Valerie Tarico

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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