By Dan Barker
When I gave my very first talk at the FFRF convention in Milwaukee in 1984 — the same year I
came out of the ministry — I mentioned to Annie Laurie Gaylor that maybe this would help me earn some reverse-penance after 19 years of preaching the false hope of the gospel. Well, 34 years later, I think I can say, ‘Mission accomplished!’
During that time, I have had the great honor of speaking for FFRF in at least a thousand events in almost all 50 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. About half of those were on college campuses. Many were at UU Fellowships, Ethical Culture Societies, regional humanist, rationalist, atheist, skeptic, freethought groups, and even in a few churches. I was invited to tell my preacher-to-atheist story, but also to explain why I now work for a group that keeps state and church separate. I cannot count how many freethought concerts at the piano I’ve performed. (Unitarians are the best audience!) I especially enjoyed getting to know the struggling but vibrant freethought/humanist groups in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Cameroon.
I think I now hold a world record: To date, I have done 130 public moderated debates with theists, mostly on the topic ‘Does God Exist?,’ but also on morality, the resurrection of Jesus, the bible, the afterlife, and state/church separation. My opponents have been mainly conservative and evangelical Christians — such as Norman Geisler, Richard Swinburne, and the now-disgraced Dinesh D’Souza — but I have also debated liberal theologians, theistic philosophers, rabbis, Muslim apologists and even a Hindu Vedic astrologer.
My favorite debate was for the Oxford Union in 2012, where we wore tuxedos with bow ties and toasted the queen before Peter Millican, Michael Shermer and I went against Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher), mathematician John Lennox and an Anglican priest on the proposition, ‘This house believes in God.’ Richard Dawkins was in the audience. After the debate, the moderator asked the people to ‘vote with your feet.’ Those in favor of the proposition exited through one door, and those agreeing with the opposition exited through another. The results: 143 for the proposition and 168 for the opposition. According to Oxford University, the atheists won! There is no God.
I can’t estimate the number of TV and radio interviews Anne Gaylor, Annie Laurie and I have done for FFRF. My first appearance on the national “Phil Donahue Show” in 1988 garnered more than 2,000 letters and phone calls in a pre-email era, giving our membership a huge boost. My appearance on the national “Oprah Winfrey Show” was followed by invitations to the “Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” “The Daily Show” (twice), Morton Downey Jr., Maury Povich, “Good Morning America” (twice), many Fox News shows (such as ‘Fox and Friends,’ Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham), and “Religion and News Weekly” on PBS. I even enjoyed being thrown off the Eric Bolling show on Fox Business Network one December. But I think my favorite appearances were on national television in Guatemala and Honduras, where I truly got to do some reverse-missionary penance, in Spanish, for those years I preached in Latin America.
One thing I was surprised to learn is that I truly enjoy speaking before a ‘hostile’ audience, starting with that first appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s ‘AM Chicago’ in 1984, where I first met Anne and Annie Laurie. It is much more fun (and important) than preaching! Once a preacher, always a preacher, I guess. A local Baptist minister stood up in the audience at one of my debates and yelled ‘Blasphemy!’ I thanked him for the compliment. During First Amendment Week at the University of Iowa, someone went backstage and turned off my microphone while I was talking about free speech. Annie Laurie and I once drove to a private college in Minnesota where we had been invited by students to talk about FFRF, only to find that the administration had locked the doors and cancelled the event. The Westboro Baptist Church once protested outside one of my debates, which I considered a real honor.
It is satisfying to see the growth and success of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. We are now in a strong position to continue spreading the ‘good news’ of freethought and secularism.
Dan Barker is FFRF co-president.