Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Fireplace Delusion, by Sam Harris

I wanted to share this on our class blogsite for two reasons. One, if you're not checking in on Sam's blog at least monthly, then you're missing out on some very interesting writing. Two, I think many (if not all) of us in this class will have a fairly strong reaction to this particular piece. I found it very enlightening from a self-reflective point of view. Not pleasant, or comforting, or reassuring-but enlightening. Enjoy.


  1. It is hard for me to imagine a thought processes like that; one in which I would ever be so connected and comforted by something that I would be
    unwilling/unable to part with it. I have been judgmental at times about the connections that religious people must feel. It is what they embrace and rely on for so much of what defines there life.
    The level of fear and discomfort at having to look at the world in a logical light, a light that is not there own beliefs, after years of learned customs would prove difficult. Yet I also believe that it is necessary in order to move on as a society.
    I see the point, that we have not only found a way to do the same things better and without the "poisons".
    It reminds me of the discussions in class where science has started to better explain the things that religion use to explain.
    How religion is becoming obsolete in the face of scientific reasoning. Just my first ideas..

    1. I think what happens, Joe, is it's hard--as Harris pointed out--to let go of the things we cherish even though they are toxic or false. I get that sentiment because my wife is a Christian. She doesn't take the Bible literally and is appalled by Leviticus and Deuteronomy but as you said, a better explanation is a better explanation regardless of who might find it offensive on uncomfortable. Those darn facts...

  2. This hits close to home for me: I regularly retreat to my Little House out back, where on cold days I indulge in the deeply comforting pleasures of my Earth Stove. (We never use the fireplace in our home, my wife can't stand the smoke.) I understand the environmental objection, I just choose to override it in the name of, well, personal comfort. I don't have a good argument for that, I just do it. Talking about it makes me uncomfortable, but there you are.

    And so I think we can agree with Sam not only that we nontheists are up against a difficult challenge, to change hearts and minds wedded to the comforts of religion; but that we understand the religious mindset better than we might wish to admit. The "enemy" is us.

    Dean and others will perhaps point out the relevant disanalogies here, but my main takeaway is a renewed sympathy for those who can't stand the thought of extinguishing the fire. Maybe they'd like to borrow my energy-efficient Heat Dish?

  3. I would be the first to admit that I really enjoy Sam Harris's body of work, and I get what he’s trying to do here but I think his point gets extinguished in the framing.

    Although Sam admits right upfront that the analogy isn’t “perfect,” I can’t bring myself to be quiet as charitable. He’s has always fought a good fight by exposing the dangers of religious belief, which, in the end, usually boils down to adding up the dead bodies of the guilty parties. The idea of religious death tolls, although true and factual, seem too far removed from the conscious of mainstream religion (at least here in the U.S.; noting the exception of 9-11). I’m not saying religious extremism should not be exposed and every attempt made to draw direct lines to the “holy” books of leaders who instigate the violence; I just think Sam’s talents could be directed towards a more convincing line of argument.

    The argument from violence is too easily deflected or doesn’t necessarily hit home (if you’ll pardon that pun) with most religious believers. I would like to see him engage more in the “truth of religion” argument. This line of reasoning was brought to bear in Feldman and Blackburn’s essays. Here’s a very simple quote from Blackburn:

    “The bull's-eye is drawn wherever the arrow of belief lands, and everyone, always, scores the same.”

    This simple quote, to me, does a lot of work in addressing the truth of the mater and is arguably a much better approach. I’ve watched Sam engage in this very line of debate and he’s brilliant. Exposing the falsity of religion and committing the “respect creep” to the flames where alchemy and astrology now reside seems to be a more reasonable goal.

    I know the danger of religion wasn’t the intention of Sam’s piece, albeit the delusionary aspect of religion was noted, I felt the force of the argument went up in smoke and all was left was the overreaching frame—therefore, lessening the chances for epistemological enlightenment.

    On further introspection, I may be guilty of trying to close my own personal is-ought gap.

    1. Maybe I missed the part where you pointed out how the analogy fails, specifically on this point:

      "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."

    2. I think the analogy fails in the framing, which could have easily been overlooked because the 'why' was in my first sentence:

      "I would be the first to admit that I really enjoy Sam Harris's body of work, and I get what he’s trying to do here but I think his point gets extinguished in the framing."

      The 'how' is inferred but I would be happy to elaborate.

      Harris is comparing the comforts of religious belief to burning wood in a fireplace, and he sites all the empirical evidence that burning wood under those conditions is harmful or even fatal. Fair enough. Here is Harris's wood burning outlook:

      "Among adults, wood burning is associated with more-frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness, along with increased mortality from heart attacks. The inhalation of wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, alters pulmonary immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to colds, flus, and other respiratory infections."

      The future of humans burning wood in a fireplace, at best, looks like the ending to a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Thomas Hobbs quote--bleak. So, upon reading his argument, I maintain that he has committed strawman and equivocation fallacies because, obviously, all religious belief does not produce harmful effects. Therefore, those attempting to count up the dead bodies of benign religions would make his argument suspect.

      Also, after careful consideration, I'm afraid I can't give you the wiggle room there at the end of his quote "The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege" because I don't get the feeling--from his books and lectures--he is suggesting some other religion replacement. Further, there's no clear indication of what would qualify as "fake."

      So, the I-know-it's-harmful-but-I-can't-stop argument doesn't hold water.

      Point out where I'm wrong and I'll take it under consideration.

      Also, snark and sarcasm will not be deemed offensive but it will be graded since it's like my second language. ;)

  4. The fireplace piece is similar in spirit to Michael Shermer's chapter on Francis Collins in "The Believing Brain," trying hard to understand what it is about our tenacious psychology that makes it so hard to give up old beliefs or so eager (in Collins' case) to convert. (Collins' parents were secular freethinkers, he was not "born" or raised a theist.) Smart people are really good at rationalizing emotional commitments & investments.