(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: An outstanding analysis of the flaws of evangelical Christianity, written from an insider’s perspective by a former believer. My only complaint is that I wish she’d provided more information about what the next step is!
Although there are lots of atheist books that present a compelling case for atheism or against religion, there are relatively few that I’d recommend giving to a staunch believer as a means of convincing them. It takes more than a strong command of the facts to achieve that difficult goal; it takes a special kind of deft touch, one that makes an airtight case with passion, but without rhetoric that will only cause them to dismiss the author as an angry atheist. Valerie Tarico‘s book Trusting Doubt, I’m pleased to say, is one of the few books I’ve found that meet that standard.
Tarico herself is an ex-evangelical, a graduate of the private Christian university Wheaton College. As she recounts in this interview on Debunking Christianity, she spent most of her life immersed in the culture of evangelical Christianity, fervently believing, following all the rules and rituals, preaching to nonbelievers. But she wrestled with persistent doubts throughout her teenage and college years, in addition to struggling with depression and an eating disorder that her faith couldn’t heal, as she’d been taught it would be able to. It was around the time she got a graduate degree in counseling psychology that these doubts could no longer be quieted, and she finally walked away and found the peace and freedom of becoming an atheist. Trusting Doubt is her account of what drove her away from faith.
Throughout the book, Tarico shows an impressive command of her subject material, and covers so many areas it’s almost impossible not to learn something. There’s an account how the Bible came to be, both the Old and New Testaments: how stories like the flood or the exodus were drawn from Babylonian folk tales and Canaanite religious texts, and how rabbinical and church councils decided which books to put into the canon and which to leave out. She contrasts the critical-historical method of scholars with modern evangelical “Bibliolatry” (p.31), worshipping the Bible as a contextless monolith, rather than learning about the twists and turns of the human process by which it came into being.
Following this, Tarico presents a list of biblical stories that contradict science, history, or each other, as well as a list of biblical broken promises and false prophecies. She shows how the Bible encourages prejudice, promoting the racist “chosen people” mythology or commanding the unjust treatment of women. Interspersed with these, she gives some telling quotes from the Christian songs, preachers, and apologists she grew up learning from on how to deal with these difficulties, such as this advice from the apologist Gleason Archer: “Be fully persuaded that an adequate explanation exists, even if you have not yet found it” (p.44).
There are also philosophical sections, critically analyzing the problem of evil and the idea of redemption by blood sacrifice. She discusses whether it’s fair to make salvation dependent on a person’s time and place of birth, and how religion is unnecessary for morality and how humans have a basic set of moral principles built in. She discusses the bloodshed throughout history in God’s name, and the political oppression that’s still going on, with a telling observation about the evangelical persecution complex: “When we see ourselves as victims, we cannot see ourselves as victimizers” (p.190). But one of the standout chapters was a superb analysis of religion from the memetic perspective, discussing the characteristics that make a meme successful regardless of its truth value – and then showing that evangelical Christianity embodies all of them!
If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that it ends too abruptly. Tarico presents such a sympathetic and articulate case against evangelicalism, I wish she’d spent more time talking about the alternatives, so that people who read her book and come away convinced will have some idea of what the next step is. She clearly holds to a humanist perspective now, and the book would have benefited greatly from a chapter or two summarizing the principles of this view and comparing it with the one she once held. But it’s that insider perspective, the sense of having been there and done that, that makes this book so potent and so difficult to dismiss.