‘Few atheists know the Bible as intimately as Dan Barker. Few, after all, can profess to have begun their careers as fundamentalist Christian preachers. Currently co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an American non-profit organisation, Barker was a self-proclaimed “extremist” for 19 years, until he renounced the faith.
Given how vehemently the 66-year-old now defends a life free of any supernatural authority, I ask him if he regrets the consequences that his Christian ministry may have had on people he would now describe as vulnerable. “Yes, I do regret a lot of it,” he says with candour. “I would counsel people to pray for healing. That’s dangerous. That’s harmful. People die from that. And I acted irresponsibly with my health, because I knew that God was going to take care of me.” This is a window that, once opened, is difficult to close. Barker reels off multiple instances in which he believes that he seriously damaged the lives of his parishioners.
In Arizona, a woman approached him, looking for faith healing to cure her of an illness. The two prayed together and when, inevitably, it did nothing, he said, “Let it be unto you according to your faith” (a reference to a line originally found in Matthew 8:13). “In other words,” Barker says, “it was her fault. She walked out of that meeting not only not healed but feeling chastised. It’s not a kind way to treat another human being.”
In his mid-twenties, he counselled a woman who was struggling with an abusive husband. Barker told her to persevere with him because, as the Bible says, he would eventually see the light. “So I counselled a woman to stay in an abusive relationship, because the Bible says that you are married for life.” What would he say if she approached him with the same problem now? “I would tell her to run for the nearest shelter and get out of there.”
Barker may have left religion behind but he is still a preacher of sorts. His latest book, God: the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, draws on his knowledge of scripture to attack the Bible’s claim to moral authority. If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a phrase that Richard Dawkins uses to introduce the second chapter of The God Delusion. There, he accuses the God of the Old Testament of 19 character flaws, among them jealousy, sadomasochism, caprice and ethnic cleansing. In a foreword to Barker’s book, Dawkins writes that The God Delusion’s reputation for stridency owes much to this one sentence…’