A Conversation with Valerie Tarico
(November 2010; Part 1, if you missed it)
Do you still feel angry, at times, about having been raised Christian?
I don't think so. What I feel angry about is that these religious beliefs are so powerful and that they are doing so much damage in the world to things that I care about. Like having there be a little bit less misery in the world. The core things I most value are all harmed by the ongoing power of religionspecifically, the Abrahamic religions. That's what I'm angry about.
I don't think I've gotten past that. I still do feel angry if I think about certain people, like the youth pastor who put this crap in my head when I was young. And yet, at the same time, he was barely more than a kid himself, at the time. He was probably in his mid-twenties or something. Buthe's still doing it. To me, it seems like . . . all these decades have passedhaven't you learned anything?
I think I get angry at the lack of integrity and the selfishness that lets people stay there. You have tohow would I say it?you just really have to be, in some ways, full of yourself. It's ironic to say it, because on the surface, of course, Christianity is humility and selflessness. You really have to be full of yourself to be satisfied with those answers.
I think it was more that I felt…I came to a point, when I was a senior in high school, I got really angry at the youth pastor at summer camp because I was becoming more serious about it. I had become a Christian when I was fourteen or fifteen, but I was becoming serious about it, and I was encountering difficulties and I felt he wasn't telling me the truth. That he was lying to me when I would ask questions. I used to go to Changing Hands book store all the time, and I would pick up and read anything. And I remember running across these books with provocative titles, such as The Lost Books of The Bible and Forgotten Books of Eden, stuff like that, and it was just other writings like the biblical writings. Non-canonical. I started reading these things and began thinking, well, who's to say these writings weren't
"God-breathed," instead of the ones in the Bible? But I also felt lied to, because these writings were never even mentioned. If you don't have something to hide, why wouldn't you talk about this stuff? And I never once heard Irving or Darby mentioned at church, and that's the whole root of the "Rapture," right there.
Nobody ever mentioned them. I thought, that's a lie of omission, at the very least, isn't it?
It is. That's another thing. God is a god of love, and yet, in all these different ways, Christianity, and specifically, evangelical Christianity pushes people to do things or believe things that are horrible. And God is a god of truth, except that in order to sustain the set of orthodox beliefs in our current information context, you have to do a whole lot of not only self-deception but of suppressing information from each other.
With Christian leaders, how much do you think is conscious process, and how much is suppression and self-deception that's more or less automatic?
I think most of it is unconscious. I think there is no overestimating the human capacity for self-deception.
Well. That's encouraging.
Evolutionary psychology is adaptive for us to be able not only to be good social operators and cooperators. It's also adaptive to one's ability to cheat and pretend, and the best way to be able to fake out other humans is to fake out yourself, so you don't go around thinking you're lying. In that context, the administration that got us into Iraq, I think they believed their own bullshit.
You think so?
Yeah. I don't think all of them believed it, but I think Bush believed it. Most of my friends would disagree with me but this is a guy who is quite content with pat answers. In fact, he's similar in that way to what I think of as the kind of psychological package that often makes up a Christian minister.
I read that book about Bush called Dead Certain, and that's consonant with its picture. He didn't sound as bad, on a personal level, as I expectedit was funny, really. I mean…I grew up with people like that!
I postponed seeing Jesus Camp for a long time.
Oh, god. . . .
When I saw it, what amazed me was that I felt sympathetic toward the woman running the camp. Not that I agree with herI'd personally try to stop her (not that I have that power)but I get where she's coming from.
Yeah. Definitely. No behavior seems crazy if you believe that people are going to be tortured forever and you're trying to rescue them. The only behavior that seems crazy is the normal behavior, which is not to be running door to door, banging on doors, and yelling at people and holding signs in the street.
Absolutely. I agree with that.
You'd be kind of a monster if you didn't, really, if you think about it.
How you can you, my brother, believe that I'm going to be tortured forever, and you're not camped out in front of my door, begging me, pleading with me?
Yeah! Yeah. I remember in college there'd be these preachers who would tour around universities all over the country. Jed and Cindy Smock.
You remember them?
They used to provide a lot of entertainment for college kids.
I'd stop and listen to them, because it was interesting to hear the interactions. But one day it was raining really hard, and a friend and I were in the student union building and we saw Jed Smock sitting in the lounge by himself, reading his Bible. So we decided we'd go over and see what he's really like. Turned out, he's an ex-professor. [Ed. note: My memory was incorrect here, but Smock does hold a Master's in history from Indiana State University.] But it was like, "sitting, clothed, and in his right mind," you know? He talked openly about his shtick. If he just went out and preached, he said, nobody would pay any attentionthey'd walk right past. Whereas if he yells at people and calls them "whore-mongers" and such, then he gets a crowd he can talk to. What he's doing makes more sense than what Campus Crusade for Christ is doing, if you think about it, from the point of view of people who believe everybody's going to hell except for a few people.
That's right. People either don't believe what they think they believe, or what we think we believe and what we believe at a gut level can be very different things. And so people don't believe it or they are somehow completely walled off from the implications from their beliefs.
I can see how the self-deception worked, looking back on it. I characterize it now as kind of a Ptolemaic system, because for me,
it was important that the Bible not be contradictory, if it's from a god, so I really, really worked hard on the contradictions, trying to "fix" everything, to where it became kind of like the Ptolemaic system with its epicycles to try to account for planets apparently going backwards. I'd run into a problem, so I'd build another epicycle, and then I'd run into another problem and have to build another epicycle, and pretty soon you've got this big, rickety system that's just nutty.
It is nutty. That's what I was trying to say happened to me at Wheaton. But it wasn't until I was in post-graduate schoolI'm kind of a slow learner, sometimesout here in Seattle, that I stopped trying to do what you were describing. I was at a children's hospital, working with kids who were dying of cancer. A two-year-old with a spinal cord tumor who's never going to walk again, and kids who were permanently mentally disabled, and listening to other people around me trying to rationalize that in the context of an all-powerful, all-loving, interventionist god. And it sounded so hollow. It's fine for you, but it doesn't do this two-year-old a damned bit of good! Right? How can you say it's fair when you say God's going to use it to work wonders in someone else's life. So? He's the one suffering!
I finally saidto the God in my head"I'm through making excuses for you! No more! Done!" And it turned out that all my excuses were held together with baling wire. And I walked away and then didn't really think about it a lot again after that, until I started looking at what's going on politically. Even though I don't really write about politicsI write more about theologyI looked at what was going on and I went, "Oh, my god, the stuff that I grew up on is dictating social policy, and killing people!" I mean, I don't think we would have been in Iraq if we didn't have people like George Bush saying, "I don't need to ask anyone else, I ask my Heavenly Father," and people saying, "He's born again, he believes like I dothat's all I need to know about him."
And if you can live that way, it must be comforting.
But if you question anything, you just go down all these rabbit holes. When people ask how I escaped my Christian upbringing, I always use that formulaic expression that you cited a while back: "My exit from Christianity consisted of a series of strategic retreats covering an ever-shrinking patch of defensible ground"
That's a great quote. I love that quote.
because it just got to the point where I looked around and I'm on a tiny islandthere was water all around me. Finally, you just realize, it's crazy.
Yeah. The tag line on my website, Away Point, is, "Between an Island of Certainties and the Unknown Shore."
And it's not comfortable, really, because when you start thinking about the universe, it's a freaky feeling, just thinking, well, here we are, and we don't even know what we are. It's weird. But there it is. Deal with it.
I quoted in my book someone on ExChristian.net who said, "I got to the point when I said I'd rather have unanswered questions than unquestioned answers." I think that you have to come to that point, at a gut level, that the unquestioned answers feel really dissatisfying or even repugnant, before you can kick into doing the "recalc" that lets you take a look at it and leverage your adult analytic ability to reassess things that you learned when you didn't have that ability, or the fund of knowledge that you now have.
Do you think that people in the United States will become gradually less religious?
When the orthodox beliefs were established, people didn't have a whole lot of evidence to contradict them. They probably thought, "Well, this is as good an explanation of how things work as any." If you look at the kind of proto-science, I guess you'd call it, in the Biblebelief in demons, or God intervening to cause storms or things like thatthey didn't really have any other explanations. Even so, now that we have acquired other, better explanations, Christianity has become more and more hysterical, and crazed, and insulated.
I wonder whether that process, in a larger sense, among Evangelicals might mirror, in a way, the process as it happens to an individual, sometimesand it definitely happened with mewhere, once my mind began to contemplate "Wow, this might be horseshit!" I actually grabbed on tighter and dove into it harder, and dug my heels in even more, and became, yeah: crazed.
It's interesting, my mother . . . I think of her spiritual evolution as having kind of been triggered by the fact that one of my brothers came out. And in the end, she decided that she loved him and trusted her sense of his goodness more than she trusted her inerrant Bible and the ways that the Bible verses had been interpreted to her by her church. But that was her community, and so she started believing these things, and being drawn out of from the middle of them, and began discovering that there are other ways to interpret scripture. So she started developing this sort of "secret" intellectual life, this spiritual evolution, but she kept going to this same church. It wasn't until, oh, over approximately two or three years, that she found another church and then graduallyostensibly because it was really close to homemore and more wound up with them. They happened to be open and affirming, but she could justify it in part because it was kind of closer to a Brethren church, and her parents had been Brethren. So she had come out of a Brethren traditionprobably back when it was more orthodoxand into the kind of non-denominational church and then kind of moved back into it. It was really interesting to watch the process, because what do you do when you no longer believe but other people believe, it's kind of painful to leave your church home, because that's where your friends are, that's who helps you out when your pipes break, you know? They're there when you're sick and you can't drive your niece and nephew to school. She was actually raising her grandchildren at the time.
Brethrenthat's what Darby was.
I don't remember.
Yeah, Darby was Plymouth Brethren.
I hope that, in a wider sense, given that Christianity is being confronted with a lot of things that they really haven't had to deal with in a public forum, as they have to do now. So maybe they're in the crazy stage and getting crazier, and building their epicycles, and possessing their defensible groundbut maybe they'll begin to realize that their patch of defensible ground is shrinking. That's what I'm hoping, anyway.
Anthropologist Jennifer James has said that she thinks that the growth of fundamentalism within the Abrahamic religions is a death rattlethat it gets louder and more frantic right before it's just simply untenable. And I hope that, too.
There are certainly some great books out there now to facilitate the transition of people from fundamentalism to other forms of Christianity or for people transitioning out of Christianity altogether. I recently did an interview with a guy named Thom Stark, who just wrote a book called The Human Faces of God: : What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It).
He was a Christian theologianI interviewed him about the fact that he has wrung out all the evidences for polytheism and human sacrifice in the early Hebrew/Israelite religion. What we were taught is that that was evil, that's it's what the pagans did, and that's why the Canaanites had to be killed off. But, no. And the evidence is right here in the Old Testament that it was practiced widely, and that there was an argument within Judaism about whether that was acceptable or not. Over time, it became less accceptable and then the later writers were forced to reinterpret that tradition. So, even within Christianity there are people who are perfectly clear that the Bible represents the struggle of our ancestors to figure out what was real and what was good and how to live well and live with each other. There are people who are fine with continuing to experience Christianity in some form, as their core form of spiritual practice. One of the first books I read along these lines was a book by Bruce Bawer, called Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity. It was, actually, the first time I'd ever heard of Darby!
During the time I was a Christian, I learned so little about the history of Christianity! You learn history from a wholly insider perspective. You learn the histories that are in the Bible, but you don't get a lot of history of the Bible. And you don't ever learn the history of the Bible outside of the filter of what it says in the Bible.
And not a word about, even, the Councils, or any of that stuff. Never.
Which is really weird, when you think about it.
This is the bizarreness of it: you have evangelicals saying, "I base my whole life around this book!"which was put together by a Catholic committee!
And they're not even going to heaven!
Yeah, Catholics are going to hell!
I first heard about Darby at Jesus Chapelremember that book store?
No. . . ?
It was a church, but they also had a book store, and the books were really cheap. They were almost at wholesale.
So I bought tons of books there in high school. And I saw this book, and I don't remember the titleit had some kind of provocative titleI think it was The Incredible Cover-Upso I bought it. Like I said, I was reading anything I could get my hands on. And I start reading about Irving and Darby and Margaret McDonald, this whole story, and I thought, Why am I hearing about this NOW? I was sixteen or seventeen years old, been forced to sit in fundamentalist churches my entire life, and I've never heard a word about any of these people? Yet, it turns out, that's where Scofield got it, and from there it bled into everything. And it's been accepted asliterallygospel truth! My parents both carried Scofield Bibles for decades. And nobody mentioned it, nobody said a word about it. I remember asking our youth pastor about it, and he was very dismissive, and I asked another pastor about it, and he was dismissive, and I thought, these are guys with the "approved" Dallas Theological Seminary training, so how could they not know this? And if they do know it and don't talk about it, that's tantamount to lying. You would think that they would not only tell you about it, but that they would have a kind of cover story that they would give you, in case anybody asked you!
Even with Dallas, what you've got is, instead of being taught about the conversation and the processes that have gone on within Christianity, they're being taught the "right" set of answers.
True. Anyplace that makes you sign a statement of faith before you get in would be problematic. The other problem was that when I started university, I started studying Greek, which I did for eight semesters. And that'll really blow your mind, if you've been listening to fundamentalists!
Your problem was that you were too curious.
But there are a lot of people who are curious. You'd think they would have a ready answer. If they'd already told me, "Oh, yeah, Irving, Darby, whatever," with some sort of surface explanation for it, would it have hit me as hard as it did? As it was, you knew they had something to hide. It just seemed dishonest to me.
I was talking with another person who's a former Christian and a former member of our church, and he said he was in a Bible study group and he asked about dinosaur bones, and the person leading the Bible study told him they were the bones of the giants that were mentioned in the Old Testament. And he said, "It just . . . broke something." [Laughs]
It broke logic!
It was a critical juncture.
Or the idea that water could have covered Mount Everest. What a goofy thing to believe!
And people don't say, they never say, "Water covered Mount Everest."
Some actually do, though! I've asked: "So, water covered Mount Everest?" And they say, "Yep. Water covered Mount Everest." Think about actually believing that. People laugh at the fans who go to Star Trek conventions, but at least they don't actually believe Star Trek was history! Well, most of them don't!
I just finished this series called God's Emotions. I'm becoming more interested in the question of really understanding religious belief. I keep wishing that somehowthere's the, quote, "new atheists" who are out there getting attentionbut I keep thinking it would be great if, somehow, the rising collective voice of former Christians would emerge on the national scene. I think there are a lot of people who are in the same frame of mind that you and I were in, which is, we'd never heard of ex-Christians! You never heard about somebody who used to be a Christian, right?
You know, I don't think so. There were peoplethe first one would have been [name redacted], if you remember himbut of people like that the church would say, "Oh, well, he never really was a Christian, then." So you didn't really have a category for ex-Christians.
There are a lot of us out there!
I hope there'll be moreI almost used the word testimonies! But, well, more testimonies from people like that.
I think people do kind of call them testimonies, on ExChristian.net. People talk about their own journeys and what made Christianity stop working for them, and where they've gone since.
Valerie Tarico's book, Trusting Doubt
Valerie Tarico's website
Life After Christianity (Valerie Tarico's YouTube channel)
Away Point: Between an Island of Certainties and the Unknown Shore
Wisdom Commons: Exploring, Elevating and Celebrating Our Shared Moral Core