Howdy podcast listeners! I moved to Seattle about a month ago and haven’t been able to find work yet. It sucks, so to put my spare time to good use I got the idea to write out transcripts of my podcast episodes. I figured it would be good for SEO (or Search Engine Optimization as it’s known in the biz), and maybe for some listening-impaired individuals should any exist that might enjoy my podcast.
To be honest this transcribing took quite a bit more time than expected. I was thinking maybe two hours of transcribing for every one hour of audio, but in reality it was more like 8-12 hours/per audio hour. The ambiguity is because for about 4 hours I was transcribing while watching Mimic and Constantine, so it’s hard to say how much actual time was spent transcribing. After transcribing this one-hour episode I doubt I will transcribe any more episodes myself. I might pay someone at Scribie to do the rest of them, but don’t hold your breath because I have no money. Scratch that. I just looked at the fees for Scribie and I wouldn’t pay that much for a transcription even if I had the money.
So anyways, I’m tired of typing so here’s the transcript. Please email me or comment if you notice any major errors. If you notice minor errors, like a missing “that” or superfluous “of,” I don’t care so don’t bother me.
Jeric: Today’s guest is Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but before we get to Dan I thought we could talk a little bit about Bill O’Reilly and recent proof of God’s existence using the cycle of the tides.
Seth: So I’m gonna play a clip of Bill O’Reilly on the O’Reilly Factor speaking with David Silverman of the American Atheists, and right after that will be O’Reilly’s YouTube response.
Silverman: This is not brain surgery and this is not world news. Everybody knows religion is a scam.
O’Reilly: Everybody knows? I don’t know Mr. Silverman.
Silverman: Yes you do. You sit and you’re skeptical every day, and then you go to church and you get on your knees and pray to an invisible man in the sky? And you don’t think that’s a scam?
O’Reilly: No I don’t and I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you why it’s not a scam in my opinion. Alright? Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.
Silverman: Tide goes in, tide goes out…
O’Reilly: You see the water of the tide it comes in and it goes out Mr. Silverman–
Silverman: Maybe it’s Thor on Mount Olympus making the tides go in and out.
O’Reilly: But you can’t explain that. You can’t explain it.
Silverman: A scam and a myth are the same thing. It doesn’t matter if I can explain it.
O’Reilly: It doesn’t?
Silverman: That doesn’t mean an invisible magic man in the sky is doing it.
O’Reilly: David, Beverly Hills, Florida “What do you mean when you refer to the tides when you ask about the existence of God? Science explains the tides. The moon’s gravity pulls on the ocean.” Okay, how’d the moon get there? How’d the moon get there? Look, you pinheads who attack me for this, you guys are just desperate. How’d the moon get there? How’d the sun get there? How’d it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that, and Mars doesn’t have it? Venus doesn’t have it. How come? Why not? How’d it get here? How did that little amoeba get here… crawl out there? How’d it do it? Come on.
Jeric: What. The. Fuck. What do you think about this Seth?
Seth: There’s at least two things wrong.
Jeric: Oh, there’s probably more than that I’m sure.
Seth: The first thing that comes out to me is that he’s using the God of the Gaps argument, which is if you don’t know how something works then God must’ve done it. “I can’t explain this. God did it.”
Jeric: “I can’t think of anything better. Therefore, God exists.” Yes.
Seth: And then the other thing that comes to mind is: Would he believe in God if there were no tides? If we didn’t have a moon would he be an atheist? I don’t think so.
Jeric: Apart from pretty much the whole clip he didn’t let Silverman get a word in edge-wise. He brought him on the show to be like “Hey, explain your billboard” and then he’d get like five words into his explanation and he’d be like “Wait, wait, wait, wait! Why are you insulting these people?” And the guy’s trying to explain “We’re not insulting them. Here’s our stance.” He even goes into “We’re just trying to get that 1% in the churches that are going over there. Get them out let them know it’s okay.” But Bill in his normal Billy stance is having no part of that.
Seth: That’s par for the course I think for Bill-O. If anyone comes on his show and he even mildly disagrees with them he just shuts them the fuck out, y’know.
Jerc: Just kinda bulldozes over ‘em. That’s why personally I try not to watch too much Bill O’Reilly.
Seth: Unfortunately, as nuts as he is, he’s probably the most level-headed guy on Fox News.
Jeric: Yeah, but that’s comparing him to the other guy, the Mormon guy, the…
Seth: Glenn Beck.
Jeric: Glenn Beck! That batshit crazy motherfucker. Yes. He goes up there and draws his little conspiracy theory lines on his chalkboard like he’s giving class. It’s definitely a soft-shoe routine that you definitely don’t want to watch too much, but anyway back to O’Reilly and his tides. It’s just “How do you explain that? They go in and out. There’s no miscommunication.” There is an explanation. I mean first of all it didn’t really have anything to do with it being a scam. But his proof of God exists because the tides work fine… c’mon. If you’re gonna posit something that’s more implausible than the moon pulling on the tides. You gotta at least have something to back that up; some kind of testable hypothesis, some kind of evidence, something.
Seth: And then the rebuttal: We know how the tide goes in and goes out, so what do you have to say about that? And he’s like “Look you pinheads, how do you explain the moon then?”
Jeric: My favorite part is “Where’d the moon come from? Who put it there?” Like it had to be a person or a being that put it there.
Seth: What gets me is like he says “Why does Earth have a moon, and then Mars and Venus doesn’t have a moon?”
Jeric: Well why does the other planets? Jupiter and Saturn have tons of moons.
Seth: Again, so it’s like If Venus and Mars had a moon, there is no God? Is that the deal? Whatever.
Jeric: Exactly. Yes. It’s the same thing. There’s explanations of why there is a moon, where it came from, evidence supporting that it’s made of the same stuff as the crust of the Earth. So it’s not central matter to the Earth. It’s all the crust so it must have come off the front.
Seth: Do Mars and Venus even have moons?
Jeric: Mars does.
Seth: Okay. Well, I’m not an astronomer or anything, but… I mean okay, if a planet next to ours has a moon or doesn’t have a moon what the fuck does that have anything to do with anything?
Jeric: But in the universe as we know there’s only these twelve planets. Or it’s eleven since Pluto got voted out.
Seth: And then three more got added on or something.
Jeric: I don’t know. But yes, it’s definitely interesting to see the mind at work with that guy. I guess the mind not at work. The mind at sleep. I don’t know. It was just interesting. This is something that’s been all over the internet with people as soon as it came out you saw it all over the websites. I hadn’t even seen his rebuttal, his reply, until you showed it to me. So what else? What’s new with you Seth?
Seth: What’s new with ME?
Jeric: Anything happening in your life?
Seth: Well I had something interesting happen about a week ago. I was at a lab meeting. I’m working in this lab, I’m trying to get into grad school.
Jeric: Yeah, you just recently took a different job with a different professor at the university. I guess in your field. Before we used to work together at a plant genetics lab, and now you’re working with an actual nutrition professor.
Seth: Yeah. I’m a nutrition guy so I’m working in a nutrition lab and last week – Monday I had my first day and we had a lab meeting.
Jeric: On that Monday? On your very first day?
Seth: Yeah. Monday morning there was a few people in the lab giving presentations about different things.
Jeric: About their research?
Seth: Yeah, about the research their doing. One person finishes their presentation and goes and sits down and another person gets up to the computer and starts booting up their powerpoint or whatever. And I guess my advisor or my professor or my boss, apropos of nothing he starts talking about this tooth, right?
Jeric: Like his tooth?
Seth: It was a tooth apparently found in some prairie or some field that I don’t think he mentioned. So he says that some anthropologists or some scientists found this tooth.
Jeric: Was this a recent discovery?
Seth: I think he said it was in the 70s.
Jeric: It wasn’t in Texas with footprints inside dinosaur footprints – it wasn’t that thing was it?
Seth: I don’t know. And, um, he says scientists start studying this tooth and they start inferring and extrapolating all these theories and all this information from this tooth they found, like this tooth came from, like, a transitional fossil between apes and humans. And this tooth, essentially, is the missing link that we’ve been looking for. So he goes on a little about this tooth…
Jeric: The “missing link.” See that would be a red flag right there because apparently even if you find a quote-unquote missing link, oh it just creates two gaps now you gotta find two more missing links between those.
Seth: Uh-huh. So he says, okay, scientists studied this tooth and they were nuts about this tooth and they wrote hundreds of papers on this tooth and then science, or technology, had advanced to the point where they eventually concluded that this tooth was a pig and it wasn’t a hominid at all and was not a missing link at all.
Jeric: Oh, you know what? I think this was in Heidelberg, Germany in a ditch by the road is where they find, uh, Homo heidelbergensis over there and I think this is something that was going on… I think I heard about this and it was a farmer that discovered this. Yeah.
Seth: I had never heard about this, because I’m – I think you and I are pretty much up on all the arguments for/against creationism/evolution whatever. I had never heard of this.
Jeric: We try to stay relevant. Yes. Certainly.
Seth: But—and so then he goes “So that tooth was a hoax. Which means evolution is wrong. There are no missing links. There never have been any missing links, and it’s obvious that humans never evolved from apes.” I’m sitting there, uh…
Jeric: Wait, so he extrapolated that it’s obvious because somebody misclassified a tooth?
Seth: Yes. Which to me is like if someone forges a Van Gogh then art doesn’t exist, y’know? Then art isn’t real. Art is a big hoax. Whatever his logic is I’m not sure. I’m sitting there and I’m just kinda like trying to avoid eye contact and hope he doesn’t, y’know like… whatever man.
Jeric: Yeah, you probably don’t want to make waves on your first day.
Seth: Yeah, and I’m just—If you’re religious, whatever, I don’t care. Your personal life is one thing and your professional life is another thing, but don’t try to convert the whole lab into being a bunch of creationists.
Jeric: Yeah if this is your spiel in between the powerpoint presentations loading up…
Seth: It was out of nowhere. And it just kinda—I had never heard of the tooth. So you’ve heard of this tooth before?
Jeric: I think so. I mean from the—I didn’t research this or anything before because you didn’t tell me about this, but I’m pretty sure I’d heard about that and it – Like I said it was like a ditch in the road. This might have been the story of how the guy found heidelbergensis. But I’m pretty sure I’d heard something that was at least attached to that. I think it was in the same area, cuz it threw up something that I remembered about that story it sounded really familiar. But that seems like really weak evidence to be like “Okay we’re gonna throw out confirmed science from the last 150-200 years.
Seth: But this is the same kind of logic that I’ve read on a Chick tract, you know? Like I’ve–In whatever tract it is that he talks about evolution—“One of these transitional fossils was a hoax. Therefore evolution is wrong.” Which is just the worst kind of fallacy, I think.
Jeric: And you know the guy from…. What’s his name? He runs around on campus and he pretends to be a biologist. He runs the church over there… the people that are bringing, uh, the speakers onto campus, um, from the Creation Ministries International stuff… He was telling me this story about how they had radiometrically dated somebody, or this fossil, and then retested it again years later and found out it was like way, way off and this is why radiometric dating doesn’t work kinda thing. So therefore if radiometric dating doesn’t work then evolution is all a lie. I was trying to explain to him that they don’t place it there because of one thing. That’s why they have a bunch of different ways of dating these fossils, so if something like this happens they have two other ways to confirm or deny it. But he was just like “In this one case it was wrong, therefore it’s never right.”
Seth: I guess that’s the best they can do, really. But what about you? Anything new with you?
Jeric: Yeah, uh, like I was telling you I found this walking around campus I found a flyer for the same people—the same guy I was talking about—they’re a bunch of young earth creationists, a church group that comes on campus. And they have, uh—every once in a while they’ll bring in stuff. They do stuff out on the quad and they’ll say “Hey, evolution is not right” – you know, try to get people to talk to them. Kinda make a big scene.
Seth: Are these the same people that bring Brother Tom or something on the plaza?
Jeric: Yes, actually. I know at least last time he had come somehow they were affiliated with it. They’re bringing this other guy: Jonathan Sarfati. Which is another—I don’t know if any of our listeners know of, um, Ray Comfort, the crazy Kiwi. Well this guy’s another New Zealander, a young earth creationist, things like that. I think he has a PhD in chemistry. They’re gonna bring him on campus. He works for their Creation Ministries International, formerly of, uh, Answers in Genesis, right?
Seth: Sure. We were doing some research before the podcast and it came up.
Jeric: Something like that. But he’s a PhD in chemistry and he writes a bunch of things about evolution is false and he’s apparently this really good chess player. I don’t know too much about chess but apparently he plays people blindfolded and all sorts of stuff. But yeah, they’re gonna bring him on campus and he’s gonna play some people chess—play like 12 people at once. I’m assuming he’s gonna win. I kinda suck. Shit, I could go on there and play and lose, but… And then give a presentation about evolution and why it’s wrong called Design, Deluge, and Dilemma. And then over the weekend—this is all going on over Darwin’s birthday over that weekend also—and so over that weekend also they’re gonna have these presentations at their church. So it’s just interesting. It’s the same people who are bringing the same guys in. Last semester they brought this guy from Florida who was with Creation Ministries International also, so I’m hoping they’re charging this church because that’ll just make it a little bit better. But he was doing the same thing about mitochondrial eve was his thing, showing… He was an evolution professor or an evolution PhD who had just gotten his PhD in—It was interesting, he had gotten it in real science for some kind of genes in zebrafish, but he was giving his presentation on mitochondrial eve and how genetics supports the bible, so… I’m not sure what this guy’s gonna talk about. It doesn’t really give a big description about his presentation, but it’ll be interesting to see, uh—Here we go: Leaving Your Brains at the Church Door. So I guess it has something to do with cognitive dissonance or something like that. But it should be interesting. We’ll probably start seeing a lot more of these flyers on campus.
Seth: I’m sure. We should go and crash that.
Jerc: Yeah, I’m thinking about definitely going to it. We’re supposed to have a speaker from the Biology department give a presentation about Darwin and about the theory of evolution, and he wants to do it on a Friday also so I figured we can do it a little bit before—I don’t want to do it at the same time ‘cuz then people can go to one then go to the other. It’ll be interesting to see the kind of turnout that goes to this. Usually whenever we go to ‘em there’s a good turnout. Half people are churchy people, half people are going there to say “You know what, this is nonsense.” Ask some really hard questions. Maybe not go there and make a scene, but… It would be interesting. I’d kinda like to see what is being presented. Apparently this guy has written a couple books and…
Seth: I bet it’s the same shit that’s always presented in these types of things.
Jeric: Yeah. I don’t expect anything new. Some kind of relevatory, you know, of course this is wrong. Yeah, should be the same tired, tired stuff. But you also got a chance to speak with Dan Barker didn’t you?
Seth: I did indeed. And for those of you who might be unfamiliar with Mr. Barker: He spent most of his life spreading the word of Christ to anyone who would listen. When he was younger he attended Azusa Pacific University which is a major Christian evangelical school in California. He was a preacher and Christian songwriter for many years, writing several popular tunes that he still receives royalties from. In the early 80s he lost his faith, and he’s now a co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation with his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor. He is a popular author and lectires all over the world telling his deconversion story. His most popular book is Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. I encourage you to pick up a copy on Amazon or your local library, because I think it’s a great story.
Jeric: Yeah, yeah. And I think he also has a brand new book called The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God. But I know I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet ‘cuz it just recently came out. But anyway, so you caught up with him after he gave a presentation on campus at Colorado State University where you guys discussed a little bit about his journey from his book. A little bit of his journey of losing his faith. A little bit about the work that him and his wife and the others at FFRF are doing, as well as some of Dan’s own beliefs. So I guess without further ado here is Seth and Dan.
Seth: Dan Barker thank you for speaking with me today. I’d like to start off by saying that I’ve seen you and your wife, Annie Laurie, quite a few times on Fox News. The thing about that is you’re always treated as a punching bag or a villain in whatever narrative they happen to be pushing. So my question is why do you agree to go on Fox News?
Dan: Well, it’s not just religious right viewers that are watching the show. It’s on in the airports, it’s on in bars, it’s on in different places, and it’s on all over the place. We always hear from freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics who—they kind of apologize. “I shouldn’t have been watching Fox News, but I happened to have it on that day and I saw you.” So it’s publicity. We pick up new members and new supporters even from Fox News. And we really do hope to educate when we go on these shows. Maybe not the hosts, of course, but people who are listening because not everybody’s extreme right who watches. There can be moderate or liberal believers who are also watching as well so every little bit of education helps and why not, it’s a free country. They’re inviting us onto the show. It’s not like we’re being pushy. We’re guests on their show; they want to know what we think. And we do know they’re using us as a punching bag, we do know they’re using us. In fact, a lot of right wing groups—The Alliance Defense Fund, for example—they use our group to raise money for their group. “Look what those people are doing. Send money.” Right? So we know that’s how this whole PR thing works. But occasionally—like on Mother’s Day I was on Fox News for our National Day of Prayer. I don’t know if you saw that show.
Seth: Yeah, I think I did.
Dan: This was a weekend host. It was a young guy… What was his name? I forget his name.*
Seth: I can’t remember his name, but I, yeah, I remember him.
Dan: Actually, uh, actually they should fire him because he was good. He actually let me talk in complete sentences. He didn’t—I mean he disagreed with me, but he was a good host. He asked a question and then I answered, and when I pointed out that he made a mistake he admitted it. He looked down and he said “Yes, you’re right.” So I thought that was kind of refreshing. I think—I don’t know what was going on, but on the weekend they were probably trying some of their lesser—less pushy talent, let’s say. So it was refreshing to be able to speak all the way until the end of the sentence and to actually say some relevant things to him. You always hope when you go on shows like this. Also the members of our organization they like to see us fighting back. They like to see us doing debates. They like to see us putting up billboards. They like to see us speaking where they can’t necessarily because they have a job or they run a company or they have to kinda keep their heads low in their community. They like to see somebody out there doing that. And then it’s entertaining! We often play some of the clips from those shows on our own radio show to play what the host said and then what we said, back and forth, so a way to entertain and educate and do some PR.
Seth: So you and your wife are both co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation?
Seth: So what exactly is the Freedom from Religion Foundation? What does it do?
Dan: Two things. The group started—it started locally in 1976. It became a national organization in 1978. The two purposes are: 1) To keep state and church separate, and 2) To educate the public about the views of nontheists or nonbelievers, whatever we call ourselves. We’re not strictly an atheist group. We have atheists, agnostics, secular humanists… We don’t care what people call themselves. In fact, a few religious people joined because they support state-church separation. We just did a survey of our membership and almost 4,000 responded and about 88% use the word “atheist.” The other 11 or 12 prefer the word “agnostic” and that’s fine with us. Our little joke is that it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, we all disbelieve in the same god. So, uh, on our first purpose of keeping state and church separate we take lawsuits, we make legal complaints. This year we hired our second full-time staff attorney for non-litigation work, writing letters and complaining to school boards and mayors and governors and that over violations of the state-church separation. We have lawsuits. This year we had that victory in federal court on the National Day of Prayer. Those are time-consuming. Those are expensive. We have six or seven other lawsuits in the courts right now as well, including challenging the—it’s called the Parsonage Exemption. Members of the clergy do not have to report their rent or their house payment as income! It lowers their tax liability, and in fact some of them are abusing it. Some of them were getting their whole salary paid as a housing allowance. And they’re abusing it in other ways like they’re giving it to basketball coaches at a Catholic high school for example and calling him a clergy-person. So we’re challenging that. We don’t think it’s fair that there is a special class of people that gets that break that the rest of us don’t get in their taxes. By the way, we think conservatives ought to agree with us. Why should there be a tax break for certain people and not for others? There should be equality.
Seth: So what’s the big deal with the separation of church and state? If you look at England they have an official church, the Church of England, the Anglican church and they seem to be doing just fine. So how important is the separation of church and state?
Dan: It’s like the opposite of us. But look at England and look at Europe. It’s true that most of those countries on paper have an established religion, although some of them are disestablishing. Sweden disestablished the Lutheran church and other countries have it as kind of an historical anomaly like in Denmark, in Copenhagen. They realize there is an established church but it’s meaningless – kind of like the monarchy is meaningless in England. It’s there for ceremonial reasons. But look at the price they had to pay to get there. There was a time in the history of Europe when the established church truly did mean something horrible. It was discriminatory, they tortured, they did inquisitions, they fought holy wars, they expelled people, they persecuted people. When there was a state religion there was not freedom. There was not freedom of conscience. Europe finally had to go through those hundreds of years/centuries before they finally got tired of it and they’ve grown past it. I don’t think the United States of America should put itself through those centuries in order for us to get to that point. Why don’t we learn the lesson? In fact the founders of our country were wise enough to say “Let’s start off this way.” Why set up a theocracy or an official religion or an established religion? Whenever the government takes sides there will be insiders and outsiders. There will be division. If the government prefers a religion then – in the United States especially, where the religious right is so active – they jump on that like territorial animals, and they say “This is our country.” It will limit the freedoms, for example women’s rights or gay rights or freedom to run for public office if you don’t have the right views. History shows us that when church and state are united they both get dirty. And a lot of Protestants and many Catholics in the United States agree with that and in fact many of them join us in our lawsuits. They don’t want the government involved in their religion. They want total freedom. So we have a country which is kinda nice, the first country in history to ever do this. The United States is the first country to ever separate state and church, and it’s a country where the government has to be neutral. We’re free to disagree; we’re not free to ask our country to settle the argument. So total equality and the first amendment is what does it. The first amendment to the United States constitution is—some people call it the freedom of conscience as an umbrella. There’s these five freedoms in there. The first one is religion, then speech, then press, then assembly, then the right to petition, but notice that before those first five freedoms of conscience are spelled-out in the first amendment… before that is a non-freedom. Before we even get to those five freedoms the very first words of the first amendment say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” Then it continues “Or…” then it goes into the five freedoms, right? So before we even have our freedoms of conscience we have to cap the government. We have to put a limit on the government. The congress—and by the fourteenth amendment, by the way, extended that not just to congress but to the states and governments at all levels so it’s not just congress, it’s our government at all levels—congress has to shut its mouth. The government has to be neutral. And there’s a difference between religious speech and governmental speech. Excuse me, there’s a difference between private speech and governmental speech. Private speech we’re free to say what we want, but governmental speech is not. The government is limited. That is called the establishment clause, and that’s our bread and butter. Our organization has its successes due to that establishment clause, those first few words of the first amendment which tell the government to butt-off. You gotta fold your arms and be neutral. We’re free to agree or disagree, we’re free to fight among ourselves, we’re free to think whatever we want, our government just has to back off and respect our freedoms to go to church or not. To be an atheist or an agnostic or a Hindu or whatever we want to do.
Seth: I went to high school in Texas several years ago, and back when I was in high school I remember several of my teachers had posters in the classrooms with “God is awesome” or they would have bible quotes or religious symbols like Jesus fish or crosses… And then I remember one time in English class we had a pretty outspoken religious teacher…of English, and we were all assigned to read, uh, what was it? Umm, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God…
Dan: Yeah, uh, Edwards. Edwards’s sermon.
Seth: Yeah. I remember our teacher was saying like “I’m not allowed to tell you this is true, but this is absolutely true.” And then I remember in that same school I had a biology teacher who said “This is the point in the class where I’m supposed to come to evolution, but I’m not going to teach you evolution because I believe the good Lord created us and that evolution is all baloney.” Were any of those things unconstitutional?
Dan: Yes. They were all against the law. Those teachers are renegades. They’re breaking the constitution. They are violating the letter and the spirit of our country by injecting their personal religious view into their governmental function. Teachers at a public high school represent the government, and the government has to be neutral. Those teachers, in that sense, are inept. They’re not good teachers. They don’t understand the educational system or the promise they made when they took a public office such as a high school teacher or a mayor or a county executive or whatever or sheriff. So they did break the law, and if we would have heard about that we would complain, we would send a letter, and often the principals write back to us and say “Thank you for bringing that to my attention. They have stopped the abuse.” And it’s an abuse is what it is. The teachers have perfect freedom off the clock to say what they want: to go to church, to talk, to have freedom of speech. But when they walk in that door during the school hours and they are representing the government they do not have the freedom. That’s what that–the beginning of the first amendment stops their mouths when they’re speaking as government. There’s a difference between private speech and governmental speech, and those teachers acting as teachers at a public high school are exercising governmental speech and so they are breaking the law and that is wrong. How would—and some people say “What’s the injury? If you don’t like it don’t pay any attention.” What if an atheist teacher were to get up and say “By the way, we’re at the point in the class where I have to tell you that Jonathan Edwards’s sermon is all bunk and it’s totally wrong. There is no hell and you should not believe in God.” Wouldn’t there be some parents complain? You know there’d be parents saying “Wait a minute! You’re overstepping your authority as a teacher to try and inject your personal views on this issue. You should let us families decide for ourselves.” And that’s how children in atheist, nonreligious, and agnostic families feel when they send their kid to public school. What business does the government have interfering with our freedoms of conscience? So yes, they are breaking the law.
Seth: I listen to your Freethought Radio podcast—your podcast with you and your wife—on a regular basis. It used to be on Air America, but Air America went off the air, I think, earlier this year. So, like, how has that affected, um, maybe the production of the podcast or maybe has listenership declined? Or do you know?
Dan: Well it’s plus and minus right now. It was a loss. We were on a whole bunch of markets all over the country. Now we are on about five. We do broadcast. We broadcast in Madison, Wisconsin so truck drivers can hear it as they are driving down the road. It’s an actual radio broadcast. Same thing in Alaska and Atlanta and a few other cities. We are negotiating a contract for syndication now to come back up in another, I think, 35 cities to start…through a different way so we might be expanding that. But we have thousands of podcast listeners who don’t care about the broadcast. They would rather listen at their own time like you. It probably doesn’t matter to you as a podcast listener when and where it’s actually broadcast. In fact, it’s quicker ‘cuz all the commercials are gone. You can hear the show in… I think it’s 42 minutes now. The plus of us going—of Air America folding is that we actually have a longer show now. We used to have 37 minutes on their clock and now we have 42 minutes and I think if we go to the syndication we’ll go back to 40. So it seems like it’s an hour show, but you gotta squeeze it all into forty minutes it’s pretty tough to do. We passed the two million listener mark on podcasts which is pretty impressive, I think, about six months ago. I think we’re close to two-and-a-half million now as far as downloads of the actual show, and there’s maybe ten thousand or so that listen to each episode regularly. It’s a different world. When I was in Australia people say “I listen to your show all the time.” I’d never even thought about that. I’m thinking of it as a Madison, Wisconsin broadcast, but then people all over the world can pick it up and that’s kinda neat.
Seth: Yeah it is. I–I listen—That’s basically all I do right now. Like I go to work, and I work in a greenhouse, and I just listen to podcasts like all day.
Dan: And they let you do that, huh?
Seth: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty fantastic…for me. Uh…. Sometime last winter you gave a series of talks all over the country and one of your stops was at the University of North Texas in Denton. I used to attend that university and my sister attended that university and she was a member of the Freethought Alliance.
Dan: I remember them. Yeah.
Seth: So she saw your talk and I remember being really jealous that she got to see you and I hadn’t seen you. I called her up and I was asking her to tell me all about your talk and she said that you spoke about Richard Dawkins writing the forward to your book Godless. What’s the story there?
Dan: I mentioned it during tonight’s talk. We met in Iceland a few years ago. We were at a conference of humanists. He gave a great talk, and then he sat down and listened to my talk telling my story. Afterwards he came up with the last manuscript copy of the pre-published edition of his book The God Delusion, and he said “Would you like a copy of this?” And I said “Would I!”—to read it before it was published, you know. He signed it to me and Annie Laurie. He said “I think there’s enough time I can mention your story in my book.” And he did. He found a place where he could add to the publisher without affecting the paging, y’know like for indexing? So if you read The God Delusion toward the end there’s a little bit about my story in there. So when I was writing Godless I emailed him—it was like a Hail Mary, y’know an atheist Hail Mary pass—maybe he could write a forward for it. He emailed back and said he was too busy, he was working on his newest book The Greatest Show on Earth, that maybe he could look at it but he couldn’t really, he was just way too busy. But then a couple days later he sent a forward to my book anyway! Which I thought was so gracious, and it was almost perfect. He had to change a couple of little things here and there just for accuracy, but y’know… Think of the work habits of somebody like Richard Dawkins, that he can be working and cranking out these books—wonderful books—and still have time to write a wonderful blurb or a forward for someone else. I mean that was very, very generous, and I said “Can I pay you for this?” And he said “No, don’t pay me, just support the Richard Dawkins Foundation.” So you’ll see in the forward of my book RichardDawkins.net which is supporting his work through his nonprofit organization as well.
Seth: My sister, Emily, is I think—actually I think she’s an agnostic, but… She says that she would give anything to go back to believing again—because we were raised as Methodists. So do you think that’s the case for a lot of people? And would you do that?
Dan: There are a few atheists who say things like that—that they envy people of faith because there is some comfort. It’s, um, the kinda comfort where you can close your eyes and not be afraid of the world, that kinda thing, but their rationality, their intellect, won’t allow them to. So your sister is probably like that. But it’s kind of like saying I envy my toddler because they have a relationship with the tooth fairy. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back and believe in the tooth fairy again? Wasn’t that really cool? Of course some of us might think “That was cool, that was fun. I miss those years.” But they’re gone, they’re past. They’re behind us and we remember them, but I—Are you gonna go back to the tooth fairy, as much fun as it was? Am I gonna go back to the tooth fairy? In fact with our daughter, Sabrina, raised in a nonreligious family, we pretended that there was a tooth fairy and we told her “There’s no tooth fairy, but we’re gonna pretend.” And the same thing with Santa Claus, so she was not denied any of that fun. She always knew it was Mom and Dad. I asked her later “Didn’t you always know?” and she says “Yeah I knew it was you but it was fun to pretend.” Kids have imaginations. In a sense you’re lying to kids by telling them Santa is real and the tooth fairy is real. If you think belief in God gives you comfort why lie about it? Why not attribute all that to imagination and to the creative human mind?
Seth: You were a preacher or a minister and a Christian songwriter and very active in the church and made a living from the church and had many friends in the church. So when you came out as an atheist did you experience any kind of isolation or excommunication, uh, from your religious friends or community?
Dan: Yes. Some, not all. To be fair and honest, a lot of those Christians we’re still friends today. They think I am wrong, but we still admire and love and respect each other as human beings. We can’t paint them all with the same brush. But you’re right, some of them did kind of banish me or write me off or we’re not friends anymore. Some of them had some ugly language about it, and I learned that I guess we’re not in the same community anymore. I didn’t feel like I lost something because if you realize that this fiend of yours really wasn’t a friend all along then what have you lost? You lost the illusion of friendship. You haven’t lost a real friend. So it’s painful, it’s painful to realize “Oh, I guess our friendship was contingent. It wasn’t like a real friendship after all, was it? It was so fragile that it couldn’t withstand a difference of opinion.” But there’s so many more people in the world: all the new friends, all the new acquaintances, all the… Y’know it’s not like my life was suddenly bereft of friendship because I don’t have those Christian friends anymore. So I want to be careful to say yes, that happened, but not with all of them. There are some really good Christian people in the world who think mature and broad and maybe liberal enough to tolerate different points of view.
Seth: Atheist torchbearers like Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Phillip Pullman claim to be big fans of the historical Jesus, if in fact there was an actual historical Jesus. You don’t seem to be as big a fan of Jesus as they are. Why is that?
Dan: No, no. And atheists don’t agree on this. They don’t agree on the moral teachings of Jesus or on the historicity of Jesus. I will say on the historicity side of things, the mythicist position is growing. There are more and more nonbelievers who are leaning toward the mythicist position, meaning that he never existed at all. As compared with the legend people, the skeptics who think Jesus did exist, but most of what is written about him is legendary, it was exaggerated, it was—In fact both positions can exist. I happen to believe–I happen to think there’s good reason not to believe that he existed historically, although he might have, but I also believe and accept the legend. So you can have both of them. It coulda started with a claim that was either true or false, and the same legend could have grown from that. Either way. So they are two separate questions. On the moral character of Jesus, he did say some good things and Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams later in life saying that he went through the entire bible to find the good teachings of Jesus. He actually took a pair of scissors to the bible, and he cut it into pieces and parts of it dropped to the floor. You can buy that today. It’s called the Jefferson Bible. You can actually buy the bible that Thomas Jefferson—he condensed it down. He cut out all the crap, and calling it “crap” is not really a bad thing because Thomas Jefferson’s words were these: “Looking for the good teachings of Jesus in the New Testament was like looking for a diamond in a dunghill.” He thought most of the New Testament was a dunghill. Today we would say crap or some other word. But he did find some diamonds, he found some good teachings. I agree there are some good or not-so-bad teachings in the New Testament. It would be surprising if there weren’t any good teachings. All religions come up with peace and love. I mean surprise, surprise, right? Love your enemy or do something—that’s why they are religions. They come up with these, you know, claims. But in my mind acknowledging there are some good teachings in the New Testament–“Test all things, prove all things, hold fast to that which is good” right? The Golden Rule is not a bad idea, although it existed long before Jesus, and had been said better. Confucius even said it better than Jesus, but it’s not a bad idea. On balance, if you put the plus side and compare it to the negative side, on balance the teachings of Jesus were not good, and the things that were good that he taught were nothing that we couldn’t have thought up on our own anyway. Like Thomas Jefferson if you cut out all the dunghill, cut out all the crap what you’re left with is not that impressive. Although there are some people who only consider those few good teachings of Jesus to be true Christianity—and there’s even a lot of Christians like that. They throw out hell, they’ll throw out cutting off body parts, and they’ll throw out the part where Jesus said some men should castrate themselves to be in the Kingdom of Heaven—they’ll throw out all that crap just like Thomas Jefferson did—and they’ll say “What it means to be a Christian is this smaller group of teachings that we all think are good.” Well then fine, we’re happy with that. So I can see how some atheists would play that same game. Let’s just look at those few little, good, warm, fuzzy teachings of Jesus and then say “Wasn’t that nice.” But I happen to think if you look at the whole New Testament, on balance he was not a good moral example.
Seth: I have friends who say to me “There’s no way you can know for certain whether there is a god or not so why do you call yourself an atheist?” Do you believe that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive?
Dan: No, because—and there are different kinds of atheists, obviously—but the basic definition of atheism, the broad set of atheists, are people who do not have a belief in a god or gods. The basic definition of atheism is the absence of a belief in a god. So atheists aren’t proving there’s no god. Atheists are people who might become theists someday! Atheists are people who say “I don’t hold such a belief. Maybe you do, and you can try to convince me but I’m lacking that belief.” That’s what atheism means. But within that set of people there’s a subset of atheists that you might call hard atheists or some people like Michael Martin calls them positive atheists, as opposed to negative. Or I think George Smith calls it hard versus soft. In any event there’s a subset of atheists within that larger group who do think atheism is a belief. It’s not a lack of a belief, but actually is a—either is a plausible belief or even a smaller subset who think that they know there is no god. I think the general public thinks that’s all atheism means, those hard atheists who say “I know there’s no god, and I’m going to my death with that knowledge.” When in fact general atheism is just an absence of belief. All that’s irrelevant to agnosticism, because atheism and theism address belief which is a totally different question from what agnosticism or gnosticism address which is knowledge. Agnostics are people who say either “We don’t know if there’s a god.” Or a hard agnostic would say “We can’t know if there’s a god.” That’s different. You can be both an agnostic and an atheist. Most agnostics are atheists on the question of god. Most agnostics will say “I don’t know,” but if you ask them “Do you have a belief in God?” they will say “No.” So by definition—by lacking a belief in God—they are atheistic, at least the soft, negative form of atheist. But there are a few agnostics who are theists. A few agnostics like Blaise Pascal, the mathematician/philosopher, who said “We don’t know if there’s a god, and we can’t know if there’s a god. There’s no way to know, but you’re safer off believing.” He made his famous wager. So he was honest. He said “I don’t know if there’s a god, but I’m going to believe anyway.” So he was an agnostic who had theistic beliefs. They’re two separate things. There’s what you claim to know and what you claim to believe. George Smith points out in his book The Case Against God that agnosticism is not like a halfway house. It’s not like this in-between place where you can play it safe, because no matter how safe you think you’re going to play it you still have to ask the question of yourself “Do I or don’t I have a belief in a god?” For whatever reason—it might be intellectual, it could be emotional, it could be social, it could be political—whatever reason—it could be just plain ignorance or it could be apathy, even—for whatever reason if you can’t answer that question with a “Yes” then you are an atheist. You are atheistic, by description at least, if not by title. You may not want to call yourself an atheist and wear this capital A that I wear like it’s a label, but I can call you an atheist if you lack a belief in a god, whether you want to call yourself that or not. It’s not like it’s a church. It’s not like it’s something that identifies who you are. You may not want to call yourself a male with a capital M, as opposed to a female with a capital F. You may not want to use that as a title or a label, but I can describe you as a male and I can call you one regardless of what you call yourself. I think most agnostics… I would call them atheists by definition.
Seth: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that before. Is there an atheist role model that you most admire?
Dan: No. There’s not one that I most admire. I can pick out a bunch of examples in history. My new book has 306 very brief profiles of people—mostly historical, some contemporary people—who have made amazing contributions to the world. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, working for half a century for women’s right to vote. That’s pretty amazing. Margaret Sanger, the atheist, on her newsletter she had the phrase “No gods, no maters.” She fought for birth control, for women’s rights, for women’s health for years and years. Who could not admire that? Even these modern day Christians who try to demonize or vilify Margaret Sanger, they practice birth control. They’re taking the fruits of her work and they’re using it because they know it’s smart, they know it’s right. People who make—not necessarily the atheists who make the great speeches, I mean of course we admire that, but the atheists who are out doing things. Beatrice Webb in London who was a nonbeliever who worked for education, for healthcare, for workers’ rights, and who basically kick-started the whole British healthcare system. I admire people like that who are out putting their lives on the line, working hard to solve some kind of problem in the world. They’re all over the place: in medicine, in science, in the arts. Atheists like Verdi or Johannes Brahms who was an agnostic or Berlioz or Yip Harburg, the lyricist who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” who had a social consciousness, you know. Richard Rodgers who wrote all those great musicals. So yeah there’s a lot of these people I admire, but I don’t know if I would call any of them more of a saint than any of the others. What’s good to do, though, with these facts is to show the believers that their claim of “You can’t have a full, meaningful, purposeful, happy life without God” is not true. Empirically it’s not true. Atheists and agnostics have had wonderful, full, meaningful, productive lives.
Seth: According to your bio on the Freedom from Religion you belong to a number of high-IQ societies, including the Prometheus Society with an entrance requirement of 99.997th percentile, and, um… I’m not even sure how to formulate a question that you could answer, but I guess what I want to know is do you think that having a crazy awesome IQ isolates you from most people at all?
Dan: No it doesn’t, because it doesn’t mean that much. What it means is the members of that society were really good at taking tests, but—and I’ve interacted with these people in that society for a long time, since, uh, I guess since about 1980? 1983? Most of them—they’re really smart. No doubt about it. I mean they’re just geniuses in their field, but they all admit that they’re really stupid in other fields, things that they haven’t studied. They have strengths: good with numbers, good with analogies, good with language, good with, you know this kind of thing. All you have to do is pass—get a high enough score on one of the tests, IQ tests, and you can get in. It’s like Mensa is the same thing. What’s Mensa, the top 1%? Top 2%? And I happen to know people who would fail those tests but who are immensely intelligent in ways that I can’t even imagine! There are things you just can’t really put on a test like that. The only thing it shows—we’re a membership of a group of people who are good at passing that kind of a test, right? I will say, though, that most human beings are smart to some degree or another. It’s innate, and it’s how hard you work at it that makes a difference. Like I’m working real hard in learning another language right now, which I think is good for the brain. I feel really stupid because I don’t know that language very well. I’m trying to learn Portuguese. I know Spanish, but I don’t have some magical way of learning Portuguese. I have to work at it. But I think what sets a lot of us apart is our motivation to work hard, to train ourselves to do something like learning a music instrument or learning another language. If you do that–into older age, even–it keeps the brain younger. Maybe—and this is a little uncomfortable to answer—maybe knowing that you’re smart gives you a confidence to trust your reason. If you don’t think you’re smart, if you think you’re dumb, then you’re not gonna trust your own thoughts to try to form conclusions. You’re not gonna be skeptical, you’re gonna want someone else to think for you. Maybe some of us do innately fall under the bell curve genetically where it’s easier for us to take certain kinds of tests, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t be smart if we work hard enough at it. The trick there is motivation and then a trust of your own brain. Being smart I have a trust in my brain, and I know enough to know that we all make mistakes and I make mistake and I’ve made some real howler mistakes sometimes, you know? But then you learn from them. The respect for reason, the respect for your mental faculties is a big part of the confidence you have in thinking for yourself, and that’s what free thought is! Freethinkers are people who think for themselves and nobody tells them what the conclusions are. They’re gonna check it out for themselves.
Seth: I just—I just have one last question. I, uh, I talked to my mother and I told her that I was going to be interviewing you and she stressed—she’s like “Make sure you ask him this question. I want to know the answer to this question.” She wants to know if you think religion and science are mutually exclusive. Or do you hold any beliefs that maybe are not yet proven or cannot be proven?
Dan: I would answer “Yes” to both of those questions, although be careful to say like Christopher Hitchens says “Religion should get the credit that it was our first attempt at things.” Hitchens says “Religion was our first attempt at cosmology. It was our first attempt at meaning. It was our first attempt at healthcare. It was our first attempt at dealing with mental illness. It was our first attempt at charity.” You know what I mean? It was all these–way back before we were learning and getting more sophisticated in culture, training our brains in ways we didn’t know we could do. We’ve grown past that now and we don’t need religion anymore. So yeah, centuries ago, millennia ago science and religion did overlap. In fact, religion was the science of the day. The cosmology came from religious teachings. Now we know that most of those claims were wrong. We know there’s no firmament over the earth with the holes in it that the lights shine through. We know that’s not true anymore, even thought the bible still talks about the firmament being this upside-down metal bowl over the sky. Today, now there is no compatibility. Religion can be an artistic, emotional, aesthetic thing for some people that does not compete with science. It would be like asking “Is science and music compatible?” Well yeah, in that sense it’s just something that we do. But when religions make factual claims, when a religious institution makes a scientific claim then it has to yield to science. We can’t yield to religion. We can’t say “This is true because of the authority of the church or the dogma.” We have to give way to the proven methods of repeatability, of evidence, of verifiability, of non sequiturs, of logic, of falsifiability, all these principles of science. The difference is science makes progress by limiting, cutting, chopping down what cannot be true. It’s an extremely limited progress that we make. Religion on the other hand makes claims by broadening. By faith anything can be true. So if faith is a valid tool of knowledge then anything can be true and why even test it. So there’s a big difference there between religious factual claims and scientific factual claims. There’s no compatibility there, in my mind, at all. That doesn’t mean a scientist can’t be religious anymore than a scientist can’t play rock guitar. It’s a different thing they’re doing for a different part of their brain for a different experience. But if a scientist wants to say “This C-minor-seventh chord is the cosmology of…” You know what I mean? If they’re trying to unite those two things to make a factual claim, well then science gets the last word and there’s no compatibility there. Religious claims have to rise or fall on their scientific merits.
Seth: And did you hold any beliefs that are not yet proven or cannot be proven?
Dan: Yeah, well, yeah. But the difference is–I think all scientists have them. They are called hypotheses, right? We make hypotheses. Dark matter right now is a hypothesis that many scientists are holding to. The existence of dark energy because of the expansion—the acceleration and expansion of the universe and so on. But no scientist will say “It is true. My belief is true.” Most scientists would say “I really like this idea. I prefer it. I’m gonna go with it for now, but I’d be happy to be overturned. I’d be happy to change my mind.” In fact a lot of scientists are glad to be proven wrong because science has advanced in that! That’s not the same kind of belief as religious belief where latch onto something that you claim is 100% true without any testing, without any evidence, and sometimes in the face of contrary evidence you continue to hold onto it. Like creationism, the six thousand year Earth, and all that kind of thing. So yeah, I think every scientist, every atheist would say “Yeah, we have some–” If we could put the word in quotes—“We have some ‘beliefs…’” In quotes. “…that we’re not holding to as absolute fact, that we’d be glad to get rid of. We’d be glad to change our opinion or hypothesis in the light of new evidence, new observations, or new data that comes through.” And I guess the danger there in the way the question is phrased, is there’s a danger of equivocation. If religious people are using the word “belief” in one way, but a scientist is using the word “belief” in a totally different, qualified way and you treat them as though they were the same word, well then there’s an ambiguity there. “Oh, so you scientists have faith, too! Why can’t we believers have faith?” Right? It’s a totally different usage of the word “belief,” so there’s a danger there, too, in language.
Seth: Alright, Mr. Barker I’d like to thank you for talking with me today.
Dan: Well thank you, Seth. That was a lot of fun.
Jeric: So Seth, that was a pretty good interview!
Seth: Thanks. I do what I can.
Jeric: Well, you do it well.
Seth: I was actually—that was my first interview I’ve ever done, and I was kinda nervous, too, because it was obviously Dan Barker.
Jeric: Yeah, you picked… You picked somebody way up there, huh?
Seth: He’s kind of a big guy, I guess, in the atheist/freethinker community.
Jeric: Yeah, they do a lot of stuff for separation of church and state. They’re the ones putting out the billboard. They’re the ones fighting the legal battles in court. They’ve been doing it for a while. There’s—people have known him for—Him and his wife for years and years and Annie Laurie’s mother, too. So it’s—they’ve been around for a while. But yeah you did a good job, man. It went very well, especially for your first interview, man. You couldn’t tell that you were really nervous at all.
Seth: I’m sure. Thank you. There’s also a recording of the talk he gave at CSU if anyone wanted to watch it. You can go to YouTube and just type in “Dan Barker at Colorado State” into the handy search bar, and last I checked that video was the first result.
Jeric: Join us next time on our episode when our guest will be Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism. So until then I’m Jeric…
Seth: …and I’m Seth and we are Leaders in Free Thought.
*The host was Dave Briggs and this is the media clip http://youtu.be/rXVZsAMupos