Sam Harris and the Fireplace Delusion

The_fireplace-RSA few years ago, Sam Harris wrote a blog post in which he attempted to use an analogy to demonstrate the tenacity of Religion. The post is worth a read in the same sense that an enemy general’s intercepted love letters are worth reading. Uninteresting per se, to be sure; but read closely enough and maybe you’ll learn enough to catch him with his pants around his ankles, so to speak.

I want to highlight two thoughts I’ve had regarding the piece.

First, his arguments on both sides of the analogy fail to win converts not for lack of an impressive catalog of scientific anecdotes, rather for lack of a compelling alternative. Not satisfied with stripping Man of his soul, Harris moves beyond cult to attack culture itself—for cult is as bound to culture as culture is to the hearth. Strip a man of a religion he cares nothing for and he will replace it with another. Strip a man of his home and foundation—and make no mistake, that is what the hearth is—and he will resist to the bitter end. We abandon reason to defend our hearth because the hearth is what separates man from beast.

I wonder if Harris realizes how perfectly his analogy encapsulates the impotence of his own arguments.

Second, regarding the claim that wood-burning can’t be all that bad because we’ve always done it (a specious argument to be sure), Harris says this:

Dying in childbirth is eminently natural, as is premature death from scores of diseases that are now preventable. Getting eaten by a lion or a bear is also your birthright—or would be, but for the protective artifice of civilization—and becoming a meal for a larger carnivore would connect you to the deep history of our species as surely as the pleasures of the hearth ever could. For nearly two centuries the divide between what is natural—and all the needless misery that entails—and what is good has been growing. Breathing the fumes issuing from your neighbor’s chimney, or from your own, now falls on the wrong side of that divide.

His overall point is fair enough and I grant it to him. I want to continue drilling down, though, and focus on one sentence:

For nearly two centuries the divide between what is natural … and what is good has been growing.

What a freaking gnostic!


Image credit: Robbie Sproule