Insight happens at the oddest of moments, and so it was when I read through Sam Harris’s article against the use of wood-burning fireplaces, written back in 2012. Harris, one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, is a vocal defender of “the science of morality,” specifically the claim that scientific progress is shaping a world where faith is no longer needed for morality. In this particular piece, titled “The Fireplace Delusion” (an homage, I assume, to Dawkins’s The God Delusion), Harris writes first about the perils of fireplaces: they are dangerous, teeming with carcinogens, and utterly unnecessary for heat or cooking in a developed nation. For Harris, “The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes.”
Maybe we burn wood for the same reason we climb perilous mountains or create whimsical music.But why write about fireplaces at all? Harris’s larger point is that it is difficult to tell anyone about the obvious danger of burning wood because we are all psychologically predisposed to defend our love of fireplaces even in the face damning evidence. He is using this example as an analogy to religious faith, which, according to Harris, is another conviction held by many that has no place in the modern, scientific world but is still held tenaciously due to biases.
While the love of fireplaces might seem like an odd place for a Christian apologist to set up shop, I found the article very provocative in four major ways.
Everyone Is Biased
Harris admits that bias toward personal convictions is a universal problem among us:
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, 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. (Emphasis in original)
For Harris, this is a teaching point about how to engage the religious mind in its tangled web of self-delusion. However, the more interesting admission is that all people are predisposed to agree with their favorite convictions in the face of contrary claims or even “evidence.” It is not that religious people have this fault, but all people. The skeptic is equally likely to defend core values as if life itself depended on it, because, in a sense, it does. We all build our lives on top of the foundation provided by our value judgements. To use another analogy, our whole value system is like a spider’s web with various anchors keeping our cozy little thought-world suspended in midair. We fear anything that shakes up the balance.
There is no unbiased human thought, only thought. There is no unbiased high ground held by Sam Harris’s views above the rationality of religious conviction. We are all biased.
The task of human rationality is not to divest ourselves of all biases, but rather to identify and acknowledge them. Once acknowledged, we can from time to time scrutinize those assumptions. Furthermore, with our own biases in view, we are also better able to talk with folk holding different assumptions without banging our heads against the wall in frustration.
The Science of Morality Does Not View Creation as Good
Of course, to be more specific, skeptics like Harris do not believe that creation is a creation. In the article, this negative view of the material world is evident. Listen to his counterargument against the claim that firewood is natural and therefore good:
True enough. But many other things are just as natural—such as dying at the ripe old age of thirty. 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.
Sometimes the separation between Christianity and the secular culture gets narrowly defined as who wants Ten Commandments statues in courthouses or who favors a particular moral standard for the community. However, the divide is much larger than that. Christians and skeptics like Harris see the entire universe differently, even oppositely.
Progress, in the mind of Harris, is the abolition of nature rather than its curation or stewardship. The cosmos born of chaos is not to be cherished but subjugated and its evil exterminated beneath the weight of modern order and progress. Harris goes so far as to suggest a law against “the recreational burning of wood.” This would further the progress of humanity over the chaos of nature. Christians in recent centuries have certainly embraced too much antagonism toward nature, treating the creation as a transient means to a heavenly end (a point made better here). However, a better Christian theology of creation care is on the rise, supported above all by one distinctive Christian claim: that the cosmos is not born of chaos but of love.
Our universe is a creation filled with divinely gifted goodness. The apparent chaos is the result more of human rebellion than of any fault in the material world. Thus, human vocation is not the abolition of nature, but the stewardship of nature. After all, in their youth, humans’ first job was to be gardeners.
Sam Harris Believes in Morality, But Why?
Which brings us to yet another observation. Fueled by the commitment to his own web of values, Harris is able to assert a moral demand to go with his evidence:
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).
Notice in particular the moral terms: “you should agree,” “unethical and should be illegal,” “your neighbors should not have to pay the cost,” and “even libertarians should be willing to pass a law.” Modernists are stuck in a bit of a jam when they use the type of language Harris employs here. They are certainly agnostic at best about whether moral absolutes even exist. Richard Dawkins offers this now infamous line:
The universe we observe has . . . no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. . . . DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (133)
If we were to follow Dawkins, perhaps we would conclude that there is no reason to advocate a law to make a better, healthier world. DNA neither knows nor cares about the consequence of wood smoke. And we dance to its music.
To be fair, Harris would disagree with Dawkins to an extent. Harris is the author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, in which he argues that there is no boundary between scientific facts and moral values and that such terms as “good” may be defined as that which is “maximizing well-being.” Why? It is not clear. How is such good and well-being to be calculated? Also not clear. How many scientific units of pleasure are created by my fireplace, and why should I even bother to measure that against the units of cancer it is claimed to produce in my neighbor?
Modernists Fail to See Values Beyond the Scientific Evidence
Which leads to our final and perhaps most important observation. Harris and the whole science of morality school of thought fail to recognize that an action might have value beyond an obvious contribution to progress. Is it possible that humans burn wood in fireplaces for reasons other than heat? Could a crackling wood fire provide warmth in the soul that is not measured in degrees? Could the scent of a burning pinion log be a form of beauty which produces awe and contentment? If so, how much is it worth and how is it to be measured?
Perhaps instead of analyzing firewood in terms of heat, it should be compared to other human activities. Maybe we burn wood for the same reason we climb perilous mountains or create whimsical music. A worldview that looks at a burning log and sees only chemicals should be intolerable to the human spirit. There is simply more to us than that: “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?” (363)
Likewise, Christianity claims to have more in its favor than measurable quantities. Christians believe that the material world exists within a larger invisible reality, one where beauty, community, and love have more meaning than can be observed. It is this fundamental difference that makes raw modernism a sad fiction. It is blind to the world of wispy wood smoke, nostalgia, and faith.
Image by Josh Felise via Stocksnap.