I have been wanting to do an interview with an articulate and perceptive non-theist, and I have found one in Dr. Valerie Tarico, author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth.
What’s the point?
1. Evangelicals are constantly mischaracterizing non-theists. We need to listen and not preach.
2. There is some common ground of concern here for many of us, especially in the area of the ethical practices of religions that seek to convert.
3. We need to measure our responses against reality. Some of our typical talking points aren’t very impressive, so we might consider retiring or reworking them.
4. I want to build a bridge. Dr. Tarico is very open to that kind of dialog.
Dr. Valerie Tarico is a former evangelical who now describes herself as a spiritual nontheist. Her book The Dark Side distills her moral and rational critique of Evangelical teachings. Tarico is a graduate of Wheaton College. She obtained a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Iowa before completing postdoctoral studies at the University of Washington. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post and hosts a monthly series on SCAN TV Seattle: Moral Politics – Christianity in the Public Square. Last year Tarico founded WisdomCommons.org, an interactive website with quotes, stories and poems from around the world all promoting shared ethical values. Her essays about society, faith, and family life can be found at Awaypoint.
Dr. Tarico, welcome to the Internet Monk.com interview.
1. Tell the Internet Monk.com audience the basic story of how and why you left evangelicalism. I’m particularly interested in any significant books or authors that were part of that journey.
Hmm. Books and authors. I think I ended up falling from faith mostly in spite of the books I was reading to shore up my faith! I grew up in a non-denominational Bible church, and my relationship with Jesus was at the very center of who I was. In high school I was proud to stump my biology teacher with ideas from the Creation Research Society, and when I arrived at Wheaton College I think I was more devout and conservative than the school was. (I mean, they let post-millennialists and Lutherans in the door.)
Even so, I would say that from adolescence on I struggled to fend off moral and rational contradictions in my faith, evolving more and more idiosyncratic ways of holding the pieces together. In particular, I couldn’t understand how I was going to be blissfully, perfectly happy — indifferent to the fact that other people were experiencing eternal anguish.
The final straw came while I was completing a doctoral internship at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. My job was to provide psychological consultation to kids and families on the medical units. I was working with kids who were dying of cancer or enduring horrible, frightening treatments in order to survive it. As I listened to the explanations offered by people who believed in an all powerful, loving, perfectly good interventionist God, it seemed to me these “justifications” were comforting, but they didn’t make things just. I re-read The Problem of Pain, and the resident rabbi offered Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Both rang hollow.
Finally I said to God, “I’m not making excuses for you anymore.” And suddenly it felt like I had been holding my God concept together for so long with duct tape and bailing wire that all I had left was tape and wire. So I walked away. I didn’t really re-engage with Christianity in any systematic way until it became clear about five years ago that Biblical ideas were dictating social policy — and killing people.
2. Anti-theists (or non-theists) of various kinds are now making their numbers and voice heard in the public square. What are two or three of the primary myths/truths about non-theism that people of traditional religious faiths are going to have to get rid of and/or adjust to in the future?
Well, first of all let me say that not all nontheists are anti-theists. Most nonbelievers are simply not interested in religion. Many see it as a benign force that contributes to stable moral communities. Those who are vocally outspoken against supernaturalism are a minority. I think this is important to emphasize because the silent majority is, well, silent and so not noticed.
Humanists who join inter-spiritual dialogue or nonbelieving parents who are busy reading bedtime stories and making cookies for school bake sales don’t tend to make their voices heard on these issues. Mostly they just want to be left in peace — to not have Christians witnessing to their kids or interfering with their medical decisions.
The myth I am confronted with most frequently is that non-Christians (especially those who have left the faith) are indifferent to morality or they reject the gift of salvation because they don’t want to be morally accountable. Because Christians self-perceive as a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness, they assume they have the moral high ground. Some think that there is no basis for morality apart from the Bible and a redemptive relationship with Jesus. So what they fail to recognize is that much of the critique of Christianity is a moral critique, and much of the outrage is moral outrage.
Another myth is that non-theists broadly and anti-theists particularly have little interest in spirituality. In my experience many are profoundly concerned with issues not only of morality but also of meaning and unity and wonder: the small humble delights that that makes life a joy to live, the willingness to give yourself to something bigger than yourself, the beauties of love.
3. How do you feel about the high profile of atheists like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens who consistently oppose religion of any kind as an unquestionable evil? Is there any feeling in the non-theist community that they are being portrayed as “fundamentalists” as well?
Those guys definitely are anti-theists and taboo breakers to boot, which makes people love to hate them. (“The Missionary Position”?) But I think they change the dialogue in important ways. To cite a provocative example, Dawkins has said that religious indoctrination of children is child abuse. In reality, all education of children is indoctrination at some level. Every parent or teacher has to wrestle with the balance of top-down mind control vs open inquiry.
But if we push past knee-jerk reactions to Dawkins’ assertion, he raises a serious moral question for believers: Is Christian indoctrination abusive more often than people like to think? Psychologist Marlene Winell, who specializes in recovery from fundamentalism, would say yes with three exclamation points.
I personally find the “fundamentalist” label a bit of an eye roller when applied to Dawkins or Harris. It’s childish. “You stink.” “No, you stink.” The word fundamentalism has a specific history and meaning. It is about having a core set of dogma-based assertions that are nonnegotiable, and historically these fundamentals are the central tenets of Christian orthodoxy. It’s not a synonym for strident or uncompromising.
A quick glance around any department store will give you an idea of how easily we humans confuse the quality of packaging with quality of contents. The same is true for communications. In my experience, Dawkins et al are more nuanced and thoughtful in their actual analysis than what the public reaction would suggest, and I wonder how many of their critics have actually read them versus reacting to their posture.
Other atheist and agnostic writers love to define themselves by saying, “I’m not like those guys.” It’s a way of positioning as a moderate and gaining access to an audience that feels conflicted about the role of religion in society. Tangentially, I think that within Christianity, people often fail to recognize theological fundamentalism if it is wrapped in rock music and skateboard art or in warm, loving community.
4. Setting aside the obvious issue of breaking the law, at what point does an evangelical parent, in the religious training of their own children, cross the line into what you consider the abuse of that child?
Imagine you work in a mental health center and a woman says to you, “My husband says he loves me unconditionally and if I don’t love him back he is going to torture me to death as slowly as he can.” Some theologies are inherently abusive.
When I was a teenager my youth group showed a movie called “A Thief in the Night” about the rapture, and a few years back, churches were creating “hell houses” for Halloween. In both cases, the blood and gore and implied violence were meant to be shocking and emotionally traumatic — all justified morally because shock and trauma right now are better than having people tortured forever. But a therapist like Marlene Winell, who I mentioned before, routinely sees people who developed panic disorder or chronic depression and anxiety in reaction to hell and rapture threats.
Because of my writing I sometimes receive stories that make me as a mom want to cry. One child became hysterical whenever he called out and his parents didn’t answer because he thought they’d been taken. Another repeatedly prayed the prayer of salvation — never sure that it had “taken,” until she ultimately became distraught and suicidal.
I wonder how many children in the coming up generation were traumatized by being exposed to Mel Gibson’s blood orgy, The Passion. My mom’s old church took a busload including pre-adolescents — kids who largely had been sheltered from Hollywood violence and had no way to have hardened themselves against it. If it wasn’t a religious theme, the parents themselves would have thought it abusive.
Here’s the challenge, though: Causing trauma isn’t necessarily abusive. I had my appendix removed when I was five, and it was absolutely terrifying because I was in pain and tied to a hospital bed and left alone. But I don’t think of it as abusive because it was necessary. Is scaring people into salvation necessary or abusive? When you intentionally cause harm or trauma in order to prevent a greater harm, it’s not enough to be well intentioned. You also have to be right. And if you’re not, the rest of society has a responsibility to weigh whether you are causing trauma unnecessarily—especially when those being harmed are children.
5. When you see a church spending large amounts of money on children’s ministries and activities, do you believe this is ethical or unethical? Why?
If you heard that Scientologists were spending large amounts of money on outreach to kids would you believe this was ethical or unethical? What if they offered a subsidized summer camp to inner city kids like Child Evangelism Fellowship does? What if they had a storefront alcohol-free bar for underage skateboarders like City Church does in Ballard, Washington? What if they had teenage tutors slipping colorful invitation cards to kids in public middle schools like Foursquare Church does in Seattle?
Children are hard wired to be credulous, to believe what they are told by adults who have authority over them and who nurture them. It’s the only efficient way for them to pick up all the information they need. They can’t afford to question and test when we tell them stoves burn you or cars squish you, so they’re built to trust us. Because they are vulnerable in this way, we have a particular responsibility not to exploit or abuse that trust. If you believe the exclusive salvific claims of Christian orthodoxy, then the end justifies the means. That, I think is at the heart of children’s ministries. But it’s only fair to admit that children are being offered metaphorical candy – and the ultimate goal of conversion isn’t always up front. One Jewish neighbor sent her daughter to a playful, wholesome outreach ministry at a local mega church because she thought “nondenominational” meant interfaith.
6. I’m sure that you’ve got a good response to the frequent evangelical contention that non-theists have no morals. What do you say? (And what is the mistake evangelicals are making with that objection?)
I’m kind of embarrassed for people who say this, because it means they know so little about morality and about child development. Morality doesn’t come from religion. Healthy human children come into the world primed to become moral members of society, just like they come into the world primed to acquire language. Moral emotions like empathy, shame, guilt and disgust begin to emerge during the toddler years regardless of a child’s culture or religion.
A toddler may pat an injured peer or offer a grubby toy to an adult who is distressed. A preschooler may hide behind a couch to cover a transgression. As a child’s brain develops, moral emotions are joined by moral reasoning. By age five or six, kids have a large moral vocabulary and can argue long and loud about fairness.
Research is just starting to show how our moral emotions and reasoning are guided by powerful moral instincts. I think these instincts are the reason that across secular and moral traditions we humans share some basic agreements about goodness. The golden rule appears in some form or another in every ethical system. Sometimes it emphasizes proactively doing good. Sometimes it is only about avoiding harm. Sometimes it applies to even the smallest sentient creature, sometimes only to males of a single religion, but it’s there.
For the last year and a half I’ve been working on a project called the Wisdom Commons, an interactive website that gathers quotes and stories and poetry from many traditions as a way to “elevate and celebrate our shared moral core.”
7. Why would any evangelical want to read your book, The Dark Side?
Well, I have at least two siblings who would tell you that I’m a pawn of Satan, and you shouldn’t read it! On the other hand, several Christian friends read and provided feedback on the manuscript. Their perspective is that God doesn’t need us to cover for him or to hide from complicated realities.
I am a non-theist and my conclusions follow my thinking, but The Dark Side is less a challenge to Christianity than to bibliolatry. I was taught, and still believe, that to worship human decisions and creations is idolatry. So in terms of whether someone would want to read this text, I would ask: Do you really worship God or are you getting caught by the worship of traditions and texts? Which do you twist to fit the other? When your deepest best understandings of Love and Truth bump up against creeds and canons, which win out? Given that there are human handprints all over evangelical practices and teachings, how much time have you spent learning to spot them?
In reality, this kind of analysis and critique is very much in keeping with the Christian tradition. The writers of the Old Testament took the Akkadian and Sumerian traditions and asked themselves, Which pieces are merely human? What is our best guess about the divine realities that lie beyond? They gleaned and wrestled and kept some fragments of the earlier stories and said, “This is our best understanding of what is Real and what is Good and how to live in moral community with each other.” The writers of the New Testament look at what the Torah had become and saw idolatry.
Again, they gleaned and culled in light of how they understood Jesus and then offered their best understanding of God and goodness. Same with the Protestant Reformation. The reformers scraped away at obviously human encrustations like indulgences and cult of saints until they came to what they thought was the heart of the revelation. I think that the deepest challenge of the spiritual quest is not to defend the answers of our spiritual ancestors but to do as they did — to dig and scrape and take ourselves into that uncomfortable space where growth happens.
8. How would you handle it if your child became a Bible toting member of Campus Crusade for Christ? In the same vein, how should evangelicals respond if their child takes the anti-theist road?
It would be hard. My daughters are both passionate about making the world a kinder place — primarily for weird animals like sharks and manatees and kakapos and factory chickens. But more recently they got wonderfully caught up in microcredit (through Kiva.org) and started directing their birthday money toward humans. I’d be grieved to see their passion and compassion channeled by an ideology.
My biggest grief would be if one joined a religious organization that discouraged deep loving relationships with outsiders, including family. An elderly couple I met at a humanist gathering are not allowed to see their evangelical grandchildren because they are retired scientists with a secular world view.
When my younger brother came out as gay, it pitted my mom’s theological fundamentalism against her love for her son. Love won out. That is what I aspire to, and it is what is would hope for any parent in a similar situation.
9. Christian apologetics and cultural communication today have taken several major turns since your days citing creationists to Wheaton profs. For example, Tim Keller, a PCA pastor in Manhattan, has earned a broad hearing from the culture in his book “The Reason for God.” Keller is not Josh McDowell, it’s safe to say. Younger evangelicals are anti-culture war and many were pro-Obama. Many evangelicals accept evolution, although quietly, and many more distrust “Creation science.” Do any of the changes in apologetic methods and approaches since your loss of faith interest you when you are portraying evangelicals in print or speech?
You are right. Many of the conditions that pushed me to join the public dialogue have shifted, and when I engage secular audience I quite often bring up these changes. I love it that evangelicals like Jim Wallis are complicating that dialogue from a social standpoint, and a new generation of evangelical ministers like Rob Bell are complicating the dialogue theologically.
I see the theological dialogue as most important. Unless we understand that our theological agreements are provisional and open to growth, social change is just a matter of Christianity fluctuating in response to social conditions. There have been many times in history when the balance shifted between personal /doctrinal purity and compassion/love. Then conditions change and the pendulum swings back, in part because bibliolatry and what I call ancestor worship keeps people from growing beyond the understanding of the Bible’s authors and the councils that decided the creeds and canon. My hope is that we will come to understand our spiritual heritage and our own minds well enough that the cruelties perpetrated in the name of God become a part of history.
I’d like to thank Dr. Tarico for her time and effort in helping all of us understand this new relationship between evangelicals and non-theists. I know the vast majority of my audience is appreciative as well. Hopefully, we will hear from Dr. Tarico again as some of these issues emerge in other contexts.