A Conversation with Valerie Tarico
On Recovery from Fundamentalism
For the rest of my life,
I will chance across pieces of fundamentalism
that are still embedded in my psyche
fragments of shrapnel from a deep early wound,
working their way to the surface.
Valerie Tarico (from Wisdom Commons)
Those of you who have wandered around here at Deuce of Clubs will have gleaned or guessed that I was forced to attend church throughout childhood. I met Valerie Tarico as a kid at the church in Arizona our families both attended. Neither of us would ever have predicted that years later we'd be discussing atheism in a public forumlet alone as atheistsbut that's exactly what we did last November.
Whereas my involuntary involvement with Christianity warped me in ways manifold and regrettable (say, have you wandered around much, here at Deuce of Clubs?), Dr. Tarico puts her religious upbringing to a more productive use, by helping others. As outlined in her Huffington Post bio, "For years Valerie maintained a psychotherapy practice and practiced `don't ask, don't tell' about matters of faith. But as it became clear that George Bush and Evangelicals were opening a public conversation about Christianity, she decided to join the fray. She shrank her practice and began writing and speaking about fundamentalism, American style."
Valerie's writing can be found in many places on the web (you'll find links at the end of this interview) and in her book, in which she describes her fundamentalist upbringing and analyzes fundamentalism and the Bible itself. "I think of my book, Trusting Doubt, as something that methodically picks off some of the core beliefs that we were raised on," Valerie says. "If somebody's in the mood to be wrestling with doubt, it gives them a way to look at the contradictions."
This is probably going to be a little bit of an exorcism for me. Other than a couple of people I've been loosely in contact with over the years, I don't think I've spoken to anyone from [redacted] Church in decades.
You still talk to [redacted]?
Still in the fold?
Still in the fold.
I notice you changed the title of your book to Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light.
Yeah, we changed the title because the other title [The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth] felt too in-your-face. It could engage people who are already out, but it could be daunting to people who are wrestling with their journey out of Christianity, which is really who I think the book is most valuable for.
Let's start by talking a little about your journey out of Christianity.
Sure. As you know, I was raised in an evangelical family. We went to church sometimes as many as three times a week. I accepted Jesus as my savior as a young child and then I accepted him a couple of times more over the next couple of years, just to make sure that it actually "took!" Because Hell was a pretty scary place. Throughout my adolescence and then adulthood, Christianity was really at the heart of who I perceived myself to be, and how I understood the world. As a teenager, I sought out extra Bible studies. By my own preference, I chose to go to Wheaton College (of Billy Graham fame) because that kind of felt like a safe community for me.
Now, what's interesting is that I kind of wonder whether I would have evolved on out of Christianity if I had gone to a secular university, because I suspect there would have been people there so radically different from me that it might have been more intimidating, and pushed me toward entrenchment. But Wheaton had this range of belief, this range of Christians there, whoaccording to our . . . what we were raised in, at churchI thought of as, kind of, questionable Christians. People who were from other denominations, like Lutherans, and I think there were even some Catholics! People who were just really "questionable." And for me, at the time, there was One Answer, you know, like, "Does Jesus come before the tribulation, or after the tribulation?" Things like that.
I sort of realized that there was more than one answer, and that there were certainly people who were outside of the narrow dogmas that had been defined as the one, true, "best" form of Christianity. And so that created room for thinking. I had thought thatwhen I went to Wheaton, and for years afterI thought that their motto was "All Truth is God's Truth." And it was really "For Christ and His Kingdom!" There was probably some selective filtering going on in my mind, already kind of tacitly giving myself permission to do the questioning that I needed to do. And I would say that, over the course of my time at Wheaton, I evolved a very idiosyncratic form of faith, as I struggled to hold together what had become clear to me were a whole lot of rational and moral contradictions.
Did you find yourself coming into conflict with specific Bible difficulties and then kind of building scaffolding that would enable them to remain standing?
You know, it wasn't specifically a lot of troubling stuff in the Bible. It was more the moral contradictions, I think, that got to me about Christianity. Even as a child, I remember I had a very good friend, Kay, who was Mormon. I remember just not being able to wrap my brain around the idea that she was going to be tortured. Forever. And that, simultaneously, I was going to be perfectly happy, blissfully indifferent to the fact that she was being tortured. I still don't know how Christians wrap their brains around that. How do you say, It's going to be a matter of indifference to me that people are experiencing this eternal torture and that indifference is somehow "good"?
That was the first thing to go, for me: Hell. Even as a young teenager, I found ways around it. For example, in Revelation it says, "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever." I felt like that gave me wiggle room: "Well, it says the smoke lasts forever. It doesn't say the torture does. It could be a one-time thing: they get annihilated, and then the smoke goes up forever"whatever that would mean. Yeah, that was a big problem. I'll ask Christians occasionally: "You really, really think that your God will torture me? Forever?" And, of course, they say they do believe it.
It's so ugly, isn't it? How can compassionateotherwise compassionatepeople believe something that is so utterly immoral? They think that Saddam Hussein torturing people for a few hours or a few days or a few weeks was immoral, but if God does it forever, it's just fine.
It's that conflict between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. You can completely see the Old Testament God doing it, but you can't see the New Testament God doing it.
Except that in the Book of Revelation
it's an evolution of the same tradition. And in the New Testament, I mean, the whole concept of Jesus being a human sacrifice, this whole atonement theology thing that we were taught, that he was a propitiation for our sins, it's part and parcel of the same immoral god.
You talked in your book about coming to "a place of freedom, the freedom to accept the evidence of my senses and my mind"that's where I thought you meant questions about Bible problems.
It was more the moral contradictions that troubled me. So, being able to come to the point where I say that genocide is wrong, whether God endorses it or not; sexual slavery is wrong whether God endorses it or not; that, if the words right and wrong have any meaning, then the behavior of the Israelite tribes as described in the Old Testament is simply horrendous. Even in the New Testament, Jesus being willing to label the Samaritan woman as a "dog"there are just things there that you say, that is not a good moral guide. And what Christians end up doing is, they say "God is loving, God is perfectly good," and that means that they have to justify all that stuff. I've sat in my house with Jehovah's Witnesses who came to the door, for example, and I invited them in, and I said, what about these verses in the Old Testament where God tells them to go into the land and kill everythingbasically, create a "scorched earth policy"and even kill the little children, and they say, "But you have to understandthose babies, their parents were so evil, they had to be destroyed. They were poisoning the people of Israel. They're basically mercy killings, these babies." So you're sitting there listening to people who are pacifists, who are probably incredibly scrupulous in their personal lives, giving the same rationale for God's behavior that the Nazis gave for their own behavior.
I remember as a high-schooler reading a book by Alice A. Bailey, one of the founders of what came to be called "new age" thinkingmore or less the successor of Madame Blavatskywho, writing just after the Holocaust, talked about how terrible it was . . . matched only by the activities of the Jews themselves as described in the Old Testament. I can remember being very offended by the thought of that. It's strange to me, to think of that feeling, now. It doesn't seem as though that could have been my mind, you know?
You mean, like, how dare she equate the genocide of the Old Testament with the genocide of the Holocaust?
Yes! Yet now I would say, of course, that it's the same. I don't think the Old Testament genocide actually happened
Most scholars don't.
but at the same time, it's the same idea, the idea of rooting out some genetic "evil." But the strange part of it is almost not at all recognizing that having been "me." Do you ever feel that way, when you reflect upon how you used to think decades ago?
I do think, how could I have possibly have believed these things? They're so crazy. I mean, they're just so flimsy. What I believed, somehow, growing up, was that I happened to have been born into the best, most true version of the One True Religion! How narcissistic is that?
Then you meet peopleespecially when you go to a universityfrom all across the world, who have different beliefs and faiths, and you find out that they, too, feel that they were born into the One True Faith. I remember one friend from Athens, with whom I went to an interminable Greek Orthodox Easter serviceit started at about 11 o'clock at night (which is weird, from a Baptist perspective) and it went until about 2:30 in the morning! I asked her the difference between her religion and Catholicism, as she understood it, because I'd been reading about both religions and I was curious how an ordinary Greek Orthodox believer would see it. And her explanation amounted toand she actually said this"Well . . . the Pope holds up two fingers, but we cross ourselves with three fingers." It really seemed to come down to that. It was kind of shocking to me, but I also recognized that this is just what she was taught, what she grew up with. And I was realizing that all I had was what I grew up with, and . . . that's about it.
Right. I doubt whether the power that created the intricacies of the DNA code cares about whether we hold up two or three fingers.
Yeah. She seemed to have a very sketchy understanding of what the fingers even symbolized.
When you look at that, when you see is the very strong correlation between the religion that one is born into and the religion they practice as an adult, how devoutly people believe that they were born into the One True Religion (even though they, obviously, don't think about it that way), what you realize is that there's a wider phenomenon here, that we, as a species, are vulnerable to something. What is that something? People can't be always right, so we're susceptible to being wrong in some kind of specific way, and then when you let yourself look at thatwithout the hubris of exempting yourself from that human vulnerabilityit all starts looking silly pretty fast.
The astonishing thing to me, having grown up being told that Christianity was the One True Religion, wasevangelical Christianity being so insular, so that you don't get exposed to other ideasthat, once you start getting involved in other groups and seeing how they operate, you start to recognize the same group dynamics in these groups that you saw in the One True Religion group. Things you thought were special, or specific to the group in which you grew up, you found were merely characteristics of group behavior itself.
Right. And that includes things as core to evangelical experience as the sense that God is talking directly to us, to me as a person, or that I'm forgiven of my sins, that sense of relief that can come, the transformative power of the born-again experience. People in situations ranging from Scientology to "personal growth" encounters have those same kind of experiences, but because people don't understand the psychology of it, the kind of social psychology and the way that our emotions work, when it's attributed to God by the people who are standing in front of them, they believe it.
So true. This will crack you up, but I convinced a Christian friend into going to Burning Man with me.
Oh, man. . . .
It was very interesting, because you kind of get that whole "summer camp" experienceyou get that high, and you feel connected to all these peopleand I thought maybe he would feel that whole thing, and see in this some of the same things one feels in a church group setting, and then maybe make the connection. Instead, his one-word summation afterward was: "Satanic!"
Are you serious? Wow.
And I had thought he was having a good time. He seemed like it. And I think he was, but I think his judgment couldn't let him pronounce it to have been a good time.
To watch that struggle is comical, but also sad.
Yeah. Those obligatory answers. It's like when you ask your friends, "Do you really think I'm going to be tortured for eternity in Hell?" they are obliged to answer "Yes." Their belief system forces that upon them, and shuts down any sort of rational or moral analysis.
Do you retain many Christian friends, that you had when you were a Christian?
I'm . . . pretty far from home, by way of Chicago, by way of Iowa, and then I landed squarely in the heart of a pretty secular community within a secular city, and so I only have a couple of people from my adolescence who I stay in touch with who are not family members. But I have quite a few extended family members who think I'm going to Hell.
How do they tend to treat you?
We, actually, are very good about avoiding our areas of disagreement. We can be together over holidays, we can take a family trip together to Thailand and to the Dominican Republic, I think because we're all focused on this radical new experience and contextthere's lots to talk about. Yet they are very devoutly practicing Christians, and I am profoundly engaged in the process of trying to create a complicated conversation about that, create public dialogue about the improbability of their point of view and the immorality of their point of view.
Have they read your book?
I have two brothers who have left Christianity as I have, one brother and two sisters who are still within it. My non-Christian brothers read my book and my mother read my book, because she has done quite a bit of spiritual growth in the time since I left home. Other relatives refuse to read it.
Do you think that they really haven't read it?
I think they really haven't read it.
Wow. . . .
I think that my sister, who is kind of softer on some of these issues than others, still, I think she believes that I have this Satanic power of persuasion, such that I can make something sound true, and I can kind of muddle your mind, but I'm wrong.
Then you should be getting paid more!
If my sister wrote a bookI don't care what it's aboutmy sister wrote a book! I'm gonna read it.
I would, too! I think I've actually said that. If I'm honest, it's painful to me, both that they could not care to try to figure out where I'm coming from, and also, I'm the eldest sibling and I'm still able to be embarrassed by the fact that they could be so willing to just blindly accept things that we were taught as children.
I tried to get my ma to read your book, because you were one of her "Pioneer Girls" [see inset].
I figured that would be enough, that you were someone that she knew. I mean, I even read [former youth pastor]'s first book. I knew the guyI'll read his book. It was crappy and horrible, sure . . . but I read it. Ma tried recently, again, to get me to listen to a CD of a sermon by the pastor of her church. She has this idea that the right sermon can change everything. Which is a Gnostic idea, really. I tried explaining to her that what she was taught in church is that there was this "war" back when Christianity started, between Christianity and Gnosticism and you're told that Christianity won, but I hate to tell you this, but Gnosticism won, really, because almost everybody who's a Christian believes in its truth merely by inner convictionand that's pretty much the Gnostic core. So, yes, inner conviction could be changed by a sermon. But a sermon can't reverse years of study and investigation. If you were talking to a physicist, you wouldn't say, "Yeah, I know, you know all about math and physics and science and whatever, but if you listen to this sermon, you're going to believe that the earth rests on elephants on the back of a turtle." I tried to make a swap: I said I'd listen to the sermon if she'd read your book. And she did start to read it, but . . . no dice.
Pioneer Girlsnow Pioneer Clubsisn't as Mormon as it sounds, but it's easily as creepy, as you can tell by their own website:
- "Helping Children Follow Christ in Every Aspect of Life"
- "Helping kids walk with the Lord / All week, all year, for the rest of their lives"
- "Pioneer Clubs provides proven church-sponsored midweek club programs for today's kids, preschool through middle school. Each of our three programsthe age-specific Pioneer program, the large-group/small-group format Exploring program, or the small-church solution Discovery programhelps boys and girls build healthy relationships with caring Christian adults, peers and most importantly, Jesus Christ. Thousands of churches across North America count on Pioneer Clubs for programs that are Christ-centered, Bible-based, kid-focused and flexible."
Part of what's going on is that evangelical fundamentalism is a reaction against reformations that were starting to happen within Christianity itself, where people were asking honest questions about the Bible, in light of scientific discoveries in the early twentieth century that were coming out of archaeology and out of psychology and a bunch of different fields, and the higher criticism that had evolved within Christianity. And so as a reaction to that process and information, there was a set of pamphlets called The Fundamentals that said, basically, if you want to be calling yourself a Christian, you've got to believe these things. Evangelicals don't call themselves Fundamentalists, but they're the kind of people who go around and preach these ideas, that this is the core of Christianity. [Those who wrote the pamphlets] proudly called themselves Fundamentalists but as the word has taken on a broader and more negative meaning, Evangelicals typically don't, but they are torch bearers for this reaction against reformation within Christianity. And most of them have no idea of that. When you hear the Evangelical doctrine, what you're actually hearing is half of an argument.
Do people tell you that you never were a Christian?
Oh, of course. That's very common, because so often you're taught "once a Christian, always a Christian." And why would anybody who was really, truly a Christian ever reject faith? So I, in college, was really struggling with depression and I made a suicide attempt. Part of it was that I felt like I had these problems and I should be able to pray them away, and I couldn't. It didn't matter if there was psychological treatment for them. It just meant I was a failure as a Christian and a failure in God's eyes. I actually got great help, my parents were really supportive, and then I came homeI think it would have been over the Christmas holidays, after having gone through this period of being hospitalized, actuallya woman, [name redacted], from our churchwho was a spiritual mentor to me when I was in high schoolmy parents gave permission to her to come talk with me. She came to our house and what she wanted to do was to apologize for having counseled me as a Christian when I obviously wasn't.
That does sound like her.
I was so furious. I can't tell you how furious I was.
I can imagine. A Christian I recently talked to told me flat-out that I could never have been a Christian. But I think that if it were true that those who seek will find, I think I should have found. I really do.
Absolutely. If you read testimonials on ExChristian.net, for examplewhich is a great site, I recommend it for people who are in the process of leaving or recovering from Christianity that's been damagingwhat you read, over and over, are stories of people who struggled for years to believe, and asked God to have their doubts removed, and were on their knees, crying, begging to have their doubts removed, before they finally gave up and said, "I can't do this."
It's a shattering thing. The way I tend to think of it now is in terms of reality tunnels. You're always in some reality tunnelno one can apprehend truth fullybut the more tunnels that you get into, the more you'll understand. And even just having the concept of a reality tunnelor whatever equivalent metaphor you havethat alone makes your reality tunnel conform much closer to whatever reality might be. But it's strange to remember one's selves in previous reality tunnels: "I really believed THAT?" Isn't it odd? I really believed in THE RAPTURE! What a weird idea! All these people are going to be yanked out of the world? And it brings up so many strange practical questions. Yet it seems so real. A girlfriend of mine in high school was inconsolable, sobbing, upset, but didn't want to tell me why but, finally, after an entire day of this, it turned out that she was upset because she was afraid that Jesus was going to come back before she could have children.
It sounds crazy. But that was real to her, even though it would be like crying because your hypothetical kids were killed in a hypothetical car accident. It was utterly real to her. Yet, at the same time, Christians will laugh at the beliefs of Mormons or Scientologists.
Exactly. And all of them rely on ways that we are vulnerable to specific kinds of magical thinking, right? The kind of leaps of logic that go on in Hollywood movies. It's weird that that kind of bullshit strainer has to violate our expectations in certain ways before we say, "Oh, this is bogus."
I remember, when I was a kid, members of my family making fun of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They just thought it was so ridiculousbut it's pretty pedestrian stuff, if you compare it to The Rapture!
It's extraordinary. What happens is that children are hard-wired to be credulous, because we're information specialists. Andy Thomson has a great talk on YouTube ["Why We Believe in Gods"] that I heartily recommend, that really goes into some of the psychological dimensions underlying religion, and one of them is childhood credulity. Because we are information specialists, we need to hand down a lot of information to children, so it's incumbent upon children to believe whatever parents say, rather than having to test it out for themselves. So we get these handed-down beliefs. Also, it's emotionally adaptive not to have to reassess everything you believe.
eat the red berries.
Right. So we don't tend to do a re-working or re-thinking of those things, unless something forces us to acknowledge that it's not working. In the absence of that, we tend to keep building on top of the foundation that we laid down in childhood. Most believers are people who were indoctrinated during childhood, because that's when we're most vulnerable.
I think also as you grow older, human grouping comes into play, where your social connections reinforce everything, so that to question the foundations of it would beand I don't know whether we know it at a conscious level, but we do know at some levelthat if we question these things, your whole social structure is going to fall apart. We're not normally inclined to fight thiswe humans have a clumping tendency. We're like kitty litter!
Trouble is, we'll clump around any old crapany crappy idea or any crappy religion, it doesn't matter. It's the clumping itself that comes to matter to us.
And then our group provides an information filter, and because we're already prone to filtering because of confirmatory bias, that filter doesn't even feel like a filter to us.
And for those who do question, they have specialists to provide "answers"Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel, and the like. They're supposed to take care of your doubts.
Christianity has what I think of as an "immune system," to reject ideas that are threats. One of them would be efforts like thatapologetics. Another is that, basically, the whole notion of doubt is thought of as a negative thing. In science, doubt is one of our best assets. The way that you have evolution of knowledge is that you're constantly doubting what you know already and then you ask questions that could show you're wrong. Christianity espouses the opposite of that. Another way the immune system works is that you have these structures in place, to specifically advise people against "outsiders," cultivating a mistrust of people who are outside of the tribe. So they have all these systems in place to create social structures that expose you to people who are like-minded and insulate you from people who are not.
Do you think the Internet helps "un-insulate" people?
I think it's a mixed bag. If you look at ExChristian.net, it has allowed there to be gathering places of dissenters who otherwise lived in isolation and kept their questions or their disagreement to themselves, because there weren't social structures that would allow people who were outside the fold to have conversations with each other. I think that it also creates the possibility of being exposed to a wider diversity of views. But we've also become more and more able to filter the information that's coming in. There's the ability to set your own home page, you can set up your own news feed to narrow the subject, and network television, which has a kind of homogenizing effect on the culture. So we can choose our own menu. We're being given the power, more and more, to isolate ourselves within information tunnels, which makes us think we've got reality figured out, when we're actually focused on a small fragment of it. So we don't get the self-correction of people disagreeing with each other. What I do think is that the Internet . . . I'm going on and on here.
No, no, please do.
I don't know whether you read the last chapter of Trusting Doubt. . . ?
I have the old one.
In the postscript to Trusting Doubt, I talk about how I think that evangelical Christianity is largely a problem of information technology, in that once people moved out of oral traditionswhich could evolve with the moral understanding and cultural and technological evolution of the context in which they existedthen you have the written word, which allows it to become static and arrested. When you canonize the text, now not only do you have frozen words but you have a frozen set of words that have become sanctified. And then you add the printing press that spreads distribution of that, and things just keep getting worse until you have fundamentalism. People use the word Bibliolatry, and think that's spot-on. I think it's text worship. What's cool about the Internet is that you now have a vast oral and written tradition mixed together. What oral tradition does is, it allows you to have living dialogue that is constantly in flux. And what the written word does is, it allows you to disseminate the information to people who don't know each other. It cuts across distances, geographically, and also culturally. Look at Wikipedia, for exampleif you could print out a copy of Wikipedia, it would be different every day. I have questions and hopes about our being able to take these ideas about what is real and what is good that religions have codified and then crystalized into developmental arrest and put those conversations back in motion, using the new tools that we've got.
That would be the goal of the Wisdom Commons project?
That's the goal of the Wisdom Commons. It's what I think of as the "retail," kind of Hallmark, in some ways, version of that. But, yeah, how I want people to use those tools is to kick off a conversation about universal ethics and universal morals that allow us to really assess and critique our tribal traditions and to glean what's timeless and "good," and assemble that. I don't know whether you are a fan of Sam Harris?
I've read him.
Sam is on book tour with a new book called Moral Landscape, and what's fascinating is that he's taken up this question of whether science actually provides us with a basis for morality. There are people who are saying that science is just a set of questions about functions in the natural world and that it can't deal with anything about what we should care about. You hear that from both secularists and from religious folks. And what Sam is saying is, no, actually, that's wrong. If we make a very basic agreement that morality is about well-being of conscious creatures, then you can build a case from there that science has a great deal to say about morality because it can study well-being and what causes or lesser degrees of it in an empirical way. It's an interesting argument.
Would you distinguish well-being from the is-ought problem? Because it then comes down to pleasure and pain.
I just wrote a series of articles called God's Emotions and what I'm trying to do is give people a sense of what scientists are discovering about how this works. And it is about pleasure and pain. But I think that our moral emotions and instincts are universal, and they provide some basis for reassuring Christians about the fact that morality doesn't come from believing in the Bible, and that if the Bible went away, morality wouldn't go away. I do think we can have science-based conversations about ought as well as what is.
But without a transcendent ground of telos, or purpose, how would one be able to say a set of circumstances ought to be different?
Harris comes at the idea that if words like good and evil have any meaning, if pleasure and pain have any reality, then there are real-world contingencies that govern whether something is more pleasurable or more painful. So, even though evolution is an optimizer for well-being, for satisfaction, for pleasure, for anything of those kind of things we most value, it optimizes those things for survival and reproduction. There are non-arbitrary conversations to be had about pleasure and about what makes things better or worse. I think people who question that philosophically are full of shit. They don't question it when it comes to their life.
Well, you really can't, or else you would stop existing.
And yet, the question remains. . . .
(Continue to Part 2)