Losing Faith in Faith

Dan Barker had religion, big-time. As a teenager he became a high-octane evangelical preacher, making his living performing at churches and writing Christian songs. After 19 years, he quit, having after a long struggle come to realize it was all hokum. His book, Losing Faith in Faith, explains.

It’s axiomatic that religionists and atheists have difficulty understanding each other. Barker’s book is useful because he has inhabited both worlds, and understands better than most atheists the religious psychology he critiques. It is indeed an all-encompassing worldview. Barker minces no words in calling it delusional.

As the title promises, he attacks the very concept of “faith,” arguing that real truth does not need swaddling in a protective cocoon of faith, a defensive rampart to stave off the intrusions of reality.

Barker is also remorseless in deconstructing the Bible. Its veneration is grounded mainly on what believers imagine it to be, rather than its actual content. Thus a powerful antidote to Bible worship is to actually read the book – to read it with clear eyes and an engaged mind. (I’ve subjected myself to this ordeal. It’s pretty depressing.)

Barker literally cites chapter and verse in his indictment of the book’s villain, questioning why anyone would choose to worship such a monster. While Christians talk about a loving God, that just doesn’t square with the one portrayed in the Bible, with all his smitings and slaughter of innocents. Barker cites several times the story of some children torn apart by bears as punishment for teasing a prophet’s baldness. (Repetition is one shortcoming of the book, being largely a compendium of previously published pieces.)

I noticed one Amazon reviewer related how a 4-year-old, watching the movie Prince of Egypt, where God kills all the Egyptian first-borns, blurted out, “That story’s not true. God wouldn’t be so mean.” The Christian adults present were stunned! (Out of the mouths of babes. . . )

The book lays waste to the entire catalog of defenses for the belief in God which its repentant author once promoted with such fervor. One of the best chapters is “Dear Theologian,” an imagined letter from God, asking questions. The first is “where do I come from?” As God himself muses about this, the logical black hole becomes evident. Barker also has God ask what – from his perspective – is the meaning of life; and, importantly, “How do I decide what is right and wrong?” More logical black holes.

Having lived the life, Barker is fully cognizant of religion’s comforts. He suffered in giving it up. But he says he’s actually happier as an atheist than he ever really was in faith: now a truly free man, able to use his mind and humanity to make his life in the world and among others.

A shortcoming of the book is its barely mentioning evolution, which is crucial not only scientifically, but also for understanding the human character and condition. In particular, a proper grasp of evolution is essential to refute claims that morality requires faith. (I must note that this extremely important subject is thoroughly explored in my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

Optimism might seem misplaced when contemplating the persistence of superstitious beliefs. But I am confident that their mystique has been irrevocably broken, and cannot ultimately survive the collision with reason and truth.


13 Responses to “Losing Faith in Faith”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Sigh. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” -Psalm 14:1
    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” -Proverbs 1:7
    I think the thing you’re missing here is that one cannot use finite reason and logic to define the infinite; God is outside of the confines of our existence, including time, and thus is not bound by them. One can never truly get one’s head around some of the aspects of faith. It just isn’t possible; some things are described Biblically as mysteries, and that is that. As far as our opinions of God’s punishments are concerned, again, we are finite creatures with neither the ability nor the right to attempt to judge the holy actions of God, who is most merciful, as evidenced by the number of times forgiveness is granted to the repentent. His holiness requires judgement and punishment of evil, and who is or isn’t “innocent” by our definition isn’t part of the equation. Our entire human race is tainted by sin, so there is “no one righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Faith cannot be confined or explained by easily defined parameters. We can only see the Hand of God as He works in our lives, which is a precious reality, not at all an indefinsible superstition.

    FSR RESPONSE: I think the thing you’re missing here is that there is no a priori reason to believe any of these notions in the first place. This is, to me, all just convoluted illogic attempting to rationalize absurd ideas, that fly in the face of reality, based on a 2000+ year old book written by human beings of very limited cultural background.
    What a believer needs to do is to get outside the confines of that mindset, and look at it afresh, objectively. That’s what Barker did, and he found there is nothing there.
    If you would like to borrow the book, I’d gladly loan it to you. (As noted, I’ve already read yours.)

  2. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    Oops. The preceeeding post was mine, but I figure you already knew that. 😉

  3. Kimberly Draiss Says:

    I think the authorship of the Bible is another facet that is viewed entirely differently here; the Bible itself explains the Divine influence over the penning of its content, and one can find some pretty impressive support for the proof of its authorship when one examines the seemingly limited cultural backgrounds, etc. to which you refer. It is my understanding that it was written over thousands of years by men from different continents and multiple languages who somehow managed not to contradict one another overall. Unfortunately, the exact numbers escape me, but they offer concrete suport to the fact that there is no earthly way this could have been pulled off; it must have been, as it says, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. So even these objective pieces of data confirm what we believers have maintained. It is strange to me, however, that Barker can exhibit such a severe falling away from the faith. Wow. That seems so sad- I can’t fathom life without the Living Hope that I enjoy. I just don’t understand how one can look at the marvels of nature and not see God throughout. I don’t suppose I am able to remove myself from that “mindset”, nor have I any desire to do so. I love my outrageous absurdities too much for that.

    FSR COMMENT: I think this validates Barker’s comments about how religious believers are typically impervious to other viewpoints.

  4. Lee Says:

    While there are those whose faith is bound to their interpretation of scriptures, there are many people of faith who find much of the scriptures to be, er, not so accessible. As such, I worry that FSR’s critique doesn’t address what is perhaps the majority of the faithful.

    At the risk of grossly generalizing … these are people who believe that rationality is not always the best route. For instance, many rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death would be silly if viewed through the a lens of objective rationality, but serve a very real “irrational” emotional purpose in life. These are people who feel in their hearts that the Golden Rule is the way to behave; and would stick to that even if some rational thinker managed to prove that it is suboptimal under some “objectively derived” criterion (or conversely wouldn’t care much if a rational thinker proved that it was optimal by some rational criterion.)

    I worry that identifying faith with scripture is as gross a misinterpretation as the suggestion that atheists have no moral/ethical code to guide them. While there are some people at these extremes, I think the people in the middle, theists and atheists, are more similar than they realize. It’s almost as if it is merely a difference in language; where one would say “God” the other says “common sense,” but the conclusions they draw are often independent of the language they speak. I have a writing on this language angle, here.

  5. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    From Frank’s wife:

    I think the Reason/Emotion dichotomy and the Reality/Imagination dichotomy don’t sufficiently reflect the latest scientific findings about the complex systems of the human brain, its interrelated neural networks, their plasticity, their connection to body sensation, perception, mobility, etc. Reason and Emotion are tightly intertwined, as are Reality and Imagination. Indeed, most of a human being’s Memory may be primarily Imagination. Indeed, Emotion may be a highly rarefied expression of prior Reasoning tested through experience.

    I think it’s possible to probe dichotomies or seemingly “non-overlapping magisteria” at an observational level which reveals areas of potential reconciliation (see the book The Problem of the Soul by Owen Flanagan). For example, as an atheist I “believe” only in an amoral, apathetic universe of spontaneous, random creation and destruction. Might it not be possible that my conception of the universe is personified by the terrible and incomprehsible and sometimes arbitrary literary character of Yahweh? If yes, there’s a small area of possible reconciliation between believers and non-believers.

    As another example — how can I place all my trust in Science when scientists acknowledge that they don’t know what composes the vast majority of the universe (Dark Matter or Dark Energy)? I refuse to call that Unknown Reality “God” because I’m an atheist, but I can’t deny that scientists rely on Imagination, in part, to formulate hypotheses about Reality. I can’t deny that what’s “reasonable” based on our understanding of the universe is highly debatable.

    I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or Judgment Day or Resurrection, but I could be persuaded to say that I have an “afterlife” IF the term is broadly inclusive. I have an “afterlife” only in the sense that the atoms, etc., in my body will persist after my body dies and decays. I have a “resurrection” only in the sense that the atoms, etc., in my body may re-combine.

    Again, it’s useful to read Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul. Again, I find facile dichotomies almost useless for serious discussion.

  6. Lee Says:

    Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show that no axiomatic mathematical system can be complete; there will always be statements that can be neither proved nor disproved from the system’s axioms. When we encounter such a statement, we can decide whether we wish to continue forward under the assumption that it is true or under the assumption that it is false. Neither alternative is more correct than the other in any absolute sense, though it may be that one alternative or the other is more appealing to any given individual.

    There is a close parallel in science. We usually invoke Occam’s razor to resolve these unprovables; if two explanations are not distinguishable by experiment, we are to choose the “simpler” explanation. But, again, I argue that what is simpler is in the eye of the beholder. If there is no experiment that can prove or disprove the existence of God, then it falls to each of us to decide what to believe. Faith steps in because rationality has no opinion on the matter.

    Personally, I find that a belief in God does not help me to advance my scientific endeavors. However, I can imagine instances where divine inspiration plays a key role in the life and work of an artist.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Therese says we don’t know what Dark Matter is, science relies in part on imagination, and our understanding of the universe is highly debatable. Lee invokes Godel (actually, invocations of quantum mechanics are more popular among believers) to suggest that one truth is as good as another, and faith steps in because “rationality has no opinion.”
    Sorry, I cannot buy into these squishy notions. While imagination may be helpful to a scientific mind, science does NOT rely on imagination; it relies on experimentation and objectivity. That we don’t know everything doesn’t undermine the reality that we know A LOT. And wherever we have found the answer to some mystery, supernatural explanations were proven untrue. I am certain the same will be the case with regard to all mysteries yet unsolved.
    The observed world that I inhabit is totally consistent with the hypothesis that no religion is true, and totally inconsistent with all supernatural religious notions. End of story.
    (from Frank)

  8. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    Dearest Frank,
    “End of story” is a phrase commonly associated with the conclusion to a piece of short fiction.

  9. Lee Says:

    English speakers say “two” where a French speaker would say “deux” and a Spanish speaker would say “dos.” Who is right? Which answer does rationality indicate? The answer is that there is no right way to pronounce this concept — or the answer is that, at best, it depends on context; e.g., when in Spain it usually makes more sense to go with “dos.”

    I think there is a parallel in the theism vs. atheism dichotomy. I agree that in the context of science it makes more sense to go with atheism. But, for me, that is far from a proof that theism is irrational for all people in all contexts.

  10. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    I’m thinking about this parallelism.

    The atheist/theist dichotomy can also be misleading. I call myself “atheist” because it’s a shorthand. But there are lots of different variations of atheists (just as for theists). It’s a continuum, or a lava lamp, or a traveling circus.

    Probably the world would be more peaceful if atheists would say, “Yes, I think a belief in God is rational in some contexts”; and if theists would say, “Yes, I think a disbelief in God is rational in some contexts.”

    FSR COMMENT: Some people define “God” in such mushy ways (e.g., “God is love”) that the concept is meaningless. But the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible has some very crunchy characteristics; and I frankly cannot see any contexts in which belief in that God is rational. (But for the fact that such a belief is “normal” among humans, it might even meet the definition of insanity.)

  11. Lee Says:

    If Judeo-Christian believers in god were forced to chose between (a) the god exactly as described in the bible and (b) no god at all, I imagine that there would be fewer theists in the world than there are now.

  12. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    Frank, an abstract concept isn’t meaningless. The phrase “God is Love” carries great meaning. The phrase is not necessarily a definition; it can be a thickly-textured metaphor.

    An abstract concept embodied in a character who acts within a narrative story will be more “crunchy,” yes, but his (or her) actions — (even if irrational as actions) — don’t necessarily make the larger story meaningless.

    I think Lee’s last statement has much merit. I infer from his statement that many understandings of god exist, perhaps almost as many as the number of individuals who think about god. Frank, your lumping of all god-believers into a category of fundamental literalists needs to be refuted.

    FSR RESPONSE: OK. Obviously, there is much diversity in what people mean when they say they “believe in God.” My point is that some of those meanings are far removed from the traditional notion of God, which my dictionary defines as a being “conceived of as supernatural, immortal, and having special powers over the lives and affairs of people and the course of nature.” Anyone who doesn’t believe in something like that I’d call an atheist.

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