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.
Near the end of the funky 1980 single “Crosseyed and Painless,” Talking Heads front man David Byrne slips into a rap collage that cascades like a de-kinked water hose:
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don’t stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape
Recently, I thought about these lyrics while reading an argument between two friends on Facebook. The discussion turned into a logjam until one of them posted a link to an article that supported their position. Their counterpart responded with a link to an article that supported his position. Two more links appeared in as many minutes. I never did see how the discussion ended, but sometimes, before I drift off to sleep at night, I wonder if those two are still going at it, posting articles as fast as they can Google them.
In our digital age, it’s easy to relate to Byrne’s vision—one of modern humanity floating about in some sort of anti-gravity chamber of manipulated facts and figures. With the explosion of information access since the dawn of the internet (and the growing ideology that facts, science, and data will solve all of humanity’s problems), a defense for nearly any political or religious perspective is a few clicks away. What is fact and what is a manipulation of fact? Or, per my two friends dunking on each other via the Feed, which “article” is true, and which one isn’t?
Our current “facts-saturated” environment is both an illustration and influencer of just how hard it is to change someone’s mind these days—even if we feel like our beliefs are reasonable and important. It’s not enough to have information (it’s never been enough, but that’s more apparent now than ever), we have to think about how we’re communicating this information to people who can allegedly counter us within a Google or two. There is information, and there is changed thinking. Sometimes information helps change our thinking. Sometimes it doesn’t.More often than not, information alone doesn’t change one’s mind. Stories do.
Look at today’s titans of political and religious dialogue. It’s not difficult to find someone saying something that you believe is true; it’s much harder to find someone who is saying something that you believe is true persuasively. When I say “persuasively,” I mean it is presented in such a way that it actually might alter someone’s thinking. Charitable persuasion will always be a casualty in a culture that values technology and the sciences (data, information, facts) over art and the humanities—even though science is the very thing that tells us that science isn’t enough.
Moral psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt argues that our brains process information through two distinct yet intimately connected systems. Using what has now become a famous analogy, Haidt compares the first system to an elephant. This part of our mind (which some experts call System 1) handles our “automatic processes,” including emotion and intuition. A good example would be how our brains automatically add 2 + 2 or read the word red. We don’t make a conscious decision to do those things, they just happen. System 1 also includes our biases—those internal beliefs ingrained into psyche.
Haidt describes System 2 as a rider on top of System 1’s elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning. If the elephant tells us what 2 + 2 equals, the rider is who we go to for 12 x 15.
Usually, when we talk to someone about a deeply emotional topic like religion or politics, we speak to the rider. We throw facts at the rider. We scream at the rider. Per Haidt, this won’t change anyone’s mind. The inner beliefs of a person, his or her emotional response, is already going in the opposite direction. And if the elephant is going one way, then the rider follows along too. Even if we have facts on our side. Haidt writes in his book The Righteous Mind, “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (54). One could easily substitute “fabrication post hoc explanations” with “finding post hoc explanations.”
Most dialogue today focuses on the rider. Our tweets, think pieces, and arguments may pass the “fact test,” but we end up striking our foreheads because some people don’t seem to be “getting it.” Frustration turns to anger, which leads us to sarcasm and a desire to humiliate through a clever turn of phrase or revelation. Those on our team affirm us. We chalk up opposition to unintelligence or immorality. What we said is true, we argue, but the gap only widens.
We have a persuasion problem. Why? Because we believe all we need is access to the right information.
Last month, a low-budget documentary hit a handful of theaters around the country. Some film critics noticed it and tried to get the word out, but it ended up falling between the seat cushions of Hollywood’s latest blockbusters. Directed by Robert Greene, Bisbee ’17 tells the story of a small Arizona mining town, where, in 1917, a mob of townspeople deported striking workers (90% of them immigrants) by dropping them off in the desert. It’s a heinous story from top to bottom. Empowered by local law enforcement, citizens used guns to round up those who lobbied for better wages and safer working conditions, loaded them onto trains, and left them in the middle of nowhere. The deputized citizens promised that if the strikers came back to Bisbee, they’d be killed.
The story obviously offers lessons for us today—one could easily apply Bisbee’s stain to current issues like illegal immigration and refugee admittance. But Greene’s approach is much less straightforward. Rather than telling the story of the Bisbee Deportation in purely historical terms (which would cause most to sigh in relief because nothing like that could ever happen today) or focus primarily on how what happened then is happening in America now (which would cause some to turn the movie off because that situation is completely different), Greene instead weaves together a journey that’s just as much concerned with truth as it is with persuasion.
Not only does Greene make the decision to let the townspeople tell the story of the event—giving equal space for them to agree and disagree on what their grandparents and great-grandparents actually did—but he also requires them to reenact the entire ordeal. Green knows there is something about watching (not just talking about) people treat other beings like cattle. He knows that we can always read about the deportation, so he offers us something we can’t simply chat about on Twitter. No matter one’s stance on immigration, it’s impossible to watch Bisbee ’17 and not experience a swell of emotions.
Bisbee ’17 embodies what Haidt argues is one key to persuading the elephant within all of us: good art. “Elephants rule, but they are neither dumb nor despotic,” he writes. “Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story” (83). More often than not, information alone doesn’t change one’s mind. Stories do. And one of the best ways to communicate story is through art. Art coats flesh to the bones of truth.
Recently, I was listening to The Next Picture Show podcast as they talked about the great Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami. One of the hosts, Keith Phipps, mentioned that spending time in Kiarostami’s films helped him better understand people in Iran. He added: “When people talk about bombing Iran and attacking Iran, it’s hard to think about those things when you’ve wandered the streets with these characters.”
Here, Phipps encapsulates the power of a well-crafted piece of art. Art exposes us to new perspectives. Art helps us peel off our blinders and examine the world in ways we might not in the midst of our busy schedules. Rather than simply regurgitating information, art tells us what information looks like in the real world, from other very real perspectives.
In his book Disruptive Witness, Christ and Pop Culture editor in chief Alan Noble writes about the power of art and its ability to persuade, specifically in the context of Christianity and evangelism. Using examples from the works of writers Cormac McCarthy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noble argues that good art can open our minds to grapple with the reality that the world is much bigger than what we can see and touch. “[T]he experience of reading a good novel or watching a good film is a receding horizon of allusions, evoked one after another or all at once, always onward and upward, always hinting more, always inexhaustible precisely because God is inexhaustible” (98). In other words, art can not only help us see the unique perspectives of others, but it can also help us realize that our search for meaning and purpose can only be found in a reality outside of our natural existence.
In contrast to Bisbee ’17’s limited availability, the Bradley Cooper–helmed A Star Is Born hit nearly 4,000 theaters upon its release last month. A Star Is Born chronicles the sudden rise of a young singer named Ally (played with power and confidence by Lady Gaga). With the help of Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a veteran of the industry, Ally signs a record deal and begins to experiment with her onstage persona. It’s not long before the near-poetic singer-songwriter transforms into a garden-variety pop star, singing uninspired lyrics like “Boy, could you please stop being so fine? / When I stare at you I wish I were blind.”
The film wants us to feel upset at Ally’s evolution, and how could we not? The show-stopping tunes she sang at the beginning of the film have been replaced with singles containing more background dancers than lyrical variety. But even while Cooper’s camera and focus rarely leave the performer’s faces, A Star Is Born doesn’t place the blame so much on Ally, or even her overbearing manager, as the film shines its spotlight on us, the audience. It’s the audience’s cheers, their presence, their money, that call for such superficiality. Ally, the record label, they are only giving us what we want: cheap art.
If A Star is Born attempts to honestly explore what it means to be an authentic creative today, it also lays the groundwork for art as a means of political and religious persuasion. If we desire to help others know, understand, and be swayed by our convictions, and we want to use story to do it (whether that’s embedded in a film, song, poem, or painting), we must learn to steward well the art we consume, share, and create. If we only look to films, books, or visual art as modes of popcorn entertainment, we send the message that we only want art that will help us switch off our brains rather than make them stronger. Instead of providing us with new perspectives, or even challenging our old outlooks, we’ll be left with art that’s akin to fast food—not wrong to consume or enjoy, just not healthy to consume or enjoy all of the time (or even most of the time).
Perhaps this is why social media is such a difficult place to find compelling persuasion. Social media, while promoting itself as an opportunity to connect with others, actually functions first and foremost as a way to express our personal individualism—not to foster nourishing relationships. To promote healthy discussion on social media, we actually have to hack the platform (i.e., use it according to its secondary, not primary, function). Some people do this well, others not so much. Communication on Twitter or Facebook is usually driven by egotism, fueled by the desire to look competent, intelligent, and confident, rather than a place to foster empathy and understanding. Information (and even our own stories) are often either too abbreviated by those channels or too self-centered to do much good. Is it wrong to characterize most of what we see on social media as cheap art?
Even then, celebrating well-made art does not imply that art should simply be a tool for persuasion. Art as a tool rarely works. Hammers like God’s Not Dead or its counterpart Religulous are not likely to change anyone’s beliefs. Rather, pieces of art should wake us up to new experiences, point our minds to the source of creativity, and nudge us to consider life’s big questions. In this way, the church should be a safe and supportive environment for artists—a haven for creativity, innovation, and excellent stories. A place where people expect to find powerful art, not a place where they run to escape it.
So, the next time you’re tempted to get into a political argument online, or you’d like to talk about your faith with someone who hasn’t been open to your beliefs in the past, invite them dinner. Talk to them while looking at their face. Start a book club. Go to an art museum. Watch a challenging movie that shares the perspective of those you are attempting to defend. Perhaps even support a local filmmaker or painter in their work. Facts matter, they always do—we shouldn’t sacrifice our convictions by saying every belief is valid. But how we convey those facts, those convictions, that matters too.
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