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The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth

Valerie Tarico (2006)


When I was growing up in Arizona, most of my friends, neighbors, and role models shared my Evangelical beliefs, and when they did not, we didn’t talk about it. When I was in graduate school working on a degree in psychology most of my fellow students and professors shared my religious misgivings, but we didn’t talk much about that either. When I settled in the Northwest, I also settled into a posture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” with regard to spiritual questions. (Preface)

Evangelicals, as they like to say, prefer to be “in this world but not of this world.” They see themselves as a people apart. The most devout buy their books almost exclusively at Christian bookstores. A small but significant minority home-school their children if they can’t afford private Christian schools. Many socialize only with members of their own church communities or people they meet through related organizations. In spite of their growing influence, Evangelicals often see themselves as an embattled minority. And because many don’t believe that other Christians are Christians, they see Christianity per se as an embattled minority religion. (Preface)

Why is our youth minister, Bob, so full of himself when he is supposedly full of God’s spirit? (21)

In this way, I was able, for a time, to split off my critical rational training from the part of me that yearned for a spiritual center. I built my own walls around my faith. But walls hadn’t worked when other people built them, and they didn’t work when I built them either. In spite of myself, I kept tunneling under and out, carrying secret, scary, confusing discoveries back in with me until, finally, I got to a place where I stood and looked back, and the walls looked to me like a prison instead of a sanctuary.
I had come to the place where I now live. It is a place of freedom, the freedom to accept the evidence of my senses and my mind. It is difficult to describe the peace that comes with giving yourself permission to know what you know: to have hard, complicated realities staring at you and to be able to raise your head and look back at them with a steady gaze, scared maybe, grieved perhaps, but straight on and unwavering. (26)

To these voices in the wilderness, I add my own, not as an ex-minister or scholar, but as an ordinary ex-Evangelical who thought too much about questions that wouldn’t go away.
Is it possible to make a case for traditional creeds in general or Evangelical orthodoxy in particular? Can someone embedded in such a perspective justify the contradictions inherent in his or her faith? The answer to these questions is an unqualified yes. But they are not the right questions to ask, if what we’re after is truth. Instead, we must ask this: when no sacred assumption is untouchable, when we cherish honest inquiry more than any set of handed-down answers, when we follow the questions where they may lead, what looks to be real? What are the most likely conclusions, based on the whole stack of messy evidence? (27)

“Everyone has to have a religion,” I was told by an educated tour guide in Sri Lanka one summer. “Otherwise what would they do for your funeral?” (29)

Prescientific Jews and Christians believed that the child grew from a seed provided by the father. The mother’s womb was simply fertile ground in which this seed could grow. After it became accepted that a child grows from both mother and father, the Catholic Church had a theological dilemma. Theologians decided that through a miracle, Mary was born without sin. This is called the Immaculate Conception. Evangelicals do not believe in the Immaculate Conception, but offer no clear alternative. (31)

As humans go, my ability to hold unquestioned assumptions is not unusual at all.
In childhood and adolescence, each of us spends years building a world view, a mental house that we can live in comfortably for the rest of our lives. This is a process that psychologists call identity development.
The deep structure of this house includes our basic ethnic identity, political orientation, religious beliefs, occupational goals, and moral framework. As adults, most of us do at least some cosmetic remodeling— shifting our priorities and fine tuning our values—but it’s rather unusual for an adult to go back and re-excavate the foundation. Unless a life event, often something traumatic like a divorce or a death or a failed career or emotional breakdown, opens up cracks in the deep structures, we normally limit demolition and reconstruction to the upper stories. Constantly remodeling our foundational assumptions is simply too costly from the standpoint of emotional energy and life disruption. The earlier a foundation block was set in place, the more expensive it is to dig it out. (42)

Catholics who believe in biblical inerrancy are at least logically consistent. They believe that God grants infallibility at times to the church hierarchy and that he did so during the process of canonization. For Evangelicals to insist on biblical inerrancy is bizarre. Evangelicals repudiate the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and God’s control of Roman Catholic history. In other words, they reject the very processes that brought their Bible into existence while at the same time claiming that the end product of those processes is perfect. (49)

Jesus promises that his followers will do greater works than he did (John 14:12). He walked on water, healed the blind and deaf and raised the dead. They do not. (61)

He promises that if he dies, all men will be drawn unto him (John 12:32). Yet untold millions have lived and died without ever hearing anything about Jesus. (61)

Jesus tells his followers: “Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:7–8, Luke 11:9–10). Yet many ex- Christians tell of years spent praying to have their doubts removed before they finally abandoned the faith. (61)

Fundamentalism teaches, in effect, that the tattered musings of our ancestors, those human words that so poorly represent the content of human thinking, somehow adequately describe God. (64)

If, on the other hand, the Bible is the perfect revelation of an unchanging God to humankind, then he feels the same as those early writers about females, homosexuals, and foreigners, and a host of social issues like privileged blood lines, vengeance, and slavery. People who commit themselves to biblical literalism should know what this means. (65)

The writer of Proverbs complains that a nagging wife is like the relentless dripping of rain. He says that it is better to live in a corner of the housetop, or even in the wilderness, than in a big home with a contentious woman (Prov. 21, 25, 27). The Bible contains no analogous complaints about obnoxious husbands because there are no female writers. (67)

Which is more likely:
.. That the God who created the universe, the laws of physics, and sexual reproduction commands that one gender be subservient to the other
.. Or that males, being more aggressive, status oriented, and physically stronger than females set up the rules that way? (72)

Our natural tendency is to value our countrymen and co-religionists more than others, and we expect God’s loyalties to reflect our own. How many times have you seen a sign that says, “God Bless America?” How many times have you seen one that says, “God Bless the World?”
So think about it. Which is more likely:
.. That the God of the universe has a favorite bloodline of humans and intervenes in tribal disputes in their favor
.. Or that members of each tribal group and culture including the descendants of Abraham, think of themselves as the most important and assume that their god shares their bias? (73)

As a child, I was taught that pain and death came into the world by way of sin, the very first sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. We did it to ourselves and to all those animals too. However, according to the book of Genesis and to modern creationists, God had created the animals well before that first act of disobedience, every species that now exists, including, one must assume, those predators with all of their specialized equipment. What was he thinking? (92)

The God of the Old Testament has a different character than the God of the New Testament, who in turn has a different character than the God of Evangelicalism.
To those who would argue that the differences lie in my imagination, or in the imagination of the Jews or the Mormons, I would say, simply, go read the book. Read it as if you were a literary critic, looking for a consistent character, one who doesn’t grow or change or behave inconsistently during the course of the story, since an unchanging God would not. (110)

Hemorrhoids plague the men of any city that houses the stolen Ark of the Covenant. (Yes, hemorrhoids, also translated variously as tumors, tumors of the groin, boils, emerods, and hemorrhoids in their secret parts. See 1 Sam. 5:9-12. The scriptwriters failed to make use of this little-known fact in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) (114)

The miracles of the Old Testament certainly fit the times. They fit the tribal divisions and loyalties of the region. They fit the hierarchical patriarchy of the Hebrew culture. They fit the primitive sense of eye-for-an-eye justice that existed at the time. They fit the level of medical and scientific understanding of the epoch. They fit all of these, but do they fit any image of omniscience, omnipotence, ultimate goodness, ultimate love, ultimate mercy or justice? (115)

ON A WARM SPRING DAY IN THE HIGHLANDS OF SRI LANKA, A YOUNG WOMAN invited two strangers, my husband and me, into her house for tea. She had a degree in sociology, was an old maid at age 28, and was fulfilling an eldest daughter’s obligation to care for her aging father. As her rural home offered few opportunities for meeting prospective husbands, she welcomed any company with a view of the outside world. We looked through photo albums of her student days, and talk shifted to the interplay of culture, politics, and religion. “We don’t really like Christians,” she commented apologetically at one point. “Christianity is so violent.”
I had an “aha!” experience, one of those flashes that reconfigures your mental world, taking information and organizing it into a pattern that, with perfect hindsight, is as obvious as the hidden picture in a child’s book of puzzles. Some people, when they have these flashes, figure out the double helix pattern of DNA or the mechanism of natural selection or something equally world-changing. Not me. I simply saw the crucifix through the eyes of a cultural Buddhist, a Buddhist by birth.
Imagine spending your life surrounded by sacred human images. They almost all are the same human, the wisest of humans, sitting with legs crossed, or standing, or lying on his side, calmly awaiting natural death. His face looks wise and peaceful. His aura is one of serenity. His hands are held in traditional gestures, mudras, symbolizing teaching, meditation, overcoming evil, rising beyond pain and yearning, calling the earth to witness enlightenment.
Now imagine that one day foreigners arrive, bringing their own sacred human image, a contorted human nailed to a lethal instrument of torture. This, the foreigners tell you, symbolizes a higher, holier religion than the one of your childhood.
If that strikes no dissonant chords, try a less familiar alternative: the foreigners come bearing an image of a young man bound, his body bent over a stone altar. Above him, a priest, dagger in one hand, holds high in the other hand the young man’s heart. Now imagine they tell you the same thing.
I draw the analogy between the crucifixion and Aztec ritual knowingly. Cultural details and nuances aside, they both define, ultimately, the worship of a God who requires human sacrifice. (129-30)

As terrible as the crucifixion sounded to me as a child, I harbored secret, guilty thoughts: If you know you’re gonna die but be alive again in three days, what’s such a big deal about that? If you sacrifice your son but you know he’s going to rise again—so what? The big thing about death is that it lasts. So death without death isn’t really death, is it? OK, Jesus suffered a lot. But if you knew you could save everybody who ever lived from forever in hell by getting crucified and then dying—but only for three days, wouldn’t you do it? I mean, what kind of person wouldn’t? (131)

Philosophers have long debated the question of whether belief can be a choice, whether humans have the ability to “will belief.” Many argue that belief is involuntary. Seeking more information might certainly be a matter of choice, but once the information enters your brain and gets synthesized, it produces either belief or disbelief spontaneously. Our brains process the available data, and either we believe or we don’t. (145)

In spite of all of our biases, we generally agree that belief should strive to reflect truth. A person is respected for believing the evidence, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. When someone acknowledges a failing or admits to causing harm and then fixes it, we call this integrity. We feel sorry for the mother who discloses that her child is engaged in criminal activity and we give her credit for the admission. We admire the patient who deals with his cancer diagnosis square on: asking questions, preparing for death, and putting his affairs in order. We want our judges to set aside their own personal feelings and to make decisions based on the facts. We wish our politicians would do the same.
Now return to Evangelical Christianity. If the most pure, moral, unbiased kind of belief is that which seeks truth, then belief is simply the outcome when we weigh the evidence. It is not voluntary, it is not a choice. Something makes sense, or it doesn’t. Something fits the evidence, or it doesn’t. Evangelical teachings may seem logical and may fit the experience of some. Others weigh the evidence, and the outcome is disbelief. How, then, can belief be the ultimate moral decision when, in fact, it is not a decision?
Some Evangelicals argue that unbelievers don’t believe because they don’t want to. Unbelievers don’t want moral accountability; their wills are hardened against God. They are biased by their desire to live in sin, and their bias blinds them to God’s truth. Under these assumptions, no one who persists in unbelief after being exposed to the gospel is a genuine truth-seeker. A truth-seeker would recognize and embrace the truth of the Good News when exposed to it. Hence, lack of belief is a moral issue and one worthy of eternal judgment. But I can attest, from my own personal experience and from hundreds of published testimonials that there are people who want to believe and find it impossible. Some struggle but fail to hold on to a Christianity they find morally and intellectually contradictory. Others seek truth, wherever it may lie, and find Christian orthodoxy to be less credible than other religions or none at all. (145)

Many believers live out their lives without weighing the full implications of their notions about the afterlife. One day my daughter pointed out an irony. “Mama,” she called out. I walked into the playroom where she was busily cutting, pasting, and as it turned out, thinking about the newspaper she’d seen in the morning.
“Are those soldiers over in Iraq Christians?”
“Most of them. Why?”
“That’s really bad! They think those Iraqi people are going to hell, and they kill them anyhow and send them there right away!”
What could I say? (154-5)

My children, between ages three and seven, spontaneously generated most of the types of religious ideology that I’ve ever heard or read about. They were animists, with tree spirits and rock spirits watching them and sacred mammals swimming the seas. At times, little forest guardians lived under mushrooms and angels protected them at night. They were pantheists: god was in everything; all that they saw and touched and smelled and ate was part of the body of god. They were polytheists with different (human-like) gods for different functions. One became briefly monotheistic, adopting a father in the heavens and then deciding she didn’t like having her god be male. The other declared after much thought that the earth itself was her god because it brought forth life and received the dead.
My elder daughter came to a dead stop on the front walk one day. “What if our lives, all the things we do, are like one big performance? Maybe we’re in a play and God is sitting and watching it.” She dropped her lunch bag and began dancing around the yard, singing loudly. I rubbed my eyes. If human history isn’t convincing enough, childhood says it loudly and clearly: humans are inherently religious. (160)

The perverse thought that struck me as a teen was this: If dying young guarantees a kid a place in heaven, why would anybody let his or her child cross that line? I mean, if this life is really just a drop of water in a sea of eternity, and if you can guarantee that your kids are going to spend that eternity in bliss just by doing them in right before, say, their thirteenth birthdays …? I think my sister was about thirteen at the time, which may have something to do with why these questions came up when they did, but as far as I can tell, the logic holds.
I knew, of course, that killing children, even thirteen year olds, is usually considered bad. Quite bad. In fact, normally it’s considered murder, which violates the sixth of the Ten Commandments. But if we believe the Bible, God himself told Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his son. And Abraham’s willingness is considered a good thing. So there must be exceptions. (161)

Some believers argue that the concept of the noble savage applies only to those who haven’t heard the way of salvation. Once someone is exposed to Christianity, then that person is saved only by embracing it. If that is the case, I can’t help but think that one does a disservice by exposing people to Christianity in the first place. Those hundreds of Wycliffe Bible Translators who are busy translating the Bible into unwritten languages should pack their bags and come home. What if, say, because it is culturally alien, or because Westerners happen to have slaughtered one’s relatives, or because the whole notion is presented badly, someone who would otherwise qualify as a noble savage rejects the Good News? Is it not conceivable? In this case the missionary’s great sacrifices have managed only to secure eternal damnation for the people he or she is working to save. (169)

Not surprisingly, psychological research shows that parental views are a powerful factor in religious identity development.1 Religion is typically a family affair, modeled by parents and practiced with them.2 Because of this, parents influence religious orientation even more than they influence many other aspects of adult identity. All over the world and throughout history, barring some dramatic event like the Conquest or Constantine’s conversion of the Roman Empire, most people end up holding similar religious beliefs to those of their parents. That’s why we can identify Buddhist countries or Muslim regions or the Christian West.
People don’t tend to evaluate religions objectively and independently when they reach adulthood, even when exposed to several alternatives. (172)

If something people can’t control, such as when and where they are born, determines whether they end up Christian, and if certain Christian beliefs determine their fate, then how can believers argue that God is just? (172)

My own experiences paled by comparison, which may be one reason the hypocrisy around me never posed a threat to my faith. Still, some early memories do jump out: One narcissistic minister saw our youth group outings as his own chance to have a good time. He insisted on being first in line whenever we got the opportunity to water ski or play pinball or race go carts, even if he displaced kids patiently waiting in line. (178)

By their fruit ye shall know them (Matthew 7:20 KJV). If someone who previously seemed to be a real Christian does something bad, really bad, then his or her faith wasn’t real. Check the book of Matthew. What this means is that the bad behavior of individual believers doesn’t call into question belief in general, it just calls into question their salvation. As a desperate bulimic college student, I made a suicide attempt. After I recovered, a woman who had been my Bible study leader and spiritual mentor through high school asked to pay me a visit. She sat down with me and my parents and then apologized for having counseled me as a Christian when obviously I was not. I’m afraid I didn’t react too well to her apology. (180)

Modern Evangelicalism is characterized not by the humility of Jesus, but by the hubris of Constantine. Its goal is to convert the empire. Blazing forward with righteous confidence, Evangelicals are promoting their faith on the public airwaves and in public schools, using public financing to impose a literalist moral code on North American society. (183)

It is a grave mistake to think that the Inquisition or the Southern lynchings or the Rwandan genocide were committed by people who were fundamentally different from us. Soul-scarred Vietnam veterans have tried repeatedly to tell us: You don’t know what you’re capable of until you are there. Only when all of us recognize our own potential for evil, do we have some power to guard against it. (206)

My New Testament is 197 pages long. If the Bible is God’s inerrant word, even if it is merely his inspired word, God could have chosen to avert the butchery described in this and the previous chapter with a few very explicit lines condemning the behavior of the Patriarchs, disavowing divine approval of their atrocities or prohibiting future holy war. These lines could have replaced, for example, the peculiar story of Jesus cursing a fig tree that failed to bear fruit out of season. The fact that Jesus of the Gospels was silent on this issue has spoken volumes to his followers during 2,000 years. Holy genocide remained, and remains to this day, a biblical option. (210)

Many Evangelicals say that there is no such thing as a path from authentic faith to none. They say that once someone has truly accepted salvation by the blood of Christ, that person is saved thereafter no matter how much he or she may sin, doubt, or otherwise fall from grace. Conversely, they say that if someone becomes a non-Christian, then that person’s salvation was never sincere.
But to deny I was a Christian in my youth renders the term Christian meaningless. My faith was my moral center; it provided my community and the core of my identity. It channeled my dreams and structured my beliefs about myself, others, and the world. Likewise, to insist that somehow I am saved still by my youthful acceptance of Christ as my savior would be the height of injustice for my fellow nonbelievers and for me. It denies the knowing, volitional choice of my adulthood. I am an ex-Christian. (251)

Many are angry: bitter about lost years, about judgments that were heaped upon them, about abuse that they heaped on themselves for their doubts. Some have been ridiculed or punished for asking innocent questions. Some have suffered the hypocrisy of Christ’s followers at their worst, falling victim to physical, emotional, or sexual violations by members-in-good-standing of their pious communities. As a result, they bear wounds not only from violence but from betrayal. And yet, outside of their church communities, many ex-believers feel lost, cut off from people they have loved and from rituals that once fed their sense of beauty and soul.
Gradually, though, turmoil eases, and wanderers discover that they have emerged into a reality that requires no denial, no contortion, no constant patching of dikes to keep the seas of experience and reason from tearing through a hallowed nether land. They look back on their past beliefs with the incredulity of ex-cultists. “I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers,” asserts one boldly, defiantly. (253-4)

I myself am content living in a universe with no gods, content trusting that the forces of nature and of the human spirit are what our best experience and reason reveal them to be. (255)

Were these marvels intentional? Were they meant to be “good” as we define goodness? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t make them less wonderful or less real. A mountain peak need not have been made for the purpose of inspiring awe, delight, humility or a profound sense of worship, in order to have all of those effects. (256)

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