Dan Barker, former minister and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation speaks to Conatus News about the organisation and its work.
Dan Barker is a Former Christian Minister and the current Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. His new book Free Will Explained is coming out February 6th. Here we ironically talked about everything about him and his work except his upcoming publication.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I want to start from the beginning regarding your participation and finding out about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. How did you find out about it? How did you become involved?
Dan Barker: That process started back in the 1980s. I was a minister for almost 20 years. I changed my mind and became an atheist. Back in 1983, there was no internet. You had to find or buy books, or go to the library. I thought I was the only atheist in the world.
Of course, I knew I wasn’t. I read a book called Wow to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So by Annie Laurie Gaylor. It talked about how our modern laws are based on the sexism of the Bible to a significant degree. I thought, ‘This is fascinating.’
I wrote her a letter. I said I was an ex-minister. Her mother wrote me back. Her mother started this organisation called ‘Freedom From Religion Foundation’ (FFRF) in the 1970s. It went national in 1978. So, in 1984, after they got my letter, Anne Gaylor, who is the principal founder, said, ‘That is a good story. Why don’t you write us an article?’
So, I did. I wrote an article for the FFRF. The producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show thought it was a good article and so invited us on their TV show. So, that is how I found out about it. Three years later, I went to work for the Freedom From Religion Foundation as a PR director.
Jacobsen: Off-tape, we were talking about some of the recent victories for the organisations. For the United States, what are some of the more recent ones?
Barker: Among our recent victories, we have had several court victories in 2017. The housing allowance is a wide-reaching victory because it reaches every single clergy in the United States, including ministers, priests, and rabbis.
Anyone considered the IRS Code calls a ‘Minister of the Gospel.’ When they wrote that back in the 1950s, they were thinking of Christian ministers. They said, ‘We want to reward our ministers for fighting godlessness,’ which is the phrase they used.
They meant any clergy in the United States. I am sure rabbis are surprised to be considered Ministers of the Gospel. I am sure they are happy to take the break. Any clergy who gets a salary or an income from their church allows them to exclude their housing from their reportable income.
It drastically lowers the amount of taxes they are required to pay. There is a law in history for why they did this. When I was a Christian minister in California, I was able to take advantage of that housing allowance tax break.
But now that I work for another non-profit, churches are just other non-profits. In the IRS Code, they are 501(c)3 non-profits, like a charity or a museum or whatever. Now, I work for another non-profit, Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is challenging the idea of God and is fighting for keeping religion and church separate.
I no longer get that break. It seems unfair that the government is taking sides, playing favourites with people who have one particular religious viewpoint. In other words, there is a God and ordained clergy and excluding those of us who don’t agree.
It took us three lawsuits to do it back in 2009. We started in California. We pulled out. Then we filed out again, and we won back in 2013. But the Appeals Court did not overturn the merits of our victory in Federal Court. The Appeals Court ducked the issue by saying, ‘You don’t have the standing to sue.’
One we were told what we need to do to get standing to sue, it took a few years to get it. We got what is called ‘injury.’ The IRS turned us down when we asked for a refund. The IRS said, ‘No, you don’t get it. You are not a minister.’
We go back to court. We won again on the same grounds or merits. We are waiting to see. We assume the US Government will appeal the law and we’ll go back to Chicago in the 7th Circuit of Appeals.
Then this time we decide the case on the merits and not on the standing. This is a big deal. It means every priest or minister who has been taking advantage of this sizeable tax break will no longer have it. It means they will have to pay their ministers more.
Of course, they don’t want to do that when it comes down to money. You think they would do that, and this is not related to our lawsuit, if the ministers are in touch with this all-powerful God who answers their prayers and provides their needs.
Why do they have to go begging for tax dollars?
Barker: Why don’t they prove how mighty this God is and pay their priests and ministers a livable wage rather than having to admit, ‘Whoops! We can’t cut it without the taxes?’
Even Benjamin Franklin said, ‘When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are obliged to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of it being a bad one.’
Jacobsen: [Laughing] Speaking more generally, what are some of the activist activities – political, economic, or otherwise – that you are aware of that are ongoing for a potentially big win for the formally non-religious in America?
Barker: We’re seeing some mopping up of blasphemy laws. We used to have some in our states. Free speech and blasphemy are now becoming a good solid win. Although you see in Ireland they still have it on the books. It is embarrassing.
It is embarrassing because Pakistan has blasphemy laws and they are pointing to Ireland saying ‘See, a Western country has blasphemy laws, so we can too.’ Ireland is embarrassed because they are being used as an example.
But I guess, I am not entirely sure of the extent. In general, to address the question of course, the freedom to speak and of conscience. In many countries of the world, you can be jailed or killed for disagreeing with the powers that be.
That often has to do with religion and the subsequent lack of freedom of conscience around the world. In the Western world, we tend to have that. The sociologists tend to point that out. Phil Zuckerman says that the countries with better standards of living, more functional, equality for women, and a working wage with all needs met then religion goes down – way down – when the people are happy.
So, you look at the Nordic countries, most notably Denmark. Zuckerman points out that about 4% of the Danes say that they believe in God. It is tiny, but about 50% or roughly half of the Danes will still consider themselves cultural Christians.
They will get married in a church and have funerals in a church, but they don’t believe in God. It is like North American Jews. Of those that I know, most have it as an ethnic, cultural heritage thing. They don’t believe in God.
They just love their culture. When we see any country in the world where the standard of living is going up for whatever reason, then religious devotion goes down, which leads people like Phil Zuckerman and others to suggest – and this looks like a good suggestion – that religion is viable only in countries that are dysfunctional, where things are bad and there is a lot of misery.
You see in a lot of the developing world where religion is growing. It would be similar to wanting to win the lottery. Your life is miserable. You are hoping for some way out of it. Religion gives them some hope, ‘I am going on to a better life someday. My needs will be met because my life is terrible right now.’
In the global scene, the more equality for women that we can achieve and the more we can take of care each other’s needs then the country has less religion. I think healthcare is one of those needs and many of these countries doing well have universal healthcare and countries like America are envious or jealous of them.
When we went to Scotland, and Annie Laurie had to go to the hospital in an ambulance, they didn’t ask a thing. Think about how much that would cost in the United States here.
Jacobsen: You are looking at the social benefits and community benefits that come from religion in light of that fact that people live in impoverished conditions. Countries without a lot of standards or minimum standards that we take for granted that they don’t have, but the local church might provide – either through community or a hope in the hereafter, even though there is no evidence.
Jacobsen: I do want to note that you do write music. You wrote as a clergy person, as a minister. You also write music outside of it. So, can you plug some of more secular pieces?
Barker: Yes, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has produced four CDs. There are three CDs, and one of them is a 2-CD set. It is more than 50 songs called Freethought Songs for atheism, secularism, or scepticism.
About half of those songs are traditional such as the old German anthem called Die Gedanken Sind Frie. Joe Hill’s song Pie in the Sky and John Lennon’s Imagine. The songs we know are general freethought songs. The other half are songs that I wrote.
They go way back to the 1980s when I left the ministry, such as the earlier ones like Can’t Win with Original Sin.
Barker: Another is the Friendly Neighbourhood Atheist. It is kind of like a Saturday morning Mister Rogers children’s show, like ‘What is Atheism?’ A song called Lucifer’s Lament. Lucifer is complaining that he can’t get his work done because of all of these acts of God.
Then some positive things like The World Is My Country based on the words of Thomas Paine. Life is Good, life is unbelievably good. As an unbeliever, it is unbelievably good. It is like a gospel song with non-gospel lyrics.
What was particularly fun for me, a well-known Broadway composer named Charles Strouse who wrote the musical Annie. He wrote the musical Bye Bye Bird. He is in his mid-80s now. He and I wrote a song together, which was a blast.
This was one of the rare times where all I did was the lyrics. I sent him some lyrics and he set them to music. We called it Poor Little Me. I arranged a lot of the lyrics of Yip Harburg to music. Yip Harburg was the composer or the lyricist who wrote Somewhere the Rainbow, and It is Only a Paper Moon.
He sent me some poetry, and I sent music to them. The poetry is nice. I hope my music is beautiful as well. I also set to music the works of Robert G. Ingersoll who is the 19th-century orator. He just really wrote and spoke with just beautiful prose.
One of his recitations was called Love. It was the basic recognition of human love and family. You don’t need a God or religion to have love. Those are a few of the songs on those albums. If you are a musician, you want to do music.
It is what you do. I take atheism and agnosticism and scepticism. I take them as positives and worth celebrating and singing about. It is not like we get together and hold hands, which is very embarrassing and very few atheists want to do that.
We are all musical creatures and love that. I love continuing to use music for a good purpose
Jacobsen: I have one last question, which would be of interest to the readers and of central interest to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. How can people become involved through the provision of skills or talents, donations, or simply becoming a member?
Barker: All of that. We are almost at 30,000 members now. All members have different talents, resources, time, and money. We know students are usually impoverished. So, we actually allow students to come to our conventions for free.
We even have scholarships for students. We have them at different levels. We know students are busy too. Historically, it turns out. The kind of people who join groups like ours. Our group is entirely discretionary. You don’t have to join it.
Our members are often retirees – 1/3 of FFRF members are now retired. They have the time, interest and resources to join. It looks like nonbelievers are an older group but, actually, in the country, about 35% of Americans under 30 are thoroughly non-religious.
But they don’t join groups like ours. We have student essay contests. We have four national student essay contests. The 1st prize is $3,000 and then $2,000 and $1,000. We have awarded a lot of money to students over the years. There is a high school seniors contest, a college student contest, a grad student contest, and students of colour or minority student contest.
A lot of students entered them. It is amazing. You tend to think blacks and Latinos are believers, but they are not and have broken away and are thinking for themselves. Also, we have the ‘Out Of The Closet’ billboard campaign with your message and face on it.
We post it and then you can put it on social media. We also have unafraid of burning in hell billboard.
Barker: You put your face on a Devil’s mask thing. That comes from Ronald Reagan’s son doing an ad for us. Rachel Maddow had it on her show. It was Ron Reagan who is an unabashed atheist, who is not afraid of burning in hell.
That is catching on, especially in Halloween seasons. That is free. Many of our online offerings are free, especially to students including our new unpleasant God website. It is unpleasantgod.ffrf.org.
Where you can show everybody what the God of the Bible is like, you can look up misogyny and the verses. You can look up jealous and genocidal, and infanticidal. Then you can share that.
You can show people. You can click share and show it on your Facebook or whatever. If anybody has any legal expertise, we make complaints all over the country.
We make complaints in schools all over the country. Sometimes, we need local counsel. An attorney on the ground at that location. We have people at that site that can help you do whatever you want.
They can do the minimal filing stuff. They can even work with us on drafting the briefs and help us to make arguments. We have those resources and that kind of people.
If anybody has extra cheese, that is useful. You can go to the website ffrf.org and look at ‘Get Involved.’ We have chapters all over the country. You can look up if there is a chapter in your area. The chapters deal more with the local issues. Our Portland chapters, for example, deal with the Portland public schools.
North Carolina chapter deals with North Carolina issues. Then they can communicate and compare notes and share resources and find out how best to solve the local problems. There are a lot of ways.
Another thing that is helpful is a group putting us in the will. If we have been around long enough, about 40 years, it can be a nice way for a person to live on after they die. Your inheritance can go to a group that keeps fighting for you after you’re gone.
It is bittersweet. We get these things from people who are dead. They died, but that is what they wanted. They wanted to keep that fight against fundamentalist religion.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dan.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.