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[whitespace] Dan Barker Friendly Neighborhood Atheist: Dan Barker puts a human face on nonbelief.

Heretical Animals

Christian songwriter Dan Barker used to praise the Lord for Pat Boone--now he's the Mr. Rogers of atheism

By Richard von Busack

IT'S A COMMON STORY when a musician, after a life of the customary debauchery that marks his profession, comes to Jesus. The tale is so common that even Parade Magazine has grown tired of it. But a born-again atheist is a novelty.

Don't expect to see Dan Barker's story in Parade, though. After a life of ministry and missionary work, and after a lucrative career of recording Christian music, Barker had a change of heart and became a practicing atheist. Barker is bringing songs from his CD Friendly Neighborhood Atheist to Le Petit Trianon in San Jose this weekend, in a show sponsored by the Atheists of Silicon Valley and the Humanist Community in Palo Alto.

Barker, who hails from a religious family in Southern California, became a singer and evangelist early in his teens. Like Brian Eno, Barker indulged in a brief fascination with the eerie faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman, the true heir to America's first major electronic minister, Aimee Semple McPherson.

"I didn't actually work for Kuhlman," Barker says by phone from his home in Wisconsin. "I was a teenager in her church choir. Whenever she made appearances in L.A., I'd ride out to her meetings with a bicycle basket full of her records. I used to sit up onstage behind her, as she'd do that song 'He Touched Me' about 50 times.

"She had a certain magnetic showmanship, combined with that manipulative organ music and those Grecian-goddess gowns she'd wear. She'd match that drama with modesty: `I'm nobody; I don't even know why I'm here.' That was pretty persuasive stuff for me. I used to think, This is the real thing. The media must be angry and dumb to doubt the reality of God's power."

Under the influence of that kind of power, Barker wrote music for the educational division of Word Records in Waco, Texas. He also penned children's musicals for Manna Records and even accompanied Pat Boone once. However, Barker's spare-time readings were disturbing his solid faith.

"I can't point to one particular book, "Barker said, "but one [thing] that comes to mind was an article by Ben Bova titled 'Equal Time for Creationism,' about the question of whether Adam and Eve were historical. Some Christians thought they were, and some didn't. It's like the Prodigal Son: Jesus didn't tell us whether there was actually was a Prodigal Son, with his address and like that. If the Prodigal Son's a parable, and if Adam and Eve are metaphors, then maybe God is just figure of speech ..."

Barker recorded his coming out in 1984, in his book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. "It was very exciting to let go, " Barker says, "but it also felt like I was betraying my family, like I was spitting on grandma. I had to struggle to ask myself if I wanted to pick God or truth. If I picked God, I'd stay in harmony with everybody, and in harmony with my own psychology. If I picked truth, what would happen? I took about a year to fully adjust. Like there's a death at the family or a divorce, you don't just snap your fingers and it's over."

True, Barker lost some friends. "Yeah, [but] worse than that," he admits, "there were some I would rather have lost. Some whom I thought of as good friends bombarded me with condescension and pity. Becoming an atheist is a tough way to find out who your friends are. ... The world is full of potential friends, though, and millions of good Americans don't believe in God."

Trying to reach those millions as part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Barker recorded some public service ads. Barker describes them for me: sitting at the piano, he would segue from "Onward Christian Soldiers" to "The Star-Spangled Banner" while discussing the First Amendment's division of church and state.

Even this seemingly modest message was too much for many TV stations. "We not only had trouble buying time for the ads, we also had trouble finding a studio to record the commercial in. We paid a TV station in Jefferson City, Mo., and they got a lot of flak. The St. Louis newspapers picked up stories about it, and that got us some attention, and also some angry letters."

Here's the question every atheist has faced: Why stir Christians up, when you know how they get?

"First of all," Barker says, "there are few things more important that the First Amendment. It's usually minorities that end up taking advantage of the Bill of Rights. And groups like ours end up protecting everybody. We respect freedom of consciousness, but the trouble is that neutrality is confused with hostility. We're not disrupting churches, or interrupting people's prayers. We're not fighting religion ... though I feel, and most of our people feel, the world would be better out with out it. Like John Lennon says, 'Imagine no religion.' It creates walls. People should be judged by their actions, not their beliefs."

During Baker's local show, he might cover "Vatican Rag" (by Santa Cruz's Tom Lehrer) or perform his own "You Can't Win With Original Sin." He also means to play the title song from his CD. Barker explains, "That's a Mr. Rogers tune for children" and then sings a few lines: "Your friendly neighborhood atheist / as happy as can be / I don't have any horns / if you care to inspect me."

"Atheists," he explains, "are suffering from bad PR. What if Sesame Street had an atheist character?"

On a somewhat more adult level, Barker often does a song titled "The Time to Be Happy Is Now," taken from a poem by Robert Ingersoll (1833-99): "With love, Earth is heaven, and we are God." There's a forgotten American hero for you: Ingersoll, "the great agnostic," Civil War veteran, Republican, attorney general of Illinois, one of the most renowned orators of his day, praised by Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Thomas Edison. Ingersoll lost an election over his refusal to pretend to be a Christian, and that would probably happen again, since 48 percent of Americans polled said they would never vote for an atheist.

America is the most religious country in the world, George W. Bush once said. And we have institutionalized the worship of worship. The importance of having some kind of God helped stimulate the noncrisis over the Pledge of Allegiance. Being singled out as flag-haters, however, has finally riled atheist organizations enough to form a million-heretic march to Washington, D.C., this November. Maybe Barker will compose some marching songs for the event.

Dan Barker appears Sunday (Oct. 6) at 1:30pm at Le Petit Trianon, 72 N. Fifth St., San Jose. $5 donation. (408.278.7878)

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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