Losing Faith in Faith: A Critique

This essay will offer a commentary on those parts of Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith that touch upon alleged Biblical errors and issues. See comments by chapter number. Those parts that contain Barker's biographical data, and other parts, will not be fully addressed, but I do have some comments.

A Few Commments on Biography

Barker repeatedly stresses that asking questions about his motives and psychology in becoming an atheist are simply ad hominem - we cannot ask whether he became an atheist for emotional and psychological reasons, and we are assured that his conversion to atheism was the end result of a careful and logical process.

The evidence, however, points in precisely the opposite direction. Barker's guilt and shame over having once believed is evident and intrusive. However, rather than dwell on this, and rather than engage what Barker would simply term further ad hominem (instead of actually addressing the question of his motives), I will only pose a question to the reader, following a brief discourse.

Barker openly admits that he spent several months pretending to be a faithful Christian during his "deconversion" process from a less faithful Christian to an atheist. During this time he put on a face to others - pretending to be a genuine believer, to the point of leading religious services, when in truth his heart was elsewhere. He admits this openly, along with admitting the shame, guilt, and embarrassment he felt (and apparently continues to feel) at ever having believed as he did.

The question I have is this: If Barker so willingly and willfully deceived others in this fashion, for several months no less, what reason is there for taking his word on the matter of his conversion to atheism being the product of a sincere and well-intentioned search and analysis? Why should we take his word about his own honesty and searching now?

In terms of Barker's personal motivations, ultimately we can do no more than speculate. However, there are two lines of direct evidence that, I daresay prove that Barker's professed objectivity is a sham.

The first reason is this. By and large, Barker (to say nothing of countless other skeptics) relies on what I have called "argument by outrage" to make his points. That is, he uses arguments that are based not on logic, but on his personal outrage at the contents of the Biblical record.

Early in his work, Barker tells us of a relevant story of a discussion he had on the matter of eternal punishment [42], which occurred sometime after his declaration of disbelief. While meeting with some Christian friends in a restaurant, he posed the following to them:

I'm not a bad person. I'm honest. If I walk out of this restaurant and get killed by a truck, will I go straight to hell?

The declaration of being "honest" is a peculiar one, in light of the fact that Barker has at this point already explained how he lied to himself and to others by playing a farce as a "false believer" for months. Nevertheless, note the reaction he records by his friends: They squirmed uncomfortably, and finally said, yes, he would go to hell. At this Barker comments:

I wanted to make the brutality of Christianity clear to them. I knew it would be hard for them to imagine their God punishing someone like me.

To which I might reply, that Barker's friends might well have had something of a lack of imagination. The point, however, is this: Whatever the truth about God and eternity may be, the above is NOT an argument, but rather an appeal to the emotions. It is an "argument by outrage" - and these sorts of arguments form the core of most of Barker's objections.

We will not endeavor here to provide answers to these sorts of charges. There is no need: Simply stating outrage is not a sufficient form of argument; it is merely a substitute for true argument. What must be done -- but I have seldom seen done -- is an analysis proving that a given action/directive by God was indeed unfair and/or cruel.

Of course, Barker would say of this position, "Why, you're a barbarian! How can you be so analytical when people are being killed, how can you say such an outrageous, etc. etc."

Well, that's just another "argument by outrage." The questions that remain unanswered are: 1) Does this God exist? 2) Is what the Bible says true, whether in whole or in part? 3) Is God's judgment just, and if you think it isn't, what reason can you give for saying so?

Even then, of course, we still have no sufficiently-based answer as to whether the God of the Bible is a just and fair one in His treatment of us. I say that He is. Barker says that He is not.

Also, what can Barker offer as proof, other than his own personal point of view? Is Barker (or any skeptic) really informed enough about the social situation of the ANE to make such judgments? In no place does Barker give us adequate reason to prefer his personal morality over any other. Simply offering shocked outrage, and dealing with the moral (and other) arguments for the existence of God in ham-handed fashion, is not enough.

For more on this issue, see here.

Poor Scholarship

To be fair, all of Barker's efforts at "argument by outrage" might carry some weight if Barker could actually provide some sort of logical or factual reasons to doubt Christianity. However, it is precisely at such points that Barker's presentation is weakest.

Barker says that he attended Azusa Pacific College and took a number of relevant courses. By his own admission, however, he "coasted through college" [22] and retained little that was useful - for his heart was with evangelism, and he "believed that (his) education was secondary to (his) calling." I think that the significance of this admission will become obvious as we explore some of Barker's errors.

Generally, Barker touches upon a number of areas that we and others have discussed elsewhere, and as we progress with a full critique, we will provide more specifics; generally, we have: the matter of the Quirinian census; the supposed "anonymity" of the Gospels; the alleged bias of the NT writers (with the quote of John 20:31 included); the standard bit about Isaiah 7:14; the association of Christianity with Mithraism (a position NOT held Mithraist scholars at this date; see here for more) - and even the idea that Jesus did not even exist at all, dealing with the secular evidence for the existence of Jesus inadequately.

There is no indication that Barker has consulted the works of Josephan, Tacitean, or Greco-Roman scholars, or of any professional historians. His cited sources (on those rare occasions where he does provide them) include three or four "gems," but gems which are badly scratched by an overwhelming number of unscholarly items.

A few notable examples of poor scholarship:

For a response to Chapter 13 on the matter of prayer, see here.

Barker As God: Chapter 19

Barker believes that he can address in a few pages issues that have been discussed seriously by the intelligent for years. Such is an example in this chapter, as Barker takes the role of God. And not the God we know, but one asking questions of a theologian.

Barker may be trying to be funny in some of these passages -- it is hard to tell. When he has "God" say, "Jesus sometimes calls me 'Father,' and that feels good, but since he and I are the same age and have the same powers, it doesn't mean much" [138] -- I cannot tell if he is making a joke, or if he is indeed this uninformed of the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the Father (see here).

In that light, I have for this chapter just a few directive comments.

Where did I come from? -- Barker is so far behind the intellectual and philosophical scholarship if he thinks that "Who created God?" is an end-all answer to the First Cause argument. Bertrand Russell thought this too, and that's probably where Barker drew this from, but sophisticated atheists have realized that First Cause is more sophisticated than this.

Barker does not even address the problem of an infinite regression of causes; instead he is content to fill his God's mouth with wistful questions like, "If you need a designer, then why don't I?" This is said about ten different ways, but it simply doesn't address the issue as presented by a Plantinga or a Craig.

What's it all about? -- The operative question here is, "Why did God create us?" Barker knows the standard answer -- which is correct -- that our purpose is to serve God and to please Him. Barker first adds in another version of the "Who created God?" argument by asking, "What is God's purpose?" Elsewhere Barker has little grasp of the concept of God's timelessness -- as he says here, "Am I consigned for eternity to sit here and amuse myself...?" "I'm just sort of hanging out, I guess."

Purpose is sought out of need to address the experience of duration. An eternal being does not experience time or duration, and hence has no need to find a "purpose".

For more related to this section, see here.

Deciding Right and Wrong -- some answers may be found here and here.

This section on morality and its relation to God is one in which Barker's "God" has some moral confusion. "How am I supposed to choose what is moral? Since I can't consult any authority, the thing to do, it appears, is to pick randomly...If I whimsically say that you should not make any graven or molten images...then that is that. If I decide that murder is right and compassion is wrong, you have to accept it." [146]

To use the graven images example, there is nothing "whimsical" about this command. Elsewhere he shows that he thinks it is a command against art; in fact it is a command against idolatry, as we show here. Would it be moral for God to allow us to worship a false god, and to deceive ourselves? If God is the source of eternal life, would it be moral for Him to allow us to be distracted and risk losing it?

The further questions are often posed in this way: "If God told you to commit rape, would you do it?" This is posed often as a dilemma by skeptics, but let's put this in perspective.

One would be hard pressed to imagine a case where a rape or a murder would be a "greater good", but no one could deny such a theoretical possibility. If I were ordered by God to kill an innocent baby, and there was no question that the directive came from God, would I do it? In return I ask: What if that innocent baby was Adolf Hitler, and killing him was the one way to prevent the deaths of millions within the next 40-60 years, to prevent the plunging of the world into war leading to the deaths and misery of millions more?

The argument offered here simply doesn't allow for thinking in more than two dimensions; it merely reacts to the immediate experience and goes no further. I consider it a non-dilemma. God possesses all knowledge and knows what the greater good is. We do not, and Barker does not.

No Context: Chapter 21

In this chapter Barker demonstrates his hermeneutical sufficiency with the Biblical text. Here are answers to what is found in this chapter:

Material in Chapters 22 and 23 is answered in various places on this page, notably here; consult the Scripture Index (see sidebar) for citations.

Chapter 24 is dealt with here.

For Chapter 25, see the links for Is. 7:14 and Micah 5:2 above, plus here, plus Longenecker's Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period.

See here on Tyre.

Chapter 26: No Cross?

Chapter 26 of Barker's book is entitled, "Cross Examination." Barker includes in this chapter a few salient points about the trivialization of the cross as a symbol of Christianity (i.e., its use as jewelry or as a social symbol). These are things that any serious Christian would find agreeable. Where Barker's inadequate investigation of his subject comes to the fore is in his treatment of two particular issues related to the fact of the cross of Christ itself.

After a few mild objections about having to see the cross of a church outside his office windows, Barker begins with a form of "argument by outrage." He writes [202]:

A cross is not beautiful. It is an emblem of humiliation, agony and death. It represents a public execution, like a gallows, guillotine, or gas chamber. Approaching a cross is like walking into a firing squad. Try to picture a steeple supporting an electric chair; or imagine people wearing noose jewelry!
Suppose someone saved your life by blocking a terrorist's attack, but died from the bullets. Would you hang little gold machine guns on your ears?

Barker closes this aspect of his "argument by outrage" with citations from a few hymns about the blood of Jesus. Is this not offensive, he asks?

Aside from the admittedly excellent points about the trivialization of the cross, Barker here has missed the point badly - and would not have, had he consulted the excellent work of Martin Hengel [Heng.Cx] on this subject. The shame of the cross, so to speak, was just as much a problem in the first century as it is today from Barker's perspective. (See on this subject also our reply to Earl Doherty.)

Hengel, whose work is recognized as the premier work on the subject of crucifixion in the ancient world, observes that "crucifixion was an utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word." (22) The process was so offensive that the Gospels turn out to be our most detailed description of a crucifixion from ancient times - the pagan authors were too revolted by the subject to give equally comprehensive descriptions.

This being the case, we may fairly ask why Christianity succeeded at all. The ignominy of a crucified savior was as much a deterrent to Christian belief as it is today - indeed, it was far, far more so. Why, then, were there any Christians at all?

There can be only one good explanation: Because from the cross came victory, and after death came resurrection! The shame of the cross turns out to be one of Christianity's most incontrovertible proofs. Fair enough to say that the cross has been misused as a symbol: But had a person in an electric chair been executed unrighteously, and risen from the dead after dying for our eternal salvation, well might some house of worship place an empty chair upon their steeple - with the clasps undone, to proclaim the victory over the conquered instrument of death.

Now to the second issue; Barker writes:

There is no cross in Christianity. No cross at all!
The enduring emblem of atonement is an impostor. There is no cross anywhere in the Bible...The words which have been translated 'cross' and 'crucify' in the New Testament are (Greek word) (pronounced 'stau-ross' or 'stav-ross') and (Greek word) ('stav-ro-oh'). All translators, even fundamentalists, agree that a (Greek word) is not a cross.

Barker goes on to cite Vine's and a couple of other works indicating that the word we translate "cross" actually means an upright pale or stake. He adds, citing another source, that a stauros was never in the shape of a cross or a T. He continues:

There is no cross in early Christian art before the middle of the fifth century, where it (probably) appears on a coin in a painting. The first clear crucifix appears in the late seventh century.
Any Bible that contains the word 'cross' or 'crucify' is dishonest...

We may ask, of course: What scholarly works has Barker consulted to arrive at these conclusions, which run against the grain of the conclusions of literally thousands of Biblical scholars and historians of all persuasions? Raymond Brown's magisterial commentary, The Death of the Messiah, [Brow.DMh] perhaps? Hengel's comprehensive monograph on crucifixion in the ancient world, already alluded to?

Hardly. In fact, the one source that Barker lists, other than the original Greek texts of the NT and related translation aids like Vine's, is Herbert Cutner's, Jesus: God, Man or Myth. Had Barker consulted the works of Hengel, Brown, and perhaps a few others of a more academic bent, he would have discovered that his objections are way, way off base.

Cutner himself inspires little confidence: His only stated qualification is that he is "one of England's leading Freethought writers," and he is said to be the author of a book on sex worship (!). His work is a mix of badly outdated information [even in 1950 when he wrote!], focusing mainly on the ideas that Jesus did not exist and that pagan influence created Christianity.

True enough: The word stauros does refer to an upright stake. But stauros was used in the Gospels by synecdoche to refer to the entirety of the cross. [ibid., 913] This was a known literary practice when describing a crucifixion, and perhaps a signal of how revolting it was thought to be: Single parts of the cross, like the crossbar (patibulum), could be referred to as a "cross," and the entire cross could be referred to by the names of individual pieces like the stauros - as was the case with the Gospels. (Brown cites parallels to this practice in the works of Seneca and Tacitus.)

This bit of information, along with information from Plautus indicating standard practice for crucifixion, tells us what we know today: That what Jesus carried was the crossbeam, and the actual stauros was embedded at the site of the crucifixion. The stauros itself, Brown adds, could refer to a stake which "people could be attached to in various ways: Impaling, hanging, nailing, and tying." To this we can also add Josephus' confirmation of Jesus' fate, although Barker considers those references to be interpolations.

So there is no foundation here for Barker's stauros argument; what about the rest? Again, not digging further than Cutner and a few base reference works makes for some poor judgments: Brown reports that the cross symbol itself appears in catacombs in the third century, and becomes common by the fourth. There are also about a half-dozen depictions of the crucified Jesus dated between the second and fifth century.

Also, what of the actual shape of the historical cross? The descriptions we have, indicating that Jesus carried a crossbeam, mean that the cross was either shaped like a capital T or a lower case t. The latter was favored by Ireneaus and Tertullian, and was supposed from Matt. 27:37, which indicates room for the printed charge against Jesus above his head. The former was favored by Justin (though for reasons of supposed prophetic fulfillment) and is indicated by Barnabas 9:8, an apocryphal work from near the end of the first century.

So what does it boil down to? Barker's objections are not the product of serious scholarship. They are, rather, the product of his own personal animosity towards a church steeple and cross that he happens to find annoying.

Tekton research assistant "Punkish" adds some thoughts:

...from Vine's Complete Expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words p138

CROSS, CRUCIFY A. Noun stauros (4716 Strong's #) denotes, primarily, "an upright pale or stake." On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, "to fasten to a stake or pale," are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed "cross". The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the crosspiece lowered, was adopted to stand for the "cross" of Christ.

I note that my full quote from Vine's refutes Barker's misquote, in which he removes key phrases like "apostate ecclesiastical system" and that pagans were received into churches "apart from regeneration".

Here's another: he misses out a phrase in Cutner, who actually notes a social piece of data (that tells you how close to the mark Barker is in historical study) The phrase is "..it was used in the cruelest fashion to execute criminals and other persons obnoxious to the governing classes" (JGMM, 60)

As for the Chi, or X, which Constantine declared he had seen in a vision leading him to champion the Christian faith, the letter was the initial of the word "Christ" and had nothing to do with "the Cross" (for xulon, "a timber beam, a tree" as used for the stauros, see under TREE)

I'm a little frustrated to see that no references are given to support the claims of ecclesiastical compromise, but in any case Tertullian answers that one:

His hands and feet were fastened with nails to the cross-beam and stake (Tertullian, "Adv. Judæos," 10) (Tertullian definitely being prior to mid 3rd century contra Vine's claim)

...From the Epistle of Barnabas 12:2, "The Spirit saith to the heart of Moses, that he should make a type of the cross and of Him that was to suffer, that unless, saith he, they shall set their hope on Him, war shall be waged against them for ever. Moses therefore pileth arms one upon another in the midst of the encounter, and standing on higher ground than any he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was again victorious."

This passage from Exodus (17:11) is also cited by Tertullian (Against Marcion III.18) while discussing crucifixion. Also Clarke's commentary on this verse tells us that the Church fathers considered this a figure of Christ on the cross. So I think Vine's is incorrect over the introduction of a cross-beam in the church and its date (and therefore Barker for using this source), while respecting the man's training and status as a scholar.

Schaff history vol 2 sect.77 "The cross was despised by the heathen Romans on account of the crucifixion, the disgraceful punishment of slaves and the worst criminals; but the Apologists reminded them of the unconscious recognition of the salutary sign in the form of their standards and triumphal symbols, and of the analogies in nature, as the form of man with the outstretched arm, the flying bird, and the sailing ship..."

Justin Martyr - dialogue with Trypho chap 91 (before 165 AD) After quoting Joseph's blessings in Genesis (mentions a unicorn?) then says the cross is a like-figure, giving the following description: "For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the centre, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns." Now I don't really know what is meant by "unicorn" here, whether it means the mythical horse of not, but you surely cannot say that the two-beamed cross was unknown ...Barker says "There is no cross in early Christian art before the middle of the fifth century, where it (probably) appears on a coin in a painting. The first clear crucifix appears in the late seventh century."

Having read Schaff's history of the Church on crucifixion I now realise what he's on about. The above paragraph refers to the crafted figure of Jesus on a cross (note the ref to "art") rather than the empty two-beamed execution implement. Schaff says this is as late as Barker relates, but ALSO that the empty cross (in terms of execution) gets mentioned much earlier in church history. Schaff also says: "The CRUCIFIX, that is the sculptured or carved representation of our Saviour attached to the cross, is of much later date, and cannot be clearly traced beyond the middle of the sixth century. It is not mentioned by any writer of the Nicene and Chalcedonian age.

One of the oldest known crucifixes, if not the very oldest, is found in a richly illuminated Syrian copy of the Gospels in Florence from the year 586. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) describes a crucifix in the church of St. Genesius, in Narbonne, which presented the crucified One almost entirely naked. But this gave offence, and was veiled, by order of the bishop, with a curtain, and only at times exposed to the people. The Venerable Bede relates that a crucifix, bearing on one side the Crucified, on the other the serpent lifted up by Moses, was brought from Rome to the British cloister of Weremouth in 686.

See here for Chapter 27.

Chapter 37: Uncharitable

In Chapter 37, "Age of Unaccountability," Barker addresses the matter of charitable giving. Again we willingly concede that in certain places Barker makes salient points, regarding misuse of funds and the need for accountability. However, as before, the force of these salient points is lost on the fact that they are bookended by personal anecdotes from Barker's own life (which hardly reflect on anything, other than of course his own personal and familial issues), and by what can only "charitably" be called outright misrepresentation.

Let's begin with the most blatant error. Seeking to answer his own question, "(H)ow much does the average church actually contribute to the needy?", Barker cites an article by George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli that records the results of a 1988 study of almost 300,000 churches - indicating "the percentage of all congregations that have selected charity services." [Bark.LFIF, 257] Statistics are given for the percent of such churches that selected services for homeless shelters, meal services, and the environment, with churches being in the categories of liberal, moderate, conservative, and very conservative. In each case, the liberals score the best, in the 40th percent rank, and the numbers get lower as we get more "conservative."

Barker then notes similar numbers for other areas: "family planning, day care, civil rights, and the arts". [ibid.] He concludes that "This shows that considerably less than half of all churches are involved in any kind of charity." [ibid., 258]

There are several problems with this analysis:

He does seem aware of this incongruity, for he does address private giving - anecdotally: "Well, sure. A few churches feed the poor," he writes, and "Some churches (I remember) once or twice a year will pass a plastic 'Bread for the Hungry' loaf-bank around Sunday school classes..." [257-8]

What's this? To prove that churches are not involved in charity, we get precise statistics; but where is this same precision when it comes to contributions made on a lower level? Are Barker's memories the same level of data as George Gallup's polls?

Thus, Barker relies on misrepresentation to make his points. This is simply his way of arguing for what he really wants: Direct taxation of churches. If Barker had really wanted to reduce the federal deficit, he should have checked into cutting spending on wasteful government projects. The suggestion to tax churches sounds more like "sour grapes" than sound economic sense.

Moral Miscues: Chapter 50

In this chapter, our concern will only be with the section in which Barker accuses God of being immoral. Here are responses to some specific charges (other than general "argument by outrage, no punishment is ever deserved" complaints):

On the Ten Commandments: See here plus elsewhere on an alleged second version.

-JPH

More info: Freedom from Barker