Dr. Valerie Tarico Responds to the Triabloguers

She does so in the form of a letter to me:
John, you have asked me to respond to a critique at the site, Triablogue, of my chapter, “Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science” for The Christian Delusion. Reading the critique, I am struck, primarily, by the perception that the reviewers, in attempting to state their case, overstate mine. Psychology is a profession focused not on possibilities but on practicalities – not on how things might function in an abstract, philosophical sense, but rather on what we can know about how they do function in the ordinary lives of ordinary humans (and sometimes other species). Psychology asks and attempts to answer a set of questions regarding the contingencies–-replicable cause and effect relationships—that govern people’s lives. At this level of analysis, there is a tentative but useful distinction between knowing and not knowing.

The process of inquiry to which I refer asks and answers questions about the natural world—the physical world as it is represented in consciousness. It seeks out regularities that allow us to predict and control events to better shape life according to our values and preferences. My own writing makes no attempt to rule out the possibility of a god or to assert that the plane of our conscious experience is the only one that exists.

Why then is it relevant to the multi-faceted debate about Christianity? For several reasons:

1. Christianity makes many testable assertions about events and contingencies within our natural world. The role of the historian, linguist, biologist or—in my case-psychologist is to address these assertions using the tools of his or her trade. For generations Christianity has implicitly or explicitly exploited certain psychological phenomena-the born again experience, mystical visions, glossolalia, or a quiet certainty of God’s presence-insisting that they were the unique domain of believers, evidence of salvation. Thanks to advances in the social sciences, we now know otherwise. As I commented in the chapter, “Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experiences in the absence of any given dogma. We are capable of sustaining elaborate systems of false belief and transmitting them to our children. We are capable of feeling so certain about our false beliefs that we are willing to kill or die for them.” Because of advances in our understanding of the human psyche, we have a better and better understanding of the circumstances that trigger such experiences. Understanding these phenomena means that believers or potential believers or former believers need no longer be bound by the explanations offered in the service of recruitment or retention.

2. Christianity exists not because it is philosophically possible but it is emotionally and intuitively gripping. Religion would be impotent in this world if it were dependent on the arguments of theologians and philosophers. The power of religion to shape society for better or worse relies on human behavioral and cognitive tendencies which appear to operate independent of the content of beliefs and independent of whether or not some supernatural plane exists. Whether or not a god or gods exist, these tendencies are worth examining. For those who are concerned that humanity is developmentally arrested, stuck in a competition between mutually exclusive tribal religions, understanding the problem is a crucial first step in crafting alternatives.

3. My perception is that Christianity is bled dry morally, empirically, and rationally not by a single swath of logic, but by a million cuts. Again, in the interest of efficiency, I will quote myself, this time from Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light: “When one examines the evidence related to Evangelical beliefs — the content and history of the Bible, the structure of nature’s design, the character of the Evangelical God, the implications of prayer and miracles, the concepts original and universal sin, the mechanism of salvation by blood atonement, the idea of eternal reward and punishment, the behavior of believers — when one examines all of these together through a lens of empiricism and logic, the composite suggests some kind of reality that is very different from the ideas that dominated my thinking for so long.”

The possibility that Christianity—along with say Islam, Hinduism—is a human construction raises fascinating questions about the human potential to be simultaneously sure and mistaken. It raises questions about the power of culture to script a world view. Religion contemplated as a natural phenomenon begs exploration. Consider, for example, the status of the Triabloggers—all intelligent, knowledgeable, articulate thinkers capable of more abstraction than most. To contemplate the possibility that they are wrong—you and I believe they are—about the uniqueness and supremacy of their religious beliefs means that the existence of such believers must be explicable in natural terms. If I am correct, then their presence provides a powerful example of how very sophisticated our lines of logic can be in the service of fallacy. I suspect the same of the 9/11 Truthers and the Zeitgeist Movement, which is to say that these basic psychological questions have implications for every area in which we humans struggle to understand ourselves and our societies and to shape both according to our deepest values.

Is it possible to weave a web of logic that carves out room for Christian—even orthodox—even Calvinist belief? Can someone imbedded in such a perspective justify what outsiders might perceive as fatal contradictions inherent in his or her worldview? Yes, absolutely. Has this ever really been in doubt? Given the limitations of logic (look how far philosophy got us without adding empiricism to the mix) I suspect this will always be the case, regardless of the arguments put forward in criticism of traditional dogmas. I do think that the abstract machinations of theologians should be answered by philosophers and thinkers who, like yourself, are not imbedded with the troops, if for no reason other than to keep foolishness like C.S. Lewis’s trilemma or Pascal’s wager from entering the vernacular as glib defenses of dogmas that are indefensible in a broader empirical historical context. But I am also grateful that reshaping ideology and religious practice doesn’t rely on someone winning these arguments.

Since Christianity is a social, historical, natural world phenomenon, it is accessible to the same scrutiny as any human activity. Religion often convinces us to set aside the basic evidentiary standards that we use in making financial investments or legal decisions. It is a peculiar sort of exceptionalism that subjects economic and political ideologies/activities to empirical evidence and Occam’s Razor, while insisting that these are irrelevant in assessment of religion. Great teams of scholars--with no interest in religion whatsoever--spend their lives trying to understand basic patterns in human history, thought, and behavior. To me, it makes sense to apply this knowledge, to ask what we can know about how religion operates in this world--how it has evolved, how it shapes societies, how it ensconces itself in the human psyche--only then returning to the speculation of the ancients about what lies beyond.




Chuck said...

I really enjoy Dr. Tarico's mind and her writing. Thanks. Her chapter in TCD was one of my favorites.

Papalinton said...

This is an important area of continuing research and Dr Tarico has clearly noted the very need for such. An article by Michael Brooks in the Feb 7th 2009 issue of New Scientist provides some very interesting background related to Dr Tarico's comments. I have made a precis of the article as follows:

It seems that during the Great Depression one form of institution did very well while most others collapsed; at the worst of times the strictest and most authoritarian churches were party to a huge surge in the number of people attending. It seems people have a natural tendency towards religious belief, especially during tough times. The more insecure we are the harder it is to resist the pull of the supernatural. Recent research is beginning to point to the notion that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to pass on their genes through improved survival rates by forming tightly knit groups. This idea is not shared by all. The other perspective gaining support is that religion is a natural by-product of the way the human mind works. This view is most significant in the study of children, who are seen as revealing a ‘default state’ of the mind that persists even into adulthood. This view posits that there are two systems in the mind that work autonomously in which people make the assumption that mind and matter are distinct ‘common-sense dualism’. There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others. Research by Justin Barrett at Oxford University discovered that roughly half of all 4 rear-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As Barrett points out, this an evolutionary useful skill, without which we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning.

Useful as it is, Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast, found that common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

To paraphrase, Paul Bloom, Yale U, posits that religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring of the brain; all humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away. Scott Atran, Uni Michigan, Ann Arbor, suggests a clue that the fact that trauma is so often responsible for why adults find it so difficult to jettison their innate belief in gods is what he calls ‘the tragedy of cognition’. Humans can anticipate future events, remember the past and conceive of how things could go wrong - including their own death, which is hard to deal with. Atran says, “You’ve got to figure out a solution, otherwise you’re overwhelmed. When natural brain processes gives us a get-out-of-jail card, we take it.”

Researchers generally now think that the religion-as-adaptation argument may not be mutually exclusive of the idea that religion-co-opts-brain-circuits that evolved for something else, and that both are working theories.

Based on current research and experiments, Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Pascal Boyer, Washington Uni, St Louis, Mo, says from here there is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables people to think about absent or non-existent people.

More importantly, education and experience teaches us to override it, but it never truly leaves us. Religious belief is the ‘path of least resistance’ while disbelief requires effort.


goprairie said...

"Religious belief is the ‘path of least resistance’ while disbelief requires effort."
The opposite is true for me. I always questioned. As a child, Bible stories did not 'work' me and I was always seeking a way to try to make them acceptable to me, reworking elements to make them consistent with the observable world. Getting to call Genesis a story to make a point that God created was easier than trying to make way for it to be true. I was constantly trying to make the religions I was socially involved with 'fit' into the 'real' world. It was a huge amount of mental work, and something I spent a great deal of thought time on. When I finally just gave it up, that felt natural and right and normal and was such a relief. Yes, there is the work of figuring out what to say to people who try to make my atheism an issue and there is the work of fitting into what is for me a primarilly Christian society without making too many waves yet also not compromising my principles and there is the vigelence I feel compelled to give to keeping church and state separate in my local government and schools, but that is all so much less work than the constant mental gymnastics I went through to find ways to let myself continue to believe in God. It is such a relief to be free of that.

Ken Pulliam said...

Outstanding response by Dr. Tarico.

Ken Pulliam said...


I read some of the responses to Tarico and Avalos on Tribalogue and it reconfirms in my mind why it is a waste of time to respond to these guys. They remind me so much of J.P. Holding and his followers on TWEB. Sarcasm, insults, using the same argument but switching words, etc. are all signs of non-scholarship. I expect to see some cartoons soon on their site to refute TCD.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

Triabloggers are not the only target of the responses. My target audience is primarily the people in the middle.

There are plenty of people out there on the fence who will see precisely what you see. They will compare the invectives that substitute for argumentation at Triablogue with what we do here.

But the comparisons have to be available in the first place. If we don't respond, then only Triablogue's side is heard.

I do think that such comparisons do have an effect with people on the fence, even if it is latent. I know because I have people e-mail me all the time saying just that.

Anonymous said...

Ken, others think like you do. But perhaps you should tell me if writing TCD was a waste of time too? Is it all just a waste of time? This is a serious question my friend. What makes for a non-waste of time? Am I wasting my time now by writing this?

Are you saying we should only respond to Christian scholarship that represents the cream of the crop? Well, who then represents the cream of the crop? I think all apologetic defenses of all Christianities are ignorant--all of them. Am I to judge between them? Why?

I like to think in terms of influence. The Triabloggers clearly have some level of influence on the web. And since they have offered a free online book there are a great many people who will read through that book without ever reading through TCD. I might do the same if the shoe was on the other foot.

nascent said...

John, if your concern is for truth - rather than recognition - and believe yourself to speak on the side of truth, then you haven't "wasted" your time.

Chuck said...

Dr. Ken,

I have to agree with John and Dr. Avalos on this (and with you too - your blog is a fresh counter-point to the Evangelical assertions I was steeped in and which caused painful cognitive dissonance).

All three of you have exhibited intelligence, wisdom and humility in challenging the historical and moral assumptions Christians hold.

I lost my faith 2 years ago and needed some sort of role model to contend with it. Your reasoned rejection of absurd moral notions (specifically PST - I am a big fan of the series on your blog) has helped me. I almost feel "born-agian-again".

Maul P. said...

Ken clearly didn't read TCD since he lauded Tarico's "response" when all Tarico did was to repeat some of her claims in her chapter without interacting with a single one of our arguments against her chapter. ken also has not read TID. It is people like Ken who Tarico was describing in her chapter. The irony is too much.

Ken Pulliam said...

John and Hector,

I can see your point. It requires a lot of patience, however.

Chuck--thanks for the kind words.

jwhendy said...

Awesome read.

I guess I'm curious about what constitutes "a waste of time" as well. Perhaps only responding to the Trabloguers say, in email, might make for a waste of time; in this day and age, however, being able to quickly reference a comprehensive analysis and refutation is quite nice. I can't tell you how much of a convenience it's been to point to Carrier's work on infidels.org when I need to refer someone to an alternative view.

In any case, as someone possibly deconverting... it has been the worst experience of my life thus far. Alienation. Frustration. Bewilderment. Exhaustion.

If anything, this experience has given me more empathy for those who believe what I consider to be false, for the answer is emphatically non-obvious when trying to disambiguate (to allude to the ending of WIBA).

What should be one's reaction to undergoing a literal sh*t storm as a result of believing something false until age 25 and then getting shell-shocked out of it? My inclination was to evangelize for whatever I found to be true as a result of my "quest."

Truth as far as I can figure needs to be shared and made available. I think the Bible has several verses which still hold truth. One is that "man preferred darkness" to being in the light. Ironically, I consider believing communities to provide that cover of darkness and without being at least quasi-active in bringing truth, how can we progress as a whole toward truth?

I don't see any way out of the "religious stalemate" (each demands that outsiders recognize the truth of their particular creed while forbidding insiders to explore other beliefs for possible truth content) plaguing the globe other than those who have done the work and reflection to come to the truth... to spread it.

Perhaps Ken is simply referring to Triabloguers as an unworthy channel of energy expenditure and not the general population (he has his own blog, after all). Still, I think the primary point about putting the rebuttals within public reach does make the effort worthwhile whereas Ken would be right were these private exchanges never to be seen by any eyes but theirs.

Anthony said...


I understand where you are coming from, but when I look at the pros and cons of responding to these types of people I find myself strongly in the camp of those willing to reply.

It is a simple fact that in most of these types of discussions and debates that the opponents themselves usually do not change their minds. But the ones who often do are those listening silently, the blog lurkers. I often get frustrated when trying to reply to people like Harvey Burnett and realize that they most likely will not change, so I don't reply for Harvey's benefit, I do it for the benefit of those reading along, those who may be on the fense.

Jason Engwer said...

Ken Pulliam wrote:

"I read some of the responses to Tarico and Avalos on Tribalogue and it reconfirms in my mind why it is a waste of time to respond to these guys. They remind me so much of J.P. Holding and his followers on TWEB. Sarcasm, insults, using the same argument but switching words, etc. are all signs of non-scholarship. I expect to see some cartoons soon on their site to refute TCD."

You should try to be more consistent. Here are some of Richard Carrier's scholarly, non-insulting comments in a post about the release of The Christian Delusion:

"He [Hector Avalos] even, BTW, dismisses the Stalin and Mao examples in just two paragraphs that are a model of pwning the Christian with his own Bible; love it)....I don't begrudge you (Pikeman) or Ben playing the conciliatory, piecemeal, make-nice, 'no, we don't think you're deluded, you're just mistaken' card. You can mop up whoever we don't mow down. You can even tell them you hate us and gosh we're so mean. That neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Just don't lie. I'll do the same: I'll be mean, but I wont tolerate saying anything I don't know to be true (and I'll correct myself whenever I find I'm wrong). That's been my ethic from the beginning, and that won't change."

openlyatheist said...

It would seem to me a waste of time to compose a book such as TCD, and not respond to critiques. Even though some critiques may not be worthy of the press, it still may be informative as long as one isn’t responding to total nonsense.

After all, Christianity isn't composed merely of cream-of-the-crop apologetics. I think its more like a few good arguments supported by an ocean of crappy ones.

The authors of TCD are not obligated. They should respond to what suits their time, when they please, and how they please. Ironically, the above link to Richard Carrier’s blog points to a thread that I had given up on reading because I didn’t think Carrier was monitoring it anymore. Now I see he has posted a variety of informative retorts. So much the better. Regarding the usefulness of reading (and I think defending) TCD, look no further than his July 28, 2010 11:41 AM post.

John Loftus, you have managed to do something that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen: unifying atheist authors in a common goal. I do think it would be a waste of time if all those involved couldn’t keep up that level of commitment to both their own work and the group effort shown.

Papalinton said...

Hi openlyatheist

You say, .."John Loftus, you have managed to do something that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen: unifying atheist authors in a common goal. I do think it would be a waste of time if all those involved couldn’t keep up that level of commitment to both their own work and the group effort shown.

I ditto.


District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...


I read this and I really don't care about Tiabologue's debate with you, I'm simply looking at Dr. Tarico's commentary.

Dr. Tarico's case basically states that religion is a human phenomena and has arrived by human means.

Now that, for me, suggests that I ask, then what is "normal" for humans? Is it "normal" to be religious or is it a defect? If it is neither then is religion simply a "diversity". John you seem to take the position that unbelief or skepticism is some kind of default for humanity, Tarico doesn't seem to take that path.

Now, if religion ( Christianity in particular) is something that Dr. Tarico states that is, "Since Christianity is a social, historical, natural world phenomenon, it is accessible to the same scrutiny as any human activity"

Then shouldn't absence of belief be subject to that same scrutiny? I mean one thing we can identify about the known world from culture to culture and society, is that "belief" exists, non-belief seems to be what has not generally been embraced by humanity either on a psychological, historical or natural basis.

She makes many false assertions in her short discourse, but I'd like a response on that particular portion first.