A Review of Valerie Tarico's Book, "The Dark Side."

Valerie Tarico is a team member here at DC and we just traded books. I don’t think her book, The Dark Side, is gaining the audience it deserves, so I want to recommend it.

As a former Christian with a Ph.D in Psychology this is an admirable book for her intended audience. The focus of her book is described in the subtitle to it: “How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth,” and she does an admirable job of showing this. It is not written for Christian apologists or scholars, knowledgeable skeptics or people well versed in their faith, although I myself learned a few things from it. It doesn’t deal with the arguments for the existence of God, the problems with an incarnate God, or the resurrection of Jesus, which would’ve made this a much better book. Its focus is mainly on the Biblical teachings themselves and how they “counter both reason and morality.” (p. 38). I liked the fact that she doesn’t make any exaggerated claims about her book.

Her book is written in an easy to read conversational style and respectful tone from a unique female Psychologist’s perspective that is rare among debunkers. It would be potentially doubt-producing if placed into the hands of the average Christian sitting in the pew. It's probably intended to be a resource for people who were teetering on the edge of Evangelicalism (either on their way in or way out) and who hadn’t thought a whole lot the moral and rational implications about what evangelicals teach. As such, her book may be more dangerous to the Christian faith than many other books in the same genre, since she targets her audience so well.

She tells her personal story of her deconversion which can be read here. She describes how she moved from “certainties to questions,” which is a story similar in kind to many of us. She briefly describes what evangelicals believe and how they inherited their beliefs (via Catholicism and Protestantism) in their attempt to reform Protestantism. But the distinguishing difference is that Evangelicalism is derived from “the extraordinary status given to the Bible by Evangelicals.” (p. 37). Turning to the Bible she tells how the Old Testament and New Testament came to be, and how scholars study the Bible, which might be eye-opening to many Christian people. She provides evidence showing how the Bible “contradicts science,” how Biblical commands “oppose each other,” how images of God “conflict with each other,” how the Bible stories themselves “contradict each other,” and argues that the Biblical prophecies and promises “don’t stand up” to scrutiny.

Without going into detail in arguing for these claims of hers, she turns instead to how Christians argue against them. She writes, “a whole industry has sprung up to convince believers and non-believers alike that these difficulties are inconsequential.” She quotes from Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, where he tells his readers that when looking at the Bible one must first assume God inspired the authors and preserved them from error or mistake. Then she writes, “Archer says, essentially that the reader must start the process of inquiry by assuming a certain outcome. Don’t look for the most likely hypothesis suggested by the evidence, he says, nor the one that is most likely straightforward or reasonable. Start by believing that a certain conclusion is already true…Examine the evidence through the lens of that conclusion…Ask yourself, ‘What explanations or interpretations can I come up with that would allow me to maintain my belief that these texts are not contradictory?’ If you can find any at all, then you have succeeded in your task. By implication, if you cannot, the problem lies with you, not the text. Archer’s approach, in almost any other field of inquiry, would be considered preposterous.” (pp. 62-63). I wholeheartedly agree.

Tarico offers up some hard questions for those Evangelicals who believe the Bible. She does this with regard to science and the Bible, the Adam and Eve story, human and animal suffering, the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the Christian belief in heaven and hell, and the problem of those who have never heard the gospel. I don’t believe these questions, upon deeper investigation, can be satisfactorily answered by Evangelicals.

Tarico devotes one section (37 pages) to the hypocrisies and injustices done in the name of the Christian faith by professing Christians. She mentions the Crusades, the Inquisition, Slavery, the witch hunts, the slaughter of American Natives, and something so simple as the selfish prayers of the saints. She critically examines the excuses Christians offer in response and argues this violence is not just a thing of the past, as can be seen in America’s previous “cold war” against “godless communism,” and the Iraqi war. She also argues against the idea that our morals come from the Bible, since “all societies produce guidelines they treat as moral absolutes whether they attribute these to one god, to many gods, or to none.” (p. 194).

In my opinion she is at her best when writing about the morality and the psychology of religious belief. She describes how irrational and external factors affect what people believe, like when and where a person is born, which she calls, “the luck of the draw.” She argues this is contrary to justice, since God supposedly sends people to hell because of what people believe. She describes why wrong beliefs survive, why smart people defend them, and why Evangelical beliefs are hard to shake. She argues there are methods by which people can protect against such biases, based on evidence and science.

When it comes to false superstitious and religious beliefs, Tarico claims “it doesn’t take very many false assumptions to send us on a long goose chase.” To illustrate this she tells us about the mental world of a paranoid schizophrenic. To such a person the perceived persecution by others sounds real. “You can sit, as a psychiatrist, with a diagnostic manual next to you, and think: as bizarre as it sounds, the CIA really is bugging this guy. The arguments are tight, the logic persuasive, the evidence organized into neat files. All that is needed to build such an impressive house of illusion is a clear, well-organized mind and a few false assumptions. Paranoid individuals can be very credible.” (p. 221-22). This is what Christians do, and this is why it’s hard to shake the Evangelical faith, in her informed opinion.

Tarico ends her book by describing herself as “Coming home,” where she is “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 themselves to be.” (p. 255).

Reflecting on her case she reasonably concludes that "much of what is wrong with Evangelicalism is not mere hypocricy or distortion of Christian doctrine. The evils Evangelicalism promotes are as much a part of the Bible and Christian history as are goodness and love. The problems lie in the traditional teachings themselves and refusal of church authorities to question them."

She continues: "Virtually all of the harm that Christianity has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate comes from one crucial problem: a failure to understand the Bible itself: the historical context in which its manuscripts were penned, the ways they relate to earlier religious writings, and the very human decisions that compiled them into a book that many now call the Word of God. Without this understanding, the Bible can be seen as timeless and perfect, and rigid adherence to its commands can provide a substitute for nuanced moral judgment." (p. 250). Again, she's right on target.

I liked this book. I could only wish more people would buy it, read it and give copies away for others to read.

7 comments:

Hallq said...

>It doesn’t deal with the arguments for the existence of God, the problems with an incarnate God, or the resurrection of Jesus, which would’ve made this a much better book.

Sheesh, don't expect one book to do everything. We've had enough books critiquing religion that try to do everything. If we insist every book be like that, we'll get a lot of diluted material that's never manages to provide the masterful treatment of a narrow topic that this book appears to provide.

Blair in KC said...

I'll tell you what corrupts love and truth.

The atheistic claim that there is no truth and that love is just a biochemical reacton in the organic brain.

In fact, from an atheistic perspective you are simply a bag of chemicals.

(And if you say atheists have no beliefs, they just "lack belief in God" then such beliefs as you profess, whatever they are, don't have anything to do with atheism, so who cares?)

Keith Sader said...

Do you have a quote for those claims Blair, because it sounds like you're making stuff up.

A-theism - without theism. If you want to quibble with definitions start your own blog.

What corrupts love and truth is exactly what is described in this post i.e. begging the question.

I have lots of beliefs as an atheist, I just don't believe that stone age tribal deities have much relevance to morality or goodness.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Welcome to the discussions, Blair. I see you have scattered brief comments through some of the earlier threads. (You might check out some of my posts on moraliy in the April and May archives. I don't check their comments often enough, so it might take me time to get back to you.)

I am surprised -- as I always am -- when a believer thinks that athiests "claim that there is no truth." In fact, the one most common trait among the athiests I know -- here and elsewhere -- might be a firm belief in truth, in the idea that truth is reached by examining the evidence, but coming as close as possibly to 'what actually happened.' (There are some 'post-modernists,' some of whom claim to be athiests, who would argue that 'all truth is subjective,' but none of the members here -- as far as I know -- would accept that. Certainly I would condemn it as an abysmal horror.)

It is, in fact, our love for the truth -- and our belief in the importance of truth -- that drives us to spend hours reading and researching the topics we do. (I have hundreds of hours of television backed up to watch, and the closing of a local bookstore has already added almost fifty mysteries, science fiction, and regular novels to my "read next" list. You think that even the most well-written books on theology and history would be as enjoyable as them?)

Remember, a lot of us -- not me, this time -- were firm believers in the truth of Christianity, were preachers of that 'truth' and began our researches specifically so we'd have more weapons to use in demonstrating that truth. Only we found, as we did our research, that it wasn't the truth, we found the contradictions, the lack of evidence for so many biblical events, the source of ideas we thought were original to Christianity.

But what you might be confusing is the difference between our belief in an objective world that exists outside our consciousness -- i.e., 'truth' -- and our belief that humanity's understanding of that objective world is a progressive thing. We know more about the way the world works than our ancestors -- and our descendants will discover our errors as they learn ever more. We have access to better sources for our investigation of history that did people even a couple of decades ago -- and, sadly, we can only investigate what actually happened in the past through sources. Nobody has, or is likely to, invent a time machine or time viewer so we can 'go look for ourselves.' (I'd love to go back to the Jerusalem and Galillee of the NT and see what was really going on, but I can't. I'd find I was wrong about some things, and, I believe, right about more. I wonder if you'd be willing to give your beliefs this 'ultimate test' as well, but I can hope you would.)

So again I welcome you. Maybe you can show us things we haven't seen or understood. Only if you 'come along for the ride' do us a favor. Check our sources. See why we believe what we do, and why we disbelieve what we do. Challenge us, but not by sneering, by seeing where our ideas come from.

Welcome aboard. It's a difficult ride, but, you know, it might be as much fun as anything you can do outside of bed.

(I'll comment on your 'bag of chemicals' error later -- I hope -- but the 'real world' of cat feeding and shopping trips is intruding.)

Anonymous said...

The "average Christian" I hope, would have better things to spend $19.95 on. Nice promo.

Blair in KC said...

I can hardly wait to see your explanation of why you are not a bag of chemicals!

Of course, in doing so you will merely be vocalizing the electrochemcial impulses bouncing back and forth between the various chemicals in the bag, and will undoubedtly present truth.

As you see it, of course.

And of course we all know how much you are concerned with telling the truth, now don't we?

As to getting on the ride, not much suprises me, as both my family and I have already been taken for a ride by atheists.

Catch ya later!

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Blair:
Before I discuss the 'bag of chemicals' question, I want to ask you to clarify what you meant by your comment "we all know how much you are concerned with telling the truth, now don't we?" and to request that you either deny the implications of it or back them up.

In my time here, 'telling the truth' has been my major concern. I may have made mistakes, certainly, but, to the best of my knowledge I have never told a deliberate untruth.

If you can show any place where I have, I wish you would. If not, I think a small apology would be required. (If you are referring to a recent controversy, please take a look at the only comment I made on it.)