It was hard to miss. Just about every news organization in the Western world reported last week that french fries can kill you.
American media widely reported the Food and Drug Administration's announcement confirming earlier Swedish findings that acrylamide, which is found in french fries and other fried foods, causes cancer in rodents. Health agencies throughout the West have also announced this, and the Western media have sounded their latest alarm about fatal foods.
German news report: "Bad news for the holiday season: some of Germany's best-loved baked goods contain the potentially cancer-causing toxin acrylamide, according to new research published by the government this week. Consumer groups say that the government is not doing enough to protect its citizens."
Ireland: "Discussions on the potential carcinogen acrylamide continued last week as food scientists gathered under the auspices of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to gain updated knowledge on the discovery of acrylamide in food."
And Dutch reports went further: " . . . gingerbread samples contained seven times the levels found in fried potatoes."
Almost no week goes by without a report on some food or environmental danger that can kill us. It is quite remarkable that any of us are alive given our exposure to secondhand smoke, asbestos, lead in paint, cellular phones and seesaws; our ingesting alcohol, sugar, fat and arsenic-laden water; and our inhaling polluted air.
Yet, not only are we alive, we Westerners are the healthiest and longest living generation of humans since the 900-year-olds of Genesis.
Yet, tens of millions of people living in the West are truly frightened. Parents have called my radio show to tell me that they no longer allow their infant children to sleep next to them since the government announced that some parents roll on top of their child and smother them to death.
Why all this fear? Why do people really believe that they will die if someone smokes in another part of the restaurant they're eating in?
Here are the reasons:
First, the present generation of Westerners has suffered so little -- compared with all previous generations and compared with non-Westerners today -- that minuscule threats frighten them.
Second, the media thrive on scaring people. You don't catch the attention of readers, viewers or listeners with reports on things that aren't dangerous.
Third, there exists a huge world of health groups employing hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on funding from people who are scared. No fears, no funds, no work.
Fourth, not only do these interest group professionals depend on discovering threats to your health, their very raison d'etre is dependent on it. The professionals who fight smoking not only make a good living doing so, their lives are given purpose by this fight. For most of those who dedicate their lives to fighting tobacco, that fight takes on religious meaning. For them, fighting Big Tobacco is as important, as meaningful, and as personally sacred as fighting abortion is to Christians who fight abortion.
Which brings us to the fifth and most important reason: the secularization of the West.
For one thing, secularization breeds fears of death. Secular people, by definition, believe that this life is all there is. Consequently, they are considerably more likely to be preoccupied with living longer and longer than those who believe that this life, though infinitely precious, is not all there is.
Also, the more religious the person, the more likely he is to be concerned with fighting dangerous people than with fighting dangerous foods. Thus, the evangelical Christian George W. Bush is preoccupied with fighting Saddam Hussein while the more liberal members of society are concerned with fighting tobacco, acrylamide and infinitesimal amounts of arsenic in drinking water.
Put into theological terms, much of the West no longer worships the Creator of life and therefore worships life itself. And if french fries threaten the god of long life, they must be purified or perhaps even banned.
The irony, of course, is that people who are preoccupied with threats to their long life likely enjoy their lives less than those without such fears. We allow ourselves to indulge in more joys, having made more peace with the fact that we will die no matter what we eat.