act irresponsibly. When God disappoints them by not make their recklessness “work out”, 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 non-Christians. Finally, they jettison Christianity completely. This happens to a lot of young Christians the moment they hit college / university.
  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, they drop 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. Some of this is my interpretation of his real motivations, based on my experience dealing with former-Christians.

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?

Barker was generating an income from donations from churches where he entertained them. Gradually, his family grew to the point where conservative churches were not enough to support him. He had to change his message to appeal to liberal churches in order to cast a wider net.

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. But Christianity is not a feel-good religion. It’s not a tool to make people like you. He seems to have become aware that the exclusive claims of Christianity made other people feel offended, so he cut them out. Christian apologists learn how to provide evidence for claims that non-Christians find offensive or hard to believe, but Dan hadn’t studied philosophy, science or history so he couldn’t defend it. It’s hard to speak unpopular truths when you have nothing to back it up except your music composing. Eventually, Dan just quit making the truth claims entirely.

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 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. The Christian life requires a certain amount of wisdom that Dan did not have.

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 don’t have to rely on donations. Additionally, 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.

I actually met someone like Dan Barker recently. She grew up in an anti-intellectual hippy Christian home. Her mother came from a good family, and decided on a whim to marry a non-Christian. Like Barker, the family exalted feelings and irrational expectations of miracles from God for “fearless” acts. She got herself into trouble with alcohol and promiscuity in her 20s, by making emotional decisions and mixing with the wrong crowd. Her way of fixing this was to fly off on a one-year missions trip, wrecking her resume and finances. Now, she is in her late 30s, unmarried, and literally blaming Jesus for putting too many demands on her that she doesn’t have time for, e.g – morning quiet time. This causes her to feel guilty, and make her want to reject Christianity. She had no intellectual conception of basic core doctrines like God’s existence or Jesus’ resurrection, which might have acted as a bulwark against her emotions. When I explained to her how I had structured my education and career so that I could have an influence without testing God, she seemed bored and said that I was too “fearful”.

This is apparently widespread, especially among anti-intellectual denominations. Another ex-Pentecostal atheist woman I heard about from people who knew her when she was young decided to drop out of college to travel around North America doing pro-life work. When she found herself penniless, unmarried and without children in her mid-30s, she decided to have a baby out of wedlock. The government will pay for it, she said. Rather than trying to justify this decision as a Christian, she blamed God for not making her madness “work out”. She is now an atheist, because God did not reward her decision to live fearlessly for him with a husband and children. It was all God’s fault. There is a whole subculture within Christianity, where the pursuit of fun and thrills can be masked with pious language, and all talk of prudence and restraint is seen as cowardice and lack of faith.

The Christian life requires a certain level of intelligence, a certain level of practical wisdom, and a certain level of self-control and discipline. Make sure that you don’t walk away from God because of your own bad choices.

14 thoughts on “Why did Dan Barker leave Christianity for atheism?”

  1. While this may NOT apply in Barker’s case, in some cases people convert to atheism in part due to VERY unreal expectations about Christian life. The Word-Faith movement (along with it’s bastard child, the Prosperity Gospel) has promoted the idea that Christians, “by faith” can create their own little personal “paradise” in this FALLEN world. This is basically pagan “Positive Thinking” (or the American Dream) with a cheap Evangelical makeover… But we’ve been warned as Christ did plainly say “You will have tribulations” (John 16: 33). But when life doesn’t turn out the way these Word-Faith preachers claim, then their devotees can fall either into deep depression (I’ve seen with my own eyes cases going to suicide) because they didn’t have quite enough “faith”. And then there are other cases where the shock of tribulation turns these Christians to growing bitterness against God for allowing their tribulation. This can easily lead to atheism. Or it can avoid outright atheism, but lead to a life of sin coupled with an “understanding God” made in their own image. CS Lewis quipped about this in his The Problem of Pain when he said: “What we want in fact is not so much a father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who as they say ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This article rings true! I have seen so many of my friends, male and female, shipwreck their lives through following their passions instead of making sound choices based on logic and reason….one ruined his chances by marrying women of poor character (and displaying the inability to restrain his own desires), another wanted to chase the hot bad boys and ended up strung out on drugs.
    Even though I didn’t always make the wisest decisions, thank God my father always encouraged to find stable employment and invest…I made my share of foolish mistakes but thank God He brought me back to Himself and I was able to find a job that offers a fixed-benefit retirement (pension).
    I encourage young people to follow a STEM career, if they have a strong dislike/difficulty with mathematics, then I try to steer them towards a technical degree in the health sciences, which usually require relatively little advance math but will still offer them a good salary and opportunities for advancement.
    If they do not wish to do this, I encourage to try to find a job that will offer a fixed benefit retirement such as the military. God did not give us brains to make foolish decisions, and it is never too late to start preparing for the future!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I concur! It used to be that it was one of the last places you can succeed by merit alone…I just tell Christian young people that are in the military to keep their heads down…I’ll never forget the day when my graduate professor cornered me and told me “get you a job that’s going to give a pension, son,” as he wagged a finger in front of my face. Sound advice, rest in peace, Dr. H!


  3. I’ve made tons of mistakes when it comes to personal finance and missed many opportunities the Lord put in front of me to get ahead financially, as well as gotten way too deep in credit card debt, among other things, and didn’t start saving seriously for retirement until I turned 41 (disgraceful, I know).

    I am now 61, and am receiving my military retirement pay (after 14 years active-duty and 14 years National Guard), and am due to retire from the post office in six years with what will be over 30 years with the USPS. My mortgage will be completely paid off by then. I will be receiving four fixed-income revenue streams at that time (my Social Security, my wife’s SS, my postal and military retirements) and with modest withdrawals from my 401k and no mortgage, my take-home pay should be right around $100,000 per year.

    This is more than triple the average retiree brings in, and opens all kinds of doors for ministry, learning, apologetics, you name it.

    What changed for me? I stopped working like the Lord was coming back tomorrow (and living like He was never coming back), and started working like He was never coming back and LIVING like he was coming back tomorrow.

    So take it from an older guy, anybody younger who’s reading this: WK is RIGHT, and he’s giving you some great advice, so listen up and fly right. And don’t be discouraged if you’re getting off to a bit of a late start. It’s not too late. Get grounded in apologetics and START SAVING NOW.

    You’ll be so glad you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can relate to everything you said Mark. I started saving for retirement early in my career when I was 21 during the dot com boom but then stopped for many years since my now ex-wife and I lived beyond our means and got into serious credit card debt.
      God is good and hit a reset button on my life and now I have no credit card debt, house will be paid off by the end of this year and I opened up a Roth IRA about a year ago and rolled over my 401k into a traditional IRA since I’ve changed employers from 10 years ago. I also will receive a state government pension for 80% of my salary when I retire. The earliest I can retire is 55 (I’m 45).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “I also will receive a state government pension for 80% of my salary when I retire. The earliest I can retire is 55 (I’m 45).”

        That’s good for you. But outlandish from a taxpayer’s perspective! Supposing start at age 20 and death at age 80, it means the employee is paid close to a full salary for 60 years while working for only 35 years. Apparently, health insurance is often included as a retirement benefit. It’s no wonder a big part of the so-called swamp are government employees. That’s a huge incentive and, from what I’ve heard, it’s almost impossible to fire those employees.

        This article is a good, relevant read https://reason.org/policy-brief/public-sector-private-sector-salary/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I should mention that I have less than $100 in credit card debt, my credit score is @800, and an increasing portion of my 401k is Roth-qualified. All in only about 20 years and a stupidly late start.

        God is indeed good.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for doing this analysis. There’s always a reason why someone would ignore all the evidence that God exist. I have been watching his debates (against Trent Horn), and although Dan seems persuasive, his arguments are incoherent and lacking strength. It’s a good example of how important apologetics is and to properly ground yourself on why you believe what you believe.


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