STRANGERCROMBIE WINNER! This article was bought-and-paid-for in The Stranger’s annual charity auction—which this year raised more than $50,000 for the Seattle nonprofit Treehouse, helping foster kids since 1988. Thank you, everybody!
The biggest problem with atheists and agnostics is that we don't know how to speak without sounding like ass-holes. True, books like The God Delusion and God Is Not Great became best sellers last year, and in many ways, atheism is more accepted than ever before. But atheists—myself included—need to stop being so goddamned smug about their atheism all the time. Watch any of the dozens of clips of Christopher Hitchens denouncing God on YouTube: He's so insufferable—even more insufferable than Hitchens usually is—that even the most devout unbeliever has to restrain the urge to punch the screen. And Richard Dawkins, with his inane suggestion that atheists refer to themselves as "brights," is no better. Douchebags.
Valerie Tarico's antievangelical book The Dark Side is a refreshing alternative. Perhaps part of the reason Tarico doesn't come across as a snide intellectual is that she is from an evangelical background: "My faith had been the center of my life since I was small," she writes. "Evangelical Christianity was what I fell back on when I felt lost. It was my home." By her own choice, Tarico went to the evangelical Wheaton College, "a bulwark of conservative Christian education" whose graduate school is named the Billy Graham Center.
But that's not to say that faith came easy to her. "I remember kneeling one night on the floor of my bedroom, crying, pleading for God to take [my doubts] away, and then crawling into bed with some sense of relief." Finally, the life of faith became too much for Tarico to bear: "Alone, one wretched evening, I swallowed a bottle of pills." This is not an atypical experience, of course. You can find any number of stories like this on exchristian .net, and it's important to note that Tarico's biographical information only takes up the first few pages of The Dark Side, to contextualize her quest.
The rest of the book is a humble and sincere exploration of the Christian faith. Tarico is a psychologist, and she has a good psychologist's curiosity for symbols and untruths and true meaning. Her quest takes her through hundreds of sources—books and websites on both sides of the religious debate—and she determines that "the Bible is laden with contradictions" that can be "reconciled only by contorted logic, improbable conjecture, and leaps of faith."
For many of these contradictions, Tarico simply had to do a close reading of the Bible. If, as evangelicals believe, the Bible is God's literal word, why does it offer dueling opinions on incest, circumcision, alcohol, graven images, and infanticide? (Not all of these failures of internal logic happen by flipping between the New and Old Testaments. Jesus proclaims in Matthew 5:22, "Anyone who calls someone else a fool deserves hell," and then, in Matthew 7:26 and 23:17, he calls people fools.)
Christianity is also inspected within its historical contexts. I didn't know, for example, that "for much of Christianity's first fourteen hundred years, homosexual behavior was seen as a minor sin like gluttony or greed." Others may not realize that in 1616 the Catholic Church issued a statement that the earth revolving around the sun was "philosophically (i.e., scientifically) foolish and absurd, and is considered official heresy because it explicitly contradicts the meaning of Scripture in many places."
The book mirrors Tarico's quest for meaning, and she proves to be a skilled teacher—in one passage, she equates God blaming humans for original sin with an adult blaming a child for being molested, which is an eerily apt metaphor that sets up this beauty of a passage: "God is an aggrieved party. His goodness has been offended by human sin, and he is owed something, namely the death and eternal damnation of all humans. This is the only thing that can appease him."
But Tarico is, most importantly, never shrill. Like all worthwhile humans, she is simply in love with the quest for knowledge. She reaffirms that "Christianity is, to borrow a phrase, one of the world's great wisdom traditions." "What if ideas are like plants?" she asks as she explores Christianity as a self-propagating idea: "feeding us, tempting us with practicality or beauty, but sometimes taking hold and crowding out other ideas that might also feed, serve, and delight us?" Tarico teaches with grace and humility, she explores the facts responsibly and with an eager curiosity, and she mercifully applies the Golden Rule by not belittling the people—evangelicals—for whom this book is intended. For that reason above all, this is the finest anti-Christian book I have ever read.