An exchange with Dan Barker

October 29, 2011 • 10:23 am

I met Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, at the FFRF meetings in Hartford.  As most of you know, Dan was an evangelical preacher (and a writer of Christian songs) for nearly 20 years, served as a missionary in Mexico, and then became an atheist. He wrote a great book, Godless, about his conversion; do read it.

Taking advantage of my newfound acquaintance, I decided to write Dan, asking him what he thought about the accommodationist claim that promoting compatibility between religion and science could turn the faithful towards science.  Dan wrote a nice response and, with his permission, I quote our correspondence.

Be aware that these were emails not intended for publication, so our tone is informal, and I haven’t edited anything.  Thanks to Dan for his response and permission to put it up.


Hi Dan,

I wonder if I could ask you a question that draws on your experience as a preacher.  There are many “accommodationists”—some of them atheists—who claim that we have to stress that science and religion are compatible, for if they think they’re incompatible, or that science leads to atheism, they’ll reject the science. (This is particularly stressed for the acceptance of evolution.)  Yet in my whole career as an evolutionist, and in three decades of fighting creationism, I’ve never met one person who said anything like, “Hey, you know, I totally rejected Darwin, but when Ken Miller told me that evolution and religion were compatible, I suddenly accepted evolution.”

I know of many cases (lots are at Dawkins’s “converts corner” on his website) in which forthright atheism has turned people not only against their faith, but toward science, but not one instance of someone becoming science-friendly because of accommodationism.

I’m writing, then, to ask what you think of the acccommodationist argument, and whether you think comporting science and religion is of any value in moving the faithful toward science.

It was great to meet you at the FFRF convention.




I think you are right. I don’t know of anyone whose views on creationism changed as a result of hearing other religionists champion evolution. (Though I don’t doubt that could have happened. Well, I think it must have happened, given that some people do go through transitional processes, within religion and out of religion.)

I think the reason you are (mainly) right is that few believers hold much respect for the authority or opinion of other believers who disagree with them theologically. Was there ever a Southern Baptist who accepted infant baptism because of the authority of the Pope? Wars have been started over much smaller disagreements than creation/evolution WITHIN Christianity.

In my case, as I was toward the end of the process of emerging from faith, I started reading “outside” my comfort zone . . . science magazines and books, philosophy, liberal theology . . . and I distinctly remember being hit between the eyes by a column Ben Bova wrote for OMNI magazine in the early 1980s: “Creationist’s Equal Time.” It’s like he turned the lens around so that I could look at myself, asking: if creationists are so keen on giving “equal time” to their views in the science class, shouldn’t they also welcome a lecture on evolution by a scientist from their own pulpit, or a chapter from Origin of the Species inserted between Genesis and Exodus? (We got to interview Ben on Freethought Radio, and he was thrilled to hear me mention how that column affected my life.)

I agree 100% with you that there is no fruitful overlap between religion and science.

During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not. (So they must not originate from within religion.) When you factor out the common teachings shared by all religions (the good stuff, the humanistic stuff), what you are left with are NOT good teachings. The so-called “religious values” that Christians, Jew, Muslims and other groups hold are divisive, idiosyncratic, and unproductive to moral discourse: what day of the week you should worship, how women should dress, what foods are permitted, whose beards can be shaved, who is allowed to be married, and so on. Thinking of it like that, there is actually no overlap between “human values” (informed by science) and “religious values” (derived from holy scripture).

Here’s an equation:

Religion + Good Works = Good Works

Solve for Religion.


I love the last equation!

61 thoughts on “An exchange with Dan Barker

  1. “Religion + Good Works = Good Works

    Solve for Religion.”

    Coincidentally I just did that wrt the effect of reiki on skepticblog’s article about reiki (

    It is still awaiting moderation but went along the line of:

    effect_of_reiki + effect_of_kindness = effect_of_kindness
    effect_of_reiki = effect_of_kindness – effect_of_kindness
    effect_of_reiki = 0.

    P.S.: It there no way to preview a comment?

      1. Oh well, it was worth asking.

        BTW, I am currently reading your book and I am enjoying it very much (thanks for it) but I was wondering if you had all the links in the notes on a webpage as it is not very convenient to enter them manually (especially when I hit one that is not valid anymore). I looked on this website and on google but I couldn’t find such a page.

        Anyway, thanks for the book and the blog and have a nice day.

  2. EPIC equation!
    I think there must be some sense behind accomodationism, like Dan says, because there has to be some form of transition…
    (Presumably when you speak of accommodationists you mean agnostics? or have I been getting this all totally wrong…)

    1. Accommodationism is something else entirely from agnosticism. Accomodationists hold that science and religion are compatible, and that pro-evolution sorts must not suggest that the religious cannot have their religions and accept evolution without conflict.

      Accomodationists don’t believe there needs to be any transition from faith to skepticism on the basis of accepting the practice or the results of science.

      1. ah I see – I guess that is pretty different from agnosticism in that agnostics don’t really accept or reject the possibility of an almighty; so basically accommodationists just accept both? Seems like an easy way out of an argument, I suppose…
        I guess agnosticism is more likely to arise from actual doubt or open-mindedness whereas accommodationism from today’s exaggerated “need” for “political correctness”

        1. Not quite.

          Accomadationists claim that it is intellectually defensible to both believe in the supernatural and accept science as a method of inquiry.

          1. This is regardless of whether the accomodationalist accepts religious claims or not- there are plenty of accomodationalists who take a stance of “well, I don’t believe that stuff, but it’s important to some people so we shouldn’t say anything about it.”

  3. My concern with not allowing for compatibility of science and religion is that if you force a theist to choose, they’re going to choose religion. Do we really want to risk shutting the door on science altogether for over half the population?

    1. Theists believe lots of incompatible things anyway, so pointing out that science and religion are incompatible isn’t shutting any doors. OTOH the theists in question have shut the door on evolution themselves, and it’s going to stay shut until someone knocks down the religious wall it’s attached to.

    2. Misleading. Very few people will ever find themselves having to “choose” between science and religion. Certainly not half of the population. And of those few people who feel as if that’s the choice they’re faced with, how do you know that all of them will choose religion? I have the same data you do (that is: none), and I predict that half of them will choose science.

      1. And 100% of the anti-science crowd happily choose the products of science, computers, medicine, etc. Bunch of hypocrites.

        1. This is possible because out products of science are so sealed from the scientific knowledge on which base they were created. To use cell phone you do not need to know binary system or how the radio waves propagate etc. You need to know that you must press some numbers to make the call.
          The majority of those people must not be hypocrites – they can be and are simply ignorant, uninterested and lazy.

      2. Example: a large number of people (half? Can’t remember, too lazy to research this morning) don’t believe in evolution. Those people have children. If those children have to choose between evolution and their parents theology most (way more than half) will choose theology. Why not let them believe religion and science are compatible. That way they are more open to listen to scientific reason which leaves them more able to question their religious convictions.

        Do I think science and religion are compatible? Not really, but in light of today’s religious environment, I don’t see any harm in letting religious people see them as compatible. Actually I think it would be preferable.

          1. I’ve read plenty of articles complaining about accomidationists by a multitude of authors. Plus, there is Jerry’s question in this very article:

            “I’m writing, then, to ask what you think of the acccommodationist argument, and whether you think comporting science and religion is of any value in moving the faithful toward science.”

            I was trying to address this sentiment, maybe I am doing a poor job communicating it, or maybe I completely misunderstood the topic. I’m humble enough to admit either one if that’s the case.

            1. Yes, we are criticizing their approach. But we are not preventing anybody from believing anything. How would that even be possible?

              1. So, what I meant my comment to convey was weather or not criticism of accomodationism is warranted. I’m not convinced it is.

              2. Well, it’s dishonest for one. That right there is enough reason to criticize it.

                Another reason is that they are going after the same target audience promoters of atheism are. I think the promoters of atheism can present a more convincing case than the promoters of accommodation.

        1. We should teach them what is true, is true, regardless of whether you or not you squeeze your eyes shut and wish it weren’t true as hard as you possibly can. I.e. critical thinking skills, acknowledgement and understanding of scientific facts and theories.

        2. Why not let them believe religion and science are compatible.

          two simple reasons:

          one, it’s lying.

          two, it doesn’t work. This was why Jerry asked the question, this is what the Gallup poll data shows for the last 30 years, this is what people who HAVE converted from fundamentalism have told us.

          can we stop asking this now?

          1. Its only lying if the person saying knows it is false.

            Obviously the poll data isn’t conclusive, or the question wouldn’t still be coming up.

            Just saying, at the very least its a relevant conversation to have.

            1. If the person saying it doesn’t know it’s false, that means they’re making a statement without having thought it through. That’s as bad as lying, if not worse.

      3. I have the same data you do (that is: none), and I predict that half of them will choose science.

        I lived within conservative Protestantism until the age of 31 and my experiential take is that you are very wrong when applied to that portion of the data base. Unless things have changed drastically, there is a very deep distrust of science in that sector.

        1. Sure, and there likely always will be, but even in that group you find the curious and the bold who consider the explanations of the church to be not quite enough and are willing to actually see what the other argument is instead of simply blindly accepting creationism.

    3. I don’t believe any of us are capable of forcing anyone to choose anything.

      Accomadationists get to make their case, and so do we.

    4. Compatibility is not a matter that you allow for – science and religion either are compatible or they are not. If they are not compatible, at most you could pretend that they are.

      And as I and JAC as well as most other commenters here believe, is that they most certainly are not compatible since they are not NOMA. The entities and forces religions claim to exist are not merely conceptual but are supposed to be really out there and influencing our reality. The method with which they try to establish the existence of these entities and forces, however, is completely antithetical to the scientific method.

  4. I think Barker makes a good point about religious believers not holding much respect for the authority or opinions of those with different theological views. Of course, people do change denominations and the details of their belief all the time, but it’s especially difficult to convince someone who believes that everyone in different denominations is going to Hell that they should listen to that person who they think is going to Hell.

    Thanks very much for posting this! Dan Barker’s book has been on my “to read” list for quite some time, and I hope to get to it soon.

  5. Crystal-clear and simple.
    Might as well make it a sticky and save yourself a spate of fruitless debating with religionousts.
    Also, love the fact that the proportion of ‘good stuff’ due to religion is yet another division by zero…

    I take exception to one point, though: “what day of the week you should worship”. As we know from the above equation, religious worship is directed at an empty set. Therefore a day must be set apart for worshipping {}. Friday through Sunday being divergently occupied, I vote for Thursday, which shall be renamed ‘Zermelo-Fraenkel-Day’, or ZerFday for short. The only thing Thursdays are good for, too.

    I never could get the hang of Thursdays.

  6. I suspect the last may neglect the marginal degree to which religion contributes to bad people doing more net good and less net harm, which may be higher than the marginal degree to which religion contributes to good people doing more net harm and less net good.

    That said, I suspect there are alternatives possible with a better overall net margin.

  7. Thanks for the Ben Bova reference. I often wonder how the creationists can continually harp on “Just teach the controversy” and not be willing to say, “And we’ll be glad to introduce the ‘there is no evidence to support the existence of God’ into our religion & philosophy classes at Wheaton College, and Bob Jones U, and Talbot School of Theology, and all the rest.” Seems the only consistent argument they could make, but then a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

  8. OT: This looks bad.

    The Perimeter Institute announced yesterday a new partnership with the Templeton Foundation, in the form of something to be called the Templeton Frontiers Program.

    I have to suspect a connection with this bizarre talk by Scott Aaronson.

    Aaronson gives every appearance of trying to muck together quantum theory and process theology, much the way Capra and Zukav tried to muck it together with Eastern mysticism. Throw in his focus on “free will” and backward-in-time causation, and it would all seem to link up rather nicely with another effort of theirs that you may be familiar with. 🙂

    The lecture leaves me with the uncomfortable sense of having just listened to a Vatican apologist invoke General Relativity to advocate for a co-ordinate system that puts the Earth at the centre of the Universe, thereby “proving” that Galileo was wrong.

  9. What Barker is presenting is as fine a statmentof a Fundamentalist mindset as any Preacher could make, (After all, his a failed Preacher.)

    I.E., he is saying that he is willing to rely on the logical fallacy involved in ridicule and insult as a substitute for argument as long as it gets results.

    Pragmatic? Yes

    Moral? Well, since he is a Moral Relavtist, who cares.

    Am I saying that Barker is, essentially, a Bigot?


    Moderate that, sports.

    1. “What Barker is presenting is as fine a statmentof a Fundamentalist mindset as any Preacher could make, (After all, his a failed Preacher.)”

      Only a Christian would see him as a “failed preacher”.

      Barker is saying that the good, moral stuff found in religious teachings was already part of human thought ~ it’s not handed down to us by any one of the (minimum estimate) 10,000 gods that humanity has worshipped in the past. Barker doesn’t think a personal god exists & this isn’t a “statmentof a Fundamentalist mindset” ~ rather it follows logically from a critical observation of the world we live in. Only a believer in a supernatural being would see DB as “fundementalist”. Christians are very good at convincing themselves that black is white ~ you demonstrate this without seeing the irony.

      “I.E., he is saying that he is willing to rely on the logical fallacy involved in ridicule and insult as a substitute for argument as long as it gets results.

      Pragmatic? Yes

      Moral? Well, since he is a Moral Relavtist, who cares”

      No ~ he isn’t saying that ~ show me where he says that.

      Your moral “Relavtist” bit: Sam Harris thinks that people can make objective morality without god, but I don’t agree that we can measure what is good & God can’t either because God doesn’t exist. I think that moral relativism is the only row to hoe. That DOESN’T mean that caring & doing good are meaningless to a moral relativist.

      “Am I saying that Barker is, essentially, a Bigot?


      Moderate that, sports”

      No one asked what you were saying ~ your writings are too incoherent to make it possible to ask you any meaningful questions.

      Your “Bigot” remark comes out of nowhere & leads nowhere ~ what’s your evidence for calling DB that?

      The moderation move is usually pulled by the religious on their sites ~ I suppose that is why you are expecting it here ~ because it is what you would do yourself

      1. I expressed this badly: “but I don’t agree that we can measure what is good”
        I think that Harris has redefined “objective morality” so that it matches what I call “subjective or relative morality” ~ it’s a word game. Until we meet other life forms with which we can have a conversation, it’s people who have to decide what is good & it’s people who have to figure out the definitions & the rules of measurement & the problem of the right balance individual freedoms & hurt to others

    2. What I see is your attempt to point out a logical fallacy that consists entirely of two ad hominems and begging the question.

      The issue here is your reciprocal button is stuck. Until that problem is resolved I predict circular arguments, follwed by straw men.

      “(After all, his a failed Preacher.)”
      Would you admit Palin is a failed govenor?

  10. There are a lot of religious folk out there that happily believe in both bible miracles and science including evolution. The human brain is amazing. It can easily hold more than one belief at a time, or shift from one belief to another depending on the day or circumstance. It may not be sensible to us, but it still is true. We cannot always judge people by our high standards of reason.

    1. “We cannot always judge people by our high standards of reason.”

      Sure we can. And our standards really aren’t that high.

    2. just because one CAN compartmentalize two very disparate cognitive processing methods, does not mean that it’s good for you to do so.

      This kind of drastic compartmentalization tends to lead to cognitive dissonance, and we see people who do this exhibit classic signs of psychological dysfunction that typically manifest as common defense mechanisms like projection and denial.

      so, no, it’s simply not good to muddle your imaginary ideas with reality.

  11. IMO, people like Dan are inestimable in our efforts to convince people of the superiority of science vs. religion. We now have several spokespeople coming forward from the science side; Barker is invaluable for being able to articulate the not-yet-quite-science-but-critical thinking POV.

    1. I fully agree with that DG and…

      He knows the preacher rhetorical style & can show it up for what it is
      He’s funny, charming & not bombastic ~ a stark contrast to his debating fodder

      Love all his videos

  12. To be fair to the accomodationists, I think only some of them claim that religious science-deniers can be brought into the fold by emphasizing faith/science compatibility. I think what many of them are claiming is the inverse (converse?) of that, i.e. that a failure to emphasize faith/science compatibility will drive religious people to deny science.

    Not that I consider that any more plausible. Well, I take that back: If nobody thought faith and science were compatible, the religious would probably be more likely to become science-deniers. (Maybe they’d be more likely to become non-religious, too?) But plenty of people are offering up a blueprint for how to wedge faith and science-acceptance into the same muddled brain, and those who are so inclined will seek out such a path.

    I think there is potentially some value, at least transitionally and possibly permanently, in the existence of the accomodationist position. But I don’t think it ought to be aggressively promoted — not least of which because it happens to be plain wrong on a logical and philosophical level! — but also because I don’t think that those who are so inclined need any encouragement.

  13. For a better understanding of the accommodationist argument, check out the expert on the Daily show, Oct 26th episode.

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