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.

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

  1. They don’t leave the Christian faith. They leave a list of rules that they don’t want to follow and scientific facts they feel have been disproven by modern, post-truth science.

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  2. Christian faith implies true salvation.
    Are/were these people truly saved?
    You can toss out the fancy names for the opposing schools of thought.
    I’d say no.

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  3. It seems like in many cases, these kids come from decent orthodox churches, but the actual Christian practices of the churches are not forthcoming.

    I think these churches need a course on the History of Christianity or something? What we see now is so watered-down and ineffectual that people seem to accept the counterfeit as original.

    I guess this is the natural consequence of churches as entertainment centers. My biggest issue is that these kids seem to be leaving churchianity more than Christianity. Maybe that is a good thing? However, the “pastors and priests” who promulgate this counterfeit are going to suffer mightily in Eternity.

    I feel SO sorry for the young people these days – especially the ones raised in Western churches.

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  4. You’re way too generous toward Dan Barker, as if his apostasy had anything to do with evidence or arguments. His simplistic, immature Christian faith couldn’t handle the harsh complexities of reality, so he throws a temper tantrum like a spoiled child.

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  5. Just to jump in on one point.
    Almost everybody becomes a Christian through a “religious experience” as opposed to “serious investigation”.
    Christianity is not philosophy, shoot most philosophy isn’t philosophy but I digress. This religious experience may involve a great deal of emotion or very little or none at all. Most people become Christian, I believe, through an experience of intuitive clarity provided directly by God during the presentation of the gospel. Faintly or clearly on some level at the time, part of you knows and “sees” that “this is real”.
    There is nothing anti-intellectual about this because intuition is a part of reason, and the basically the primary way we understand and interact with the world. Logic provides analysis but no first principles and research is learning about other men’s direct experiences and observations.
    A good period of catechesis and instruction in apologetics helps buttress the faith, and some men doubtless become Christians after intellectual investigation but even this is driven by what? What provided the fascination and desire to know about Christianity?

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    1. Understood. However when confrontes with philosophical or evidential objections to the faith the Bible requires that an answer be prepared. Thisbis 1 Peter 3:15. If the response to challenges is to try to feel good and be accepted, (Dan’s response), especially because one needs money for a family that one had no business starting, then that’s not the normal Christian way, even if it is common in our stupid happiness-focused times.

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      1. To your point, I always felt it was better to be a citizen-minister. Like Paul, to have a tentmaking job is best because then one can be free to minister the unadulterated gospel, without fear of financial reprisal

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      2. I agree with both of you….to me, faith occurred as young boy in church camp, later on intuition/brought me back, and many years later I have built the at least the rudiments of apologetics….we must back it up with reason!

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        1. I think the cause of our studying is the fact that our neighbors believe so many things that aren’t true. For example, they justify their atheism by asserting that the universe is eternal (see Secular Humanist Manifesto 1). So, to be a Christian means to put the truth forward against lies. That means we have to know some science.

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          1. Your presentation of an “old vs. young” universe was fascinating and one of the ways I defend Christianity….if the universe is eternal, and always existed with no end or beginning, then why do we even think in those terms? Why do planets orbiting the sun mimic particles around an atom?If there is no absolute moral law, then any sort of behavior is justified, no matter how extreme or destructive.

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    2. “Faintly or clearly on some level at the time, part of you knows and “sees” that “this is real”.”

      That was a HUGE part of my conversion from atheism. There actually WERE intellectual “proofs” that served as stumbling blocks to my atheism, but this “gotcha” moment that this was true and this was real and there actually ARE real American Christians who are grounded on Truth and Love and Morality was what tore down my last stumbling block to Christ.

      And, as you said, it was part of the life of reason, because I could see that these authentic Christians actually believed exactly what I believed on a rational view of morality and truth and, yes, even politics – how the US was trending away from sanity (back then anyway, now it is circling the drain of absudity) – their reason was identical to mine, save this Person of Jesus Christ.

      It wasn’t purely tribal in nature, but it did demonstrate that there was a place for me in the Christian Faith – and I didn’t have to abandon my intellect to go there – just the opposite. I must say it was quite a shock, and I will never forget where I was when it hit me. (Not in a church, that is for sure!) My surrender came rather quickly after that – a matter of weeks. I still had to count the cost.

      I think you really put your finger on something powerful there.

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  6. If we go by this logic, the prerequisites for being a Christian are:

    1) You must be rational & non-emotional
    2) You must be willing and capable of accepting the rejection of non-christians
    3) You must be willing & capable of learning Christian apologetics

    Granting that these have indeed helped you..

    Try to put yourself in the shoes of Christians a few centuries ago, who had all these three qualities. Nonetheless, they were willing to fight with each other.. resulting in this world we see now.

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    1. Do you think that there are mire evidential challenges to the faith now, from naturalism, evolution, etc. Than back then? Would this require a little more emphasis on 1 Peter 3:15 than before?

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  7. If they leave were they ever saved? The word says believers can never be plucked from His hand. The deception will be so great in the end times if it were possible the elect would be deceived.

    “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” – 1 John 2:19

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  8. There’s lots of young people losing their faith these days sharing their stories online. Like “Genetically Modified Skeptic” on Youtube, and this young woman: https://www.sara-martin.com/deconstruction-case-study*/ One of the girls in my old church’s youth group is now a college student and dating another girl, and an acquaintance from my college Christian group who is doing college ministry talks more about things like racism and social justice than the gospel. I worry about the next generation, like my Christian friends’ kids.

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    1. I went through many of the same things this young lady did….thank God He never abandoned me during the dark years of doubt….I think at some point most believers go through this….yet, even in my blackest days, there was always a tickling in the back of my brain, a flicker of wonder…..years later, when I returned to church with the intent of it solely being a social function after a near-death incident, He reeled me back in….I can still remember the passion for Scripture reigniting in me…..and I’ll never forget the day I told God, “If you want me in ministry, okay, You know what a mess I made of my life before!”
      Just a few years later I am in seminary and preaching…..one is never too far from Him, if we will only seek him, He is there!

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