A metaphor for religious belief


It seems to me that many unbelievers have forgotten – or never knew – what it is to experience an unfortunate collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and strong arguments on principle, and are generally willing to follow it wherever it takes us. Some of us have made our careers deploring the failure of religious to adopt this same attitude.

However, I recently came across an example of secular intransigence that can give readers a sense of how religious people feel when their beliefs are criticized. It’s not a perfect analogy, as you’ll see, but the rigorous research I’ve done at dinner parties suggests it’s worth thinking about. We can call the phenomenon “the home illusion”.

On a cold night, most people consider a well-kept fire to be one of the healthiest pleasures mankind has produced. A fire, safely lit in the enclosure of a fireplace or a wood stove, is for us a visible and tangible source of comfort. We love everything about it: the heat, the beauty of its flames and, unless you are allergic to smoke, the smell it gives off in the ambient air.

I’m sorry to say that if you feel that way about a wood fire, you are not only wrong, but you are dangerously wrong. I intend to seriously convince you of that — so that you can see it in part as a public service announcement — but keep in mind I’m making an analogy. I want you to be sensitive to how you are feeling and to notice the resistance you start to muster as you think about what I have to say. Because wood is one of the most natural substances on earth and its use as fuel is universal, most people imagine that burning wood must be a perfectly harmless thing. Breathing in the winter air scented with wood smoke seems quite different from taking a puff of a cigarette or inhaling the exhaust fumes of a passing truck. But it is an illusion.

Here’s what we know from a scientific standpoint: There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It’s at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably a lot worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more carcinogenic.) Smoke from a regular wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and irritants to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are less than one micron, a size thought to be the most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can escape our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles of this size are also resistant to gravitational sedimentation, remaining suspended in the air for weeks.

Once they are out of your chimney, poisonous gases (eg benzene) and the particles that make up smoke flow freely back into your home and into the homes of others. (Research shows that almost 70 percent of chimney smoke returns to neighboring buildings.) Children who live in homes with active fireplaces or woodstoves, or in areas where wood heating is common , suffer from a higher incidence of asthma, cough, bronchitis, nocturnal awakenings and compromised lung function. In adults, wood burning is associated with more frequent emergency room visits and hospitalizations for respiratory disease, as well as increased heart attack mortality. Inhaling wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, impairs lung immune function, leading to increased susceptibility to colds, flu and other respiratory infections. All of these effects are borne disproportionately by children and the elderly.

The sad truth about burning wood has been scientifically established with a moral certainty: that good roaring fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It’s bad for your children. It’s bad for your neighbors and their children. Burning wood is also totally unnecessary, because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes. If you burn wood in the United States, Europe, Australia, or any other developed country, you probably are. recreationally– and the persistence of this habit is a major source of air pollution in cities around the world. In fact, wood smoke often brings more harmful particles into city air than any other source.

In developing countries, the burning of solid fuels in the home is a real scourge, just after poor sanitation as an environmental health risk. In 2000, the World Health Organization estimated that it caused nearly 2 million premature deaths each year, much more than road accidents.

I suspect that many of you have already begun to organize counter-arguments of a kind that will be familiar to anyone who has debated the validity and usefulness of religion. Here’s one: Humans have warmed around fires for tens of thousands of years, and this practice has helped us survive as a species. Without fire there would be no material culture. Nothing is more natural for us than burning wood to stay warm.

Quite true. But many other things are just as natural, such as dying at the ripe old age of 30. Dying in childbirth is eminently natural, as is premature death from dozens of diseases that are now preventable. Being eaten by a lion or a bear is also your birthright – or would be, without the protective artifice of civilization – and becoming a meal for a larger carnivore would connect you to the deep history of our species just as surely. than the pleasures of the home ever could. For nearly two centuries, the gap between what is Natural– and all the unnecessary misery that entails – and what Well grew up. Breathing fumes from your neighbor’s chimney, or yours, now falls on the wrong side of this division.

The arguments against burning wood are just as clear as those against smoking. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire you are unnecessarily poisoning the air that everyone around you for miles has to breathe. Even if you reject any “nanny state” intrusion, you should agree that recreational wood burning is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you create pollution that you cannot get rid of. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn enough wood and the air near your house will look like a bad day in Beijing. Your neighbors shouldn’t have to pay the price for your archaic behavior. And there’s no way they can pass that cost on to you in a way that would preserve their best interests. Therefore, even libertarians should be prepared to pass a law banning recreational wood burning in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).

I have found that when I present this case, even to very intelligent and health conscious men and women, a psychological truth quickly becomes as visible as a pair of closed fists: they do not want to believe any of this. Most of the people I meet want to live in a world where wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem engaged to live in such a world, whatever the facts. Trying to convince them that burning wood is harmful – and always has been – is somewhat offensive. The ritual of burning wood is just too heartwarming and too familiar to reconsider, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous it must be benign. The alternative – to burn gas on false logs – seems a sacrilege.

And yet the reality of our situation is scientifically unambiguous: If you care about the health of your family and the health of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing fireplace should be about as comforting as the sight of one. idling diesel engine in your living room. It’s time to break the spell and burn some gas – or burn nothing at all.

Of course, if you are like my friends, you will refuse to believe it. And that should give you an idea of ​​what we face whenever we face religion.

To learn more about Sam Harris, visit here.

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