I have pretty much avoided reference to, or commentary about, Dan Barker, the head of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Our exchanges after the debate wherein he objected to my opening statement were far less than cordial, and given FFRF’s massively documented history of litigation, I made a commitment to give him a very wide berth. His arguments have been thoroughly examined and shown wanting. He isn’t saying anything new.
For those unfamiliar with the history, Barker and I had debated in Illinois, and it had been a fairly good debate. We then arranged a debate on the topic of the uniqueness of Jesus. Barker has, for at least two decades, promoted the idea in his books and talks that Jesus was a mythical figure based upon previous mythical figures like Mithras or the Egyptian gods or Greeks or whoever. We have debunked this silliness many times before, so we arranged the debate. My opening dissected his published arguments on the topic, and true to form, he brought his books to sell at his table in the foyer of the church. But, as I began my opening, he actually had the temerity to object! Why? Because, of course, he knew very well that his arguments in his published works were indefensible, so, he had made a different presentation. Evidently not understanding the process of debate, he actually seemed to think that I should be precluded an opening statement, and that I should only get to go directly to rebuttal. Any debater with a scintilla of common sense knows that your opening, especially as the one who is denying the thesis, will be focused (if at all possible) upon the published works and positions of the person you are debating. Your specific comments on the arguments he presents orally will have to be provided in the rebuttal period. So I began by quoting Barker so as to provide the counter-position to the historical reality (that of Jesus’ firm foundation in the first century Jewish context, etc.). But Barker wouldn’t have it, and he actually interrupted to object. Here’s the exchange:
We provided this debate video back in 2009. I do not recall who came up with the “Don’t quote me, bro!” line, but it was right around the time this took place:
The line “Don’t taze me, bro” became famous and was used in a number of comedic contexts (indeed, the guy is obviously looking for as much attention as he can possibly get). Now, obviously, the title was a take-off on this clearly recognized incident. Never did I say, “Dan Barker got up and yelled, “Don’t quote me, bro!” No healthy, rational, thinking person would ever come to the conclusion that titling the above vide “Don’t quote me, bro” was anything more than a humorous, and somewhat sarcastic, play on the event. And thus the situation stood until yesterday.
Twitter has a way of making you talk to folks that you don’t always want to talk to. As I mentioned, it has been quite some time since I had any contact with Dan Barker. Oh, I see him and his merry band in the press doing everything they can to subvert the Constitution and suppress religious rights as they seek to establish a completely secular (read that, washed of religion) state. I see them suing cities and threatening schools for having Christmas plays. Making legal threats is the very mark of the FFRF, as any brief visit to Google will document. Silencing Christians is FFRF’s mission in life, and they pursue their calling (pun intended) with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.
So yesterday someone did one of those, “I’m talking with X, and I know Y’s twitter handle, so I will bring Y into what I’m saying to X” things. Sometimes that is useful, most of the time it isn’t. Well, as soon as I saw that it was Dan Barker, I truly hesitated. I just don’t have the time or inclination to play the kind of fundamentalist mind games he plays. What do I mean? Well, in reviewing Barker’s presentations in the past I have pointed out that he is still a fundie in all the worst ways, and in particular, in regards to interpretation of language. His alleged Bible contradictions are studies in eisegesis and painfully surface level reading. This came out in our debates, in his debates with Doug Wilson, etc. He may spend his days publicly suppressing the knowledge of God as a “leading atheist,” but he still thinks like the worst and least educated fundamentalist. He is just a fundamentalist atheist now—a very sad combination, to be sure.
So what happened in Twitter was a fellow said to Barker that he had objected to my quoting his book in a debate—which, of course, is exactly what happened. But Barker doesn’t see it that way. And he demands that everyone see things his way (ask any number of school principals and officials if you don’t believe me). So it wasn’t long before I started getting emails, the long and short of which is this: Tell everyone I didn’t say “don’t quote me, bro” or, well, talk to your attorney. Not overly subtle, you know what I mean?
What is utterly amazing here is that Barker well knows I have never told anyone, anywhere, “Yeah, Dan Barker jumped up, and literally now, I mean it, he yelled, “Don’t quote me, bro!” He knows that even in titling the video above “Don’t Quote Me, Bro” I was sarcastically paralleling his behavior to a more famous incident. But you see, he still thinks literalistically, like a fundamentalist, and can actually pretend to “not get it,” to think that I am, in fact, misrepresenting him.
Now, he wants also to try to spin history and say he was only asking that I not respond to anything other than his opening argument. Where he gets the idea that he can define the parameters of my opening statement I have no idea, but we can leave that aside for the moment. He thinks himself justified in his tactic all the same. In my opinion, any sensible person can see, if they have read his book, why he did what he did. The material attacking the uniqueness of Jesus that Dan Barker has been selling across the country for twenty years now is easily refuted foolishness, and he was well aware he could never, ever defend it in debate. Rather than just man up and admit it, he has come up with this ruse. What Dan should have done was this: after my opening statement he should have said, “OK, well, let me be right up front. James is right. What I wrote in Godless is indefensible. I will not attempt the impossible here now. I admit it. I have come to recognize this, and I will be pulling my book and taking that material out as soon as possible. And you are free to take that into consideration in evaluating my new arguments today. But with that, let’s turn to what I’m saying now….” That would have been classy. That would have been what he needed to do. But that’s not what he did.
So now Dan Barker, head of the most litigious anti-Christian organization in the United States, years after the event, is demanding I “clarify” things! Wait, what’s that? Oh, yes, actually…he is still selling Godless on the FFRF website, and no, he hasn’t “fixed” it. He says he has plans to. Evidently, fixing that, and “clarifying” his objection in our debate, have about the same level of priority, as we are about four plus years down the road now. In any case, he is actually demanding that I let folks know that he never said the words, “Don’t quote me, bro!” Is there anyone, I wonder, in this entire audience, who ever thought he did? Well, if there is, your heart will be warmed to know that Dan Barker cares about you, and does not want you to be confused. He never said, “Don’t quote me, bro.” He did, however, say the debate was not about “his book.” Can you imagine if I tried to pull a stunt like that to avoid defending my own published position on the very topic of the debate? Can you imagine if I debated someone on the Trinity, and when they started quoting The Forgotten Trinity, I jumped up and objected to the moderator, insisting that what I had published and sold for years wasn’t relevant to our debate that night, that it “wasn’t about my book”? Well, in any case, Dan Barker, fundamentalist in mindset that he remains, wants to make sure everyone knows, he did not utter those words. He didn’t. And he wants everyone to know that he was just objecting to my quoting materials from his book that he had not presented in his opening. I.e., that I should have, I guess, engaged in mind-reading so that my opening statement would actually be about his new arguments that he had never published and presented before and that were not in the materials he was selling in the foyer of the church. So there you go, folks! I hope all of you who were confused have complete clarity now.
While I was in Ukraine recently I received a note from an atheist student up in Madison, inviting me to debate Barker. I wrote back and honestly said I doubted Dan would debate with serious rules, legally binding, in place, and directed him to the clip above. I did say I would love to debate Dan Savage, another of their speakers. I never heard back from them. Not even an “OK” or “thanks.” Just silence.
Serious, serious note here. My advice to all Christian apologists in the English speaking world: avoid Dan Barker. There is no reason to risk engaging him. His arguments are common and unnoteworthy. Plenty of others are actually far more adept at debate. If you don’t want to get emails with statements like “Show our correspondence to your attorney” (as if we keep them hanging around!) then just smile and say, “No thanks. Been there, done that, got the video recording.”