January 23, 2021

Dr. Valerie Tarico- Non-theists and Evangelicals: The IM Interview

valerie_publicity_photo_4x5_rgb__1__fall_06_ht8q_52s7I 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 www.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 www.spaces.msn.com/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 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 vs 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 youth group 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 cultural or religious context. 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 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.

NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS AND DISCUSSION: I will ban- not moderate- but ban immediately anyone who is disrespectful in language or content in their comments. (IM commenting guidelines are under the FAQ tab, #10.) Angry evangelicals and angry non-theists be warned. I will not allow anyone to remain in the discussion who seeks to psychologically explain away another person’s experience, demean or insult a belief system, nor will we be evangelizing or ridiculing, etc. Further, I am not looking to sponsor the kind of debate that goes on with the Triabloggers, etc. This interview is about non-theists and their perceptions of evangelicals. Obviously, we don’t agree, but obviously as well, Dr. Tarico has brought up many points that concern many of us in this readership. Keep the focus on the interview and be respectful to the person and we will be fine.


  1. I found her assumptions insulting at several points. The most memorable was when she said that it would grieve her to see her children to become Christians because it might squash their compassion and replace it with mere ideology. The core moral teaching of Jesus is the primacy of love. That is one of my favorite “unique points” of Christianity: that love is given the prime spot in morality straight from the founder’s mouth. Love is even held to be the true nature of God. If Christianity has made contributions to the world’s moral discussion, the primacy of love would be among them.

    Take care & God bless

    • Mountain Humanist says

      I think we have to admit that compassion is not the exclusive domain of any belief system. Every belief system has had its moments of hatred, violence and intolerance. Even Jesus is made to say by the gospel writers (the question of what, if anything a historical Jesus may have said is still up for scholarly discussion): “Luke 14:26 (New International Version) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

      The (at least theoretical) command to love did not only come from Jesus’ mouth but also (reportedly) from the mouth of the Buddha and even Muhammad said similar things.

      The author’s point is valid in that conversion might (stress might) lead a child to become close-minded and exclusitivistic in their attitudes. I have certainly seen much anecdotal evidence of this. To be fair, I also know of several Christian children who are compassionate and kind but the issue of whether or not a child is loving seems to stem more from their parents genetic predisposition and upbringing. I have known brats from all belief systems.

    • Ways of living out our response to Christ’s call on our lives vary widely, and Dr. Tarico’s desire for her children to not embrace certain expressions of Christianity which have unloving effects seems sensible.

      I have seen such expressions of Christianity at close hand and whilst they can be internally consistent and compelling, their external (and, often, internal) effects are plainly self or group focussed and un-loving in their treatment of others.

      To have a problem with such forms of Christianity is not to reject all others or Christ.

  2. Dr. Tarico’s answers to your questions are thoughtful and thought-provoking. I particularly appreciate the way the entire interview highlights the fact that non-believers are not necessarily indifferent to morality — many, indeed, are keenly concerned with right living. I agree with WF that summing up Christ’s ongoing work in the world through His body as participation in “mere ideology” misses the real and living message not only of what He said (and continues to say) but also of how He lived and how faithful followers of Him struggle, earnestly, to live, with love grounded in truth as the highest priority.
    My own life experience of faith is interestingly opposite to Dr. Tarico’s: I was raised functionally atheist/agnostic. I had no interest in the Bible, and a very cynical opinion of Christians and Christianity. In my mid-30s I met someone whom I found attractive enough that I wanted to find out if I could believe what he did: that Jesus is Lord. So, I began reading the gospels for the first time, with a decidedly un-spiritual motive, and was surprised to discover that I found Jesus believable. Since that time of first receiving faith by hearing the word as I read it silently, on my own, I have weathered about 11 years of turbulent personal stuff and gradual growth in clarity about who Jesus is, what he is telling us, how to participate in the life of his Body, and so on. Like Dr. Tarico, I’m wary of bibliolatry and ancestor worship, but I continue to find the word of God as contained in the Scriptures to be astonishingly full of life and timeless wisdom and deep, deep nourishment — I don’t see the NT as outdated in the least, although I’m aware that we tend, humanly speaking, to misunderstand it at times.
    I’m also very much aware of how terribly unloving “churchianity” can be, and in fact I left a largish non-denominational church about a year ago b/c I believed, deeply, that Jesus had something else for me — not a different faith, by any means, but a different way of living it out, in a real experience of loving and truthful fellowship with brothers and sisters. I’m beginning to experience real freedom in Christ, after having experienced some pretty oppressive stuff which was carried out in Christ’s name but often, sadly, without his authority and love. I’ll offer a some reading recommendations to Dr. Tarico, which might be of use: Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity, as well as Re-imagining Church and the forthcoming Finding Organic Church. But more importantly, I’d offer the recommendation to her, with all respect and good will, that she keep an open mind about Jesus, and open ears to what he is still saying, which hasn’t changed in spite of all the atrocious or sometimes just foolish and immature things his followers have said and done over the last couple of thousand years. Thanks for doing the interview. I’m glad to have read it.

  3. Atheist Mike says

    I am also a “non-theist” and aspire to become as articulate and gentle as Dr. Tarico. I have never visited this website before, but I want to commend Michael Spencer for opening the dialog and encouraging CIVIL discussion between Christians and non-theists.

    One quick comment on the criticism offered by Weekend Fisher: I think the compassion Dr. Tarico was worried about the children losing was their compassion towards animals. Most religions, including Christianity I think, place humans at a special place in the universe and all other animals as lesser, rather than believing we are all just evolutionary accidents of nature and humans have no special “rights”. Many religions manifest this by sacrificing animals to appease their god.

    Thank you again for the opportunity iMonk!


  4. It is important to realize that some Evangelicals adopt specific terms and non-standard meanings for words… which complicates dialogue immensely.
    A few examples:
    “love” is synonymous with uncritical obedience.
    “truth” is revelation based on authority, as opposed to logic (in the technical sense of logic).
    “logic/proof” is just a chain of apparently plausible inferences.
    “blessed” just means successful/fortunate (any success is a sign of God’s favor… very Calvinist actually).
    ect… ect…

    On a bit different note…
    Many (if not all) Evangelicals hold up the Bible as the ultimate revelation… but isn’t Creation itself a more fundamental revelation? Where a literal reading of the Bible conflicts with truths evident in the world, it seems to me (and most non-theists I would suspect) that there is simply no contest. If you believe in a Creator God or not, the world is the ultimate revelation (actually given to all, unlike any text claiming to be Special Revelation). The Bible (repeatedly) claims to be revelation, the world simply *is*. The Bible (and the church) insist upon their authority, but anyone can inspect the natural world themselves and discover truth.

    • Good point about confusing terms, in particular equating “love” with uncritical obedience — yet it’s also important to remember that many “evangelicals” and “post-evangelicals” retain their faith in spite of abuses w/in the visible/institutional church system, and many such people are walking away from the system *because* they have been reading the bible and *because* they believe in Jesus. In other words, the bible actually *does* sternly critique the very kinds of unloving religiosity that modern-day non-believers point to when they find fault with “Christians” and Christianity. In other words, far from being uncritically obedient to a man-made religious structure/system, many followers of Christ are assessing that system in light of what the bible says, and finding the system wanting — not finding Jesus wanting.
      Another good point about the Creation itself being a revelation — the question is, what does it reveal? Again, the bible has much to say about this. The Creation itself may, as you suggest, be a more fundamental revelation than the bible, but I haven’t thought that notion through enough to want to express an opinion about it. I do think, however, that the Bible, in some sense, simply *is*, too, just as the world simply *is*. There’s no denying the fact that the bible exists in great varieties of forms and formats and in great quantities throughout the world.

      • I can’t pretend to know what is meant by “love” to all or even most Evangelicals. The radio ministries broadcast throughout central California are my most common window into that community.

        As for the primacy of the Creation (material reality) over the Bible as a source of revelation…
        The Bible is at very best second hand. It claims to be the word of God (suspiciously insistent on it actually), but offers no proof other than the ‘facts’ it presents in reference to itself.

        The world offers primary evidence which anyone may independently inspect themselves. If you don’t believe me that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, you are perfectly free (encouraged actually) to measure the decay rates of radio isotopes, verify that those decay rates should be constant (and apparently are) based on everything else humanity has discovered about atomic nuclei, and that the oldest rocks we find on Earth are about 4.3 billion years old. That is a lot of work… it took many lifetimes to originally do, but it can be (and has been) independently verified.

        Anyway, science is a method of inferring (tentative) truths about the natural world (Creation). Scientific claims do no require you trust them. In fact, the process of science hinges on challenging and testing claims.
        In contrast, Biblical “truth” rests only on trusting the authority of the Bible. I’ll readily agree that many Christians (especially American Protestants) have a long tradition on questioning the authority of the Church, yet accept the authority of a collection of old stories and books of law on their own say-so.

        I like to quip that someone claiming to hear the voice of God would most likely be considered insane today… but a story written 1900 (give or take a few 100) years ago claiming to be the word of God is considered true because it says so. I suppose that some people would conclude that we are far to skeptical of “prophets” these days, but just take a look at the collection of people claiming personal divine revelation in the last several decades and how many of them were obviously evil and/or insane and managed to gather a following none the less.

  5. Am I alone in seeing in these words a threat ? Dr. Tarico writes:”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. ” Since Dr. Tarico obviously thinks we are wrong are her words not a call to state persecution of Christians? If they are not help me understand why they are not.

    • I can’t speak for Dr. Tarico, obviously, but it doesn’t seem to me that she is, at all, calling for state persecution of anyone. I think she is saying that society has an obligation to look out for the people who are vulnerable in society (i.e- children), and that if an organization is harming those vulnerable members, society has an obligation to investigate and interfere if necessary.

      Investigation and interference can be unpleasant, but that is hardly persecution- or at least persecutation as I understand it to mean. Being challenged or even made uncomfortable for your beliefs isn’t persecution.

      • Gregory DeVore says

        If you are not permitted to practice your religious beliefs including the practice of indoctrinating your children in the faith that is by my belief persecution. Granted being challanged is not persecution, granted being made uncomfortable isnt persecution but being hindered in your efforts to transmit your faith to your children is persecution.

        • I believe Dr. Tarico is simply calling for society to stop giving to religion, and for religions to stop expecting, special dispensation in their treatment of children. The right to freely transmit religion to one’s children has many times been used to excuse things that would otherwise be considered neglectful, dangerous or even abusive, and in my interpretation she is only asserting that we must stop allowing that.

          Situations of physical abuse in the name of religion are rather clear-cut, and society and the law are increasingly willing to intervene on a child’s behalf. We cannot, however, stop at physical acts–if we acknowledge that words can be abusive, we also must evaluate the words of religion. We must ask why it’s cruel to tell a child “If you misbehave, the monsters in the closet will eat you,” but loving to tell him “If you misbehave, you’ll burn forever in hell.” And most important, we must consider the very process of shaping thoughtful, capable adults. Just because a parent disapproves of nonmarital sex, is it right for him to actively keep his teenagers from learning information that could help them stay safe should they choose a different path? Is it right to shelter a child to such a degree that he’s much less likely to develop critical thinking skills? They’re not easy questions, but they’re fair and important.

          • What Dr. Tarico and Sarah and Dawn are advocating is nothing new or odd in our world. China does not allow parents to bring their children to Christian church. Home education is illegal in most european countries. A father in Germany had his children removed from him by the state for home educating his daughter because she was being taught darwinian evolution as fact and sexual education practices at the state run school. The whole notion of a hands off state in the affairs of religion and children is an anomaly in world history. Less than 150 years ago Baptists were arrested for not having their children baptized in many euro countries that had state religions. The 1st president of Harvard was fired for not having his daughter baptized. Christians, especially Baptists, have been able to enjoy a short window of freedom that is now closing once again. I think Dr. Tarico has the best of intentions, but using the power of the state to mold one’s societal intentions always has a loss of freedom for others.

            We must protect children from real abuse, especially physical abuse, a lack of medical care, and yes education as well. But parents do love their children more than strangers do. Once we cross the road and attempt to enforce our belief structure onto others we disagree with by using the power of the state then we are no longer free.

  6. Mountain Humanist says

    Thanks to Michale Spencer for being willing to bridge the relational gap between non-believers and believers. I am someone who has crossed that bridge, going from a fundamentalist, Baptist ordained minister (part-time) to a secular humanist. As far as I can tell, my level of compassion and commitment to a morality based on mutual respect and non-harmfulness is about the same as most Christians I know. In short, morality is the result of several factors and religious beliefs is only one of those.

  7. Dear Greg,

    I hope you are alone (in feeling threatened by Tarico’s words). There is nothing wrong, incorrect nor confusing in what Dr. Tarico says. Why don’t you just listen to what people say?

    No, those words are not a threat to Christians.

    However, they are a threat to any behavior that causes harm with no justifiable reason (where reason means reasonable, not just having an excuse).
    If such a behavior is typical for some Christians, Mormons or Atheists, society should stop them. It does not mean fighting Christians, Mormons or Atheists. Just fighting some particular wrong-doing.

    That’s basically what she says. She could not possibly be any clearer. And she could not possibly be more right.

    I decide not to insult your intellect by actually explaining it to you any further (hence I am deleting 3 more illustrative but verbose examples I’ve written below).

    I’d rather give you your time to think it through again. I believe you’ll understand.


    • Gregory DeVore says

      well patrik it is the implication that Christian ideas are inherently harmful and that society has a right to intervene to prevent the transmission of those ideas that is I think a threat. I think if you want to asuage my fears a better approach would be to convince me that the good Dr. does not view Christian beliefs as harmful and does not think that society should intervene to prevent the spread of those ideas. But as I read the interview she seems to think that our ideas are in fact harmful and that society should intervene in cases where Christian beliefs are taught. What say you?

      • I say that I’ve seen Christian billboards on the interstate here in Arkansas advocating “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

        A recent child abuse case here also hinged on the father’s excuse that he was simply following the Bible when he beat his kid in the grocery store parking lot to such an extent that several people called the police.

        Children have been placed in foster homes with strangers when their parents died because the parent’s choice of guardian was gay, based on legislation driven by Christians.

        Christians are constantly asking society to intervene to stop the spread of ideas such as evolution that are taught to children.

        When I lived in Texas there was a well-publicized case in which an evangelical Christian family converted an elementary school age Jewish child without the parent’s knowledge.

        It’s just a fact that many (not all – I surely don’t want to lump everyone into the same category as the folks I am referring to) Christians see *all* children as opportunities for evangelism and indoctrination.

        For example, I want no part of abstinence education for my children, because it raises the odds of pregnancy, yet Christians succeed in having it added to the curriculum.

        it is ironic that you fear societal intervention to stop Christian intervention, because from where I sit the far larger threat is Christian intervention in the way I raise my child.

        Until Christians stop intervening in the way I raise my kids, I look for society to protect the innocent.

    • Ms. Tarico’s larger point struck me the most, so I don’t like to sidetrack on the “state persecution” angle, but I don’t think that Greg is so far off from reality. Ms. Tarico does seem to be endorsing the state (she calls it society, but who else in society but the state would have the power to intervene?) intervening in the religious upbringing of children. No, you say, she didn’t say intervening in religious upbringing, she said intervening to stop harm or abuse. But the point of the discussion surrounding that comment was how religious upbringing, and in particular the threat of Hell is harmful or abusive.

      It’s one thing to say “here is my story, I found my evangelical upbringing abusive, and I am going to write books and speak to anyone who will listen to try and expose and discourage others from perpetrating the same abuse.” But when she says that society has a responsibility to weigh whether the harm of telling children about Hell and salvation is justified, that sounds like the court system, like child protective services to me. She didn’t elaborate on what “the rest of society” would do if they weighed this judgment and determined the harm was not justified, but that is the most likely scenario that I come up with. That in combination with the terminology “abusive.” Abuse is the scenario in which our government has been given the right to remove children from homes, require the parents to attend parenting classes, require that the parents and children receive counseling from a psychologist, require the parents to answer to a judge, etc. Ms. Tarico is the only one who can say what she really has in mind, but that is what I take away from that paragraph of hers.

      Fortunately freedom of religion is in the Constitution, which would be a good weapon in the fight, but wouldn’t guarantee anything. Google “parental rights amendment” if you’re interested in a constitutional amendment that would have bearing on this general issue, regardless of what Ms. Tarico meant by her comments.

  8. Is the term Atheist not allowed anymore? I’m not trying to make a smart comment I’m just wondering if non-theist and anti-theist are the new PC, “dialogue” promoting classifications.

    • It’s the term she choose for herself, and I try to respect wish in all dialog. Pretty basic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I figured that “non-theist” is more a word used by small-a atheists who want to distance themselves from the high-profile Madilyn Murray O’Hair types and “Wipe Christians From The Face Of The Earth” crazies (like those IMonk mentioned getting hate mail from after his “Coming Evangelical Collapse” editorial hit the big time).

      Kind of like Christians who wonder who died and made Fred Phelps THE spokesman for all of them.

      However, adopting a different term to distance yourselves from the crazies has only limited effect. There’s nothing to stop the crazies from hijacking the new term, using it for themselves, and forcing the non-crazies to find yet another term to distance themselves.

  9. Dear Marc,

    You sound a little like me 30 years ago. You sound more like my older brother 25 years ago; an entrenched atheist. Now a catholic priest. Enjoy the journey – wherever it takes you.

  10. iMonk– This is your forum so I have to respect your wishes. From my perspective, it feels like I stated something that, well… perhaps it can make those who believe a bit uncomfortable. You might think that is unfair, but it is an honest statement on my part.

  11. Joe–Thanks for your response. However, it was somewhat amusing in that you didn’t answer any of my questions while somehow implying that one day I’d change my tune. It’s a clever tactic that I suppose is designed to make you feel better about your beliefs. I was very honest in what I wrote.

  12. An interesting an thoughtful interview. I think she has brought up many important points, especially concerning morality. I wonder sometimes why so many Christians think that morality is something specifically Christian, when St. Paul in Romans says that morality in inherently written into the hearts of everyone! As a Catholic, I can point of course also to the teaching of the Catholic Church that says that there is a difference between natural law (that is “written into the hearts” by the act of Creation) and the specific Revelation of God in the Old and New Covenant.

    Many elements she is mentioning seem to come from her specific, non-denom, dispensationalist background, like that traumatizing stuff about the Rapture or Hell. I know that there have been times and places where it was the major pedagogic principle to scare kids away from supposedly bad things – but I hope that today we may know better and also show more respect for the reasoning faculties of our children.

    When she was talking however of religious child rearing and childrens’ ministries, I was constantly asking myself: Aren’t the parents responsible for a child? If a parent is against religious teaching for his or her child, why on earth does he/she send the kid to such a ministry or why don’t they inform themselves beforehand? No-one is obliged to send their kid anywhere! I had the impression she is shifting the responsibility there a bit.

    What I also think is somewhat questionable in Dr. Tarico’s assessment is her criticism of charitable activities as a kind of “backdoor” to “religious indoctrination”. Charitable activity is one of the basics of the Christian life, and always has been.

    Of course, as a Christian, one hopes that the people will get to know Christ through the charity that is shown to them, because “God is Love”. But charitable work is also a value in itself! As a Christian, I have to help others, because Christ says so! I can’t just leave the inner-city kid or the beggar in the gutter… I think this is what many non-theists don’t understand well: That charity is the first and most important act, not simply a means to an end, even though it may (but must not, because people are free to choose) lead people in some cases to embrace the Christian faith. (Actually, in ancient Rome the pagans were extremely impressed that Christians helped all others in case of catastrophes, independently of religion, social standing or family relationships…)

    As to the development of children: I think it’s quite clear that no-one can force any child to accept their own world-view or convictions. My own parents were most unhappy when I left my agnostic family background in order to become a Catholic. I would be unhappy as well of course, if my own future children left the faith. But we as parents and children have to stand together, no matter what happens. We must always show the other that we love them, no matter what: as children who have embraced something our parents do not understand, and as parents whose children left what we hold dear.

    I must say however, that I don’t see any contradiction in this case between “religious principles” and love, as Dr. Tarico seems to suggest. Family love is good in itself, it does not depend on people’s actions. (I would even hold that any “love” that is not unconditional is not love, and is certainyl un-Christian.) And of course many Christian parents know that the best way to get their children back to the faith on the long term is by constant prayer, love, acceptance (without relativism) and trust in God. St. Monica prayed and weeped for 15 years before her son came to the Christian faith and became one of the great saints of the Church, St. Augustine. A non-theist parent may have less solid hopes to relie upon, but may still hope that their child develops well and leads a happy and wholesome life.

  13. Early in the interview Dr. Tarico mentioned her experiences with the dying children in the hospital. My take on her reaction was that she realized that God was absent in any meaningful way. He provided neither meaning or support or cure or …. anything. If there were no God the situation would be no different. This resonated with me as this is also the realization that I have come to: That God answers no questions and ultimately satisfies no needs except with unfulfilled promises that faith hangs onto despite much evidence to the contrary. Despite 25 + years of theistic belief after a conversion from atheism, I find myself back where I started. I find that the things I thought Christianity provided for me- foundations of truth, goodness and beauty, a relationship with the transcendant, conformity with Reality as it is, a ground to act with heroism and holiness, all are available without God and without illusions and unbelievable stories. I have been free of belief in God for about a year now. We’ll see how it goes…..

  14. http://www.oregonlive.com/clackamascounty/index.ssf/2009/07/worthington_attorney_attacks_p.html

    This is an article on a child’s death at the hands of their Christian parents who believed that God heals thru prayer and that medical care is not needed. When is a belief accountable for the actions of it’s followers?

    • Bill In the article you cited the parents were not following Christian principles. They merely “SAID” they were. Big difference. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we are not to receive medical attention when needed. Doctor Luke wrote 2 books of the Bible. I think God approves of doctors, even gentile ones. The Amish don’t use zippers. The Apostle Paul said nothing about zippers. “When is a belief accountable for it’s actions?” I guess when people actually follow the beliefs and it results in harm. However, not giving medical attention to a child is not a Christian belief. It is a total misreading of the Bible out of context. I think the parents should be prosecuted as well for child neglect. But don’t hand Christianity on what it does not teach.

  15. Marc,
    I am not that clever, nor was I trying to be. I cannot answer your questions, I can only see how my own have been answered or not. I do mean it when I say enjoy the journey. Part of that journey are the thoughts of Dr Tarico. Great interview.

  16. Babylon's Dread says

    The interview was fascinating, very interesting and provocative. The devil in the weeds is the slowly growing though sometimes shrill insistence on painting Bible believers as dangerous, morally inferior and promoters of evil. While this particular writer was civil the message is clear enough. Christians are dangerous people with very bad ideas. The question is when will society deem that it has a compelling interest to keep us from raising our children with our faith. When will we be deemed too dangerous to be allowed to raise our own children. That is only one of the possible outcomes of some of the ideas addressed here.

    There was more than a hint of moral superiority gained by leaving faith. But it is interesting that at the root of your interviewees apostasy was theodicy. I might add that many of the tenants of the faith that Tarico was offended by are in process of being discarded by people who do not lose their faith in the process. If you are troubled by theodicy then the arcane theology of hell that most evangelicals espouse could simply be deemed as one more reason to defect. Can a God who tortures people forever for unbelief really be seen as loving and gracious?

    The mind races with possibilities…. I wonder if Tarico would have defected from a less fundamental brand of faith.

  17. Fortunately Dr. Tarico was very clear.

    From question #3, she makes clear that to her, “fundamentalism” means adhering to the central tenets of evangelical Christian orthodoxy. To most any observer, that means the Trinity, Jesus as the incarnate son of God, his crucifixion and resurrection, second coming, justification and sanctification, heaven and hell, etc. So for the purposes of this discussion, fundamentalism means evangelical Christian orthodoxy.

    Then she refers to another psychologist who specializes in “recovery from fundamentalism,” which by her definition means “recovery from evangelical Christian orthodoxy.” That psychologist emphatically believes that Christian indoctrination is often abusive, “more often” than we want to believe.

    I think there is general agreement among the kind of Christians who post here that there are churches, cults, and sects, who are excessively and punitively legalistic, who insist upon upholding questionable tertiary doctrines as essential beliefs, who teach the prerogative of leaders to manipulate followers, and so forth. These features in a church are what we would typically refer to as “fundamentalism,” and there would be widespread agreement that the indoctrination in those groups is frequently abusive.

    But Dr. Tarico clearly is trying to communicate that Christians need to expand their views of what is abusive, thus using the words “more often than we want to believe,” as in that we don’t want to believe that other communities, even maybe ours, are abusive, but she believes they are.

    Thus in question #4, she goes on to say that “some theologies are inherently abusive,” using a caricature of the most common evangelical conception of the relationship between God’s unconditional love and his justice in the punishment of unrepentant sinners as an analogy.

    In case you missed that, Dr. Tarico asserted that the theology most often espoused by evangelical Christians, firmly in orthodox ground, is inherently abusive.

    Ergo, evangelical Christian orthodoxy = inherently abusive = bad.

    Then at the end of her answer to question #3, she asserts that we often “fail to recognize” fundamentalism (which, again, means evangelical Christian orthodoxy), which was later established in answer #4 as this inherently abusive, bad thing — if it is found in the context of cultural accoutrements appealing to young people, or even in warm, loving community.

    In case you missed that, evangelical Christian orthodoxy is inherently abusive even if it is found in the context of warm, loving community.

    Then at the end of her answer to #4, she makes clear that being well-intentioned in exposing children to religion is not enough, rather those doing so have to be right, otherwise society has a vested interest in preventing abuse.

    The conclusion is easy enough to draw. If one does not believe evangelical Christianity is true, then if another family is bringing up its children to believe in evangelical Christianity, no matter how warm or loving the family, no matter how affirming the community of faith, no matter how well-intentioned the parents, the upbringing is inherently abusive and society has the responsibility to intervene.

    In the answers to #7 and #9 she sets up a contrast between “doctrinal purity,” “texts and traditions,” “creeds and canons,” and “the decisions of our ancestors” on the one hand, and love, truth, and compassion on the other. This is an echo of the usual liberal critique on orthodoxy.

    The message here is clear enough — evangelical Christian orthodoxy is unacceptable, and unless we get our act together and change our theology to something more acceptable to society, we should not expect society to sit idly by any longer and let us abuse our children by raising them to believe in it.

    • I have a question for you. If you were President of the United States would you support gay marriage and abortion? If yes, why? If not, why?

    • Ricardo Carvalho says

      First, my english is very poor. Second my belief: I’m atheist.

      > evangelical Christian orthodoxy is unacceptable
      The same applies to you, you probably think that my parents educating me as an orthodox jew (I hate this name, lets use the hebrew word for it: dati) was also unacceptable (christianity is partly based on the view that judaism is unacceptable, just read the pauline epistles and the church fathers with theirs faulty hermeneutics of judaism to confirm that). The same goes on for muslim parents, sikhs, hindus, atheists and even the nature worshiping guy somewhere in Siberia, this is why some christian sustains that they have a moral monopoly in the universe, if that’s not the case there’s no need to spread the “good news”. What’s the problem with this? I think that a totally acceptable view, it’s part of being christian, jewish, atheist, muslim or whatever else, to think that other worldviews are unacceptable, problem arises when someone thinks that it’s unacceptable to think that his worldview is unacceptable, and I personally know a great number of christians in this situation (for me this is because christianity is a religion with a great emphasis on proselytism, Islam is similar with its penalization of apostasy), this raises things like creationism, the difference between jewish and christian creationism is that jews knows that it’s not right to force a non-jew to accept the jewish creationism and try to force its teaching in public schools.

      As for the reason that I became atheist, I think abhorrent that someone can believe that my great-uncle that lived in a shtetl in the middle of nowhere in Poland and died at 17 in Treblinka will face “His justice in the punishment of unrepentant sinners” even if he never was exposed to christianity in his lifetime, a corollary of this is that he and a german that was a soldier in the camp are on the same moral ground, the lowest, except that the german could convert to christianity later in life and enjoy an everlasting life in the company of God, many people that he helped to kill no, for the majority of christians they are guilt where the german soldier is not of something, for me this raised the question of why a God would reveal himself to Paul and not to my great-uncle, even worse, why to Moshe instead of a girl in 4th century Scandinavia or a guy in 10th century BC India, if you believe in some sort of election then it comes naturally why Paul and Moshe, they where chosen by a sovereign God, otherwise there are not a good answer and as for me there’s no good motives to believe that there exists a God.

    • >Thus in question #4, she goes on to say that “some theologies are inherently abusive,” using a caricature of the most common evangelical conception of the relationship between God’s unconditional love and his justice in the punishment of unrepentant sinners as an analogy.

      It’s easy to simply claim something is a misrepresentation. How does the analogy differ from evangelical theology?

      The only thing that comes to mind is the distinction between “you will be tortured if you don’t accept the gift” and “you will be tortured if you don’t love him back.” But this difference gets smaller still because many theologies teach that the evidence of salvation is the fruit of the spirit. “By their fruits you shall know them.” Thus there is reason to doubt someone’s salvation without fruit. Now the distinction becomes “if you aren’t behaving in a certain way you might end up being tortured” versus “you will be tortured if you don’t love him back.” Suppose the abusive husband weakened his threat so that the torture was possible and not certain. He’s still abusive.

      It’s not exactly the same, in that “love me or be tortured” differs from “develop the following attitudes over time – you have room to make mistakes, but if you aren’t progressing, you need to start worrying about the possibility that I’ll start torturing you.” But this isn’t the kind of difference that makes a difference. I don’t see any significant difference that could justify one being abuse without the other being abuse.

  18. atomicmom says

    Re: And suddenly it felt like I had been holding my God together for so long with duct tape and bailing wire that all I had left was tape and wire. So I walked away.

    I personally feel that as Christians or just as humans we need to have a tangibility to our faith at some point-especially at the point of severe trauma in our lives or the lives of others. As the apostle said “faith without works is dead”- well who can hang on to a faith with no seeming intervention from God?

  19. Sorry to be so late to this party, which means I haven’t read all these comments. I’m frustrated by a couple things. 1st – Her de-conversion did not solve the problem of evil. The sovereignty of God is the best solution to the problem. 2nd – Her claims of emotional abuse of children are not deniable anecdotes, but replacing end times judgment with no after-life, and ultimately becoming worm food is no better, and, I consider, worse. I am not orthodox, but if she had examined Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps she would have been less offended by Orthodox theology about hell which I’ll quote. “…St. Maximus’ apokatastasis wherein all things really will be recapitulated in Christ and the reprobate will experience the glory fire of God, which is good in itself, as torment. This is not denying eternal torment.” from here, http://www.nicenetruth.com/home/2009/07/problems-in-calvinsim-and-reformation-theology-why-i-left-redux-a-new-debate.html
    God is good

  20. This is the statement from the good doctor in the interview that I find very intriguing: “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.”

    The evidence that she gives here suggesting that it is in opposition to Christianity is exactly the kind of evidence that I use to say that every person is “created in the image of God” (Genesis) and is created with a conscience (Romans 2). This may not have been a significant part of her theological teaching during her formative years, and certainly, for many of us in evangelicalism, we have to admit that we have done a poor job describing and communicating that all people are created with a whole set of common characteristics that are simply part of the human race, and therefore emerge in every religion. This actually reinforces the biblical message for me. My recommendation for the doctor is to go back to the gospels and take a long, long look at Jesus instead of basing her world view on what she sees in human institutions and family dynamics.

  21. Thanks mr monk on your interview.
    i am a “non-theist” ex-xtian like your interviewee.

    Might i also add that i read through some of your own writings on dealing with P/C members and their weirdnessed.

    Your article on “Signs I’m Weary of Weird Christians” echoed many of the concerns that bothered me, particularly during my time in the foursquare church in LA (although i dont have anything bad to say about Mr Hayford)

    Although i never felt drawn towards your own brand of evangelicalism ( i got wrapped up in the charismatic fellowship thing of the 80s in the UK ) i share so many of your views.

    I particularly cannot stand Benny Hinn ites and to your comments about uncritical devotion to “anointed” leadership i add my atheist “amen”.

    However of course unlike you i ended up rejecting it all.

    Like ms winell i too got sucked into creationism for a while – but i did this while mourning the loss of the wonder of the “science with question marks” that i used to revel in in my youth until i became a xtian.

    i now have that wonder back and i find the combination of reason , empiricism and naturalism to give me a much richer and to my mind more compassionate world view than the one i had as a believer.

    Anyway – thanks for a good interview.

  22. I am atheist (freethinker is perhaps a better word). These are my thoughts: If a person tells me that he/she believes in god (or gods) in some vague way I can understand this. After all, whether or not there is a god is the biggest mystery for humankind. Personally, I don’t believe that god exists, but if god(s) should exist I don’t believe that this god interferes in any way with our lives (based on what I see everyday life). Also, I don’t believe in prophecy, therefore I don’t believe in any organized religion. Why don’t I believe in prophecy? Well, it means believing in something that someone else is saying when we have no way to judge its veracity. And we’re talking about claims that are several thousand years old (and more in some cases). Anybody can say anything and say god it’s from god. Now, even god-fearing people don’t believe everyone who says he/she spoke to god. So how do you know who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet? Well, you don’t. And that’s why they call it faith. But I can tell you for certain what god is. God is… anything you want god to be. That’s why we have different religions each believing in its own prophet(s). In my humble opinion, none of them are true. Like a mathematical equation, they cancel themselves out. Now, if this god or gods exist, why use prophets. Why not just speak to everyone at the same time and clear up the mess we’re in. For those who believe in an organized religions, it’s way too easy to claim you have the right belief and that everyone else who believes different, or not at all, is wrong. Religion has a very strong tendency to divide people. After all, if you can’t see the truth that I see, then you are not as smart as me or as good as me (I don’t mean me personally). I would be interested to know what makes the prophets within the Christian faith true prophets as opposed to other religious prophets? I have a lot more to say, but that’s all for now.

  23. Marc-
    I really prefer we not have a debate on the atheist-Christian conflict. There are so many forums for that elsewhere.

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