A REBUTTAL TO DAN BARKER’S “LOSING FAITH IN FAITH: FROM PREACHER TO ATHEIST”

The following is a guest post by author Andrew Livingston.

What follows is a revised version of an article originally appearing in the now defunct Taqwa Magazine.

You.

So it was you all along.

And all of this time I figured Bertrand Russell was responsible. Don’t get me wrong, Dan, I recognize that he said a couple of these things first. But the blame still lies with you.

I’m referring here to chapter fourteen of Losing Faith in Faith. It’s a reprint of an article from the March, 1987 issue of Freethought Today. Herein Barker offers his fellow “Freethinkers” (what an unbearably elitist word) a series of ways to weasel out of providing actual rebuttals should they find themselves arguing with a believer and stuck having to do so on the spur of the moment. The thought of simply not engaging in an argument is of course inconceivable. We’re the religious. THIS MEANS WAR. Obviously the only reason we exist is to pester and bully atheists.

Confronted with a first cause argument, he says? It’s all right: just ask where God Himself came from. What about an argument from design? Explain that something must have designed God too. Be sure to insist that we define all of our terms very explicitly. That’ll trip us up! And remember: the burden of proof is squarely on us, never the skeptic. Now tell me, readers:

***DOES ANY OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR??!!!***

As in, does it sound like I’ve just listed virtually every single thing you’ve ever heard an atheist say in your entire life?

Indeed, it was only a few weeks ago that I posted about all of that right here:

bt-2017-al-danbarkerarticle

 

I wish I had that surge of pride and awe Sherlock Holmes did when he realized that there was a vast cobweb of organized crime with a respected professor named James Moriarty at the center of it. Rather, I can honestly say that there’s no pleasure at all in a discovery like this, only a vague sense of disappointment and contempt.

There are only three possibilities here (unless Barker himself was copycatting some earlier article):

Possibility #1: Via a series of coincidences astounding enough to rival the lining up of Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz it just so happens that almost every atheist on the face of the freaking planet has (I would indeed say since around 1987, If I had to guess) been recycling the same set of arguments—repeating them precisely, to a tee, despite there being no particular reason for this to happen.

Possibility #2: Barker’s article is indeed every bit as influential as it looks. Meaning, in other words, that Barker has ironically come up with the equivalent of a chanted creed for atheists.

Possibility #3: The human brain automatically takes on a certain mindset when it becomes irreligious, and as such these “freethinkers” just naturally think alike and wind up always saying the same things as a result. Something to do with the collective unconscious, perhaps.

I should mention that in this book Barker apparently finds himself caught on the spot very often, seeing as how he makes quite a point of using each and every one of the aforementioned cop-outs repeatedly. Even more interesting is that one of those terms he claims so sorely needs a clearer definition is “miracle”…which he then proceeds to define for us three pages later, on page 116. [1]

There’s not much point in spending a lot of time introducing the book. If you don’t already know who Dan Barker is, don’t worry about it. The gist is that he’s an ex-fundamentalist preacher turned spokesperson for atheism. Losing Faith in Faith is partly about his loss of faith but it’s about a lot of other things too—a sort of literary grab bag. At times the book is an autobiography telling stories of his Christian childhood and early adulthood; at times it’s more the tale of his de-conversion, told weirdly out of chronological order; mostly, though, it’s a series of essays—too many of which are, as in the aforementioned case, reprints of older material. There are even a couple of transcribed newspaper articles. Try to imagine somebody getting an elaborate personal scrapbook professionally published and you’ll get the general idea.

Barker’s hypocrisy doesn’t end with his cheerful embrace of that snooty “Freethinker” label, nor his self-contradiction over whether the word “miracle” has a clear definition. On page 100 he says…

“My own rejection of religious morality (if that is not a contradiction in terms)…”

And he says this about two sentences before complaining that “religionists consider as chaff all that does not fall within their bounds”. On three separate occasions (pages 77, 273 and 332) he claims that Jimmy Swaggart was corrupt simply because Christianity itself had corrupted him. So I guess it’s fine for Barker to assume that everything outside of his own worldview must be evil, whereas it’s offensively unacceptable when anyone else does so.

It’s not hard to guess what’s behind all of this bias. One page 51 Barker tells us that he now recognizes religion as a Venus flytrap that convinces people they’re happy while in actual fact making them secretly miserable: he knows this, he says, from his own experience. Either it doesn’t occur to him that not every “religionist” out there is, as he once was, a hyperconservative and rabidly anti-intellectual fanatic, or it doesn’t occur to him how this fact just might make a smidgeon of difference. How many times have I talked about this exact phenomenon before? There are no antireligious people, only people who become anti-one particular religion and then throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It’s all very textbook. Barker has not carefully weighed the issues and dispassionately decided that there happens to be no evidence for God’s existence; rather, what he’s done is leap from one negative extreme to the equal and opposite negative extreme. He used to be a guy who would thank Jesus because he’d come across a convenient parking place, whereas when he ended up having to park on the far side of the lot he would thank Jesus for teaching him patience. (Page 67) Now he’s a guy who argues that since scientific laws are only descriptions of nature’s workings therefore if a miracle ever did turn out to be real we’d just have to redefine our laws instead of pronouncing the event supernatural. (Pages 116-117) Which is another way of saying, “Move the goalposts whenever you need to.” Cut the foot to fit the shoe. In the words of Henry Jones, Senior, “Our situation has not improved.”

On page 93 he says, “Everyone knows that the bible [sic] contains accounts of miracles, and that alone is enough justification for any rational person to conclude that there may be better uses of one’s time than studying Scripture. (And no, this is not an a priori dismissal of the supernatural. It is the same criterion Christians use in evaluating other religions. How many Baptists believe that ancient Roman amulets cured diseases?)”

One moment he’s going on and on about reason and freethought; the next he’s openly advocating the instantaneous dismissal of something without a second thought. (And then justifying that with a tu quoque.)

“If I say that I possess an honest inductive conclusion that all ravens are black,” Barker defensively adds, “or that people do not resurrect from the dead, based on a careful observation of the world around me, then it is unfair to say that such views are based on an a priori dismissal of any and all possibilities.” I’ve hardly ever seen a man shoot himself in the foot so egregiously with an analogy. If somebody came into the room right now and announced to Barker that a raven of another color has been discovered, and then someone else in the room rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t bother even reading anything about that, Dan: any rational person can make a much better use of his time than to look into the matter,” am I to expect that Barker would side with this guy? I’ve never met Barker but I seriously don’t think he would (and by saying that I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt). In that situation, I’m sure, Barker would recognize the obvious: that there’s a difference between making a tentative inductive judgment and simply closing your mind altogether—and then encouraging others to do the same.

I’ve gone on at far too great length about these things; I don’t want to make it seem like I care more about Barker’s reasons for embracing atheism than I actually do. As he himself notes on page 88 it would be a bad sign if I dwelled exclusively on such a thing. The problem is, in order to discuss the rest of the book I have to take the trouble to sift through it searching for anything I haven’t already gone over, with practically every atheist I’ve ever talked to (especially on the internet), more than enough for seventeen lifetimes. It’s all been said by now, and not just by me. But there are a few such passages.

Let us start with some of the arguments against God’s existence found in chapter twenty. Barker begins by telling us that omniscience is an inherently impossible trait. “The mind of an omniscient being must contain an image of itself within itself,” he says. “This is impossible.” Try to imagine a perfectly detailed map of Earth, for example. A literally perfect amount of detail would have to be as large as the planet itself, and there would be constant updating. Okay then. I fail to see the problem. Am I not capable of picturing myself? Sure, I may not be able to imagine every single nook and cranny all at once, to think of every capillary and skin pore, but I see no reason why in theory there couldn’t exist even a mortal alien somewhere who can. We’re talking about an unreal mental image here, not a solid object subject to geometric restrictions. It’s hard to ram a three-by-five square into a three-by-five hole but once bring that square to life and who knows what it could imagine itself doing? And you’ll notice I didn’t even have to touch on the very relevant subjects of nontemporality or omnitemporality.

Barker is even less persuasive with his claim that omniscience and omnibenevolence contradict each other. Yes, God created people knowing that they were going to sin but it’s still them performing those sins all the same. “Those who invoke ‘free will’ forget that we all act according to a human nature that was supposedly created by God himself,” Barker insists. “You can argue all around the bushes at this point, but you can’t get away from the fact that Adam did not create his own nature.” Now how do you like that? What may be the single worst argument in the entire book is expressed in a more indignant and triumphant tone than most any other argument. Is that cognitive dissonance or a simple lack of self-awareness?

Look, this couldn’t possibly be any easier to grasp: either we do have free will or we don’t. If we do then our actions are our own fault. Because that’s literally what the very phrase “free will” means. The definition of the term. Whereas if we don’t have free will you can’t meaningfully speak of fault in the first place. When you punch the “Sprite” button on a soda machine and a Sprite comes out you don’t pat the machine and say, “Good boy.” Barker can dance all around the bushes till he drops dead of exhaustion but try vainly though he might to use the (already vague) word “nature” as some sort of emergency semantic shield, last time I checked “free” meant free.

In fact Barker’s ideas about omnipotence can get downright bizarre. Somehow he has it in his head that God’s being capable of interacting with material things means that He must Himself be part of the material world. That’s like saying that if I used telekinesis to move a donut from one part of the room to another my telekinesis must therefore be using a form of energy made out of dough and powdered sugar. Even within the material world different kinds of forces will counteract and manipulate each other all the time. That doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing.

And will people please stop saying that God is effectively making things happen just by knowing about them in advance? We all know that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow; that doesn’t mean that we’ve set the earth in its orbit and are personally spinning it around the sun ourselves. Knowing isn’t doing: why do so many people have trouble with this?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. Some of Barker’s arguments against Christianity and The Bible are valid—perhaps devastating. He does a fair job on page 145 of refuting the idea that anyone should ever have to die for your sins. It’s basically the same point I myself have made so many times by now. In fact, I have a little confession to make: I learned the Matthew 5:22 versus Matthew 23:17 problem from none other than a certain Dan Barker. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up the verses yourself. I think it’ll be more effective if you discover this on your own.) It comes from his list of Bible contradictions in chapter twenty-three. But don’t you start scoffing and saying that I conveniently agree with Barker’s every statement about Christianity while disagreeing whenever he’s arguing against beliefs I happen to share. There are some grievous mistakes in these parts of the book too. For example, he treats the sexist remarks of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as an original statement of Paul’s (pages 211-213) when the passage is well known to be a textual alteration. [2] This hardly rescues the text from all possible criticism but it does do Paul himself some favors.

In chapter fifty-one Barker endorses Christ mythicism (the theory that Jesus never existed)—or he at least considers it a very distinct possibility. The factual distortions in this chapter reach the point where Barker actually tells us that the one undisputed reference to Jesus in Josephus’s works (the one found in the story of Saint James’s death) has been almost universally rejected by scholars. That is sheerly inaccurate—but seeing as how Barker doesn’t cite a source I don’t see why I should bother to either. By the way, do you want to know what Barker’s defense is for the passage being fake? That it contradicts The Bible! My head was spinning.

I think a good way to sum up the book is to say that there was one sentence, and one only, in three hundred and seventy-five pages, that made me think:

“If God has reasons for what he does, then he is no longer God; he is subject to some higher law or purpose or right-and-wrong.” (Page 63)

But that isn’t to say I had to think for very long. How did those words “subject” and “higher” find their way into the sentence? Who says you’re subjected to the purpose for your actions? What does that even mean? If God did everything randomly then you could just say He was subjected to the laws of chance—and so we once again find Barker using “heads I win, tails you lose” thinking. By definition free will is the only thing that could stop an entity from its actions being entirely subject to something else—and by no means is free will incompatible with having a purpose. Indeed, how else would you expect it to work?

But in all of the book there is nothing more telling than the contents of page 64. Let the following quotation serve as a warning of just what can happen when you let the mindset of, “If it’s not empirically quantifiable and verifiable, it’s out! No exceptions!” go unchecked. The heights of absurdity that notion can lead you to are far beyond the wildest dreams of the most eccentric cults. See for yourself:

“The word ‘love’ is a label for an idea which may include many things: respect, concern, passion, admiration, actions of compassion and benevolence. Yet when you think about it, there really is no such thing as love. It is not something you can purchase at a drug store. It is not a substance you can gain or lose or give away. Love, as I understand it, is a label for those ideas and actions of mine which are based on a rational appraisal of value to myself and others whom I value strongly. It is sometimes nonrational, but it does not control me. I do not possess a certain quantity of it. It is nonexistent…”

Juxtaposing that quotation with the many places where the book talks about religion blotting out common sense, blinding people from reality, et cetera, doesn’t make me want to laugh; it doesn’t make me angry; it doesn’t make me confused. It doesn’t even exactly make me feel depressed. How could I describe this? I kind of feel like I need to sit down. Sometimes reading the works of atheists…takes the fight out of you somehow.

 

NOTES:

[1] All page number references are from the first hardback printing, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc., 1992, 2006. I remember the copy that I read having a plain black cover (although there was probably originally a dust jacket over it).

[2] You can see David Bartlett and Harold Attridge explain the point succinctly in the following video. (The relevant part starts at 7:18 and ends at 9:02.)

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Categories: Atheism, Islam, Scholarship, secularism

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