Dan Barker, a former preacher who has become an outspoken atheist, told his story to over 300 members of the campus community on Friday night.
Barker, the author of the recently–published Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, spent most of his two-hour talk explaining how genuine his religious feelings and convictions were – and how they became undone by the time he was 34.
“Religion at its core is divisive; religion creates an in crowd and out crowd; the chosen versus the damned,” said Barker, 59, during the opening of his discussion. “Getting rid of religion won’t solve all our problems, but it’ll be one less reason to fight among ourselves.“
Barker became a born-again Christian during high school and delivered his first sermon when he was 15. He said he felt a calling into ministry and majored in religion at Azusa Pacific University.
Barker said he could feel God talk to him and exuded his enthusiasm for Jesus wherever he went.
“I was busy with ministry all the time because Jesus was coming soon,” Barker said. “We wouldn’t just pray in a restaurant – we’d invite the whole restaurant to pray.“
Since he became an atheist, Barker said some critics contend he could not have been a true Christian – a claim he rejects.
“I had asked Jesus to come into my heart and I became born again. I used to preach that you’re saved by faith. I also had the faith and feelings,” he said. “It just felt wonderful, it just felt great.“
In addition to serving as an associate pastor at three different churches, Barker traveled the country preaching the gospel and performing Christian music. He still receives royalties for two Christian musicals he wrote in 1977 and 1978: “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “His Fleece Was White as Snow.“
Barker said fundamentalist Christians like to first jump to the supernatural to reach their conclusions, and he was no exception.
In one instance, Barker said he believed God was directing him where to drive and he ended up at a dead-end next to a field. After waiting for a few minutes, Barker said he “heard” God thank him for passing a test of patience.
“I felt victorious; I obeyed God,” Barker said. “These things happen a lot [with fundamentalist Christians].“
Barker now believes there is a scientific explanation as to why some people have more genuine-feeling religious experiences than others.
“I think it’s possible that some of us have a susceptibility to mysticism; some of us feel it more, most of us fall somewhere in the middle,” he said.
But as he grew older, Barker said some of these feelings began to fade. He said his ministry started to change because he started meeting “different flavors of Christians” and Jesus “still hadn’t come again.”
“I went through a process where I started preaching more love and less hell. Jesus kept not returning and eventually I moved over [to the more liberal side of Christianity] as I met different varieties of Christians,” he said.
“I realized that there is no one Christianity,” he said. “Each one can prove to themselves that they are the right one.“
By the time he reached his early thirties, Barker said he became troubled by biblical inconsistencies and by the fact that what he perceived to be small issues of faith – such as whether Adam and Eve were historical – were tearing apart congregations.
“Paul said God is not the author of confusion, but can you think of a book that’s caused more confusion than the Bible?” Barker said. “I realized that the human race has a propensity to believe things that are patently false. What makes me exempt?”
Finally, after a long struggle with his doubts and a period of keeping his disbelief secret, in 1984 Barker wrote a one-page letter to friends and family telling them that he had become an atheist.
“I didn’t hate Jesus. I fell in love with reason,” Barker said. “When you realize life is precious, it has more value. I would rather accept this fact, as scary as it might be, than lie about it.”
Barker is now co-president of the Freedom from Religion Society and co-host of Freethought Radio, an atheist radio program broadcasted on Air America.
Barker praised the UC Davis Atheists and Agnostic Student Association, the sponsor of his talk, and argued that the rising popularity of such student groups is indicative of a national trend.
“The fastest-growing religious identification in the U.S.A. is ‘non-religious.‘ More and more people are coming to secular thinking on their own,” he said.
But not everyone is becoming secular, as evidenced by the presence of a contingent of Christians at Barker’s talk.
A first-year UC Davis Intervarsity Christian Fellowship student, who wished to remain unidentified, said Barker challenged his negative view of atheists. However, Barker was not about to change the student’s mind.
“I think Barker can believe what he wants, but no matter what he says, I’m going to believe,” the student said. “I have a strong passion for God.”
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.