How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
You probably saw a BuzzFeed article by Ashley Perez alarmingly titled “8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries” pop up recently in your Facebook or Twitter feed. You may even have shared it yourself. If you haven’t seen the article, it lists several items (artificial food dye, olestra, synthetic growth hormones, arsenic) that are commonplace in American foods, and that have been linked to numerous negative side-effects (cancer, nerve-cell deterioration, birth defects, leaky bowels).
Shortly after the article went viral, however, several rebuttals appeared that pointed out flaws in Perez’s article. An especially pointed response was “Eight Toxic Foods: A Little Chemical Education” by chemist Derek Lowe which dismantles every single one of Perez’s points. For example, regarding Perez’s claim that azodicarbonamide “has been known to induce asthma,” Lowe writes:
If you look at the toxicology of azodicarbonamide, you find that “Azodicarbonamide is of low acute toxicity, but repeated or prolonged contact may cause asthma and skin sensitization.” That, one should note, is for the pure chemical, not 45 parts per million in uncooked flour (much less zero parts per million in the final product). If you’re handling drums of the stuff at the plastics plant, you should be wearing protective gear. If you’re eating a roll, no.
And yet, even after Lowe’s article (among others) was published and even posted in the comments on the original BuzzFeed article, there were still plenty of alarmist and concerned comments in agreement with Perez’s statements (with some making their own additions to Perez’s list). To be fair, it’s possible that some didn’t see the objecting articles, even though they had been shared multiple times by numerous individuals. Also, you could probably chalk some of it up to sheer laziness. After all, BuzzFeed has mastered the art of creating eminently readable and eye-catching articles with lots of colorful photos, pithy copy, and all caps text. Lowe’s article, by contrast, is a really long wall of text that takes longer than 2 minutes to read and digest.
But why was Perez’s article written in the first place? Why did it pass muster with BuzzFeed’s editors? And why did it become so popular that it required rebuttals by people with PhDs in organic chemistry? Not surprisingly, Lowe has an idea:
In my experience, people who write things like this have divided the world into two categories: wholesome, natural, healthy stuff and toxic chemical poisons. But this is grievously simple-minded. As I’ve emphasized in passing above, there are plenty of natural substances, made by healthy creatures in beautiful, unpolluted environments, that will nonetheless kill you in agony. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals produce poisons, wide varieties of intricate poisons, and they’re not doing it for fun.
The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn’t a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned [above]) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article’s main points. I’ve spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there’s hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn’t anyone be bothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few.
Around the time that this BuzzFeed kerfuffle occurred, I read Chris Mooney’s fascinating and thought-provoking “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” which explores the reasons why people will handily ignore and dismiss even the most well-established scientific research. Mooney writes:
Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds — fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
What’s more, as Mooney puts it, “A large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.” This is true for everyone—we all possess certain blindspots. For people on the conservative end of the spectrum (if you want to think about this in terms of political affiliations), it could be global warming. For people on the liberal end, Mooney lists the widely disproved idea that childhood vaccines are linked to autism. (Or, in BuzzFeed’s case, certain claims about food additives and processing.)
As I considered Mooney’s words, as well as the phenomenon present in the BuzzFeed comments, it struck me that there might be some relevance to how Christians share the Gospel. It’s easy and desirable to appeal to pure rationality, to bring out a list of well-explained and logically sound philosophical reasons for why Christianity is true. This often seems to be the approach of apologists like William Lane Craig, especially when they debate atheists and skeptics.
Now, such efforts are not without value, and apologists like Craig provide a great service to the Church as they wrestle with the challenges that skeptics present to the faith. However, I sometimes think that such an approach often assumes that human beings are entirely rational entities. But even the most ardent and rational devotee of science is still a fallible human being complete with difficult-to-overcome emotions and preconceived notions, not a purely logical data-crunching machine.
Which is why, I believe, Mooney concludes his piece with this intriguing, and ultimately, insightful statement (emphasis mine):
Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.
When it comes to sharing Christianity, one of the most famous quotes (supposedly) comes from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Put another way, we ought to share the Gospel by living it out — by showing the truth as it is revealed in our own transformed lives — rather than simply default to making assertions, however true they might be. In his article about the reasons why college students left Christianity, Larry Alex Taunton comments:
Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.
And to be fair to William Lane Craig, one of Christianity’s leading modern apologists, he writes at the end of Reasonable Faith that the “ultimate” apologetic is not made up of philosophical proofs or well-polished arguments, valuable as they might be. Rather, it is the combination of our relationship with God and our relationships with each other, intentional relationships in which the life-changing truth of our Faith is made manifest for all to see and consider. The truth is still there, but it is emobodied in values lived out with conviction, rather than in simple assertions which preconceived notions, blindspots, and emotions may conspire to ignore without anyone even realizing it.
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