Read: 5 March, 2011
Godless has been on my reading list for a very long time, but I somehow never got around to it. Finally, bored with a long string of novels and wanting to read something a bit different, I took it out of the library.
I got about a quarter of the way through before I realized that I had to own a copy – a copy I could mark up and keep forever and ever and ever (and possibly hug, pet, and name George). Yes, the book is that good. So I ordered a copy and then started back at page one, highlighter in hand.
The book is part autobiography and part argument in favour of Atheism (or, mostly, against Christianity), written by a former Evangelical preacher. It’s divided into four parts: part one describes Barker’s life as a Christian and part four describes his life as an Atheist, with the two middle chunks giving his arguments for transitioning from one to the other. It’s at once a deeply personal novel, the story of one man’s deconversion and his experiences, while at the same time serving the same general anti-theist and pro-atheist purpose as other Gnu Atheist books.
Richard Dawkins wrote the forward to the book, which was something of a shame. As much as I loved The God Delusion, Dawkins was never really a Christian – at least not in the same way that Barker was – and his perspective is just too different. As a result, he came at religion hard in his four allotted pages. He did this in his general anger towards the “tyrant,” filled with justified indignity, but lacking the personal experience and scriptural knowledge that Barker would follow with. I found that it didn’t strike the right chord for the book, and it really didn’t contribute anything.
As I said earlier, Part One describes life as an Evangelical (and the deconversion experience that follows). In this section, Barker describes his beliefs as a Christian, trying to recapture and convey the feelings and ideas from the awkward position of now finding them ridiculous. This awkwardness actually made the section an even more enjoyable read, as Barker peppers his descriptions of his Christian life with hilarious (although at times rather sad) commentary.
Part Two was a weak point in the book for me. Barker tackled some of the more common arguments for God put forward by theologians (the ontological argument, Pascal’s Wager, etc). Unfortunately, this has the effect of taking these arguments seriously – something that no one over the age of about four should be doing (I mean, really: “We can imagine a god, therefore God exists”? “Everything requires a cause, therefore there must be an uncaused first cause”? Good grief!). I also found that some of Barker’s counter-arguments didn’t make much sense to me, lacking in some logical steps. That being said, I fully admit to the possibility that the arguments on both sides might simply be over my head.
This section did include a chapter, entitled “Dear Theologian” which was written as a first-person letter from God to theologians. While it suffered from the same defects as the rest of Part Two, I did find the approach to be rather unique and interesting in its playfulness. It was certainly a novel way to present some of the common Atheist complaints!
Part Three focused on Christianity, and this is where Barker really shines as a contribution to the Atheist movement! This whole section was incredibly quote-heavy, as Barker drew from his in-depth knowledge of the Bible to offer up contradictions, moral issues, etc. It was so much more grounded and scripture-based than what I’ve read from other Atheists and I managed to run straight through two highlighters.
And finally, Part Four returns to Barker’s personal experiences as he describes life as an Atheist. This section was quite a bit less interesting than Part One, lacking the same self-deprecating humour. Much of it read like a laundry list of the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s accomplishments, which I I found rather tiresome. The chapter “Life and Death Matters” returned to some much more interesting philosophizing, although I have to say that, being pregnant, I could have done without his story about Annie Laurie Gaylor suffering from eclampsia.
I’ve been pretty hard on Godless, and there were certainly large portions that I ended up skimming, but the book as a whole is well worth the read! I’ve said this a couple times now, but I found it so much more targeted than other Atheist books I’ve read – Barker is writing from a position of insider knowledge of Christianity, and he’s coming in armed with quotes. It felt as though he already knew all the objections, and he could address them preemptively. Authors like Dawkins and Harris have been great from a high-level, general criticism of religion perspective, but Barker is far more of an authority on Christianity. I found this incredibly valuable and interesting.
Buy Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists from Amazon to support this blog!