Monday, March 11, 2013
Sam Harris, in an attempt to
"give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion",
writes of what he calls "the fireplace delusion":
I have discovered that when I make this case [i.e., that burning wood is about as dangerous as smoking --ed], even to highly intelligent and health-conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of clenched fists: They do not want to believe any of it. Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful--and has always been so--is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative--burning gas over fake logs--seems a sacrilege.I personally have no trouble with the idea that a wood fire belches out toxic smoke, but then I don't subscribe to the popular dogma, common in some circles, of "natural good, man-made bad" (as if man is somehow not a part of nature).
I'd like to elaborate on an issue Harris has raised. When someone accepts something as fact on an arbitrary basis, he is pretending that certainty can be achieved without good evidence or sound argument. Hearing such a "truth" put to question will immediately put such a person on the defensive in the same way that hearing heresy will upset a religious person. Why? Because a bluff to oneself is being called and, on some deep, disturbing level, that person knows it.
So far, so good, but I take issue with Harris's closing sentence (See also postscript.):
Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.If Harris is including the kind of people who bristle at any suggestion that fire smoke might be harmful as part of the "we" who are "up against" religion, he is wrong to do so. Traditional religion is just one manifestation of irrationality. Harris's fireplace cult is another. There is no room, in a fight to uphold reason, to allow anyone who permits himself to indulge in the arbitrary to masquerade as an ally.
Harris's attempt to shame irrational people into shaping up will fail in most cases. While people can change, the process of evasion that predisposes some people to accept the arbitrary in the first place usually becomes so entrenched that genuine introspection becomes nearly impossible. The fireplace delusion strikes me as less a teachable moment and more a diagnostic tool -- a warning that the person one is dealing with is not necessarily rational. (This is not to say that initial resistance to a new idea always portends the worst: There can be other reasons a person finds an opposing view disturbing the very first time he hears it.)
Harris does have a point, though I strongly suspect a bigger one than he realizes: Religion isn't the only thing an advocate of reason is up against.
P.S.: I also take issue with his assertion elsewhere in the piece that the recreational use of fire should be banned, but that is beyond the scope of this post.