Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker raises questions of religion, ethics

Alex Hagen

On Saturday, Nov. 12, outspoken atheist Dan Barker gave an extensive, thought-provoking presentation on religion and ethics in contemporary America.Credit: Cade Beck

Barker, who worked as an evangelical preacher for 19 years before leaving the clergy to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation, spoke about his personal experiences and beliefs before taking questions from the audience.

The author of several books, including “Godless” and “Losing Faith in Faith,” Barker spoke frankly about his disillusionment with religion, detailing his evolution from a devout believer to a critic of Christianity and its teachings.

“I came to a point where I had to choose . . . Do I want truth or do I want God? You can’t have both,” Barker said. “I realized there’s no coherent definition of a god, there’s no good arguments for a god.”

Barker also discussed living ethically without religion, an issue he cares about passionately.

“They say that we atheists are borrowing from the Christian morality. You hear that a lot, but I actually think it’s the other way around: I think believers are borrowing from humanistic morality,” Barker said.

He mentioned that “peace and love” are often thought of as religious teachings.

Credit: Cade Beck

“Those values that are common to all religions; those are not religious values,” said Barker. “Those are human values. They transcend the religions.”

Barker’s thoughts seemed to echo those of the Whitman community. In a survey conducted by The Pioneer, 96 percent of respondents answered “yes” when asked, “Do you believe people can live ethically without a religious structure?” 31 percent of respondents identified as agnostic, while 29 percent identified as atheist and 28 percent identified with various branches of Christianity. Other world religions registered few or no respondents, with Unitarian Universalism as the next most popular belief system.

The lecture was dynamic and, in spite of the weighty issues Barker discussed, playful at times. Barker spoke about serious topics but punctuated his lecture with quips, such as his remark that his born-again brother was the “white sheep” in his family of atheists.

The event, presented by Whitman’s Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics group, attracted a large crowd that filled most of Kimball Auditorium. Barker’s ideas proved to be provocative, sparking spirited conversations across campus. Thoughts on the lecture varied greatly.

“He seemed to be a fundamentalist atheist,” said first-year Marijke Wijnen, noting his adamant beliefs and convictions.

“He was closed-minded,” said first-year Elana Simon. “Just like his former belief system, it seems like his current one leaves no room for discussion: it’s absolute.”

Whether or not students agreed with Barker, the lecture gave the Whitman community a lot to think about on a Saturday evening.