Atheism speaker attracts large crowd

A stuffy Schofield Auditorium barely could contain the throngs of students, faculty and community members who turned out to hear the experiences of Dan Barker, a former fundamentalist preacher-turned-atheist who told his story of “de-conversion” from Christianity Wednesday night.

After a brief introduction, Barker opened the evening at the piano, singing a song about the failure of prayer.

“I think it’s a lot more fun than playing the piano in church,” he told the crowd after finishing the song. “I actually have some gospel-style atheist songs.”

Barker, the author of “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist,” and public relations director of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the crowd his de-conversion didn’t happen overnight. Nor was there any traumatic experience that turned him away from the church, he said.

Rather, his gradual dissension from the Christian faith developed from seeking facts over faith, Barker said, adding that neither evidence nor a coherent definition of a god exists.

“I had to make a decision,” he said. “Do I want to go with truth or do I want to go with orthodoxy?”

Senior Mike Allen said he attended the speech because he’d also struggled with the choice between atheism and theism, eventually choosing the latter.

“It was interesting,” Allen said. “I could see where he’s coming from. But I disagree.”

Allen, a Christian, said he wasn’t too surprised by the packed house because many religious organizations on campus attended the event. Barker’s speech was good because it was thought-provoking, he said.

Barker told the crowd he preached for several months after deciding he no longer believed in God.

The last time Barker preached, he said, was in a small, religious community that was trying to convert one of its members, who was married to a born-again Christian.

“I was hearing myself saying those stupid, stupid words,” he said, “Singing those songs. I was ashamed. I was ashamed at how we were treating (the man), like there was something wrong with him.”

After preaching for the last time, Barker sent letters to family, friends and associates explaining his decision. Their responses ran the gamut from wholehearted support to disgust and anger.

Junior Summer Drews said she attended Wednesday’s speech out of curiosity and because she’s unsure of her personal beliefs. Drews was surprised to see a speaker like Barker on campus, she said.

“When I came to this school, I thought that it was extremely religious,” she said. “I was extremely surprised by him coming here. Maybe that’s why I came.”

Barker’s speech was sponsored by the College Freethought Society, the Progressive Student Association and the Secular Student Alliance.

Twice during his speech and the question-and-answer period that followed, Barker compared faith in God to a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

“A few weeks before Christmas, look how good the kids are,” he said to a smattering of crowd laughter. “Maybe God himself is one huge figure of speech. Of course he is.”

Since his de-conversion, Barker has appeared on talk shows including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America. He also participates in debates about the merits of religion; next week he is scheduled for his 40th debate, against a Muslim scholar.

In addition to discussing the existence – or lack thereof – of God, Barker answered audience questions surrounding faith, morality and other topics after concluding his prepared speech.

“Christianity is a morally bankrupt system,” he said. “However, I think most Christians are good people. They’re better than the Bible.”