Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The Fireplace Delusion"

Just caught up with Sam Harris's interesting analogy between the comforts of religion and of the woodstove or fireplace. Sam says
The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe. Even if you reject every intrusion of the “nanny state,” you should agree that the recreational burning of wood is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you are creating pollution that you cannot dispose. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing. Your neighbors should not have to pay the cost of this archaic behavior of yours. And there is no way they can transfer this cost to you in a way that would preserve their interests. Therefore, even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).
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.
And yet, the reality of our situation is scientifically unambiguous: If you care about your family’s health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room. It is time to break the spell and burn gas—or burn nothing at all.
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.
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. 

Logically-astute nontheists  will rightly 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?

But no, it's definitely not the same.

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