One Atheist Runs From both God and the Devil, and Another Atheist Turns to Jesus
John C. Rankin (August 4, 2006)
In August of 2004, I hosted a Mars Hill Forum on the question of the Ten Commandments and Human Freedom at the Lambs Theatre in New York City. My guest was Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, WI.
Dan was once an evangelical minister, but turned “atheist” some twenty-odd years ago. In that forum and seven subsequent ones, there was a deep reactionary element to everything he said, and indeed this is in the very name of his organization, “freedom from…” It is not a positive “freedom for…” In particular, he railed against church leaders, and he carefully tracks reports of clergy sex abuse.
Even yet, I was surprised in our first forum when he was arguing passionately that God is a liar, that God is wicked, and “since God made hell, he should go to hell.” So I asked how an “atheist” can be so angry with a God who supposedly does not exist. In reply, Dan just got angrier with God. Over the subsequent forums, I began to say that I did not believe that Dan was really an atheist. He did not at first respond, but finally said in the seventh forum that he was using “God” as a “literary figure,” and did not believe in a real God. Yet, people do not organize their lives around disproving and being angry with a literary device. Something deeper was at play.
Dan loved doing the forums with me, as I gave him space and time to pose his questions, and he complimented me publicly. He counted me his friend, and it was based on the integrity by which I treated him, along with the surprising nature and content of many of my answers. I drew all issues back to the good biblical order of creation, showed its uniqueness in contrast with all other religious or philosophical definitions of origins, and how it interprets the Bible and life. He was challenged. I claimed that Genesis 1-2 is historically true, and is fully positive in all its assumptions, with no brokenness or distrust or war involved as with pagan myths.
So in our seventh forum, he claimed that certain Native American myths met the same criteria of no original brokenness. He pulled out a book, one that I also have, and part of which I had read. When I quizzed him on which stories, and he gave examples, I showed how they had negative assumptions. So he said there were other stories that met the positive criteria, and recommended I read the Crow story, “Old Man Coyote Makes the World.” So I did, and gave my perspective in the eighth and final forum. The story starts off with Old Man Coyote as the creator who says, “It is bad that I am alone.” And later Old Man Coyote decided, in concert with other animal-gods he made, that there needed to be war, which necessitated different tribes speaking different languages, and that in war it was good to steal horses and wives. At the end of that forum, in his conclusion, Dan initiated a rant saying that Hitler was a Christian.
Across the forums, Dan started with a professed confidence based in an intimidating attitude, especially toward students, and he changed his answers whenever he was caught in points of inconsistency. But by the end, he descended into irrationality. He even claimed to be proud to be “reactionary” moments after he said I was being slanderous to say he was reactionary.
But the most remarkable element was the very many unsolicited comments I received from observers at all the forums who saw a palpable darkness in Dan’s soul, a demonic presence. I noted it too, but focused on living in the light, which is the way to deal with the darkness. My goal was to honor the image of God in Dan, and when he was his rational self, he responded well. But at other times, the demonic presence revealed itself. At one forum, his spirit was so agitated, that during the intermission he went and played the piano the entire time — almost like David playing the harp for Saul when he was overtaken by evil spirits, except that Dan was playing the roles of both David and Saul at the same time.
So in my openness with Dan, I shared this perspective by email after the eighth forum. He went apoplectic, accusing me of slander. So I responded by saying that there was no slander when people give their opinions on what they have observed. Besides which, if he were truly an atheist, the idea of a real devil would be laughable. It would be mythology, and no threat to a true atheist (and I do not believe there are any true atheists). Dan was completely undone, and ranted on and on in his emails. After two of the forums, he specifically told teenagers, in the presence of her father in one case, that their parents had deceived them, that they should “renounce Jesus” and become atheists. In his second to last email to me, he called for me to apologize to him. But if I were to apologize for speaking the truth of my observations, that would equal a renunciation of the Gospel — and this was his goal from the outset. He asked me never to communicate with him again.
Now, how do we deal with such a situation? In contemplating this reality, I wondered if in Dan’s rejection of the Gospel (for reasons I do not really know), he had a run in with demonic evil. The only way to deal with it, without repenting and seeking God’s grace, is to deny God and the devil together. But if there is truly demonic evil that has injured his soul, my confidence to point it out only agitates the devil further. Otherwise Dan would laugh the matter off. This is an educated guess on my part, but still a guess. Once I met a former atheist who went to all the atheist conferences around the world for decades, engaging in promiscuous parties with his fellow atheists. He knew that they all knew that they were fleeing the God of the Bible, and atheism was an excuse. This man then said something like this to me, “But two years ago Jesus finally caught up with me. Praise God.”
So please pray for Dan Barker, that the goodness and light of the Gospel he has rejected will once again penetrate the darkness of soul, and set him free.
In response to the above, which was first published in a TEI Update bu email, I received a response from a friend, and below is my response to him.
Thank you for your letter.
I have had a wide range of responses to TEI Update #155 re: “atheist” Dan Barker. Most have been very positive, and related many similar experiences. A few have raised some good questions, including you. Centrally, did I handle the situation as well, as biblically as possible?
A little background is helpful.
Through all the eight forums, Dan publicly and privately thanked me repeatedly for giving him the freedom to pose his questions. He loved to “mix it up” in debating points, and he knew the respect by which I treated him. He knew where I was coming from — and he was also aggressively proselytizing his reputed atheism, e.g., being in the face of teenagers on at least two instances telling them that their parents and the church had deceived them, and that they should forsake Jesus and become atheists. Not many people are confident enough to give such a person such freedom.
From the first forum, Dan was exceedingly angry against God. He continued to express anger against God even when I asked how he as an atheist would argue against a God who did not exist. He continued to argue against God. Only in the seventh of eight forums did he change his language, and say he was arguing against “a literary figure” or “literary device.” I had earlier started to question whether or not he was a real atheist, and this was his belated response. Yet, why would a real atheist be so angry with a “literary device?” To be angry against Christians or the church for hypocrisy or violations would make more sense. And I gave him this option — but he continued to rail against God.
I once met a former atheist, who for thirty years went consistently to the atheist, secular and free-thinking conferences around the western world. He told me that every atheist he met was in fact, like him, in conscious rebellion against the God of the Bible, and the mask of atheism was an excuse to live life the way he (usually) or she wanted to. And then he said, “But two years ago, Jesus finally caught up with me. Praise God.” I believe Dan is running from Jesus, and he knows it. On his website he minutely charts every media report of alleged clergy sex abuse. I do not know his personal history nor the reason why he changed from an evangelical minister to a professed atheist, only making observation of his anger and concerns, his axes to grind. He has been burned by the church or Christians in some capacity.
When I said he was not a real atheist, I was honestly challenging him in a way perhaps he had never encountered. It undercut his confidence. Would I be undercut in my confidence if someone said that I did not believe in God or Jesus? No — truth is truth, and that gives us confidence to be hospitable to the toughest questions.
Prior to the eighth forum, a man in the host church was very upset an atheist was coming to speak there, and he circulated emails around the church and beyond. I answered him in length on the phone, but to no avail, so after the forum I provided a written answer. I gave the background of my prior forums with Dan, and why I thought it was biblical and fruitful to host an atheist in a church. I pointed out that Dan was responding well to much that I shared, and especially how I treated him. I also had to honor the real concerns some people had about having him there, and identified the testimonies of people in all prior seven forums concerning the demonic darkness they saw in Dan’s soul, and the various ways it manifested itself. And I agreed, but saw no reason theretofore to make it an issue in relating to Dan. I believe light is greater than darkness, and therefore if we ministered to the image of God in Dan, that would put flight to the darkness as best as possible. Then, in my own commitment to live in the light, I refused to gossip about Dan. I will never say of a person in private what I will not say to him or her face-to-face. So I forwarded my email to Dan, explaining to him the background of how the subject of demonic influence came up. I also said we are all vulnerable to it apart from God’s grace. And from there he went apoplectic as my Update detailed.
I said that if he were a real atheist, such an opinion would be laughable — as laughable as if I said that his body had been snatched by a green Martian. If I believe in a fictional god and a fictional devil, then I should be the fool in his view, and quite unthreatening in holding such a view. I believe that I spoke the truth in openness and in love, just as Jesus did when he rebuked demons in people’s lives. Dan’s life is one of a shrinking humanity consumed with anger, and this is also the view also of many who know him or know of him in different contexts. So if I am right, then the Gospel has been preached in truth, and hopefully to his ultimate salvation. If not, then I have only exercised my freedom of speech, having always availed myself of his toughest questions.
Finally, Dan knew full well that if I apologized for the opinions of many observers, and apologized for my agreement with them, it would mean a renunciation of our Christian faith. Namely, to apologize is to say there is no devil, and hence no God. And that is Dan’s goal — to get people to renounce Jesus and become atheists.