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.