Saturday, November 15, 2008

godless

I just finished reading the book "godless" by Dan Barker, and was extremely impressed. Here is my review of his book.

Barker grew up smack in the middle of the evangelical movement. From a young age he was an enthusiastic follower of Christ and leader in evangelism to the unsaved. He lead missionary trips to Mexico, he wrote songs and plays that were published and widely distributed by Manna Music, he was ordained as a minister, he spoke in tongues, and so on. But after 19 years in the ministry he started to reevaluate his beliefs. And he came to the conclusion that what he believed in, had faith in, simply was not true. That lead to his rejecting his belief in God and a major realignment of his life. But it did not change the central core which was seeking to know the truth and tell others about it. Rather, one could say this change was simply a large step forward in this goal: he determined that his beliefs were in error and he corrected them and continued on. Of course this did not happen overnight, and in the first part of this book is an engaging account of his life as a Christian and his change in direction.

A consequence of his deep involvement in Christian ministry is a deep understanding and respect for Christians. This is in contrast to some of the other recent books on atheism by Dawkins and others that are dismissive of Christian beliefs. Here is someone who understands and experienced Christianity from the inside and the knows the reasons why Christians believe and nevertheless has rejected those beliefs. In this book he provides a clear and compelling account for why he does not believe the Christian message.

In the second portion of the book he challenges some frequent assumptions of the Bible and Christianity. In the chapter is titled "The Bible and Morality," he argues that the Bible is not a good moral guide. In the Bible things aren't inherrently right or wrong; rather it is whatever the strongest person around says is right must be right. The strongest person happens to be God, so what ever he is feeling like at the moment is right, even if that includes killing or raping prisoners, sacrificing your son or daughter, or plenty of other horrific things he did or told his followers to do. In the Bible morality relies on authority, namely: might makes right. Humans have no right to be treated fairly or with respect; whatever God decrees goes. One can start to understand with this basis for morality all kinds of horrific acts could be done with the belief that they are God-decreed. And God's moral decrees in the Bible are no better than moral precepts found in other societies. The 10 commandments do not give much useful guidance. Two examples: "Do not make a graven image" does not give moral guidanace. "Do not kill" as an unqualified commandment is not very helpful: are there no exceptions like in self defense? And Barker argues that "kill" is the better translation than "murder". But even if we take it as a prohibition on murder, it is not an improvement on laws that plenty of pagan societies developed on their own. Moreover, it is undercut by the actions of God himself who frequently and somewhat arbitrarily killed people for minor offenses or ordered his followers to kill them.

Jesus himself had many moral failings. One significant example is that he never spoke out against slavery. Rather, from the use of it in his parables and teaching, it seems that he approved of it. Imagine how much untold misery over 2000 years perpetrated through human bondage could have been eliminated if Jesus, or Paul for that matter, had condemned slavery. His moral exhortations contain plenty of things that aren't wise or moral (and are not followed by most Christians today) such as: Don't make any plans for the future (Matthew 6:34), Don't save any money (Matthew 6:19-20), Marrying a divorced woman is committing adultery (Matthew 5:32), Hate your family (Luke 14:26), and so on.

Rather than requiring an external source to direct us in morality and provide punishment, Barker claims that Atheists have a better source for morality, namely nature itself. "Morality implies avoiding or minimizing harm." The morality of actions is determined based on their effect on humans. Actions are evil because of the harm they cause, rather than because they break a command in a book or because the offend a diety. True morality does not consist in obedience or subservience to an authority, but in rationally choosing actions that benefit rather than harm humans. God is not needed or even helpful in this endeavor.

He addresses a common Christian argument from C.S. Lewis who said of Jesus: either he is "Lunatic, Liar or Lord." I have always been unhappy with this simplistic trichotomy, and Barker adds on a much more likely fourth alternative: "Legend". That is, much of what we have in the Bible regarding Jesus is really legend. He illustrates this with the ressurection stories of which there are 5 accounts in the New Testament. The earliest account written during the lifetime of Jesus followers is by Paul (I Corinthians 15) in 55 AD. This account is understandable as a purely spiritual resurrection. The next account is by Mark, 70 AD, 40 years after Jesus' death and after almost all adults alive in 30 AD would be dead. Accepting that the last 12 verses are a later addition, Mark has no resurrection appearances at all, only a young man saying "he is risen" with perhaps a spiritual interpretation possible. The later accounts written 50 or more years after the event start including physical body appearances of Jesus and other fantastic happenings. The interesting thing is that the earliest accounts have the fewest fantastic or miraculous elements and the later the account the more miraculous elements are included in the stories; a good sign of a developing legend. Additional evidence that it is a developing legend is that the accounts contain many irreconcilable events; it is not possible to create a single account of what happened after Jesus died that includes all the details of all the accounts as they contradict each other. The problem is that Christians today refuse to consider it a legend. Rather they take the oldest accounts, written well into the second or third generation after Jesus, and claim those are the very things that his followers believed right after his death.

In my opinion this is an ideal book for a Christian wishing to critically examine his or her beliefs. I know from personal experience that this type of critique is very difficult to do from inside the faith. But for those Christians who value knowing truth over any particular set of beliefs, here is a book that will challenge them in assessing their own beliefs and reasons for belief.