Walk Away Losing faith By Dan Barker It was some time in 1979, turning thirty, when I star

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Walk Away Losing faith By Dan Barker It was some time in 1979, turning thirty, when I started to have some early questions about Christianity. I was working on a musical for Manna Music (working title, "Penny," about the one lost lamb who was missing from the other ninety-nine), which I never finished because my views were changing while I was trying to write it. I didn't have any problems with Christianity - I loved my Christian life, I believed in what I was doing, and it felt right. I just got to the point where my mind was restless to move beyond the simplicities of fundamentalism. I had been so involved with fundamentalist and evangelical matters that I had been ignoring a part of myself that was beginning to ask for attention. It was if there was this little knock on my skull, and something was saying, "Hello! Anybody home?" I was starving and didn't know it, like when you are working hard on a project and you forget to eat and you don't know you ar hungry until you are really hungry. I had been reading the Christian writers (Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, C. S. Lewis, etc.), and really had not read much of anything else besides the Bible for years. So, not with any real purpose in mind, I began to satisfy this irksome intellectual hunger. I began to read some science magazines, some philosophy, psychology, daily newspapers (!), and began to catch up on the liberal arts education I should have had years before. This triggered a ravenous appetite to learn and produced a slow but steady migration across the theological spectrum that took about four or five years. I had no sudden, eye-opening experience. When you are raised like I was, you don't just snap your fingers and say, "Oh, silly me! There's no God." The first timid steps away from fundamentalism were more traumatic than the huge leaps that came later. When you are raised to believe that every word in the Bible is God-inspired and inerrant, you can't lightly change your views on scripture. For example (I'm embarrassed to admit this now, but it was a big deal back then), I used to believe that Adam and Eve were literal, historical persons. The Bible said they existed, so they existed. I could have no true spiritual fellowship with anyone who thought otherwise because to doubt God's word was to doubt God himself. But I got to thinking that there are parts of the Bible that are obviously metaphorical. Jesus's story about the Prodigal Son, for example, is just a story. It doesn't matter if the Prodigal Son ever existed as a real person; Jesus told the story to make a certain point. The message contained within the story is what is important, not the literal truth of the story itself. But if Jesus could do this with the Prodigal Son, then why couldn't the early Hebrews have done this with Adams and Eve? The Garden of Eden could have been a Hebrew "parable" to explain God's involvement with the human race regarding origins, good and evil. I wrestled with this for months. My first tiny step away from fundamentalism was not to discard the historicity of Adam and Eve (because, unlike the Prodigal Son, the Bible does not specifically say that Adam and Eve is a parable), but to realize that it shouldn't matter to me whether other Christians held it historically. I could still fellowship with these "liberal" Christians. Sounds silly, but that was a big step in the direction of tolerance. Since I had become an independent evangelist, with no local church to answer to, I perhaps felt freer to experiment intellectually, and to investigate what other Christians believed. From there I continued a gradual swing across the theological continuum, becoming less and less fundamentalist, more of a moderate evangelical. I was accepting invitations to preach and sing in a variety of churches, including many liberal congregations. After a couple of years I migrated further into a more moderate position where I still held the basic theological beliefs but discarded many lesser doctrines as either nonessential, or untrue. I remember the way I was thinking then: every Christian has a particular hierarchy of doctrines and practices, and most Christians arrange their hierarchy in roughly the same manner, with the existence of God at the top, the deity of Jesus just below that, and so on, down the bottom of the list where you find things like wearing jewelry or makeup in church. What distinguishes many brands of Christianity is where they draw their line between what is essential and what is not. Extreme fundamentalists draw the line way down at the bottom of the list, making all doctrines equally necessary. Moderates draw the line somewhere up on the middle of the list. Liberals draw the line way up at the top, not caring if the Bible is inerrant or if Jesus existed historically, but holding on to the existence of God, however he or she is defined, and holding on to the general usefulness of religion, and to rituals, which many people claim to need despite its irrelevance to reality, to give structure or meaning to life. As I traveled across the spectrum, I kept drawing my line higher and higher. I studied some liberal theologians, such as Tillich and Bultmann. These authors, though perhaps flawed in this or that area, appeared to be intelligent and caring human beings who were using their minds, doing their best to come to an understanding of truth. They were not evil servants of Satan attempting to distract believers from the literal truth of the Bible. I came to respect these thinkers and even to admire some of their views, without necessarily embracing the whole package. After a couple more years of evolving theology, I became one of these ominous liberals myself and remembered back to some of the fundamentalist sermons I had preached against such heresies. There is a place in the Bible where God says, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would though wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16) To the fundamentalist, liberal Christians are worse than atheists. I remember having despised liberals who have "a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof," and who offer more of a temptation away from devout faith than any atheist could pose. At least with atheists, you know where they stand. Attempting to learn what a liberal Christian believes is like trying to nail jello to a tree. To my amusement, I had become one of those despised liberals. At that time in my migration I believed in a God, but had no idea how to define God. I was not uncomfortable with Tillich's idea that God is the "ground of all being," or some other vague notion. All the while, however, I was till getting invitations to preach and sing in various churches, many of which were fundamentalist and conservative evangelical. Long before that time I had stopped my direct "soul winning" sermons, and managed to tailor my message to be palatable to just about any church. This was easy since most of the churches that invited me at that time were interested in my published music, so I could simply perform a number of songs with brief inspirational introductions, keeping the "preaching" to a minimum. I was able to adjust each presentation to the expectations of the audience, becoming more or less evangelistic according to the flavor of each individual church. Even then, I felt hypocritical, often hearing myself mouth words about which I was no longer sure, but words that the audience wanted to hear. In my "secret life" of private reading I was impressed with enlightened writers in science magazines. In particular, an article by Ben Bova about "Creationist's equal time" in _Omni_ magazine turned the lens around so that I was gazing back at the fundamentalist mindset. The article laid bare the dishonesty of the "equal time for creationism in the science class" argument by asking how many Christians would welcome a chapter about evolution inserted between Genesis and Exodus. I became more and more embarrassed at what I used to believe, and more attracted to rational thinkers. Finally, at the far end of my theological migration, I threw out all the bath water and discovered there is no baby there. There is no basis for believing that a God exists, except faith, and faith was not satisfactory to me. It was like peeling back the layers of an onion, eliminating the nonessential doctrines to see what was at the core, and I had just kept peeling and peeling until there was nothing there. The line that I was drawing under essential doctrines kept rising until it popped right off the top of the list! To my list of religious metaphors, which included the Prodigal Son and Adam and Eve, I now added God. That made perfect sense. It was during the summer of 1983 when I told myself that I was an atheist. Nobody else knew this for about six months. Some of my friends, and my wife, were suspecting something, but since I still had a pretty successful ministry, the outward appearance was as if nothing had happened. Between the summer and Christmas of 1983 I went through an awful period of hypocrisy. I was still preaching, and I hated myself. I was living with the momentum of a lifetime of Christian service, still receiving invitations to minister, still feeding my family with honoraria from preaching and singing engagements in churches and Christian schools. I knew I should have just cut it off cleanly, but I didn't have the courage. In preparation for some vague need for what might lie ahead, I took some classes in computer programming, telling my wife that I enjoyed computers and that perhaps I could supplement our income with this skill. Right away I got a job as a part-time programmer for a company that makes monitoring systems for the petroleum industry. A year later, I worked as a programmer/analyst designing and coding dispatching systems for the railroads, and I got to do a lot of fun, on-site installation and testing for N&W and Burlington Northern in the midwest. This provided me with the perfect transitional job - a way to ease out of evangelism. I was still preaching on the weekends and doing some occasional record production at nights, but in my mind I was giving up the ministry. In November I accepted an invitation to preach in Mexicali, a Mexican city on the California border. I like that town. Even though I no longer believed what I was preaching, I still enjoyed the travel and the many friends I had south of the border. The night after a service in an adobe mission in the Mexicali Valley south of town, I went to bed on a cot in the Sunday School room that doubled as a guest room for visiting preachers. I didn't sleep much that night. I remember staring up at the ceiling as if I were gazing right up into outer space, contemplating my place in the universe. It was at that moment that I experienced the startling reality that I was alone. Completely and utterly alone. There is no supernatural realm, no God, no devil, no demons, no angels helping me from the other side. There is just nature, and I am a part of nature, and that is all there is. It was simultaneously a frightening and liberating experience. Maybe first-time skydivers or space-walkers have a similar sensation. I just knew that everything had come to rest, that the struggle was over, that I had truly shed the cocoon, or snakeskin, and I was for the first time in my life that "new creature" of which the bible so ignorantly speaks. I had at last graduated from the childish need to look outside myself to decide who I was as a person. This was no mystical experience, but it was refreshing. I suppose it would be a similar exhilaration to learn that the charges against me had been dropped for a crime of which I had been falsely accused. I was free to put the matter aside and get on with life. To be fair to myself and to everyone else, I knew that I had to cut it off quickly and cleanly. In January I sent a letter to everyone I could think of - ministers, friends, relatives, publishing companies, Christian recording artists, fellow missionaries - and told them that I was no longer a Christian, that I was an atheist or agnostic (I didn't have the distinction clear in my mind then), that I would no longer accept invitations to preach or perform Christian music, and that I hope we could keep a dialogue open. The responses to that letter were all across the board: everything from friendly curiosity to outright hatred. But I wasn't at all worried about the reactions; I had done what I had to do. Some responses in fact welcomed my invitation to dialogue, and that is where I began sharpening my skills as a freethought debater, as a new kind of "minister," I guess, spreading the truly good news that there is no sin, no hell, no cosmic guilt. (Once a preacher, always a preacher?) My Christian marriage came apart in 1985, due mostly to the tension between viewpoints. I lost a lot of friends, but in retrospect I consider that if the friendships could not tolerate a difference of philosophy, they were not true friends in the first place. Some friendships are based on mutual respect and admiration regardless of views, and others are contingent on things that are external to the relationship, such as belonging to the same church or club. Leaving the club is a sure way to test the friendship. Then I discovered a whole new batch of friends. Though harder to find, the world is filled with freethinkers who are smart and caring individuals. I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is located, and in 1987 I married Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of _Freethought_Today_. My parents were fundamentalist Christians, and they now admit that they made some mistakes in raising their three boys. My mother says that their motivation was to do "the right thing." In spite of the religious overkill, I had a very good childhood. Sure, we were indoctrinated with an illegitimate and intolerant world view; but my parents were good people in spite of their faith. They raised me with good principles. One thing they taught me by example is that you should never be ashamed to speak what you think is the truth. My earlier ministry in the pulpit and my current activism for freethought are really one and the same thing. The message has changed, but I haven't. I still consider that I have a "calling." Not a calling from out there somewhere, but a calling from within myself to pursue truth, and not to be afraid or ashamed of what I find. _Reprinted_with_permission_from__Losing_Faith_in_Faith:_From_Preacher_ to_Atheist_ by Dan Barker._ [ref001][ref002] Return to table of contents Copyright 1995 IFAS Walk Away / ifas@crocker.com [ref001] articles.html [ref002] ../uparrow.gif This file is copywritten by the Institute for First Amendment Studies. 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