Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Where There's Smoke

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

February 6, 2012 - It has now become commonplace, especially among the “new atheists” – self-appointed guardians of rationality, to distinguish between the clear, level-headed thinking that accompanies a rigorous scientific outlook on the world, and the muddle-headed foolishness of religious belief. Calling attention to this (false) dichotomy would be more interesting if those who so regularly do it (typically those who wish to denigrate religion or religious believers) were able to do so with the logical precision that their own presuppositions demand. Unfortunately, they’re not. So, their attacks on religious conviction, while rhetorically clever, are rationally quaint. 

Consider, for example, a recent argument by Sam Harris called “the fireplace delusion.” Harris argues that religious belief is as recalcitrant as the widespread (but he thinks fallacious) view that a warm fire is a good. People think that fires – the kinds one finds in fireplaces or campsites – are good. But Harris argues that scientific rationality establishes an “unhappy truth about wood burning” to the point of being a “moral certainty.” “That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace,” he explains, “is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children.” 

In defending this claim, Harris assembles a catalog of scientific evidence pointing to the deleterious effects of smoke inhalation upon one’s bodily health.  Thus, he thinks that scientific rationality demands the conclusion that burning wood for the enjoyment of a cozy fire is “unethical and should be illegal.” 

All of this is (partly) to demonstrate the recalcitrance with which even sensible (i.e., scientific) people cling to false beliefs. Harris thinks the case against fire from a strictly scientific point of view is rationally “unambiguous.” Thus, those who continue to cling to their conviction that fires are good are as deluded as those crackpots who persist in believing in God in a scientific age.

The trouble with this argument is the wooden log in its own eye. Strict scientific rationality tells us nothing about what is good or bad. The inferences Harris makes about the badness of fire for human beings depend upon the dogma to which he is fideistically committed. Specifically, Harris tacitly believes in the perpetuation of the human species as a moral imperative. Given the limits of his ontology, he must believe this – if his value theory is to have any ground whatsoever beyond his personal preference. But most importantly, he is committed to this particular view of what is good without any scientific warrant whatsoever. In fact, his commitment to this particular value theory precedes his use of scientific rationality, since it is the lens through which he evaluates the goodness of fire. 

Of course, this is not an argument that Harris’s views about fire (or God) are mistaken. After all, in the end, Harris might be right that fire is bad (and perhaps even that God does not exist). But Harris and his ilk should get over the delusion that those who think otherwise can’t see the light of reason through the smoke of faith. If you want cleaner air, you’re free to run away from the Fire. But don’t presume to pronounce unbiased judgment on those who are enjoying Its warmth when you’re inescapably intoxicated with Its pleasing aroma.