Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth book now available Deuce of Clubs Book Club: Books of the Weak

To Deuce of Clubs index page

Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

Dan Barker (2008)


I used to pray and "sing in the spirit" all the time. Riding my bike around Anaheim, I would quietly speak in tongues, exulting in the emotions of talking with Christ and communing with the Holy Spirit. If you have never done it, it is hard to understand what is happening when people speak in tongues. I actually got goose bumps from the joy, my heart and mind transported to another realm. It's a kind of natural high that I interpreted as a supernatural encounter. I'm certain there are chemicals released to the brain during the experience. (I know this is true of music and the cerebellum, but has anyone studied the brain during glossolalia?) (11)

During those years, I was the kind of guy you would not want to sit next to on a bus. After a few minutes of chitchat, I would turn and say, "I can see that you are going through some real struggles right now. (How does he know? ) I can tell that you are experiencing some problems with a relationship in your life. (How does he know? ) You are wondering what it is all about. You don't know what is the purpose of life. (How DOES he know? ) I used to feel the same way, and God has sent me to tell you that Jesus is the answer."
You would be surprised at how often this crude technique actually worked. (16)

So I got another "call from God," this time to the Standard Christian Center in the central California town of Standard, a former logging town near Sonora in the Gold Rush mother lode foothills north of Yosemite. (It's interesting how God always seemed to "call" me exactly where I wanted to go.) (22)

The motto of the Disciples tradition was, "Where the bible speaks, we speak; where the bible is silent, we are silent." Of course, it is impossible to reconcile that principle with the Charismatic Movement, but we tried.
When I submitted my letter of resignation to Glengrove Assembly, the pastoral staff and deacons were not convinced that I had truly received a "call from God" to move on. We got along well and it seemed to them that I was abandoning a well-developed ministry. Dave Gustaveson, the youth pastor and a good friend, told me he had struggled in prayer to know if my decision was truly right for me and the church. One day in the men's room, while he was "talking with the Lord," he noticed the word "Standard" on the urinal. He took it as a sign and announced to the congregation that it was truly God's will for me to move on to Standard, California, with their blessing. (Thanks, Dave.) (22-3)

A framed sign next to the clock said simply, "Do the next thing." That motto has stayed with me to this day, a very useful bit of obvious advice. (25)

I came back to Manna Music a couple days later and played the musical for Hal Spencer and other staff. They all loved it! "We have been searching for a new Christmas musical for children," Hal said, "and you walk in the door and hand it to us. This is an answer to our prayers." They made few suggestions, no real edits, and in 1976 Mary Had a Little Lamb was published and recorded. (Get it? Mary was the mother of Jesus and Jesus was the Lamb of God.) It was Manna's bestseller for a couple of years, and it remained near the top of the list for many years. I'm still getting royalties from that musical to this day.
Suddenly, I was a published composer. This gave my ministry a broader scope. I wrote a sequel, an Easter musical called His Fleece Was White as Snow, as well as some additional songs, and started getting invitations to appear in churches as a national Christian songwriter. The musicals were performed by churches and Christian schools, and are still being presented to a lesser degree decades later. Mary Had a Little Lamb was translated into Spanish and German, and has been performed around the world at Christmas. At a Christian Booksellers Association convention, Hal introduced me to Dale Evans (wife of Roy Rogers) who told me that her grandchildren loved Mary Had a Little Lamb.
The second musical, His Fleece Was White as Snow, is based on the fact that Jewish law required an offering of an unblemished animal, and that Jesus was supposedly the final, sinless Passover sacrifice. Although I have always been happy with the artistic quality of this work (which includes a flamenco I still play), the lyrics and the story now embarrass me. I actually kill off the star of the show, a cute, unspotted lamb named Snowy!
A couple of years later I started working on a third musical for Manna Music, Everywhere That Mary Went, that was based on the handful of New Testament references to the mother of Jesus, noticing that her appearances in the story always point to her son's ministry—a not-so-subtle rebuke to Catholics. I did not finish that work before my views started to change, so the world was spared those great insights.
I was once invited to a church in East Los Angeles to be guest conductor of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Instead of using children, this congregation used the adult choir. Its members dressed up like camels, sheep, pigs and donkeys, and it was quite amusing. But what I remember most was the huge painted sign hanging above the pulpit saying "Jesus is Coming Soon!" The sign needed to be repainted and cleaned, and I saw cobwebs around the back. I now wish I had had a camera! Of course, at the time I thought the message of the sign was right-on, and the irony of the cobwebs was tucked in the back of my mind. (26-7)

I produced a Christian aerobic exercise album called Body and Soul, with some of The Lawrence Welk Show singers performing disco arrangements of well-known hymns such as "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms." (That was hilarious!) I got to hire Thurl Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger), who sang a very deep bassline for the High On Christmas album I arranged and produced in a pop style for Parade Records in the early 80s. (28)

[I] served a very brief term as musical host for Dr. Gene Scott's TV show on Channel 30 in Glendale. (29)

During preliminary remarks, I said I would have liked to perform a song, but since this was the non-instrumental denomination of the Church of Christ, there was no piano in the building. (No kidding! This sect believes it is wrong to use any musical instruments in worship. There was also a split by a related Christian Church faction that does not think the communion cup should have a handle.) (69)

I was debating a local Christian minister in Colorado Springs who used the last three minutes of his opening statement to play a Christian song on a tape machine. "Close your eyes and listen to this music," he said, "and you will feel the spirit of God." So we listened, though I noticed that not all of the freethinkers in the audience had their eyes closed. When I stood up to make my statement, I started by saying that I indeed felt something while listening to that music. I heard a repetitive cadence between the dominant seventh and the major tonic with an occasional suspended fourth on the five chord, a composing tactic that is designed to evoke a trance-like effect. I did feel the emotion, but not the Holy Spirit. (72-3)

I debated Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne at University College in Dublin, Ireland, in 2007 on the existence of God. Our disagreement hinged on the concepts of complexity and simplicity. He feels that the fact that every electron behaves exactly the same is evidence for an external control, or designer, otherwise they would all veer randomly and chaotically and no life would be possible. I pointed out, as most atheists do, that the design argument for God fails since it attempts to account for complexity by simply adding more complexity (God), which assumes the existence of the very thing you are trying to explain. "God is defined as a personal being, and a personal being is not simple," I told Swinburne. (73-4)

I pointed east to the niche or alcove and whispered to Ali, "Is that the direction to Mecca?" He nodded his head. "But that's not right," I replied. I pointed my finger down at an angle into the earth and said, "That is the shortest distance to Mecca." He didn't smile. Pointing back to the east, I said, "If you pray in that direction, your prayers will go straight out into space at a tangent and miss Mecca." He still did not smile, so I whispered, "What do you expect when you invite an atheist?"
I suppose it is possible that prayers are affected by gravity and bend around the planet, so I couldn't press the point. To his credit, Ali continued to be friendly and took my heresy in stride. But I wonder if he thought about the fact that the qibla (a directional prayer wall) is a flat-earth concept. (80)

"God is a being than which no greater being can be conceived. If God does not exist in actuality, then he can be conceived to be greater than he is. Therefore, God exists."
There are dozens of varieties of the ontological argument, but St. Anselm was the first to articulate it in this manner. The flaw in this reasoning is to treat existence as an attribute. Existence is a given. Nothing can be great or perfect that does not first exist, so the argument is backwards.
A good way to expose this reasoning is to replace "being" and "God" with some other words. ("Paradise Isle is an island ... ") You could prove the existence of a perfect "void," which would mean nothing exists! (115)

Adultery by consenting adults does not fall into the category of a malicious or harmful felony. It is a legitimate concern of ethics; however, it is no crime. Why don't the Ten Commandments mention rape? What about incest? How about the more useful "Thou shalt not beat thy wife?" (188)

Tenth Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house ... wife ... manservant ... maidservant ... ox ... ass ... nor any thing that is thy neighbor's." Notice that this treats a wife like property. It does not say "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's husband" because it is assumed that everything, including law, is directed at males. This is a plainly silly commandment. How can you command. someone not to covet? And why would you? If stealing is wrong, then there is no need for this commandment. . . .
So the Ten Commandments are composed of four religious edicts that have nothing to do with ethics, three one-dimensional prohibitions that are irrelevant to modern law, and three shallow absolutes that are useful but certainly not unique to the Judea-Christian system. Any one of us could easily come up with a more sensible, thorough and ethical code for human behavior. (189, 190)

The early years of the Roman Republic is one of most historically documented times in history. One of the writers alive during the time of Jesus was Philo-Judaeus (sometimes known as Philo of Alexandria). John E. Remsburg, in The Christ, writes:
"Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived until long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ's miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion, with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness and resurrection of the dead took place—when Christ himself rose from the dead and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although this Word incarnate dwelt in that very land and in the presence of multitudes revealed himself and demonstrated his divine powers, Philo saw it not."
Philo might be considered the investigative reporter of his day. He was there on location during the early first century, talking with people who should have remembered or at least heard the stories, observing, taking notes, documenting. He reported nothing about Jesus. (253-4)

W. B. Smith thinks there was a pre-Christian Jesus cult of Gnosticism. There is an ancient papyrus that has these words: "I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrews, Jesus." The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? makes a compelling case that the original Christians were indeed gnostics and that the story of Jesus was invented by Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria as a mystery play patterned after the Osiris/Dionysus mystery cults, and was not to be taken literally. The play depicted a god-man who died and came back to life. It was only after Constantine in the fourth century decreed that the story should be literal and suppressed Gnosticism that the life of Jesus became suddenly "historical." (272)

"Why have you ruled out the supernatural?" is a question believers sometimes ask. I answer that I have not ruled it out: I have simply given it the low probability it deserves along with the other possibilities. I might equally ask them, "Why have you ruled out the natural?" (281)

The resurrection of Jesus is one of the few stories that is told repeatedly in the bible—more than five times—so it provides an excellent test for the orthodox claim of scriptural inerrancy and reliability. When we compare the accounts, we see they don't agree. An easy way to prove this is to issue this challenge to Christians: Tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof at this stage. Before we can investigate the truth of what happened, we have to know what is being claimed to have happened. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born. Believers should eagerly take up this challenge, since without the resurrection there is no Christianity. Paul wrote, "If Christ be not risen ... we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so that the dead rise not." (1 Corinthians 15:14-15)
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second and so on; who said what and when; and where these things happened.
The narrative does not have to strive to present a perfect picture—it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Of course, the words have to be accurately translated and the ordering of events has to follow the biblical ordering. Fair enough? (281-2)

I counted the number of extraordinary events that appear in each resurrection account. In the order in which the accounts were written, Paul has zero, Mark has one, Matthew has four, Luke has five, Peter has six and John has at least six. (John wrote, "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book." 20:30.) Putting these on a time graph produces a curve that goes up as the years pass. The later resurrection reports contain more extraordinary events than the earlier ones, so it is clear that the story, at least in the telling, has evolved and expanded over time. In finer detail, we can count the number of messengers at the tomb, which also grows over time, as well as the certainty of the claim that they were angels. Paul: 0 angels. Mark: 1 young man sitting. Matthew: 1 angel sitting. Luke: 2 men standing. Peter: 2 men/angels walking. John: 2 angels sitting. Other items fit the pattern. Bodily appearances are absent from the first two accounts, but show up in the last four accounts, starting in the year 80 C.E. The bodily ascension is absent from the first three stories, but appears in the last three starting in the year 85 C.E. This ballooning of details reveals the footprints of legend.
The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 C.E. backward through the distorted lens of 80-100 C.E., more than a half century later. They forcibly superimpose the extraordinary tales of the late Gospels anachronistically upon the plainer views of the first Christians, pretending naively that all Christians believed exactly the same thing across the entire first century. (292)

Robert Price elaborates: "When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and 'burned their bridges behind them,' only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem. In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground. " (302-3)

Buy this book

To Deuce of Clubs