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Dan Barker: How to Talk to a Fundamentalist: Part 2


Dan Barker continues his article on how to talk to a fundamentalist with the bible and morality. Read part one here. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with a handful of biblical contradictions and history. Fundamentalists like to argue about the source of morality. How do you fight that? Convince them you are happy and ethical. Who better to teach you about fundamentalists then Dan Barker?

The bible

Unless you have time to waste (in which case you are truly ready for your upcoming exams), I would suggest you avoid all those interesting side discussions and go on the offensive, hitting the jugular-the bible. It is the bible, after all, upon which all of fundamentalism rests. If the bible is true, they have a case. If not, their whole house of cards falls. I would have been very impressed if you had said something like, "You might have a point if the bible were reliable. I would be happy to believe what you believe, but I when I study the bible, as you recommend, I come away concluding that it cannot be the basis for any truth, and here is why..." If you would have pointed out some contradictions in the bible, using chapter and verse, that would have impressed me immensely. I would not have converted immediately to atheism (ha!), but my momentum would have been slowed. After all, bible reading is what fundamentalists are urging you to do, and if you tell them "Been there, done that," with specific examples, then they can't pretend that your problem is due to ignoring their "Good Book."

If you had quoted the bible to me, I would not have admitted that I was impressed. I would have fought back, claiming that you are taking things out of context or reading a bad translation or failing to see the big picture, wondering how in the world someone could read the bible and not fall in love with it. But the important thing is that you would have me on the defensive. I would know that you know that if the bible falls, my whole fundamentalist world view crumbles. I would also know that you have taken me seriously. You went right to my source and looked at it for yourself. I could not complain that you are afraid to look at "the facts."

I am not recommending that you become a bible scholar. Just familiarize yourself with some of the basics of bible contradictions, scientific and historical errors. After all, as much as they trumpet the bible, few of them actually read it carefully. "Bible study," to a fundamentalist does not mean what it means to a scholar-it means "reading the words of God in order to feed on his wisdom." Bible study, to them, does not mean examining the manuscripts on which translations were based, or the fluctuating historical context in which those words were written in order to assess the reliability and worth of the claims that were written, or noticing the parallels with other religious texts, or noticing the evolution of the text (insertions, deletions, replacements, scribal mistakes), and so on. The fundamentalist takes the authenticity of the bible as a given, as a starting point. Then they read from it, often flitting from verse to unconnected verse, like a bee looking for nectar. (They are not all that sloppy, of course, but they all treat the text as "holy.") Bible "study," to a fundamentalist, is not study-it is worship.

In my new book, Godless, as well as my 1992 book Losing Faith in Faith, I detail a handful of useful bible contradictions (some discussed in great depth), which you might use as an easy starting point, if you are not too familiar with the "Word of God." I also lay out the arguments that weaken the likelihood of a historical Jesus, and the case against the resurrection of Jesus (a very important issue to fundamentalists).


Fundamentalists are extremely fixated on the "sin" issues. They imagine, as the bible teaches, that the only way to be truly good is to follow God's laws. We humans are born with an innate tendency to evil-"original sin"-and only Jesus can cure that. The world's problems are due to disobedience and selfishness and an unwillingness to submit to the rules that our loving Father has laid down for us. Most fundamentalists also believe in a literal Satan who tempts us away from the holiness of the family of God. Homosexuality, abortion, free love, adultery, drug use, cheating on tests, crime, and dozens of other "sins" are a direct result of our godless selfishness and arrogant waywardness. But if you are "born again," you become an entirely "new creature," and are now one of the good people, the "in crowd" of brothers and sisters of Jesus. Your life now has real love. It is more moral, more compassionate, and less "sinful" than the lives of nonbelievers.

That's what I used to preach, with no empirical support. It is a powerful insider's belief, a glue that separates "us" from "them." After all, don't you want to be a good person? Don't you want to be saved from sin? Don't you need real love in your life (as opposed to mere carnal, human love)? Wouldn't any good person desire to go to heaven?

You nonbelievers are outsiders, nonparticipants, unsaved, still trapped in your evil human nature, needing a make-over, a regeneration, a new birth.

So on that issue, here is something else you could have said to me that would have had an impact. It would not have changed my mind on the spot, but it would have been excruciatingly relevant. "You born-again Christians preach that faith in Jesus helps you to live better lives, but in fact, you are not more moral than nonChristians. Your lives do not have more happiness or meaning. As a group, you are not healthier. You have no fewer financial problems. You commit just as many crimes, take just as many drugs for depression, watch just as many X-rated movies, report no greater satisfaction in life, and actually have a higher divorce rate than nonChristians. You contribute less to charity." (If they ask for documentation, point them to such studies as conducted by the honest born-again sociologist George Barna, who concludes in his book The Second Coming of the Church that "We [born-again Christians] think and behave no differently from anyone else.")

Show the fundamentalist that, as a nonbeliever, you are happy and ethical. If you contribute to charity or do volunteer work for a good cause, let them know it. Since even Jesus agreed that those who are not sick don't need the doctor (Matthew 9:12), you can simply say you are healthy, thank you. If salvation is the "cure," then atheism is the "prevention."

Also, point out that for all their talk about the need for moral absolutes, Christians do not agree on what those absolutes are. Take any current moral issue with which society is struggling, and you will find praying, bible-believing, devout church-going Christians on both sides of those issues. This is true of abortion rights, gay rights, stem-cell research, the war in Iraq, birth control, gun control, the death penalty, doctor-assisted suicide, the teaching of evolution, animal rights, environmental protection, state/church separation, and so on. Where is the "absolute moral guidance" they talk about? Why do bible believers not agree?

You don't need to get sucked into a long philosophical argument about moral absolutes or ethical relativism. Atheists and agnostics disagree about these things, and so do theists among themselves. You can just point out that even if they are right about the need for moral absolutes (they are not, but that is beside the point), there is no empirical support for their claim that Christians are better people.

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There are other issues that may be more relevant to other types of Christians, but if you want to talk the language of a fundamentalist, then concentrate on the bible and morality. Don't let them think they have the upper hand. Don't allow them to pretend that you are the one with the problem. You don't have to talk with them, of course, and in many cases it is probably best to just ignore them. But if you think there is a chance the fundamentalist knows how to listen (and not just preach), then remind them that a true dialogue is a two-way street and that you are happy to listen to them if they will also listen to you.

Otherwise, get back to studying for that math exam.

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, America's largest organization of atheists and agnostics. His newest book is Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Ulysses Press, 2008). The Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are partnering in sending Dan to SSA groups. If you are interested in having Dan speak or do a debate on your campus, contact the SSA.

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