Valerie Tarico

Buddha, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammed: Larger-than-life historic figures or largely legends?

We all know that gods don’t actually have to exist for religions to spring up around them, so mostly we filter out the miracles and god-talk as mere mythology and tend to think of any so called “prophets” as simply human beings who were unusually wise, unusually deluded, or excellent liars. That said, we often accept that the biographical stories about these extraordinary personages are largely true. We credit religious patriarchs and prophets like Buddha, LaoTse, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad, with outsized roles in human history, much as we might credit Napoleon or Thomas Jefferson, or modern cultural icons like Elon Musk.

It turns out that we may be giving them too much credit. Even assuming that most of these iconic figures actually existed in some form in the flesh[1], religions may owe their current (and historic) forms more to social conditions—convergences of culture and technology– than individual founders.

Author David Fitzgerald has spent years researching the origins of Christianity and other common monotheistic religions. In this interview, we discuss some of the patterns and factors at play in how religions emerge and the forms they take.

Tarico: In your lectures and writings, you discuss patterns in how modern monotheistic religions have emerged.

Fitzgerald: Yes, although the doctrines, theologies and tenets all differ, the structures and development stages are remarkably alike—and the same largely holds true for the various non-monotheistic eastern traditions as well. If you go way back, the three Abrahamic faiths—the world’s largest monotheistic religions—have their roots in what is basically pantheism, which evolved into polytheism, and then monolatry. [Believers in monolatry accept that a pantheon or broad array of gods exist, but they commit their fealty and worship to only one of them and bank on his favor in return—to be their god’s chosen people] In western religion, this in turn finally evolved into monotheism—the belief that their god was the one true God and the others were fake; not simply rival deities, but either lower order beings like angels or demons, or outright imaginary.

Tarico: Ok, I have to expound here, because as a former Evangelical, I was fascinated when I first learned about “monolatry” as a transitional form—a bridge between polytheism and monotheism in the early Hebrew religion. Theologian Thom Stark first introduced me to the idea with his book, The Human Faces of God. Stark pointed out the remnants of polytheism and then monolatry in the Old Testament.

Early on, the god of Genesis sometimes is referred to using a plural—Elohim. (El is a god in the Caananite pantheon, and Hebrew-Christian angels retain his name imbedded within theirs: Micha-el; Gabri-el; Rapha-el; Uri-el; Jophi-el.)

Fitzgerald: Not to mention the land of Isra-el.

Tarico: Yes! Later, Jehovah or YHWH appears to be a national god, one in a pantheon of many. (An excavated inscription addresses the goddess Asherah alongside YHWH as his consort.) In the Ten Commandments, YHWH forbids his people to worship the other Canaanite gods, but doesn’t say they don’t exist. “You shall have no other gods before me.”[2] Ignoring the commandment, the Israelites make offerings to his enemy, Baal, the storm god, and are punished. Later still, as monotheism solidifies, one song of praise simply swaps in the name of Jehovah for the name of Baal. The whole trajectory is visible right there in the Old Testament!

Fitzgerald: Absolutely, and as I discuss in my upcoming book, (working title: Sex & Violence in the Bible) there are actually several places in the Old Testament where scribes have stolen hymns and paeans to other gods, and shaved off the serial numbers to turn them into praise for YHWH. As the Hebrew Bible says again and again, he is a jealous god—because there are rival gods for him to be jealous of. The idea that he was the one and only true god (and always had been!) came much later.

None of this is idle speculation; we have plentiful textual, archeological and epigraphic (inscriptions) evidence of how monotheism arose in ancient Israel.

Tarico: The psychology or sociology of this process fascinates me. I could imagine hypothesizing some generalizations here that might fit other religions as well. It seems that religions draw from earlier religions and surrounding religions, the same way that cultural remixing works more broadly. I could imagine that familiar traditions and cultural currents shape people’s sense of what is possible and credible—what stories, beliefs and practices they will accept without excessive skepticism.

Fitzgerald: That’s absolutely right; and they don’t just interact with the concepts and doctrines of the rival faiths around them; they also draw upon the ancestral forms of their own evolving religion. Fragments of older traditions get revised and carried forward, and what can’t be absorbed gets re-interpreted—or condemned as some foreign import or heretical relapse—as new beliefs supplant the old. Hebrews start as polytheists, then henotheists, before borrowing from Zoroastrianism to become monotheistic. Later Christianity shows up with a divine son of their God, coincidentally enough at the very same period that all of these Hellenistic religions have arrived, each featuring a son (or daughter) of gods that is a personal savior living in your heart; if you are born again into their faith.

Tarico: Are there repeated patterns in when or why religions move through different stages—from pantheism to monotheism, for example?

Fitzgerald: Robert Wright laid this out in his book, The Evolution of God, historical period by period. In the earliest layers, there is no religion per se. It’s simply known that the sun and other natural phenomena are supernatural entities. But there are no priest functions, shamanic rituals, no interactions with the gods. It’s just a given that these spirits control things, and the gods are as wild and unpredictable as any other forces of nature. Throughout places as diverse as Siberia, South America, Africa, Polynesia and Europe, anthropologists find commonalities across the board—such as projecting consciousness into nature, or the capriciousness of gods.

Many others have noted evolutionary survival mechanisms that lead to religious impulses, starting even before we were human. For instance, many animals have a very high degree of overactive agency detection, that is, they tend to see threats that aren’t actually there. Animal researchers like Justin Barrett point out that this is because it’s far safer to be wrong about a tiger that isn’tthere stalking you, than it is to be wrong about one that actually is. Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell marvelously showcases how easily this and similar phenomenon become co-opted by religions.

Just by virtue of being social animals, we evolve particular traits. Like us, chimp societies have politics, alliances, cliques, competition for sex partners and other social dynamics. Biologists like David Sloan Wilson have shown how, for instance, reciprocal altruism naturally unfolds, by the raw fact that in small groups dependent upon one another, you really can’t misbehave without consequences.

Tarico: Some of this is inborn. Psychiatrist Andy Thomson, who studied both child development and suicide terrorism, wrote a book that pulls together some of the developmental patterns and cognitive shortcuts that explain, Why We Believe in Gods. Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, delves more into the brain science. The structure of the human mind and cognition may explain why religions around the world have features in common. But then there also are enormously consequential differences. It seems that some religious features require a certain level of social-cultural complexity.

Fitzgerald: Very much so, and the stage of any particular religious theology is predicated on certain levels of social and technological evolution. Once hunter-gather societies start specializing, you soon get to the Shaman phase; i.e., a specialist expert oracle, healer, and all-purpose go-between between humans and the gods/nature. A lot of them rely on sleight of hand, ventriloquism, and other chicanery. And very tellingly, they have no problem in exposing each other’s tricks.

Tarico: Do they know they are doing tricksy things and how much is self-serving elites, and how much is that they really do believe it and it helps society as a whole?

Fitzgerald: There may not be a single, not-messy answer to that. For instance, during the 1980s, a series of murders in Salt Lake City happened because Mark Hoffman, a notorious forger of Mormon artifacts, started bombing to cover up his scam. The Mormon leadership prides itself on their spiritual gift of discernment—but they were totally being played by this con artist.[3] There has to be a point where they can’t not know their claims are pure, unflinching bullshit. Same with the Vatican, Southern Baptists and all the rest: Some at the top have to know that on some level it’s just politics, power and money, but where that happens for people in leadership roles and where they draw their lines? Harder to say.

Tarico: What else do you see as necessary components?

Fitzgerald: Some are technological. Again, as Robert Wright demonstrates, to go from the Shaman to the Chieftain stage takes agriculture, which in turn relies on astronomy. Chiefdoms grow into city-states. At that stage, you need governmental bureaucracies and information technologies to support them: writing, mathematics, recordkeeping.

And along this trajectory, something very interesting happens. When a religion consists of one group that doesn’t think it can get along with some other group, first it’s all “our god will smite you.” But when you think you can do business with this other group, or even join with them in an alliance, then your god will warm up to others considerably.

This is what happened when the Jews became part of the Persian empire; their god didn’t lose, he allowed Israel’s enemies to punish his chosen people – and then went on to evolve into a universal god who was the god of everybody, you just had to choose to accept him or not. That’s when you get talk about eternal brotherhood and God’s love for all. All the old violent verses get reinterpreted. That intolerance/tolerance goes back and forth as history advances, depending on whether it’s the hippies or the fundies who are at the fore…

Tarico: Ok, so religions evolve in serious ways based on social and technological conditions, and degrees of interdependency. These changing patterns also spawn new religions. Sometimes—if I can draw an analogy to biological evolution—one could say that speciation occurs, meaning that the ancestor religion and the younger one become so different that they are two different beasts, mutually incompatible, maybe in conflict, like Judaism and Christianity.

I can see that. But most people would say that the emergence of Judaism or Christianity or Islam wasn’t merely a matter of gradual evolution—that there was a distinctive break at the beginning of each. A specific person founded the new offshoot—Abraham, Jesus, and then Muhammad. You aren’t so sure. You suggest that religions routinely produce a set of legends that take the form of a great men.

Fitzgerald: That’s certainly how I used to see it, too, but when you look closely at the world’s major religions, you find a striking pattern: biographical information about the founder doesn’t appear initially, but only generations after the fact, sometimes even hundreds of years after. And typically there is enormous confusion and contradictions about even the basics of their lives and teachings. So a major world faith starting with a purely legendary founder in a golden-age founding myth suddenly doesn’t seem far-fetched; quite the opposite: it seems to be the norm.

Tarico: But why would you question whether there was a real person at the beginning? Q-Anon has been called a new secular religion. With good reason, I think. The person behind it may not actually be whoever adherents think, but there is someone behind it.

Fitzgerald: Oh there absolutely is someone behind every religion—it’s just not who we’ve been told it was. In every case, it seems to be the faceless, nameless real authors behind the scenes who used their founder figure as a placeholder for all the wisdom and guidance they wanted to convey. Whether they themselves sincerely thought in all innocence they were doing the Lords’ work, or were deliberately and cynically manipulating their flock (or some unconscious blend of both) for, say, political or other reasons, remains an open question, then as now.

And yes, “Q” is a perfect example of that phenomenon playing out today. The “real” “Q-anon Source” is not some anonymous high-level Trump administration insider, or JFK, Jr. returned from the grave, or whatever other new crackpot theory pops up next week – it appears to be a pair of dodgy online influencers currently under heavy scrutiny.

Tarico: You think that the social and technological evolution is both necessary and sufficient to explain the emergence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikkhism and more—with or without a powerful founding figure?

Fitzgerald: If we’re talking Christianity, there are scholars who think the point is moot, because we can account for its rise and origin whether or not there was a single founder. It was certainly comprised of several movements, but even if it had begun as a single one, the spread and geographic distribution don’t appear to have come out of Galilee or Jerusalem. Multiple Christianities appear in a very short amount of time, all over the Mediterranean world, yet they can’t agree on what Christianity is, or what Jesus was. His biographical narratives only emerge generations later. Christianity before the gospels were written is a very different animal than after.

Tarico: Does it really matter if we understand these hypotheses, with the answers so shrouded in history? So much is conjecture—or arguments about trivialities. There seems to be serious, perhaps unanswerable debate, for example, about whether big gods (i.e., universal religions) brought about big complex societies, or the reverse.

Fitzgerald: It’s important to learn what we can, because these evolutionary processes are still going today. You mentioned Q. There are small modern day cults, but also important political movements that take on religious aspects, be it the more extreme forms of Wokeism or the Trump personality cult. A little bit farther back in history are the Luddite movement and William Tell, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. We can look for patterns.

For just one example, it’s no accident that Islam emerged at a time of political vacuum and conquest, or that the burgeoning Arab caliphate needed to develop their own universal-style religion. Muhammad, as described in the traditional biographies that came much later, may or may not have existed—but if there wasn’t such a figure in reality, he certainly needed to be invented. Even before the more well-known rift between Sunni and Shia, early Islam was torn by so-called “wars of apostasy” over many would-be prophets. “Muhammad” (“The Praiseworthy One”) could simply be a title instead of a name, possibly even originally referring to one or more of these other prophets altogether. It’s interesting to see how up for grabs Islam was in its early decades; things could have played out very differently—exactly like Christianity. Or Judaism. Or any other major religion you can think of.

If we understand the birth and evolution of religions as natural processes, we can predict what kinds of religions may emerge in the future. For example, any emergent religion right now would have to be science compatible, or science-proof. As Robert Wright pointed out, as societies and religions become more interdependent, grow bigger and bigger, they have to be more inclusive, or they simply won’t be able to compete with those that are. The definition of your brother has to expand with the size of the social unit—unless you want to go extinct.

It’s ironic that fundamentalists in every religion deny evolution so adamantly, when the origins and adaptations of every sect in human history are textbook examples of Darwinian theory in action. And if you are attached to any one religion, there’s an important take-away from all this: if you look at other faiths and see how they came about, how they changed in response to their changing environment, it isn’t hard to recognize how those same processes played out in yours, too.

_______________________________________________________________________

David Fitzgerald is the author of Nailed and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series, including The Mormons, Jesus: Mything in Action, and the forthcoming Sex & Violence in the Bible.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

[1] The historicity of almost all religious founder figures appears to be questionable; see Part 1 of this series.

[2] The Prophet Ezekiel complains about Hebrews worshipping idols, the sun and the Sumerian god Tammuz occurring right in the Jerusalem temple itself (see Ezekiel 8, esp. 8:3-5, 10-16)

[3] See David Fitzgerald’s book The Mormons for the whole story of the Hoffman affair.

Here are 5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Fitzgerald points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.

Fitzgerald–who, as his book title indicates, takes the “mythical Jesus” position–is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.

More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest critics of popular Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who argued that the Romans invented Jesus) are academic Mythicists like these.

The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that serious scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.

In the words of Bart Ehrman (who himself believes the stories were built on a historical kernel):

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.

Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.

We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began.

For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, and nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith:”

Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

____________________________

Author’s note: Not being an insider to this debate, my own inclination is to defer to the preponderance of relevant experts while keeping in mind that paradigm shifts do occur. This means that until either the paradigm shift happens or I become a relevant expert myself, I shall assume that the Jesus stories probably had some historical kernel. That said, I find the debate fascinating for several reasons: For one, it offers a glimpse of the methods scholars use to analyze ancient texts. Also, despite the heated back and forth between mythicists and historicists, their points of agreement may be more significant than the difference between historicized mythology and mythologized history. The presence of mythic tropes or legendary elements in the gospel stories has been broadly accepted and documented, while the imprint of any actual man who may have provided a historical kernel–how he may have lived, what he may have said, and how he died–is more hazy than most people dream.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

Religious Trauma Syndrome: Former Christian explains how organized religion can lead to mental health problems

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia. When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said. “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn’t fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren’t just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a “relatively niche topic.” One commenter said, “A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive.”

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Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label? I asked her.

Let’s start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

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But the problem isn’t just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call “reclaimers,” have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I’d walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the “end times” for nonbelievers.

I was taken to see the film “A Thief In The Night”. WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn’t there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who’s house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is “You are bad and wrong and deserve to die.” (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools. I’ve had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can’t manage to find any self-worth.

After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.
I’ve spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn’t have to punish me. It’s taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

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Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like “lean not unto your own understanding” or “trust and obey.” People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I’ll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the “will of God.” The words here don’t convey the depth of his despair.

I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can’t, you know, wake up in the morning, “What am I going to do today? Like I don’t even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I’m not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I’m losing my country. I’ve lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person’s construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I’m way past that but I still haven’t quite found “my place in the universe.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one’s religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other “self” or way of “being in the world.” A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. “True believers” who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren’t these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply “walk away” because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don’t question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don’t send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn’t understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

Include physically-abusive parents who quote “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I’m simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That’s not enough!? There’s also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

There’s actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I’ve since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I’m now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn’t?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals. They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like “recovery from religion” and “religious trauma syndrome” are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a “niche topic,” and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma. More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It’s no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people “leaving the fold” includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help. For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference. I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren’t noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves. Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—- Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion. More information about Marlene Winell and resources for getting help with RTS may be found at Journey Free. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

These 15 Bible texts reveal why 'God’s Own Party' keeps demeaning women

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Why can't GOP politicians trumpet their religious credentials without assaulting women? Because fundamentalist religion of all stripes has degradation of women at its core.

Progressive Christians believe that the Bible is a human document, a record of humanity's multi-millennial struggle to understand what is good and what is God and how to live in moral community with each other. But fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literally perfect word of the Almighty, essentially dictated by God to the writers. To believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God is to believe that women are tainted seductresses who must be controlled by men.

Listen to early Church Father Tertullian: "You [woman] are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die."

Or take it from reformer John Calvin: "Woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading to all perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame."

Both Tertullian, a respected Catholic theologian, and Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, took their cues on this matter straight from the book of Genesis:

To the woman [God] said, I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. -Genesis 3:16

No matter how outrageous Santorum and Gingrich may seem to secularists and moderate people of faith, they are right on target for an intended audience of Bible believing fundamentalists. If you have any doubt, check out these fifteen Bible passages.*

  1. A wife is a man's property: You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
  2. Daughters can be bought and sold: If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. Exodus 21:7
  3. A raped daughter can be sold to her rapist: 28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
  4. Collecting wives and sex slaves is a sign of status: He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 1 Kings 11:3
  5. Used brides deserve death: If, however the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
  6. Women, but only virgins, are to be taken as spoils of war: Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Numbers 31:17-18
  7. Menstruating women are spiritually unclean: 19 "'When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. 20 "'Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. 21 Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 22 Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, . . . 30 The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. 31 "'You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place,[a] which is among them.'" Leviticus 15: 19-31
  8. A woman is twice as unclean after giving birth to girl as to a boy: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. ' 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. 6 " 'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Leviticus 12: 1-8
  9. A woman's promise is binding only if her father or husband agrees: 2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. 3 "When a young woman still living in her father's household makes a vow to the LORD or obligates herself by a pledge 4 and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the LORD will release her because her father has forbidden her. . . . . A woman's vow is meaningless unless approved by her husband or father. But if her husband nullifies them when he hears about them, then none of the vows or pledges that came from her lips will stand. Her husband has nullified them, and the LORD will release her. 13 Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself. Numbers 30:1-16
  10. Women should be seen not heard: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34
  11. Wives should submit to their husband's instructions and desires: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18
  12. In case you missed that submission thing . . . : Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24.
  13. More submission – and childbearing as a form of atonement: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15
  14. Women were created for men: For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 1 Corinthians 11:2-10
  15. Sleeping with women is dirty: No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb. Revelation 14:3-4

This list is just a sampling of the Bible verses that either instruct or illustrate proper relationships between men and women. In context, they often are mixed among passages that teach proper relationships with children, slaves and foreigners. The Bible doesn't forbid either contraception or abortion, but it is easy to see why Bible believing fundamentalists might have negative feelings about both.

As futurist Sara Robinson has pointed out, traditional rules that govern male-female relationships are grounded more in property rights than civil rights. Men essentially have ownership of women, whose lives are scripted to serve an end—bearing offspring. It is very important to men that they know whose progeny they are raising, so sexual morality has focused primarily on controlling women's sex activity and maintaining their "purity" and value as assets. Traditional gender roles and rules evolved on the presumption that women don't have control over their fertility. In other words, modern contraception radically changed a social compact that had existed for literally thousands of years.

Some people don't welcome change. Since the beginnings of the 20th Century, fundamentalist Christians have been engaged in what they see as spiritual warfare against secularists and modernist Christians. Both of their foes have embraced discoveries in fields such as linguistics, archeology, psychology, biology and physics – all of which call into question the heart of conservative religion and culture. Biblical scholars now challenge such "fundamentals" as a historical Adam, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the special status that Abraham's God gave to straight males. Fundamentalists are fighting desperately to hang on to certainties and privileges they once saw as an Abrahamic birthright. If they can't keep women in line; it's all over. The future ends up in the hands of cultural creatives, scientists, artists, inquiring minds, and girls. It's horrifying.

When American debate about abortion was sane and why that changed

People would be surprised by how much less toxic gender politics were in the 1970s than they are now.

Mary Ziegler teaches law at Florida State University, where she holds the Stearns Weaver Miller chair in the College of Law. Her book, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, traces the evolution of American political dynamics surrounding abortion. In this conversation with Valerie Tarico she discusses how the debate became so polarized, why some abortion foes will not be satisfied until abortion is criminalized, and how advocates for women and healthy families might find common cause with others.

This interview first ran in 2015.

Tarico: I see abortion as a social good—like the guardrails right before someone's life goes off a cliff. As a mom of two daughters, I sure want the rails there. But my dream is for my daughters and all young people to become parents when they feel ready so they can fulfill the promise of their lives and form families of their choosing and stack the odds in favor of their kids.

The intense emotional energy around abortion, both pro and con, makes it really hard to have this broader conversation about chosen lives and flourishing families—about young women and men pursuing their dreams or about healthy, cherished children raised by parents who aren't stretched to the breaking point. So I desperately want to understand whether there is some way through this impasse.

Ziegler: People would be surprised by how much less toxic gender politics were in the 1970s than they are now. Given how much abortion opponents seem to have fixated on the overruling of Roe, I expected the conflict in the decade after the decision to be particularly bitter, but it wasn't that way. What it means to be "Pro-Life" or "Pro-Choice" isn't as static as it seems. Some people on both sides were doing surprising and productive things back then to make abortion less necessary. Even today, when we talk about how polarized things are, we're talking about the movement leadership. But there are people on both sides who can't join either movement because neither fits what they believe. Many of those active in the 1970s would have been shocked at how dysfunctional things have become at this point.

Tarico: How did we get to this point—with inflammatory rhetoric inciting violence against abortion providers and a wholesale assault on services that empower women to manage their fertility? We have Congress trying to defund everything Planned Parenthood does except abortion, trying to defund the very services that make abortion less necessary. It's to the point that I sometimes call Cruz, Huckabee and the others "champions of unplanned parenthood."

Ziegler: People blame the Roe v. Wade decision, but the broad cultural wars against women weren't an inevitable result of what the Court decided in 1973. In fact, the polarization took a while to develop, and it had more to do with money and politics than the ideology of people in either movement.

For much of the 1970s, Pro-Life groups were trying to get politicians to adopt a platform that opposed abortion, but instead both parties tried to appeal to people on either side of the issue. In the 1970s, it was possible to be a conservative Republican and support abortion access. It was possible to be in support of robust anti-discrimination laws for women but oppose abortion. If you look at Biden or Gephardt, for example, there were lots of ways public figures tried to navigate this politically. Ronald Reagan signed an abortion access measure in California. George Bush was at least nominally Pro-Choice. But in 1976, the Republicans recognized the potential of abortion to mobilize swing votes. By the 1980s, positions crystalized. What happened was a political party realignment.

Tarico: Why a political realignment? How did opposition to abortion get bundled together with opposition to worker rights and opposition to government services and opposition to gun control? They don't seem to go together very well.

Ziegler: Abortion opponents wanted Roe v Wade overturned. For a long time, they had fought for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw all abortions, but that obviously hadn't worked. By the 1980s, it was pretty clear that the only way they were going to get anywhere was to change the Court, which meant they needed to change presidential elections. Marriage of the Pro-Life Movement and Republican Party was not inevitable and has always been troubled, meaning that there are people in the movement who are naturally conservative and people who are not. Some hold their noses when they vote Republican, hoping for judges and laws that they like.

Tarico: An "Obamacare simulation" at Washington University dropped the abortion rate to 75% below the national average by making top tier contraceptives available free of charge. Why can't we at least agree on reducing unwanted pregnancy and making abortion less necessary?

Ziegler: We could have done things to make abortion less necessary. There was a moment in time when that was politically possible. In the 1970s there was a big fight – should we be for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, or better access to contraception? Some in the Pro-Life Movement made this argument: They were trying to ban abortion, but they recognized that women would still seek it out if they didn't have alternatives. Politically, they can't easily make that argument anymore because that would jeopardize the Republicans' ability to stack the Supreme Court. But some people still feel that way. All Our Lives is one group that supports services and choices, except for abortion.

Tarico: OK, so instead of Obamacare, let's just talk about improvements in contraceptive technologies. In Washington State, the annual number of abortions has dropped from around 30,000 to around 18,000 without any increase in restrictions or decrease in access. The primary factor seems to be increased use of IUDs and contraceptive implants–also, Plan B (a.k.a., "the morning after pill"). And science suggests that all of the long-acting contraceptives and emergency contraceptives operate by preventing conception itself, rather than by booting out an embryo. Why aren't Pro-Lifers lobbying loudly on behalf of better birth control?

Zeigler: The idea of IUDs as abortifacient is like an article of faith—not something people are willing to re-think. Also, a meaningful group in the Pro-Life Movement is actually anti-contraception as well as anti-abortion. For the most part this is not overt, because it's not politically expedient. Those in power in the movement today are more likely to be conservative on every issue. Some are anti-sex unless it's procreative. This strand was there from the beginning, but it just wasn't universal. Now, a lot of the power players are people who operate naturally within the worldview of the Republican Party.

But they don't represent the whole movement.

Tarico: You keep saying that not everyone who opposes abortion is socially conservative to an extreme.

Ziegler: The Pro-Life movement is big and messy and divided. That's likely to be true of any social movement, and there is no exception here. Starting in the 1970s and running through 2010, sociologists have studied those who were active in the antiabortion movement. A few patterns emerge from these studies. The movement was disproportionately Catholic and female in its early years, but that's much less true now. Still, Catholics are disproportionately represented, and movement members more likely to be white, married, and college-educated than the population as a whole.

Ziad Munson's 2010 research found that antiabortion activists often identify as Republicans, but their world view maps pretty poorly onto the standard conservative platform. More of them were opposed to the death penalty than you would expect, for example.

As an historian, I try to get at what people thought was motivating them. Whether or not individual objections to abortion harken back to religious influences, activists believe they have secular moral reasons. Some express ethical objections. Some people see the fetus at any moment in time as a child. Some people are just grossed out by abortion—motivated by disgust. Often they are people who found images of abortion disturbing without thinking through how the images had been edited. Not all of them are driven by opposition to female equality or sex or birth control.

Tarico: So is there any room for common ground here? Right now we're stuck with terrifying rhetoric from politicians and constant threats against abortion providers that erupt into unpredictable violence. In some places, the only providers are people like Willie Parker or Warren Hern, who are so committed to abortion care as a calling that they are willing to risk their lives.

As clinics close, poor women who can't afford to travel are being forced to bear children they don't want and can't afford. Last summer I wrote a piece titled, "Why I'm Pro-Abortion not Just Pro-Choice" and it went viral. Amelia Bonow's spontaneous hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion erupted into an international Twitter storm. In other words, as the Right ramps up, people on the Left are ramping up too. Based on the past, what would you say about how we might get beyond the current impasse?

Ziegler: The common ground would lie in reducing the need for abortion, and in promoting the wellbeing of women and families. You would find some people in the movement that you can talk to and some that you can't. In 2015, the Supreme Court decided a case about whether federal civil rights law ever requires employers to accommodate women who need work modifications during pregnancy. The case involved Peggy Young, a woman who worked at United Parcel Service and sought the same accommodations the company already provided for people injured on the job. We associate the fight against pregnancy discrimination with feminists, but below the radar Pro-Life groups submitted amicus briefs arguing for more accommodations when Young's case went before the Supreme Court. The Republican Party is generally against anti-discrimination protections, so if you want to prevent or reduce abortion that way, but are aligned with the party, your political allies would say that's inappropriate. Even so, there is still some willingness to push for those things.

The interest in women's health, some of that is sincere. Some of the people using that argument would actually like to give women access to sex education or neonatal care. Also, there are antiabortion groups trying to lobby for equal pay because people recognize that sometimes a woman feels like she can't afford another child. Paid family leave might be another issue. If you are Pro-Life, you don't want people to feel coerced to have an abortion. Many in the movement recognize that poor women don't really have a choice to raise a child and often feel financial pressure to have an abortion. There might be common ground there.

Tarico: It seems like our insanity about abortion is making it impossible even to have sane conversations about family planning regarding how well-timed childbearing helps families to flourish. Even that conversation has become toxic. Any advice here?

Ziegler: There are no easy answers because differences on the abortion issue are real, profound, and unchanging. I don't think there was common ground on abortion even before Roe. But a good starting point is to remember that not everyone who identifies as antiabortion is the same. The polarization of abortion politics doesn't capture what most Americans actually think, even those who oppose safe, legal abortion. When you start to recognize the diversity in the movement, fault lines appear, and you can at least begin a real conversation about how to make things better for parents and their kids.

____________________

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

These 5 historical truths suggest Jesus Christ may have never existed

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are "mythologized history." In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a "historical Jesus" became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn't, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually "historicized mythology." In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Fitzgerald points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.

Fitzgerald–who, as his book title indicates, takes the "mythical Jesus" position–is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.

More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest critics of popular Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who argued that the Romans invented Jesus) are academic Mythicists like these.

The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that serious scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.

In the words of Bart Ehrman (who himself believes the stories were built on a historical kernel):

"What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus' name ever so much as mentioned." (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus' life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the "Silence of Paul" on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus' authority precisely when it would make his case. What's more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus' disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren't just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus' own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.

Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus' historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

3. Even the New Testament stories don't claim to be first-hand accounts.

We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began.

For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are "signed" by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don't actually say, "I was there." Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing "life of Jesus," and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, and nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), "The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time." John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that "the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment."

For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord's Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors' longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any "Jesus of Faith:"

Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the "historical Jesus" figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

____________________________

Author's note: Not being an insider to this debate, my own inclination is to defer to the preponderance of relevant experts while keeping in mind that paradigm shifts do occur. This means that until either the paradigm shift happens or I become a relevant expert myself, I shall assume that the Jesus stories probably had some historical kernel. That said, I find the debate fascinating for several reasons: For one, it offers a glimpse of the methods scholars use to analyze ancient texts. Also, despite the heated back and forth between mythicists and historicists, their points of agreement may be more significant than the difference between historicized mythology and mythologized history. The presence of mythic tropes or legendary elements in the gospel stories has been broadly accepted and documented, while the imprint of any actual man who may have provided a historical kernel–how he may have lived, what he may have said, and how he died–is more hazy than most people dream.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

Mental health expert lays out 10 thought patterns that trip up former Christians

Perhaps it's been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the Good Book. It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that prayer works, if at all, at the margins of statistical significance—that Believers don't avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn't so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the Bible is a jerk—or worse.

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.

Here are ten mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians even when we think we've done the work of moving on. None of these are unique to former Christians, but they are reinforced by Bible-belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.

  1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You're either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are "lukewarm."This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from Bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn't enough; you need to be all in. No pain no gain. Work? You're a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you'll gain a following.
  2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes—good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. Disagreement becomes synonymous with schism and heresy.When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent—we are just fallen ("utterly depraved" in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
  3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between "I'm awesome" and "I suck." Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn't perfect, and that's the biblical standard.
  4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of "confessing our sins one to another" turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.
  5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people but also straight guys who like sex, it's impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the Bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more matters of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor's wife. Then there's virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don't forget God hates fags.
  6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn't the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues; the consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small every-day wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to center in the moment, breathe in, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.
  7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a Rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown.
  8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what's right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. (Sound familiar?) They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don't share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.
  9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side—just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks!Fiction from Western cultures often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes and specific types of oversimplification. And it's all to easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren't so simple, but it's easy to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, elves and orcs.
  10. Intrusive what-ifs. And so we struggle, with new and old interpretations of reality and thought habits competing in our brains. We tell ourselves it's ok; that we're ok. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I'm wrong? Many years ago I told a therapist that I didn't believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn't talk to anyone about it because I didn't want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real.The journey out is . . . a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if Bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn't mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.
In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids and times of stasis. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence, Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.

I often find myself quoting one former Bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the near and present—a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.


How Christian nationalism invents a mythical history about America’s founders

Investigative journalist Katherine Stewart didn't think about fundamentalist Christianity much until Evangelicals targeted her daughter's public elementary school as their mission field in 2009. Through after-school "Good News" clubs and summer camps, Child Evangelism Fellowship works to convert children as young as five to a sin-and-salvation version of Christianity. Stewart was surprised to learn that there were thousands of such clubs operating in public elementary schools nationwide, and she began to dig deeper. What she discovered in the process resulted in her book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.

Stewart's latest book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, took her once again into the heart of fundamentalist Christianity, this time the political version that some call dominionism and others call Christian nationalism. Stewart has spent years crossing the country, attending events that wrap radical right politicking in the language of righteous, regressive dogma. In this interview she offers a glimpse of what she saw.

Tarico: What is Christian nationalism?

Stewart: Christian nationalism involves the claim that the foundation of legitimate government in the U.S. is bound up with a reactionary understanding of a particular religion. So it is an anti-democratic political ideology, as well as a device for mobilizing people and concentrating political power.

America's Christian nationalism shares features with forms of religious nationalism around the world, where leaders bind themselves to religious conservatives to solidify a more authoritarian form of power. Consider Russia, Hungary, Iran, and Turkey, to name just a few.

Religious nationalist movements of this sort always appeal to a mythical history where true believers once reigned. Christian nationalism invents a mythical history where America's founders were all essentially Bible-thumpers intent on establishing a so-called Christian nation.

Tarico: How does the culture war play into this?

Stewart: It is a mistake to think that the culture war is driving the politics, that this is just a grass-roots expression of social discontent. So-called culture war issues have been cultivated and exploited for securing a certain kind of political power. The best illustration of that is in the politics of abortion. We've bought this narrative that Christian nationalism arose as a kind of unified reaction to the horror of one Supreme Court decision in 1973. In reality, abortion was consciously selected and cultivated as a political issue quite a few years after the Supreme Court decision.

Tarico: What is the organizational structure of the movement?

Stewart: Political movements are complex, and this one is more complex than most. It took me some time to navigate the dense ecosystem of for-profit and non-profit groups including right-wing policy groups, legal advocacy organizations, data initiatives, and media and networking groups. The leadership cadre consists of a number of often personally interconnected activists and politicians. The movement derives much of its power and direction from an informal club of funders, some belonging to extended hyper-wealthy families.

Tarico: The Right is always talking about so-called "religious liberty." What do they mean by that?

Stewart: True religious liberty is the freedom of thought, conscience, and worship. It includes the freedom to worship any god or sacred idea or none. It also includes the freedom from compulsory support of or participation in religion.

The Religious Right distorts this idea in two ways. First, they cast "religious freedom" as permission to discriminate against others whose characteristics offend their so-called sincerely held religious belief. This clearly privileges one variety of religion over others. If your commitment to equal treatment under the law is based on your sincerely held convictions or beliefs, there is no "liberty" in this type of religious liberty for you.

Second, the calls for religious freedom that characterize much of the activism today are aimed at substantially increasing the flow of public money in their direction. Religious organizations already obtain public money through subsidies, tax deductions, grants, vouchers and other subsidies. But they want to increase that flow. Eight federal agencies have proposed changes in how they work with religious organizations. They propose to allow religious organizations to receive federal funds without complying with antidiscrimination law. When the taxpayer funding is delivered through "indirect aid," the organizations may proselytize or require participation in religious services.

Once you start funding religion with public money, it becomes that much more political because it becomes dependent on public money. The end game is effectively an established church. It is antidemocratic, anti-pluralistic, anti-religious freedom, and anti-American.

Tarico: As an outsider, what do you see as most legitimate in their concerns?

Stewart: The rank and file articulate a lot of legitimate concerns. Emphasizing the importance of families to our society, the integrity of political leaders, and the role of personal responsibility are all respectable ideas.

Unfortunately leaders of the movement have utterly blown their credibility on all of those fronts. With respect to families, they have sided with economic reactionaries to undermine the supports that families need in order to be successful. They have waged war on many of the social and health tools that families need in order to thrive, most visibly family planning On the integrity of personal leadership, there is nothing to say. All you have to do is point to Trump to understand that this is the definition of hypocrisy.

On the matter of individual responsibility, that is fine when you are talking about things over which individuals have control. But there are many problems we can only solve together as a society, such as global pandemics, environmental issues, and challenges in health care. And here, I think, religious nationalists have betrayed what might have been their strongest suit. Christianity, as most people understand it, has something to do with loving our neighbors. But leaders of the movement have thrown in their lot with economic reactionaries who tell us we don't owe anybody anything.

Tarico: Hasn't Christianity always had a political dimension? What's different now?

Stewart: The conventional wisdom holds that the differences between America's two parties, now as before, amount to differences over questions of domestic and foreign policy, and that politics is just the art of give-and-take between the two collections of interests and perspectives they represent. The difference today is that one party is now beholden to a movement that does not appear to have much respect the two-party system or even representative democracy itself.

Tarico: Martin Luther King Jr. used religion for political purposes.

Stewart: I think that we can distinguish between the substance of a movement dedicated to civil rights and equality, and a movement dedicated to a racist and nationalist supremacy. But we also can't assume that every movement that uses religion in politics uses it in the same way. It is true that MLK Jr. relied heavily on church organizations to spread his messages, and on religious references to give them authority. But we should acknowledge that he made use of the churches in part because the people he sought to represent in particular, people of color, were radically underrepresented and in fact shut out of every other structure in American society and politics.

I think every school child knows that he mainly appealed to religion to reinforce a belief in universal values that could be used to hold society to account, to hold power to account, and unify all people regardless of belief or race. The same simply cannot be said of the Christian nationalists, who use religious messages to impose hierarchies of value on various categories of people and claim special benefits for members of their group.

Tarico: You got a lot of pushback on a piece you wrote for the New York Times titled, "The Religious Right's Hostility to Science is Hampering our Coronavirus Response." Why did this piece in particular elicit such a strong reaction?

Stewart: Movement leaders cast it as an attack on Christians. Not true. My concern is not with religion but with a political movement that cloaks itself in religious rhetoric. But this is how they build their base, one lie at a time. This is the way nationalist movements always work. There is a "we" under threat, and there is an insidious internal enemy that is responsible for all of "our" woes. They must be silenced or eliminated if the "real Americans" are to triumph.

Think about what people on significantly larger stages have to endure. Is Anthony Fauci really part of the "deep state"? Even asking the question is a way of entering this world of the absurd. And yet, this is how a base is built, through paranoia and fear.

Tarico: Obviously, there are a bunch of Americans who would prefer not to live in The Handmaid's Tale. What should we do?

Stewart: The movement is political and so the answer is political too. The right has invested in all the tools of modern campaign infrastructure – data, media, and messaging. They understand the necessity of unity in winning elections and above all the value of the vote. These tools are available to those who oppose the politics of division and conquest that the movement represents. Religious nationalists are using the tools of democratic political culture to end democracy. I continue to believe those same resources can be used to restore it.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

Can you count on social security as part of your retirement? Yes -- here’s why​

As a young adult—almost forty years ago—I assumed that Social Security would be bankrupt by the time I was ready to retire. That was the word on the street. Today people who made that same assumption way back when are receiving their monthly checks. But that hasn't quelled the dire rumors, which have circulated in one form or another since at least the 1970s.

In the latest version, we are told that we need more babies to support retiring Baby Boomers. Young women aren't doing their job. It's a tale of Social Security as an intergenerational pyramid scheme, with young people paying for benefits their elders only partially earned—and counting on an even larger cadre of youngsters coming up behind them to do the same. Like many viral stories, this one contains bits of truth mixed with exaggerations and drama that make the narrative more viral but ultimately leave people with a distorted sense of reality.

So what's real?

Social Security will have a steady stream of income and outflow for the foreseeable future. For many years, the program took in more than it paid out. It built up a surplus called the Social Security Trust Fund that is now being drawn down. The latest projections say this fund will be used up by 2034. When it is gone, Social Security will not be bankrupt, nor do economists or retirement planners (or Social Security's board of trustees) see bankruptcy as a risk at any time in the foreseeable future. That is because the program has ongoing income from payroll taxes. However, when the trust fund is gone, projected revenues will cover only 75-80 percent of scheduled payouts, so if nothing else changed, projected payouts would have to be decreased by 20 to 25 percent. That's a big deal for people counting on Social Security, but it's a long way from bankruptcy, and some simple, sensible fixes would close the gap.

But what about the 16.8 trillion dollar shortfall that I've read about? Every year the Social Security trustees complete an analysis that projects program revenues and commitments 75 years into the future. The multi-trillion dollar shortfall is the gap between what Social Security would take in and what it would pay out by 2096 if no assumptions changed and if Congress did nothing to close the gap between now and then. Those are big ifs. To put it another way, the number derives from projecting deficit spending that hasn't started yet for almost three quarters of a century assuming that nothing changes in that time. It is a valuable management tool, but an unlikely map of what is to come.

So, what are the two "simple, sensible" fixes that would close the gap? Both "fixes" would course-correct ways that Social Security has drifted out of alignment with changing conditions. At the end of the 1930s, when the program started, only 54 percent of adult men and 61 percent of adult women lived to age 65. By 2015, those numbers were 80 percent and 88 percent respectively. For those who do reach 65, additional life expectancy has increased by five years, but the Social Security benefit age has increased by only two, to 67. People not only live longer, they are healthy longer. Research shows that many people in their late 60s are as healthy and capable as younger workers and, paradoxically, retirement can have negative health and mental health effects. So, the first correction would be to gradually raise the benefit age to 70 and then add a formula that adjusts that as health and life continue to grow longer.

The other fix would be to raise the cap on wages that are subject to withholding. Currently Social Security gets withheld from earnings up to $142,800 in a year. Additional earnings beyond that cap do not have social security withheld. That is because Social Security was meant to be a forced savings program that returned a basic level of income during retirement. In 1983 roughly 90 percent of wages were subject to Social Security withholding, with 10 percent above the cap. But as inequality has grown, a greater percent of wages escape withholding. By 2016 that number was 17 percent, meaning 1.2 trillion dollars in wages to high earners were exempt. In addition, life expectancy has risen more for rich than poor people, which means that higher income people draw from the program longer. So, again, raising the cap would correct one of the ways that income and outflow have drifted apart because of changes in our society.

If these changes are so simple, why haven't they been done? The problems are political. The Left wants to close the gap by increasing contributions from high income earners. They want to raise or eliminate the cap. The Right wants to close the gap by raising the benefit age. Neither side wants to offend their core constituents, who have become accustomed to unsustainable payouts or unsustainable tax exemptions.

Many other possible tweaks to Social Security could help to either improve finances, or bring Social Security into alignment with modern ways of living, or both. For example, we could revise cost-of-living formulas to better reflect the changing mix of technologies that people use to maintain quality of life. Also, because Social Security was set up when most people married and most women didn't work, it offers benefits to married or widowed women that aren't available to singles. This is regressive.

Lists of proposed improvements to Social Security can be found all over the internet (here, here, here, here, here, here). Some have been carefully thought out by analysts; others not so much. But even the well-considered proposals face resistance from one or the other side of the aisle, and as polarization deepens, neither side has been willing to compromise. The last major overhaul of Social Security was in 1983. But pressure is mounting and reform legislation—the TRUST Act—may pass this year. As conflicted as this topic is, politicians know what would happen in elections if expected benefits suddenly dropped by a quarter because of their failure to update the program.

What about the "looming birthrate disaster" we've been hearing about, the idea that we won't have enough young workers to support the old? It is neither looming nor a disaster, but this part is real: Young women are having fewer babies and people are living twice as long as they did 100 years ago. Alarmists of many stripes—nationalists, religious pro-natalists, immigration advocates and some others—have been prophesying doom, including for old age security programs. It is also true that for a long time the failure of politicians to reform and update Social Security was offset by rapid population growth. So, the notion of the program operating currently as an intergenerational pyramid scheme is not altogether baseless.

But people who say we need an ever-larger cadre of young workers to grow economic production (and, thus, funding for safety net programs like Social Security) have either misread or haven't read the economic research. Improvements in productivity (and take-home pay and standard of living and per-person funding for social programs) are driven primarily by innovation and the spread of better technologies. Across many countries and time periods, faster population growth maps to slower growth in per person productivity and standard of living. Rapid change of any kind tends to make adjustment difficult, but gently declining birthrates may help workforces adjust to coming trends like AI and robotics.

The trustees of Social Security already project a below-replacement birthrate in their long-term analysis, though they will continue to review and revise. Like other demographers, they assume that 20th century population growth was anomalous and won't continue indefinitely. (It would be hard to imagine a planet where it did.) That said, experts don't know how these changes will play out. Retirement security programs will need other foundations, foundations that don't require population growth, if they are to remain strong long term. The Social Security Administration tracks similar programs in other countries to monitor what works well.

Why it is important to get the facts right.

Misperceptions about Social Security are worth correcting because they harm individuals and society at large. When people wrongly believe that Social Security is headed for the rocks—that it is going bankrupt, or that experts don't know how to fix it, or that young workers are about to be overwhelmed by burdensome retirees—many feel more anxious or resentful. Their own future seems insecure, and their withholding seems like money down a black hole rather than the savings plan it was meant to be. They may be more mistrustful of government broadly, less confident that tax dollars will be spent wisely for their good and the good of other people.

Fortunately, things are better than many of us have been told. Barring catastrophe (in which case we all will have bigger things to worry about), Social Security is going to be around for a long time. True, the system needs updating, and if politicians fail to do their jobs some adjustments will be painfully abrupt. And we are no better now at predicting the future than our ancestors were 85 years ago when the program started. It would be silly to assume that we actually know how things will or won't work in 75 years. We can be confident that future generations will need to revamp to fit changing conditions, just as we do now. But overall the program is doing what it was meant to do.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

A dozen ways smaller, older populations could be awesome

We have lots of reasons to look to a changing demographic future with curiosity and optimism.

While many of us fret about unaffordable housing or traffic jams caused in part by population pressures, a trending chorus of depopulation doomsaying laments that there are too few people—or will be shortly.

Underneath this lament lies something that is factually true. Birthrates are dropping, and people are living longer. Human population ballooned in the 20th Century and is projected to grow by billions more in coming decades. But sometime late in this century, or early in the next, it likely will flatten and begin to curve back. Over time, fewer births and longer lives will slim the bulge and create a "grayer" populace, one with fewer babies and more elders. This will require societies to adapt and innovate. Some old ways of doing things won't work anymore, and we don't know what the new configurations will be.

This transition is happening already in much of Asia and the West. Some people see that as threatening. A stable or declining population may be good for the environment, they say, and less unsought pregnancy may be good for women, but economic wellbeing depends on an ever-swelling population of human innovators, producers and consumers.

Does it? Cutting edge economic models developed at Cambridge and elsewhere call this "growth assumption" into question or discuss alternatives. So do futurists who are focused on AI and robotics. Much recent research finds a negative correlation between population growth and growth in per capita prosperity. A powerful economy may no longer require legions of metaphorical foot solders any more than a powerful military does. Technology changes the equation.

But we don't have to dive deep into economic theory or the future of technology to glimpse some potential benefits of a slimmer, grayer population. We have only to consider what ordinary people care about right now, prioritize per capita prosperity rather than GDP, check our assumptions about aging, and then add some non-monetized goods into the mix. Even setting aside implications for the environment and gender equality, here are ten ways a smaller and older populace may be better.

  1. Better educated young people. Around the world hundreds of studies like this one from Indonesia have shown that children tend to be better educated in families with fewer children. Parents invest disproportionately in the first child, especially if he is a boy, but parents run out of resources and energy, so later kids get less. Education correlates with per capita productivity and income, so more highly skilled and educated workers both produce more and receive a bigger part of the economic pie.In the global south, each additional year of education has an outsized benefit. In Pakistan, for example, one additional year of schooling increases a woman's earnings by 10 percent. More broadly, children born to literate mothers are 50 percent more likely to live to age five. Delayed voluntary childbearing, a lower birth rate, and more investment in each child create a virtuous cycle of greater health and prosperity and more education and intentional parenthood that spirals across generations.
  2. Higher wages. Some economists argue that a pyramid-shaped age structure (more young people than old people) is necessary to keep labor costs low relative to the cost of capital. Older employees are more expensive, so the idea goes. But keeping wages low is advantageous only to those doing the hiring, not to those being hired. For people who have few assets and only their labor to sell, fewer workers competing for more jobs is a positive. It means their labor, all other things being equal, is more valuable.
  3. Lower price of goods. Just as less competition in the job market is a bonus for workers, so less competition for goods and commodities is a bonus for the people doing the purchasing. Many of us love bargain hunting; when surplus merchandise goes on after the holidays we treat ourselves to little luxuries we might otherwise pass by. But for people living hardscrabble lives, less competition for scarce resources can mean a little protein to go with the rice and vegetables. This is particularly true for finite resources like forestry products, wild-caught fish, minerals, and fertile land, where bumping up production in the short run can reduce supply in the long run.
  4. Longer productive lives. Some economists fret that "dependency ratios"—meaning the ratio of dependent children and elders to workers will grow as birthrates drop and people live longer. Traditional dependency metrics assume that people start working at age 15 or 20 and retire at 65, dropping out of the economy. They ignore the complexities around categorizing women who have been excluded from the workplace and thus "economic dependents" in many places, but also ignore the economic value of female unpaid labor, which often changes little at age 65. Because traditional assumptions align poorly with reality, some analysts have suggested alternatives that better reflect how we live.The nature of work is changing, and there is no reason to assume that future generations of people—either men or women—in their 60s, 70s or even 80s will be worn out and "dependent" rather than generative, creative, contributing members of society. In some countries including South Korea, Mexico and the Philippines, a majority of 60 to 80 year olds regularly contribute to the financial support of other family members. And the ability of elders to contribute is likely to grow. For example, researchers in Germany project that by 2050 the average German man will be in good health for 80 percent of his life as compared with 60% today. Around the world living longer doesn't merely mean a longer and more drawn out phase of disability and dependency; what we're all after—and what we are achieving—is a higher degree of health, vigor and generativity in each decade.
  5. More intergenerational caretaking within families. When parents put their children in daycare rather than caring for them at home during the workday, GDP goes up, regardless of what the family might have preferred and regardless of whether children and parents are happier or healthier. The traditional at-home work of parents and grandparents is not monetized, so it doesn't get considered as an economic good. This is just one of many kinds of non-monetized good that is likely to increase with healthier grandparents and smaller families. Already a quarter of US children under the age of five receives regular caretaking by grandparents. Around the world, grandparents have been described as "increasingly indispensable." But caretaking by elders isn't simply a matter of need; it is also a matter of joy. In fact, model programs now house childcare centers within retirement homes, improving quality of life for both elders and children.
  6. Retirees building community. In the heyday of the two-parent family, women who were excluded from the workplace often volunteered through churches, aid societies, and ladies' guilds or clubs. These social networks were part of the fabric that created a strong sense of community. With employment now divided more along age than gender lines in many places, older people are stepping into these roles. A recent study cited in Age International examined community work by elders in Asia. They found that a sizeable percent of people in their 60s and 70s regularly helped in their communities – more than 20 percent of Filipinos and Chinese, and more than 25 percent of Indians and Taiwanese.
  7. More inheritance per capita. Most parents when they die leave something to their kids—or at least aspire to. These "intergenerational transfers" as economists call them may be as large as a house or farm or corporate holdings or as small as a set of tea cups. Either way, a child's share is larger when the inheritance is divided among fewer offspring.I once met a young man in Palenque, Mexico who desperately hoped to get to the US to make a new life for himself. Why? Because his father was a farmer and he was the youngest of six sons. In the past, many cultures developed traditions of inheritance that left landholdings to the oldest son. Primogeniture seems cruel, but it ensured that accumulated wealth and means of production remained intact and added meaningfully to the prosperity of subsequent generations. The same benefit accrues—and durable parts of this inheritance become sustainable—when parents have one or two children.
  8. Bigger per-person shares of the commons. Was your family one of those who waited in a line of cars for hours to see bison in Yellowstone Park or who squeezed into the last spot at a crowded state park? Local parks, state parks, national parks—each of these belongs to all of us. The same is true of other public commons and shared assets. More people can of course build more infrastructure. But some parts of the commons return more value with less crowding.
  9. More bountiful, beautiful housing. Many years ago, I had a friend in New York who was able to purchase the condo adjoining hers and turn the two units into one. Contrast that with Seattle today, where rapid growth means even well-employed young people can't afford to live in the neighborhood they grew up in. We all know that rich people tend to prefer larger homes with more privacy and often more green space around them. But today doctors live in townhouses that might have served factory workers three generations ago; young workers squeeze themselves into "apodments" in Seattle and even middle-aged workers cram into bunk-rooms in Shenzhen. Modest rents and house valuations are bad for owners (most typically older, more prosperous adults) but they make life better for young people and those trying to work their way up from the bottom. For everyone not in the real estate sector, lower housing costs are a change for the better.
  10. Shorter commutes. The happiest communities in the US appear to be towns with fewer people, cheaper housing and shorter commutes. In 2017, British researchers made a startling proclamation based on a huge longitudinal data set, "An additional 20 minutes commuting each day lowers job satisfaction equivalent to a 19% pay cut." Every extra minute spent commuting also measurably increased stress, decreased mental health, and decreased satisfaction with leisure time. Around the world, commute times grow with population. By 2017, the average US commute had inched close to half an hour. During early COVID shut-downs when familiar streets were virtually empty, those who did have to venture out often described the experience as easier, more predictable, and less stressful. Most of us would welcome lighter traffic and a shortened drive time if we could get them without a pandemic.
  11. Breathing room. Tokyo's tube hotels. Hour-long line-ups at Disneyland. Outdoor markets on top of train tracks in Bangkok. Body-to-body riders in New York's subway. The last century's population growth has pressed us up against each other to an unprecedented degree. Sometimes we love being crowded together—say at a party or rock concert or convention. Often, though, we don't, and ordinary people sometimes resent the fact that those with more money get more leg room. This suggests that breathing space has economic value—and with reason! But, except for paid VIP options, the value of not-being-crowded rarely gets measured in money. Quite the opposite in fact. Crowding (think long lines at Disneyland) can boost the black ink on economic spreadsheets regardless of what it means for quality of life.
  12. More and better leisure time. Leisure time gets whittled away by commuting, which in turn is affected by housing costs, so as these factors change, one might expect a corresponding increase in leisure. But fewer children and longer lifespan may improve leisure in other ways as well. Smaller family size means less housework, which falls disproportionately on women but affects all parents. More education means more people may have sufficient income with part-time pay. In Germany, time spent working is projected to fall almost 20 percent by 2060, while leisure time is projecting to slightly increase. A more extended period of health means more years in which to explore, create or socialize once children are grown, but smaller family size also improves the quality of leisure time during the childrearing years. My parents used to pack five children and a dog into a Chevy Carryall for a week of backpacking each summer. No question, those trips would have been less stressful for them with two kids in the back seat instead of five.

Measure what matters.
A Seattle think tank, Sightline Institute, used to publish this motto: Measure what matters. That is because analysts and decision makers are more likely to care about things they can measure. The challenge is that quality of life is shaped by factors that standard economic indicators fail to capture. When it comes to population questions, that can create a disconnect between economists and ordinary people.

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy expressed the problem clearly:

"Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

And yet, Gross National Product continues to dictate policy and economic priorities.

Some governments are trying to change that. The small kingdom of Bhutan made headlines in the 1990s when the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck restructured the kingdom's economy around an index of Gross National Happiness. In 2010, Britain launched a program to measure wellbeing. The aim was to ""start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life."

In this big picture, if we measure what matters to us, a future with fewer babies and longer lives looks less scary and more intriguing. Without a doubt, as the 20th Century population bulge starts slimming we will face adaptive challenges; some existing social programs and economic assumptions have been optimized around unending population growth. But there are lots of reasons to look to a changing demographic future with curiosity and optimism.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

Prosperity and economic growth don’t require population growth – the opposite may be true with AI

Recent depopulation alarmism serves wealthy investors, not ordinary people.

Many people assume that population growth is key to a flourishing economy. But if what you care about is the prosperity of ordinary families and individuals, that isn't true. In his influential book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Economist Thomas Piketty noted that national economic growth "always includes a purely demographic component [meaning population growth] and a purely economic component, and only the latter allows for an improvement in the standard of living."

The disconnect between population growth and standard of living is easily illustrated. Imagine a little country that has ten workers who make $50,000 each for a total of $500,000. Now imagine that the next generation has twenty workers, but they only make $40,000 each, for a total of $800,000. The national economy is up but individual income has fallen. From the standpoint of a nationalist, the $800,000 is preferable. But the workers were better off in the first generation.

Across long periods of time and many countries, the relationship between population growth and growth in individualprosperity has generally (though not always) been modestly negative. This means that faster population growth maps to slower per capita economic growth.

But from recent reporting about declining birthrates, you'd never know that. Reporters often frame a smaller, stable, or even more modestly growing population in negative language, using words like "weak" or "anemic" to describe moderate population growth and "flat" or "stalled" when population is stable. Depopulation alarmists predict one or another "crisis" at some point in the future rather than talking about any relief from present-day ecological pressures or benefits for women and working families.

A recent New York Times article offers particularly dramatic examples of loaded language. The title, "Long Slide Looms for World Population," sets the stage for more drama in the lede and body, "Fewer babies' cries. More abandoned homes. . . ." A stable population is called "stagnant," and greater longevity is described primarily as a problem. The "strain of longer lives and low fertility. . . threatens to upend how societies are organized," they say, echoing the Pope, who described the changing Italian family as a cold, dark "demographic winter." The authors invite readers to "Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older."

Unfortunately, this article follows an all-too-familiar template now that we are nearing the downward slope of the 20th century population bubble. Even though human numbers will continue to swell for decades and maybe generations, lower fertility and longer lives are framed as threats rather than opportunities or signs of success. (A celebratory tone might sound like this: Thanks to science and a lot of hard work, childbearing is more often voluntary and we now live twice as long as our ancestors. These two trends have some highly desirable side benefits. Now, let's get creative and tackle the new challenges that come with new territory.)

How does individual standard of living grow?

Most research on standard of living examines per capita GDP (gross domestic product), meaning the dollar value of goods and services produced per person in a given region or country. Mind you, GDP per capita is far from a perfect indicator of well-being. When income grows only for the rich, it goes up. When people can eat from their own garden instead of buying food, it goes down. When a parent is forced to put their infant in daycare rather than staying at home, it goes up. When people take more leisure and so work fewer hours, it goes down. When wildfires destroy homes that have to be rebuilt, it goes up. But however crudely, it at least attempts to capture the wellbeing of individuals.

Population is not a multiplier in this equation. We all recognize that people in a small country with a stable or even shrinking population may enjoy more income and wealth than people in a large and rapidly growing country. Think Japan vs Nigeria. But here is something less intuitive: Wealth and income per person may shrink while population and national GDP grow, and they may grow while population shrinks. Japan's below-replacement birthrate means that national GDP growth has slowed, but solid growth in individual prosperity defies naysayers. In the latest year available, 2019, Japanese GDP per capita grew by 2.78 percent. (The US number was 3.65 percent.) Similarly, some cities in the US where population is shrinking have standards of living that are rising.

Why is that? Private companies, governments, and individuals have many ways to increase how much each person can produce and take home.


  • A more skilled workforce (education). When education provides economically relevant skills, productivity increases and, along with it, prosperity. Growing income and wealth can follow from training in specific trades like carpentry or engineering, but also from training in non-specific skills like communications or strategic thinking.
  • Better tools (innovation). Education not only helps individuals to do their work better and smarter, it also leads to more innovation, humanity's greatest economic lever. Investing time or money in innovation is risky, as most such investments fail. But improvements in technology can lead to vast increases in productivity. The same tree cutter, regardless of education, is far more efficient wielding a chainsaw than an axe. As robots and AI develop, fewer human workers will be needed in many roles, and the level of goods and services able to be produced by each individual will take another leap, as is underway in Japan.
  • More tools (investment at scale). For better technology to upgrade the economy at large, it must get produced at scale and distributed widely. That takes up-front investment, also called capital. When the potential benefit to society is great but private investors are unable or unwilling to commit, governments or nonprofits can fill the gap.
  • Full participation in education and work (inclusion). Every economy includes some people who can't work, such as children and infirm elders. But to maximize prosperity people must be able to learn and work to their potential. If a society excludes women from full participation in the economy either deliberately or through neglect of reproductive empowerment, if it erects barriers to people of some races, if it fails to broadly distribute access to education, then the economy cannot operate to its potential.
  • Nimble adjustment to opportunities (flexibility). Per capita productivity is greater when both workers and investors are able to move easily among opportunities in response to new technologies or other shifting economic conditions. This requires a flexible job market and a flexible investment market, with good information flow to both. In the USSR, centralized control made this kind of nimble adjustment impossible—with painful consequences—, but good governance can do the opposite.

The private, public, and philanthropic sectors can each contribute to standard of living by fostering the invention and diffusion of better technologies and supporting a skilled, nimble, inclusive workforce. (Likewise, they each have roles to play in protecting against factors that decrease per capita prosperity, such as resource depletion, social instability, and over- or under-regulation that cause sluggish or less valuable production.) In other words, there are many levers, and many people who can pull them. But the key point here is this: None of these pro-prosperity factors depends on population growth. If anything, population growth appears to put downward pressure on growth in income.

Why do so many reports lately seem to get this garbled?

As best I can tell, the recent wave of handwringing about lower birthrates has several causes. Population growth does benefit some people, and it happens that those who stand to gain from population growth (as opposed to those who stand to lose from it) disproportionately provide the demographic and economic information that flows to reporters who are looking for stories. In addition, there are real challenges ahead as countries and other economic entities adapt to demographic change.

  • Capitalism—capital over labor. Population growth makes capital more valuable relative to labor. All else being constant, it creates more competition for jobs, which means workers are willing to accept lower wages. Similarly, more people means more buyers, which can increase the price of goods. Much analysis of birth trends as they relate to economic trends is written by or for investors, who seek to internalize benefits from population growth in the form of faster, higher returns on capital and who are comparatively impervious to potential downsides.
  • Socialism—pyramid funding. A second body of data related to population demography is produced by and for bureaucrats who are seeking to manage social programs. Many of these programs, like American social security, have come to rely on what might be called an intergenerational pyramid scheme—lots of young people who pay for benefits their elders only partially earned. Simple fixes proposed by think tanks on the Left and Right have been blocked by opposition across the political aisle. Rather than modernizing Social Security, Congress has relied on population growth.
  • Nationalism—demographic muscle. In international forums, more population often equals more strength even if it decreases individual prosperity. Aggregate GDP and aggregate military strength can sway alliances and agreements, whether by persuasion or threat. Even if legions of foot soldiers no longer determine military might, bulk still carries geopolitical sway. Consequently, nationalists may be prone to tout population growth and see a stable or shrinking population as threatening, especially if population is growing elsewhere.
  • Politics—vote-seeking. Both left- and right-wing political operatives see demography in electoral terms. In the US, the Left has long crowed that differential birthrates and immigration, components of "the Rising American Majority" are on their side. Right-wing commentators, meanwhile, fret about the loss of traditional American (aka Euro-derivative, Protestant) culture, and the threat posed by liberated women. Recently, some on the Left have begun to frame political objectives such as more immigration in economic and nationalistic terms arguing that immigration is a "necessity" to offset lower domestic birthrates.
  • Religion—sanctified breeding. The world's largest religions evolved to outcompete other sects in part through competitive breeding. Consequently, conservative religious teachings often encourage higher birthrates. Some of these teachings are transparently pro-natalist, as in the biblical commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," or the Catholic ban on modern, effective birth control. But others simply sanctify traditional gender roles or celebrate motherhood as the pinnacle of female devotion. This pronatalism is deeply imbedded in culture and makes a slimming birthrate cause for suspicion. In the US, popular Catholic commentators like Ross Douthat are predisposed to alarm about lower birthrates.
  • Media—addictive alarmism. In today's media environment, optimism is often seen as naïve, and genuinely balanced articles have trouble competing with doomsaying because they lack a strong emotional valence. Consequently, reporters and editors are drawn to seek the potentially alarming threads in any change and then weave stories around that emotional core.

What about China?

Stories about bending population curves often point to China as an object lesson. In October of 2015, China replaced its coercive one-child rule with a two-child limit, which increased to a three-child limit in May of 2021. Does this indicate that Chinese economists see population growth as necessary to prosperity? Unlikely. China's government has a range of "superpower" goals, including regional hegemony, which may benefit from a large population or aggregated economic clout. But the main factor appears to be that China's demographic shift (rampant population growth followed by a sharp drop off) is happening too fast for social and economic systems to adjust, in particular, the ratio of workers to retirees. Rapid change tends to cause problems in social structures, which are typically optimized for a specific set of conditions.

Just like the draconian one-child rule, implemented when China was facing resource depletion and hunger, recent moves including the three-child limit are top-down strategies for adapting to China's current point in a demographic arc, which was, in fact, accelerated by the one-child rule. But if China is to be seen as an object lesson to the world, perhaps we should look a little closer at the adaptive strategies currently underway. The national government has long enforced a retirement age of 60 for men (and 50 to 55 for most women!), set when life expectancy averaged 40 years in the 1950s. Now, with healthier elders and fewer young people, this is being raised to 65 to allow workforce participation as people are able. Oxford Economics predicts that China will have up to 14 million industrial robots by 2030. Electronics manufacturer Foxconn replaced 60,000 workers with robots in a single factory.

Disruptive technologies bring new sets of problems, and the technologies that have allowed us to have fewer babies and live longer are no exception. These are good kinds of problems to have. Past generations each faced their own circumstances—intersections of culture, technology, population and politics—and chose what they hoped were the best available courses of action. We must do the same. But we can only do so if we accurately understand the realities on the ground. The belief that we need 20th century population growth to grow 21st century income and wealth simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

These 10 thought processes trip up former Bible believers

Perhaps it's been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the Good Book. It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that prayer works, if at all, at the margins of statistical significance—that Believers don't avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn't so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the Bible is a jerk—or worse.

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.

Here are ten mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians even when we think we've done the work of moving on. None of these are unique to former Christians, but they are reinforced by Bible-belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.

  1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You're either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are "lukewarm."This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from Bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn't enough; you need to be all in. No pain no gain. Work? You're a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you'll gain a following.
  2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes—good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. Disagreement becomes synonymous with schism and heresy.When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent—we are just fallen ("utterly depraved" in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
  3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between "I'm awesome" and "I suck." Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn't perfect, and that's the biblical standard.
  4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of "confessing our sins one to another" turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.
  5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people but also straight guys who like sex, it's impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the Bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more matters of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor's wife. Then there's virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don't forget God hates fags.
  6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn't the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues; the consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small every-day wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to center in the moment, breathe in, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.
  7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a Rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown.
  8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what's right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. (Sound familiar?) They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don't share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.
  9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side—just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks!Fiction from Western cultures often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes and specific types of oversimplification. And it's all to easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren't so simple, but it's easy to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, elves and orcs.
  10. Intrusive what-ifs. And so we struggle, with new and old interpretations of reality and thought habits competing in our brains. We tell ourselves it's ok; that we're ok. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I'm wrong? Many years ago I told a therapist that I didn't believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn't talk to anyone about it because I didn't want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real.The journey out is . . . a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if Bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn't mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.

In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids and times of stasis. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence, Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.

I often find myself quoting one former Bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the near and present—a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

These 5 historical truths suggest Jesus Christ may have never existed

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are "mythologized history." In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a "historical Jesus" became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn't, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually "historicized mythology." In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Fitzgerald points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.

Fitzgerald–who, as his book title indicates, takes the "mythical Jesus" position–is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.

More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest critics of popular Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who argued that the Romans invented Jesus) are academic Mythicists like these.

The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that serious scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.

In the words of Bart Ehrman (who himself believes the stories were built on a historical kernel):

"What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus' name ever so much as mentioned." (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus' life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the "Silence of Paul" on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus' authority precisely when it would make his case. What's more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus' disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren't just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus' own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.

Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus' historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

3. Even the New Testament stories don't claim to be first-hand accounts.

We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began.

For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are "signed" by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don't actually say, "I was there." Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing "life of Jesus," and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, and nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), "The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time." John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that "the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment."

For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord's Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors' longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any "Jesus of Faith:"

Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the "historical Jesus" figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

____________________________

Author's note: Not being an insider to this debate, my own inclination is to defer to the preponderance of relevant experts while keeping in mind that paradigm shifts do occur. This means that until either the paradigm shift happens or I become a relevant expert myself, I shall assume that the Jesus stories probably had some historical kernel. That said, I find the debate fascinating for several reasons: For one, it offers a glimpse of the methods scholars use to analyze ancient texts. Also, despite the heated back and forth between mythicists and historicists, their points of agreement may be more significant than the difference between historicized mythology and mythologized history. The presence of mythic tropes or legendary elements in the gospel stories has been broadly accepted and documented, while the imprint of any actual man who may have provided a historical kernel–how he may have lived, what he may have said, and how he died–is more hazy than most people dream.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

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