It's hard to think of a book that "has caused more confusion than the bible" and harder still after reading Dan Barker's remarkable account of his leaving evangelical Christianity for the freedom of unbelief. That he chose the word "confusion" rather than, say, "evil" is important: even the newest of atheists - the stable boys and girls of the Four Horsemen - must concede that not all Christians are evil, but the claim that all religious people are confused - insofar as they rely on faith - is more defensible.
Barker did not lose his faith - he gave it up on purpose once he rejected "the very concept of faith as a valid tool of knowledge." He "made made the leap, not to atheism, but to the commitment to follow reason and evidence wherever they might lead" and he realized that faith - "intellectual bankruptcy... the evidence of non-evidence... a free lunch, a perpetual motion machine" - was only ever going to be an obstacle to his search for truth.
His Christian friends at first thought he might be having some sort of spiritual crisis, but he was not seeking "inner confirmation" - he wanted the "objective, external evidence" that he'd always assumed was there. While at college and studying the bible he'd thought that the "Christian evidences" could be left to the experts, who "had already figured it all out and who could provide the historical, documentary and archeological evidences if anyone ever asked. (No one ever did.)" That parenthesis is telling, since so much of the success of religion relies upon obedience to authority, on people not asking questions. (Children, and most adults, who do ask questions are easily palmed off with half-truths and lies or ignored or intimidated.)
Once he began looking for himself he discovered that "there is not a single contemporary historical mention of Jesus, not by Romans or by Jews, not by believers or by unbelievers, not during his entire lifetime". What about the Gospels themselves? Biblical scholarship, kept from the average churchgoer, has revealed a wealth of surprising facts. The last twelve verses of Mark, for example, are not original but were added later. Even if we considered the Gospel accounts to be historical (which for many other reasons we can't), "they tell us that the earliest biography of Jesus contains no resurrection!"
It isn't just the historical and scientific inaccuracies that lead Barker to describe the bible as "the Bad Book". Reading any number of verses - Numbers 15:32-36, Psalm 137:9, Isaiah 45:7, Luke 12:47-48 (which shows that the impulse to abolish slavery arose out of human not Christian values) - without the blinkers of faith should lead any decent rational human being to that conclusion. ("There are some good teachings in the bible, of course, but is a garden overrun with weeds still beautiful?") In stark contrast to the much repeated lie that you cannot be moral without religion is Barker's view that "the bible does not have a grasp of ethics" and that humanism "is the only way we can be moral" - and this from someone who was a committed evangelical Christian for many years!
This is a tough subject made tougher by ingrained habits of thought or rather non-thought. How many of us reflect upon where we get our values? We spend more time researching which toaster to buy than whether the golden rule really is a good ethical principle. Barker does a great job elucidating some very thorny issues. He confidently speaks for all atheists (a rare point of agreement?) when he says that we "find our basis for morality in nature". Moral values are real, but that does not mean they are "objective" in the sense of existing "independently of a mind" ("objective value" is an oxymoron). However, values "can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences can be objectively measured." The takeaway message? "People should be judged by their actions, not by their beliefs" (contrary to much of the history of institutional religion).
As if wanting to make up for years of evangelical preaching, this book is a model of clear thinking and concision. Here are a few standalone sentences, each of which contains more sense than the average sermon: "Theists do not have a god: they have a belief." "Transcendent does not equal supernatural." "God belief is just answering a mystery with a mystery, and therefore answers nothing." "Atheism is exquisitely vulnerable to disproof. Theism is not." "Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won't."
Few atheists will have had quite as much contact with theists as Dan Barker, and fewer still can draw upon an earlier career as a preacher. His knowledge of the bible and his confidence as a public speaker, formerly used to bring "lost people into the kingdom of heaven", now serve a very different purpose. He is ruthless in demolishing groundless religious beliefs and exposing the cruelty and barbarity of the bible, but he never forgets that there is a human being in thrall to those beliefs and that book.
As co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, his continuing advocacy of separation of church and state ought to be a doddle in a country founded with this principle built into its constitution, but if so many Americans can deny the truth of evolution then we should not underestimate the ingenuity of the faithful when it comes to denying the plain facts of history. In a country where atheists are a lower form of pond life than bankers, we should admire and support Dan Barker for taking such a public stand for humanist values.