Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Pastor Turned Atheist

Dan Barker is a very well known and out-spoken Atheist. He came to Davis on Friday to give a talk on Atheism, which Alison and I attended, revolving primarily around his new book, Godless. His story is especially interesting, because before he defined himself as an Atheist, he was an vangelical Christian minister. He spent most of the talk describing the events and realizations that cause a pastor of 17 years to stop believing in God.

I've been an Atheist for essentially all of my life. I won't be as crude as to assert that coming from a family of engineers was the decisive reason for this, since that is too large of a generalization that includes many people who are religious. Growing up in a United Methodist Church was very comfortable as someone who didn't quite buy it. It felt that the focus was more on the teachings of the Trinity than on the believing of them/it/him/her/etc. Many of those teachings are hard to disagree with: loving and forgiving others, being kind, helping hand, etc. It just feels that on some level, this lack of lobbying for me believing in any of it allowed me to be there, participate in church, be a good person, without anyone pointing at me and identifying that I assumed the off-handed mention of God in the middle of a sermon on love was more about using him as a hypothetical example than as a real entity (The Alice and Bob of real life).

So Dan goes through his experience of first meeting a vocal Atheist, and how the incongruencies of Christianity started to bother him to the point where he finally declared that he didn't believe in God anymore, and how that affected his family and friends. After that, he then started making observations about Atheists that were "Ah ha!" moments for me for things that have always bothered me about us as a group.
  • Atheism is a very organic religion (using the term religion very loosly here). You don't generally see people standing outside college buildings handing out Atheist books like you do with other religions. There are exceptions to this; there are people who feel so strongly about the non-existence of God that they need to attack others or damage property, but the vast majority of us do not believe in God in a very logical and passive way. My introduction of religion had too many contradictions too early and just never stood in my mind as a useful tool for dealing with my problems.
    • I've categorized theism as a tool. This means I can't disrespect other's religions because they find it extremely helpful. What I can disrespect is the justification they have for thinking that I should be interested in their tool. If God's word has saved you from sin, all the power to you. If God's word will save me from my sin, go screw yourself.
    • Another thing that has always bothered me about religion is embarrassing things throughout history like the crusades. Granted, there have been several wars not based on religion, but the crusades are just disgusting in how the perpetrators justified it. As Dan said, once you take off the goggles, stuff stops looking very good.
  • Dan pointed out that most of Europe is stunningly secular. They have all of this religious history, and all of these incredible churches; empty churches.
    • This of course warrants a crack about the Darwinism of religion.
    • It also means that Europe is way ahead of the US tolerance wise, which is immensely ironic ("Let us go to the new world, to have equal rights for everyone who believes our religion instead!"). At some point, people en mass just stopped going to church.
  • Atheists are a greatly under-represented and under-targeted group. Over the last 10 years, the number of people who have identified themselves as "non-religious" has grown from 7% to 16%.
    • When was the last time you heard a politician run under the stance that he's going to do the right thing just because it is the right thing, and not because God told him to?
    • This citation that we really are a severely ignored group is very comforting. I feel like a freak of nature in several other ways (my hobbies, my entertainment, my idea of a fun Friday night), I don't need my religious beliefs to be on my black sheep list too.
Dan also answered specific questions from the audience. This part was very resonant with my feelings.
  • With no religion, wouldn't the world plunge into chaos with no moral values? No. Morality is a human reflex to reduce suffering. If you see someone drowning in a river, you don't need to be religious to want to go save them. At the same time, as someone who is drowning, you wouldn't want an 80 year old lady with a cane jumping in after you, that wouldn't reduce anyone's suffering. Lying can be used to reduce suffering, that's the concept of a white lie, but a common child difficulty with religion is the rule that you must never tell a lie, which just doesn't reduce suffering.
  • With no religion, would a consensus be reached and a singular humanity exist? Certainly not with atheists, atheists exist because of this disconnect between different groups of people. What would be different is that atheists accept this disconnect between groups, instead of denying it like religious groups, or even making threats about it.
    • I need every Evangelical Christian to stop and think about this for a second. I'm an Atheist. You warning me that unless I let Jesus into my heart, I will go to hell, does not work. I'm an Atheist. I don't believe in hell. That is just as effective at making me a theist as me warning you that when you die, your neurons are going to shut down, and the rest of your existence is as unglamorous as rotting in the ground somewhere. You would laugh it off with a thought of, "but my soul would be in heaven!" I'm laughing you off with a "but hell doesn't even exist," so no, it's not going to work.
  • There was a question about Pascal's wager, which is that we should believe in God just in case it's really true, because even the chance of eternal damnation is a risky gamble. I loved Dan's response to this, the Barker wager: God will only reward those who chose not to believe in him for being free thinkers and for being moral out of each own's personal fiber.
And on a final note, we were urged to go through and really read the Bible. If it doesn't somehow turn you religious, it will at least reaffirm your feeling that it doesn't make any sense. One of the most amusing citations during the lecture was the virgin war booty in Numbers 25:16-17.

Edit: The capitalization errors were not meant to reduce the weight of any term, but was simply a confusion about the properness of religion while researching this post. You can mainly thank Wikipedia for that. The errors were mostly uniform anyways, so no offense should have been taken.


  1. Nice. Thanks for writing it all down.

  2. Numbers is a hilarious book in the bible. Always good for a chuckle. I'm really proud of you Kenneth, even though we don't agree on everything. I wish more people in the Christian community as well as the atheist community took the teachings of Christ more seriously. If we all loved,cared, and trusted each other the world would be a more pleasant place to live in.