Friday, February 3, 2012

Sam Harris and his own Fireplace Delusion

Sam Harris is one of the most prominent atheists in the public sphere (along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, z"l). As I've said before, I actually find much of what he has to say compelling. He makes extremely persuasive arguments against literalist and fundamentalist religion. Although he claims that he's attacking all religion, is really attacking one (admittedly widespread) type of religion. But, that's another matter*.

*by the way—if you want to learn more about a religious viewpoint which falls completely outside of Harris' worldview and attacks, I'm teaching a class on non-dual theology

Anyway, in an article up on The Daily Beast, Harris talks about what he calls “The Fireplace Delusion.” In short, people of all stripes, and of all levels of intelligence and sophistication, are capable of denying some very disturbing facts about fires in our fireplaces. But, those facts are fairly clear, and pretty darn scary:
The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: that nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children. Burning wood is also completely unnecessary, because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes. If you are burning wood in the United States, Europe, Australia, or any other developed nation, you are most likely doing so recreationally—and the persistence of this habit is a major source of air pollution in cities throughout the world. In fact, wood smoke often contributes more harmful particulates to urban air than any other source.
Yet, despite a strong set of facts which support that conclusion (if you don't believe me, click through to the article), Harris finds that people are unconvinced:
I have discovered that when I make this case, 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.
Of course, Harris isn't only talking about fires and pollution. He's talking about religion and, more specifically, religious people. And, even more specifically, the ability of religious people to delude themselves:
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.
but, it seems that Harris is engaging in a logical fallacy of his own here. And, it's one which seems to be somewhat endemic among strident atheists. It actually shows up at the very beginning of this article:
It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead. Certain of us have made careers out of bemoaning the failure of religious people to adopt this same attitude.Those who speak out most forcibly, and stridently, against religion are usually not claiming that religion fails to make us better people. They go much further than that, and they claim that religion actually makes us worse people. That religion is the source of most (often, it seems all) of the evil in the world.
Recently, there was a debate on the NPR program “Intelligence Squared,” an Oxford style debating program (which I highly recommend—you can subscribe to the podcast) on whether the world would be a better place if religion were to suddenly disappear. As one of the pro-religion speakers pointed out, the anti-religious people often act as if the world without religion would suddenly evolve into a kind of modern-day Eden*. As that speaker (Rabbi Wolpe, I believe) said, anyone who believes this has never seen children in a playground! Religion is not what makes us fight; being human is. Even if you don't believe that religion makes us better, it's hard to maintain that a world without religion would be perfect, or probably even substantially better than it is, right now.

* ironic use of religious terminology intended, of course

Harris is making a parallel mistake in his article, I think. He is saying, pretty explicitly, that religious people are prone to denial and self-delusion. But, in contrast, rational, scientific people are generally not. They (“we,” actually, but I don't want to offend him…) are intellectually rigorous people who base their worldviews on facts. Nonbelievers don't usually know what it's like “to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality.”


The ability to be in denial about basic facts, especially when those facts will have a negative impact on us, on our lifestyles, and on our worldviews, is not a religious trait. It's a human one. We can probably all think of endless examples. My favorite is cell phones and cars: study after study shows that talking on a cell phone, even hands-free, while driving is incredibly dangerous. It increases your likelihood of having an accident at the same rate as being at the legal limit of blood alcohol content. But, people who would never think of driving while (barely) drunk will happily talk on their phones while driving. Busy traffic, kids in the car—it doesn't matter. Confront them with the facts of the matter, and they'll quickly explain them away. At least one of my friends was honest and, after admitting to me that who even e-mail on his iPhone while driving, concluded by saying, “denial is a strange thing.”

Want to have some fun? Tell a wine aficionado that it's actually impossible to meaningfully distinguish fine wine from “average wine.” They'll almost hurt themselves trying to prove you wrong. Magnetic bracelets. Birthers. People who think that Justin Bieber is good music*. The list goes on and on.

*okay. Technically that one might be an opinion, not a fallacy. Technically.

I know that this might be a strange defense of religion—it's no more insanely illogical than 1 million things that you believe! But, I'm not trying to defend religion, as such. I'm trying to make the point that, if we're going to have rational discussions about these things, we should all try to be rational. We should stop pretending that religion is flawed in ways that it isn't (because, all of us will admit that it has plenty of real flaws to deal with). And, we should probably dial down the nasty rhetoric. It might make for good copy, but it doesn't make for good thoughts.

1 comment:

Fire places Sydney said...

I do agree that denial is a strange thing.It is a nice article.Thanks for sharing.