Book Review: Trusting Doubt

(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.

Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Uruk

    Thanks for sharing this. Your review of her book reminds me so much of my disconnection from Christianity. Amazing how many of the same experiences bring about similar outcomes.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Thanks for the review – sounds like an interesting book.

    … the idea of redemption by blood sacrifice.

    Even after years of Catholic school, I still don’t understood why the creator of the Cosmos would need to sacrifice himself to himself in a bloodfest. Can a beliver explain what it is about blood – is it the Platelets the creator needs? Plasma? Hemoglobin?
    Trivia: Using a text version of the KJV, grep -cw blood kjv10.txt yields 425 occurences of the word blood.

    [off topic alert]The name “Valerie Tarico” is great for anagramming: “A Racier Violet”, “A Criteria Love”, “Irate Oral Vice”…

  • Paul Crowley

    This sounds like a great book for someone from an evangelical background. What would you press into the hands of a “sophisticated” liberal believer – the sort whose belief becomes more and more slippery the more you press, but springs back into shape when they stop talking to you?

  • Nathaniel

    With a liberal believer, I am not sure its really as important to attempt to make them reconsider their faith. As a general rule, they are not going to be down with forcing creationism on our children, or sticking it to the gays, or other positions that can make politics so infuriating for the average atheist.

  • Teleprompter

    I used to be a “liberal believer”, so I’ll indulge my urge to speak up. I feel that the best tack here is to initially refrain from political issues (like gay rights and creationism), if the person is likely to already agree with you. Instead, begin with their pre-existing beliefs as a liberal Christian, to get them to understand where you’re coming from as an atheist. Then, they’ll be more likely to work with you, and a more wide-ranging discussion of politics or religion will become possible.

    The most important rule for dialogue with a liberal believer is that you must work around and through the beliefs they already have – you can’t trivialize or generalize their beliefs by only comparing them to fundamentalists, but you can also gently prod them toward considering if their liberal interpretations of the Bible actually lead toward more a secular emphasis.

    A liberal believer will likely (at least outwardly) prioritize love over fear, compassion over judgement, and social justice over prejudice. Use these inclinations in your conversations to find common ground, and explore what you find there. It can be surprising how much conversation with some liberal Christians can resemble conversations with fellow humanists. The more you delve into your common ideas, then the more likely it is liberal believers will respect and sympathize with your beliefs as a non-theist.

    Why do people who don’t necessarily take much at all of the Bible literally or believe that its truth isn’t even the most important thing about it still look down at atheists? I have heard that atheists lack a capacity for meaning, wonderment (a better term for what is often referred to as “spirituality”), community…but we do have a capacity for these things, in abundance. The more we show this actively to liberal Christians, the more likely they are to accept us, and perhaps eventually discover for themselves that atheism is a safe and comfortable place to land after all.

    I feel this approach based in commonality is far better than one based only on confrontation. Sure, strong disagreements exist, and voicing these opinions is necessary many times, but we’ll achieve far more if we work together out of knowledge, instead of confronting people out of ignorance.

  • Yahzi

    As an alternative to Teleprompter’s approach, you could always show the liberals just how much they have in common with the fundies, until they get uncomfortable with being “fascist-lite.”

    This would be Sam Harris’ approach, and there is reason to think it’s working.

    What I think would work best is if I use Sam’s approach, and Teleprompter uses his approach. You know, a good cop/bad cop sort of thing. But that only works if there is a good cop and a bad cop.

  • Dack

    “worshipping the Bible as a contextless monolith”

    Excellent turn of phrase. All the more resonant with me because I recently watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time.

  • Valerie Tarico

    For liberal Christians, I like to suggest a couple of books that are within the realm of Christianity but are nontheistic and utterly devoid of Bible-worship. The better known of these is John Shelby Spong’s: Why Christianity Must Change or Die. (I haven’t read his latest, which may be even better.) But my favorite by a modernist Christian is Thom Stark’s book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide it.

    Stark breaks the Bible down into a fascinating assemblage of cultural fragments. He faces the atrocities in the Bible and its other moral/historical limitations with more candor than any other Christian writer I have experienced–and none of the mush-headedness that often is a part of liberal Christianity. For example, he discusses the residual of polytheism and human sacrifice in the early Hebrew religion (in the Bible), and the attempts by later writers of biblical texts to revise this history.

    Once people reach the point of nontheism, even within Christianity, they no longer pit themselves against science, reason and compassion — and they no longer feel a need to win converts. They stop worshipping the biblical text and, perhaps more importantly, they stop defending it. At that point, I think it matters little whether someone embraces the label of Christian.

  • keddaw

    Yahzi, I hope your approach works for you but whenever I try it I am always met with the same responses:
    “That’s not what I believe”
    “You don’t take that part literally”
    “Only the New Testament is real”
    “Apart from that bit of the New Testament”
    “And that”
    “Of course non-Christians who led a good life will not be sent to hell for eternity”
    “They got rid of purgatory so new born babies go to heaven”
    “I have nothing against gays, women, etc. etc.”

    At some point you have to stop and ask, What the heck makes you think you’re a Christian at all?!? To which they reply that they like the nativity and forgiveness and some other mush. Frustrating as hell.

    Valerie, it matters a lot if they embrace the term Christian because it makes people believe it’s a Christian country, that pro-Christian policies play well with the electorate, that secular policies lose votes, that since so many (alleged) Christians are nice people and don’t hate gays that Christianity is not a homophobic religion, that Christianity is harmless, etc. etc.