Sunday 2 August 2009

Review: Godless, by Dan Barker

Dan Barker's Godless is part autobiography and part atheist polemic. It charts his gradual transition from fundamentalist evangelical Christian minister to co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Barker's style is relaxed and honest, presenting what appears to be a realistic picture of what it was like to be a bible-literalist who sincerely believed that anyone unsaved is destined for eternal damnation in a lake of fire.

Some of us without faith wonder how such belief is possible. In Godless Dan Barker explains how one such believer – himself – came to doubt, and eventually to lose his faith. He tells us how he was initially ostracised by his family, and how the members of his religious community refused to believe his unbelief, convinced that he would soon return to the fold. He tells how those of faith who eventually accepted that he could not in all honesty continue to believe, maintained that he surely could not have been a "true Christian" because no true Christians would ever renounce their faith the way he did.

Being an evangelical Christian – who made it his business to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen – has inevitably led Barker to be something of an evangelical atheist, and he has found his natural niche in the FFRF. And so we have the other half of Godless, devoted to countering the arguments of Christian apologists. Barker has most of those arguments and counter-arguments at his fingertips (and where he didn't, he took advice from experts, be they physicists or philosophers). He's good on the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments, but less so on the matter of God's omniscience, where his refutations struck me as lightweight (but the omni-whatever arguments are pretty lightweight in themselves, if not actually nonsensical, so I'll happily cut him some slack there).

Where he excels is in Bible study. Here is a man who knows the Bible back to front, upside down and sideways, in its various translations and in its original Greek and Hebrew. I've often heard criticisms of the Bible's more dubious and unsavoury passages dismissed by apologists as errors in translation and interpretation. Barker slaughters these arguments with thorough textual analysis and scholarship, quoting chapter and verse at length.

Godless is an easy read, despite the depth that Barker necessarily has to plummet plumb* in exploration of his subject. He maintains a light literary style by keeping it personal, with plenty of amusing and enlightening anecdotes together with understated wry comedy. Anyone who has heard him on Freethought Radio (the weekly radio show and podcast he presents with his wife and FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor) will gain extra insight into the mind of someone who has thought long and hard about his subject – and then radically reversed his outlook.

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists BARKER, Dan; 2008 Ulysses Press, Berkeley, CA; Paperback 392pp ISBN13: 978-1-56975-677-5

(*Minor edit 2009-08-09 for inadvertent malapropism.)