Barker visit, Part 2: roundup and personal reaction

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Here is Part 2 of my roundup on Dan Barker’s visit on December 3 in Memphis. In this part, I’ll mention a few more highlights as well as my personal reaction and thoughts. For Part I, click here. For an excellent recap of the Dan Barker event, read Oliver’s post (oliver_poe on Twitter) on the Mississippi Atheists website.

I’ve already mentioned in my first post much of his talk about state-church separation, so I will focus on other aspects here. Perhaps the most notable thing about Dan Barker’s talk was the fact that it was a fair-minded plea for state-church separation, filled with anecdotes, examples, and humor that could appeal to both believers and non-believers. While Barker does also talk on things such as Biblical errancy, his goal in this talk was not to promote an atheist agenda but speak on state-church issues.

A nice example of this were Dan’s arguments defending religious believers. (No, that is not a typo.) Unlike the exaggerated image of angry, close-minded atheists held by some believers (and too often painted in the media), Dan Barker made it very clear at several points that religious people do a lot of good in the world.

One believer argued during the Q & A that humans by nature are not altruistic, that we are selfish and introverted by nature. Barker countered that humans are actually very social animals, and that being empathetic and altruistic comes naturally to people. Barker said that Christians, believers of different faiths, as well as nonbelievers, are just as good and kind at heart. Because of this, he argued the human qualities of kindness and generosity “transcend” religion. Instead of just attacking religion, Barker was trying to find common ground among believers and non-believers.

Dan Barker also made it clear that he does not think that the government should go on the offensive against religion, just keep religion out of government. He cited the example of the much-mediatized solstace plaques that have been placed in a few state capitals (including Olympia, Washington; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin). The plaques, which state among other things that “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell” are only placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to Christmas displays in state capitals.

In response to a questioner about the goal of such plaques, Barker made it clear that they are actually pleased when governments choose to ban all displays during the holiday season, which is what happened in Olympia after the FFRF’s plaque spurred a number of groups to post displays in addition to the Christmas one. Barker argued that banning these diplays was a victory since there shouldn’t be “religion OR irreligion” (emphasis his) in government buildings, including religious prayers.

He argued that non-believers deserve just as much protection as belivers both in Memphis and nationally. Using national statitics, he argued that few politicans would openly come out with policies that would discriminate against Jews, who represent a little over 1% of the population, while many politicians openly oppose atheists and agnostics, who represent between 9-10% of the population. The Memphis City Council, like all government bodies, should represent and support the rights of all citizens, not just believers. Instead of having Christian or other religious prayers at its meetings, the Council should neither support nor attack any religion. (As an atheist, he likened the situation of seeing councilmembers praying to seeing an airline pilot pray. A pilot should be confident in his flying skills, not asking for outside help to fly the plane. Barker joked that if he saw a pilot praying before take-off, he’d get right off the plane.)

Barker also mentioned the Founding Fathers, at a number of junctures: something that believers often do while trying to defend religious incursions into government. Barker mentioned the Jefferson Bible, for which Jefferson literally cut out with a pair of scissors all of the superstitious (miracles, etc.) parts of the New Testament. He said that while some founders were Christians, most were Deists who wanted religion separate from government. He said that as a believer, he used to think of the Pilgrims and Founders as being related to each other, when in reality they were separated by over 100 years and religious beliefs.

In order to address the fact that the Founders didn’t put the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution (Jefferson wrote this in a letter), Barker said that the concept is there even if the phrase isn’t. He gave other examples of phrases that aren’t in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that have become commonplace descriptions of the ideas found there: the words “Bill of Rights“, “interstate commerce“, “separation of powers“, and “checks and balances” also are not in the constitution either, but you don’t hear religious people criticizing those who talk about the Bill of Rights saying there is not such thing.

Barker did not completely spare religious teachings in his talk, however. There were a few critiques about religion, the majority of which were in direct response to questions attacking church-state separation or atheism. Dan Barker poked fun at the creation story in the Bible, which includes a talking snake (Barker, who is part Native American, mentioned that his tribe also had a snake myth). He also mentioned that Jesus clearly supports slavery in the New Testament, using it as an example in his parables (saying you should beat some slaves less than others) instead of speaking out against it.

Barker mentioned that Jefferson famously said that finding good in the Bible was like trying to find “diamonds in a dunghill.” Barker also defended his right in the public sphere to say that he finds the teachings of Christianity, and the Christian god, to be morally offensive, in particular the idea that humans are by nature unclean and sinful. He said that real life debunks this notion, that we see headlines of criminals in the paper (of which religious leaders aren’t exempt, he pointed out) because they are exceptions to the norm. If that’s how everyone was, then it wouldn’t be news. He also cited studies have shown that countries that are generally areligious, such as Nordic countries, often rank as the happiest and least plagued by crime and other social problems.

There is more I could comment on, but I think that sums up the main points of interest about the talk that weren’t covered in my first post or Oliver’s post.

I have a personal confession to make: I am somewhat of an admirer of Dan Barker. I was very religious when I was younger, and can identify with Dan Barker’s journey from belief to unbelief. My grandmother thought I would be good pastor material, and I seriously considered becoming a pastor. So when I first heard about Dan Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, his story really hit home with me. I’ve read his book godless, am a faithful (or faithless) listener of Freethought Radio, and have listened to and viewed many of his talks and debates online. So I was very much looking forward to seeing what he had to say about the Memphis situation, and state-church separation in general.

After the talk, I waited in line to meet Dan Barker. He talked to me briefly and was very personable both to me and the people who were in line ahead of me (he even gave out a free copy of his book to someone!). I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and I mentioned to him that I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had a bookmark “Imagine No Religion“, which FFRF had sent me for free when I ordered his book from them. I showed it to him and the person next to me said she thought at first I was trying to give him a religious tract!

Since I am not “out” as an atheist, except to my wife, standing in line in a public venue to meet Dan Barker and have him sign a book entitled “godless” for me was a big, and somewhat frightening, step for me. While I did not come out and say “I am an atheist”, it was the closest I’ve ever come to be open about my atheism in person. I told him my name for him to sign it, but I don’t think anyone there knew or recognized me, so I guess I am still officially in the closet for now. Dan Barker was wearing an “A” pin, part of the Richard Dawkins coming out campaign for atheists. Maybe someday soon I will feel comfortable enough with friends and family, and secure enough in my job, to be an open atheist, too.

Dan Barker calls for Memphis Council to steer clear of prayers, keep church and state separate

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), spoke out last night in Memphis against the religious convocations given at Memphis City Council meetings, arguing instead for neutrality in government when it comes to religion.

Barker opened on a light note, excusing himself for starting a little late, saying he was looking for someone who could begin the meeting in prayer (he asked if there were any councilmembers who could assist). The rest of his talk, followed by over an hour of Q & A with both supporters and detractors, combined background on state-and-church issues across the country, personal anecdotes, and light-hearted humor.

Barker specifically addressed the Memphis situation several times, explaining that it was wrong on constitutional grounds for the city to include religious prayers in its official procedings since this constitutes government speech in support of religion, something not allowed under the First Amendment. Barker noted that the very phrase of the First Amendment is one restricting the rights of the government in terms of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In its complaint letter from September, FFRF noted that this year, nearly all of the convocations were done “in Jesus’ name” or with clear references to the Bible. According to Barker, convocations like those given at Memphis council meetings “crossed the line” by subjecting citizens to prayers given by religions, more often than not “in Jesus’ name”. He also noted that the City Council website also contains a biblical reference, further indication that the Council is playing favorites in religion.

He addressed critics who claimed FFRF was trying to advance atheism in government, stating that FFRF is only seeking neutrality. He said as a former minister, he understood where some religious people were coming from, incorrectly seeing as an “attack” what is really constutionally-mandated neutrality in government.Memphis is not being called on to begin meetings with “God is dead”, for example, but simply that neither religion nor irreligion be sanctioned by government officials in the public square.

Barker made a distinction between the public square (where government and citizens meet) and the public sphere (where citizens express themselves). Government officials, just as anyone else, have the right to pray in church, talk about God, or exchange ideas on whatever they want to in the public sphere; however, once they are acting officially in the public square in their jobs as representatives of the people, government officials must remain neutral. Barker pointed out that City Council members are free to pray in their offices before the official session begins, but not during the session itself as an official act of government.

In response to a questioner who said that the founding fathers were religious and did not think government and church should be separate, Barker said that in addition to God not being in the constitution, the founders did not have official prayers at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin made a motion at the convention to have prayers at the meetings, but his motion was not even seconded, much less adopted. Barker said this showed that while some founders in their personal lives were Deists or Christians, most of them wanted to keep church out of the government and let each person decide for themselves according to their own conscience what to believe.

Another questioner wanted to know what FFRF would consider to be an acceptable solution to the current situation, where the City Council holds prayers. Barker said preferably on constitutional grounds, there should be no prayers during government meetings, but he offered at least two possibilities. The Council could have a moment of silence if it were clear that the moment was not stemming from a ploy to get around state-church separation, which Darker said would prove difficult in this case. Another possibility was establishing a system where anyone from any religion or no religion could speak to the assembly on any topic; drawing names from a hat to determine who would speak, for example, instead of the current situation of chaplains being invited to pray.

Much more was discussed during the talk and the Q & A. A summary of additional topics discussed, as well as commentary on the event, will be posted in the next few days, so please check back. In the meantime, here is an article that is appearing in today’s Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ leading daily newspaper) about the meeting, as well as some previous posts as background (1, 2, 3).

Dan Barker to visit Memphis, address church-state violations

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
from FFRF. Source:

Freedom from religion is finally coming to Memphis! Well, I should say: Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is coming; since the City Council here continues its unconstitutional prayers at its official meetings, we’ll have to see if freedom from religion will soon prevail here.

Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF and author of the recent book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (foreward by Richard Dawkins), will be coming to the University of Memphis campus on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Barker, who is a minister-turned-atheist, will be speaking about the importance of state-church separation — a particularly hot issue now in Memphis.

In September, FFRF lodged a complaint with the Memphis City Council over starting its meetings with convocations (read: religious prayers) and giving gifts emblazoned with the city’s official seal to religious leaders (see my original post here and a follow-up here). The controversy made the local media and has sparked some debate in town.

For now the city is continuing the convocations, and Council Chairman Harold Collins has said they would be willing to take the matter to court. It will be interesting to see what Dan Barker has to say on the issue. The FFRF has a long history of championing the rights of non-believers to have church and state separation, including taking a case against the White House faith-based initiatives all the way to the Supreme Court.

Dan Barker’s event will be held at Dec. 3 at 7:00 pm in the Rose Theater (470 University Center: map). For more information, visit the Campus Freethought Association website or contact Jason Grosser. I’ll also be sure to post any news on the Memphis state-church situation, as well as information on Dan Barker’s visit (including a report after the event)

Jesus didn’t appear after his death (at least, in the oldest version of Mark)

This undated picture made available by the British Librar... (The British Library / AP)

The Telegraph has posted an article announcing the online publication of the Codex Sinaiticus (thanks to Cynical-C Blog for the link). This is a version of the Bible which is estimated to have been written in the 4th century A.D. It is missing most of the first part of the Bible (up to 1 Chronicles), but contains all of the rest of the Bible except occasional fragments missing here and there.

I will have to investigate this more, but one notable difference between modern Bibles and the Codex is the lack of the resurrection story in Mark. According to the Telegraph:

It offers different versions of the Scriptures from later editions of the Bible, notably in St Mark’s Gospel which ends 12 verses before later versions, omitting the appearance of the resurrected Jesus Christ.

It is also noteworthy I think that a number of articles I came across from American sources (such as the San Francisco Gate , Houston Chronicle , etc.) picked up the story, but are leaving out the part about missing and changed verses that the Telegraph article and Wikipedia mention. Here is the translation from the website of the Codex Sinaiticus (it may take a while to load; unchecking "Images" in the display options may help.

16:1 And when the sabbath had passed, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint him.

2 And very early on the first of the week they came to the sepulcher, the sun having risen.

3 And they said among themselves: Who shall roll away for us the stone from the door of the sepulcher?

4 And looking up they see that the stone had been rolled away; for it was very great.

5 And they entered the sepulcher and saw a young man, sitting at the right side, clothed in a white robe; and they were amazed.

6 But he says to them: Be not amazed. You seek Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified; he has risen, he is not here: see the place where they laid him.

7 But go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he goes before you into Galilee: there you shall see him, as he said to you.

8 And going out they fled from the sepulcher; for trembling and astonishment had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

So here, we only have it on the authority of some guy in a white robe sitting in an empty tomb that Jesus is "risen", with no report of anyone actually seeing him again. Not very convincing proof. In fact, it says that the two Marys and Salome just ran away amazed and scared and "said nothing to any one."

Most other versions of the Bible since then have contained additional verses which claim that Jesus came back a week later, exorcised Mary Magdalene, appeared to his disciples telling them they’ll baptize, heal the sick, drink poison without getting hurt, speak in tongues etc. Then Jesus goes back to heaven. Here’s the King James Version, for example:

9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.

10 And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.

11 And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.

12 After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.

13 And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.

14 Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.

20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

This is a very different ending. Jesus comes back, exorcises Mary Magdalene, appears to the incredulous disciples and tells them to baptize everyone, or else they’ll be damned to hell. Plus, they get to do magic tricks like heal the dead, drink poison, and speak in tongues. Very different endings than the oldest version of the text we have, which doesn’t even mention Jesus coming back. And yet, the mainstream American press apparently doesn’t find this worthy enough to mention.

I’ve read and heard about the final verses in Mark before (see a discussion of the resurrection discrepancies between gospels by Dan Barker here ), but it’s mostly scholars who know about this. No wonder some believers are still believers: their church, their pastor, their media, and their Bibles either leave out or gloss quickly over important details like known inconsistencies in Bible versions, and what implications this might have on the text. [Update: please see comments, some churches or Bibles may be more open about this than I had thought, but the jury is out as to how widespread this is.]

Jesus appearing or not appearing are two very different endings to Mark, wouldn’t you say? We don’t know for sure why those verses were added later, or by whom, but we do know they don’t belong there. Something tells me the significance of this will not be a topic of [most] sermons on Sunday…

I think it’s very good that more resources are being made freely available for people to inform themselves. As I said before, I will have to look more into the Codex project and the differences between the Codex and other versions. But at this point, I think it’s wonderful that it’s online for all to view and read freely, with translations in 4 languages (including English). Who would have thought 20 years ago that you could consult the actual manuscripts from the oldest Bible found in the world from the comfort of your own home? Hopefully it will lead people to consider the progress we’ve made as a race and consider whether some of the content in the Bible still deserves be taken literally in the modern world.

Christmas hits home, part I – Nothing fails like prayer

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nothing Fails Like Prayer
Dan Barker Salutes Freethought Then & Now

Christmas hits home, part I – Nothing fails like prayer

I hope everyone has had or is having a happy holiday season, no matter what you do or don’t believe!

I’ve just spent Christmas with family. I had a very nice time overall, a nice break from the craziness that has been my life the past year or so.  I have to say though that I am getting more upset and frustrated by religion. I tried not to be affected with it and ruin my visit with my family, because it was so wonderful to get to see everyone and have some great times with people I don’t get to see often, but now that I am back home I need to vent.

The next couple posts I do will be the most personal I’ve done since my very first post. I will get back to blogging the Bible soon, and plan on doing it several times a week now. I’ve been inspired by recent events to ramp-up my exploration of the Bible (more on this in a future post).

My mother is apparently getting more religious as she gets older. She said a prayer at dinner the first day I was home, and the only day we had dinner at my folks’ place. We never, ever used to pray before dinner. This used to only happen at my grandparents’ house. Since my grandfather passed away some years ago and my grandmother is getting older, we no longer have Christmas at her house. This may partly explain the situation (a desire to carry on tradition), but there have been other hints as well that she is going back to the fold, so to speak. Quotes on email signatures, little asides on the phone or in emails, etc.

But since my brother is openly not Christian (he’s another religion), I thought it was very rude, or at least unthoughtful, for her to lead a prayer. The prayer started "Dear Lord" and I don’t believe mentioned Jesus specifically, but if she’s the one praying it’s obvious that she’s talking about the Christian God and not a general, unitarian sort of god or about my brother’s religion.

She doesn’t know that I’m an atheist, so I haven’t decided yet whether or not to say anything to her. I may talk to my brother about it first to get his reaction. The problem with talking to my brother is that he isn’t areligious, although he flirted with this for a while. He is actually active and, from what I can tell, a strong believer in another, alternative religion. So we share an anti-Christianity point of view, but do not share a rejection of the supernatural in general. Since we differ, I do not talk to him much about religious matters as I once used to. He tends to be more open with his life and personal matters than I am, and I do not want him sharing my beliefs with others in my family (at least, not just yet).

I think he’s pretty much onto me though. A day or two later, when no one else was around, he brought up a funny line I had made up off the cuff once from "O Holy Night". The line "Fall on your knees", while I was still more on the Christian side of the spectrum, struck me as somewhat out of place. Why should we fall on our knees to God? So one year several years back, when I was more on the atheist side of the spectrum, I just came up with the line "Down on your knees, And beg for your supper". It doesn’t quite go in the beat, but it reflects my feelings at the time: why should people be going on our knees, a sign of submission, to a supposedly loving God?

And I’m fairly certainly he and I share the belief though that religion is a private matter and should not be forced on people. I think that was what I objected to most with my mother’s prayer. I am deeply saddened and disappointed that she is turning to religion more in her life, and don’t know if there’s anything that I can or should do about it. That is more of a personal issue that I won’t go into here.

But her beliefs aside, I am upset and do not find it acceptable that she feels she has a right to impose this on others, especially family. It would be different if she didn’t know my brother wasn’t a Christian, but she does. So she specifically did something we didn’t used to do that might make my brother uncomfortable. Was that a very "Christian" thing to do? I think praying around my brothers (or others who may not share her beliefs) is something that would be a legitimate thing to bring up to her. It’s a difficult decision about whether to do this, though.

I’m too afraid that it will be one of those stories where my relationship with my mother and/or other family members will worsen if people start getting wind of my unbelief. As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, I at one point considered becoming a pastor, for goodness sakes! I am not sure of my sister’s beliefs, but she wasn’t there for that first dinner. I know her significant other is either a very weak Christian or an agnostic/atheist, but I’ve never dared to bring up the topic. But everyone else either is very clearly, or is seemingly, either vaguely or strongly Christian. So finding out that I no longer believe in God, much less that I have this blog and am actively posting elsewhere in the non-believer universe, would be a shock to many.

I will talk more about my religious experiences over Christmas tomorrow in Part II, in which I will describe my thoughts on seeing a family member becoming a pastor, another wanting a new religious-based political party, and a nephew in the early throes of Christian indoctrination.

Godless America

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Currently Reading
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists
By Dan Barker
see related

Godless America

I just got and have started reading Dan Barker’s Godless , which you can read about here on the Freedom From Religion’s website, or here on Amazon (it’s currently #7 in the Atheism category there). I’m on page 25 for now, and so far it’s a very interesting, sometimes funny personal story of how Dan Barker started out his "calling" as a minister at the age of 15. The book will later go on to tell about his deconversion and experiences on "the other side" (he’s now the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ), including going with his wife (and co-president) Annie Laurie Gaylor to the Supreme Court to fight to protect church-state separation.

I’ve listened to their weekly radio show, Freethought Radio (or rather, the podcast archive of the show) for about the past year, and have caught up with all the previous episodes as well. I’ve also listened to or watched a number of the debates Dan Barker has participated in, linked to on his bio on FFRF’s website as well as other sources on the web (YouTube, etc.). Freethought Radio has been very important in my development and acceptance of my non-belief.

Dan Barker mentioned his deconversion story a number of times in the debates and Freethought Radio. But it’s interesting to be reading about all the little details of his journey and just how deeply he was into evangelizing. I considered becoming a pastor, but was not in the same type of congregation Dan was in (mine was a form of Lutheranism), so a lot of what I’ve read so far of the sorts of things going on in the churches he attended or preached at is rather surprising.

I can’t wait to read the rest and find out more about his story. I’m sure I will be posting on this from time to time as I read.