Bubble Explainer Article: Housefire Beliefs
The most troublesome arguments to try to make are those that are both very specific and limited (and are by nature of that more or less non-controversial) but are roommates with much bigger and more contentious targets. You say one thing, but the entire topic is so incredibly pre-loaded for everyone listening that they all walk away with a different opinion on what you were arguing - like blind men learning about elephants, except you are the elephant and everyone is mad at you.
To start off, here’s a couple of things this article isn’t. It’s first and foremost not an attempt to convert you to Christianity, except in the sense that everything I do is kind of that. Careful readers will notice that I don’t say “and that’s why Christianity is right, and you should immediately convert” anywhere in this piece - that’s because it’s not what this piece is for, and it would be shitty at it if it was.
It’s also not an argument that any view besides mine is dumb to hold in general. This is a very specific response to a very specific ask the non-religious often make in my hearing; I’m trying to relate how that argument is heard and what it means to the people to whom it’s being made.
To start us out, here’s a story:
You wake up one night to the blaring of fire alarms, and it doesn’t take you very long to figure out what set them off: your bedroom is on fire. This isn’t a small fire; a substantial part of your wall is in flames.
The immediate danger brings you a moment of clarity, and you realize you have a very limited set of options:
1. You can choose to try and extinguish the fire
2. You can choose to try and escape the fire
3. You can resign yourself to your fate, lay back down, and either asphixiate on smoke or burn to death.
You choose to escape, and do so successfully. Later on you are relating that story - specifically the bits about your moment of clarity - to a friend, who says “OK, but why not a fourth choice? It seems to me that it would have been much easier and more comfortable to decide that the fire wouldn’t burn you, or that it was much smaller and more contained. Why make it so hard on yourself?”.
There’s a lot of aspects of this metaphor that aren’t going to map perfectly to what I’m talking about, so for now let’s focus on just one: there is a clear and real inconsistency between how you think about the fire and how you friend thinks about it - you are relating a story about a real fire with real characteristics, and he’s treating them as something other than that.
It’s possible your friend believes in fire and that fire has all the characteristics we usually associate with it (hot, burns you to death, spreads rapidly, makes smoke which chokes you, etc.), but doesn’t believe you actually saw any. Or it’s possible something weirder is going on and he doesn’t think fire exists at all. But it’s clear that he at least doesn’t believe that your fire was “real” in the normal way we say real - that it existed and had characteristics that mattered to other realities.
This story is being presented because it’s related to the way we usually use the words “real” and “believe”. If you really think a piano will fall where you are standing, you generally move out of the way; you do this because a real falling piano has real implications you can’t get it to stop having simply by wanting them away.
For the record, I like David Friedman. I think he generally argues in good faith and I have never known him to be mean. I think you should read his Substack and generally be nice to him, but he has the best example of what I’m talking about I have access to right now and it happens the article it’s in is short enough that I can quote it in its entirety:
One problem for Christians is how to make the existence of Hell, eternal torture for sinners, consistent with the existence of a benevolent and all powerful God. A possible solution is to deny that Christian doctrine requires the existence of Hell. Observing an online argument over that question, one based on interpretations of the text of scripture, it occurred to me that there is a simpler solution to the problem of making scriptural references to Hell consistent with a benevolent God, a solution that should be obvious to an economist if not to a theologian.
The belief in Hell is useful as an incentive not to sin. Once a sinner has died, torturing him serves no useful purpose, so there is no reason for a benevolent God to go through with it. If it is still possible for the sinner to reform and be saved he should be given another chance, as portrayed by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. If he is a hopeless case he can be painlessly removed from existence.
The obvious explanation of the available evidence, the explanation consistent with both the text and divine benevolence, is that scriptural references to Hell are a strategic lie. I do not know if there is evidence in scripture that God sometimes lies but I do not see how there could be evidence that he never does.
Now’s the time where I take a short moment to remind you what this article isn’t: It’s not an argument for Christianity as such. So what I’m interested in here is not the idea that hell does exist or doesn’t, or that sending people there could or couldn’t be fair or consistent with a benevolent god. David here takes it as a given that it’s not consistent, but that also doesn’t matter except to the extent that we note that the given was taken.
What I want to point out is that something weird is being asked for here, something that requires a special usage of the words “real” and “believe” that don’t parse well if you use those words as you normally would - as you’d use them for a housefire or a thrown rock. David is proposing that a believer should and could do something like the following:
Note that whatever external source they derive the truth of their religion from makes a certain claim (In this case that hell exists, and that a god is reliable/honest)
Decide for reasons unrelated to the dogma of the religion that this claim is unacceptable - that whatever standards the religion might have to justify it are in conflict and subordinate to some other standard
Decide that since the belief is unacceptable, they should sub in some other belief for it that they like better.
In this case David’s 3 is to decide that, irrespective of what the text actually says, to say something like “Where god says he’s something I don’t like much, I can simply hum loudly over it, and pretend something else was said - that he was just being tricky, and secretly agrees with me.”. He’s saying, specifically, that a good solution for religious readers finding a specific stated characteristic of god uncomfortable is to simply wish it not so, as one might wish a falling piano into lightness.
Note that these are all things you’d be very uncomfortable doing if you awoke to a housefire. A housefire, by nature of its realness, does not care very much if you explain to it that you don’t like that it’s hot and smoky; it will burn you to death either way. And you yourself would be unlikely to try to do so in that situation unless you yourself thought the housefire was imaginary (and thus subject to the influence of your decision on what it should be).
Whether or not David is making the argument here (from comments on the article, I think he is), with demands like these there is often an implication of:
Say and believe that your ability to do 1-3 has no bearing on the nature of your belief - that you can do 1-3 and still say that you “believe” in god, and that he’s “real”.
David’s argument is pretty specific and as such might not (from an outside perspective) seems that generally important to a religious person. To zoom out a few specificity steps and make this a bit more general, consider this argument, as might be presented by an atheist or an agnostic:
While I respect your belief and know you genuinely hold it, you should be comfortable admitting that ALL religions are real and true, and equally valid. To do otherwise would be arrogant - you would be telling everyone in every other religion that they were wrong, and believed lies.
This statement is from some perspectives very reasonable; it allows for a sort of understanding where nobody ever has to say they believe something that’s in direct conflict with some other belief, and that as a consequence the other belief is wrong. It feels nice and enlightened, it avoids fights and from the perspective of an atheist or agnostic there’s no reason NOT to do it.
We don’t do this with any other kind of belief - if someone believes that dark matter exists, and says so, they are by implication saying that anybody who believes that dark matter doesn’t exist is wrong, and believes something that’s false. Nobody has a problem with this or considers it particularly arrogant; people are generally allowed to think they are right about things, and then we argue about them.
So why the difference here? First, there’s a bad-faith version of this argument. In this argument, the atheist or agnostic is burying the lede of not only not believing in what you believe, but also thinking it’s their job, by hook or crook, to get you to stop doing so. They are trying to back-door their way into getting you to admit that you don’t really believe all that stupid stuff - to get you to deny some small part of the religion so they can bring it up later as evidence that your belief is, in their experience, pretty conditional after all.
When the good-faith agnostic and good-faith atheist make the same argument, it would be really easy to conclude that the same thing is happening here - that they simply are using a different tactic to dissuade you from having faith at all. But I’ve had a lot of these arguments and I think something different is happening - that the atheist and agnostic are asking you to do something that would be reasonable if they did it, but not considering that it might mean something very different from a house-fire belief context.
So, for example, the atheist might be running a mental model something like this:
I have examined the evidence and think it’s very clear there’s no god. Thus I’d also conclude that for me it would be very weird and rude to say, for instance, that Shiva is less real than the Abrahamic god - they are both clearly very fake indeed. This is definitionally true of my positioning; I think both the Shiva-worshipper and the Abrahamic-God-Worshipper are both similarly and clearly wrong.
While the agnostic might have a model something like this:
I don’t know if there’s a god or not, so I’ve consciously made a decision to say that given the evidence I’ve seen, I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to have a belief or claim about who god is or what he’s up to. At most I think I might be able to derive some general information about him/her/it about things religions seem to mostly agree on, but where they conflict I have no opinion. I certainly wouldn’t be arrogant enough to claim that someone is right or wrong about belief in a particular god - they might be, or might not be.
If they aren’t thinking real hard about it, both parties will then turn to someone who actually believes their religion is real and say “Hey, could you just treat it exactly like it’s something you aren’t convinced is real in the first place?”, which makes perfect sense to both from their respective vantage points of “it’s fake” and “it’s unknowable”.
They are then really, really confused when the person who actually believes this stuff in the way that the atheist or agnostic might believe in rocks gets offended at the suggestion that they change some sincerely held belief to stay in compliance with secular whims.
Orion, a guy I know on the internet, beta-read this article and handed me a concept that I’m shamelessly stealing. So while we’ve already talked about housefire beliefs, it’s now useful to talk about what he terms Neptune Beliefs - specifically beliefs about things that you are inferring based on the best information you have at hand.
Neptune is a planet that was discovered “at the point of a pen” - that is, it was inferred from wobbles observed in Uranusrather than direct observation. Orion's more charitable take on David's argument is something like "David is the kind of guy who finds math fun, and what math-is-fun guys do with their time is exactly stuff like this; their whole thing is sitting around talking about what's plausible, consistent, and fun to believe in."
I think there’s a level at which this makes sense. Certainly it makes a lot of sense if you are discovering Neptune; I don’t know how else you’d do it. But there’s limitations to the subjects it works well on, and one is religion, or at least religion of certain kinds.
If someone were to tell you they could estimate the size and orbit of a yet unobserved planet, you might ask them why. They might explain that while Neptune wasn’t directly observable, they were able to calculate out, with great mathematical certainty, that something like Neptune might exist, based on its effects on Uranus. And if you asked about how they knew about those effects, they would tell you they observed them with a telescope.
If you told them (and could somehow enforce) that they weren't allowed to consider what the telescope told them, one of two things would happen: they'd either stop believing in Neptune entirely, or they'd be reduced to guess that a new planet might exist that had any number of characteristics, based almost entirely off their own preferences about what kind of planets they liked to imagine. Neptune would still exist, and would go on having the same gravitational effects it had always had, discovered or not.
Your astronomer would in effect stop have stopped believing in Neptune in either case, but only in the latter would he have also changed his standard of belief.
The problem arises once you realize that a lot of religions believe they have a telescope - some method of knowing about god that goes beyond just imagining how cool he’d be if he was exactly the way they wanted. For Christianity, this mostly just the Bible, which (most or all, depending on who you ask) Christians believe is an accurate, trustworthy communication about who God is.
Beyond having something at least a little like a Bible, a religion otherwise might rely on something like a divine revelation - an individual might think that God is in some way indicating the truth to them. Deists thought this was happening through nature, prophets might think it’s happening through direct communications or dreams.
Once you strip away those two things, there’s little to rely on but imagination; without either, people are reduced to pretending they hold a belief in Neptune, while trying to find clever ways to phrase “I imagined this up and I like it a lot, you don’t have to worry about me letting it affect anything truly important” while not sacrificing the warm feels of spirituality.
David’s argument does this more explicitly than the others by simultaneously saying both the text and the god are unreliable - any communications from both are suspect in his model. The generic atheist/agnostic argument is a little less explicit, but does the same thing by tacitly assuming (and asking you to acknowledge) that your telescope is shitty and there’s no way it could have accurate information on Neptune.
What all three have in common is that they are asking you to revert to a pretend-neptune version of belief, where you either claim uncertainty about any given aspect of any particular god, or stop claiming belief in them entirely. In other words, that you become an atheist or agnostic, but with a few extra steps and a bunch of extra window dressing.
Not everyone who makes that kind of request of a housefire believer is looking to club them with it later, but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of people who are loathe to pass up a convenient bludgeon. We can easily imagine a hostile Reddit atheist making the logical accusation if I went along with the usual request:
Remember that time you didn’t like something the Bible said, so you just ignored it and said that where you and your god disagreed on who he was or what he said he wanted, you were allowed to either just ignore it or decide, unilaterally, that that wasn’t really what he said or meant? That’s not something you can do with real entities, man. Like you can’t say you believe I’m a committed theist and just suddenly have it be true because you’d rather it was.
The fact that you even thought you could sort of proves you don’t believe in your own god - I don’t even have to argue what it’s already clear you think I’m right about.
They’d be pointing out that using the definitions of “real” and “believe” that everyone uses in pretty much every situation but this one, I didn’t really believe in god. I’m not even getting down on this hypothetical Redditor for doing it - in that situation, he’d be totally right.
This being a bubble-busting article, it’s worth talking about what house-fire beliefs actually look like from the inside. And I think the first part of that is acknowledging that, if I actually believe what I believe, I should live somewhat differently - I should get angry less, I should help people more, and just generally be better in a lot of ways.
Since this whole article is me saying I do believe in that way, it’s reasonable to ask why I still sort of broadly suck. This is actually a pretty common (and one of the more understandable/legitimate) argument against Christianity - Christians very notably often do not act like they’ve had an infinite sin-debt paid by the sacrifice of a deity or that eternal reward is on the line. This is actually something that gets talked about internally, for what it’s worth - I’ve had a friend say “you know, I don’t know quite how to phrase this, but if we really believed…” and make much the same complaint about us himself.
We can sort of imagine a type of belief that works this way - for the purposes of this conversation, we will call it “perfect belief”. And in a world of generally imperfect people, we find that perfect beliefs are rare to the point of non-existence. We find utilitarians that do things that work against utility, or virtue ethics guys who don’t pursue ideal virtues at all times. Christianity is no exception here - we often suck.
That knife cuts both ways, though. Just as the utilitarian actually often really does believe in utility as he fails to maximize it, the Christian knows he’s transgressed a rule and feels guilty about it specifically because he actually thinks there’s a rule to have transgressed and someone who gave him the rule to follow in the first place.
In a similar vein, it’s not typical for a Christian to believe they have absolutely correct views on what the Bible actually says. Part of this is because of the sheer size of the sucker - it’s a big book.
This drives a common internet objection to Christianity in which the objector notes that Christians often disagree on the exact stuff the Bible says. Which is true! We do, we spend a lot of time arguing about it, in fact. But in a way specifically relevant to this article, that’s because each person actually believes there’s a truth that can be known - one that it’s possible to get to and understand.
So, yeah. I have a lot of atheist and agnostic readers, but frequent readers will note a big dearth of articles in which I try to convert them to Christianity. This one is no exception - I’m around if anyone wants to talk about that, certainly, but that’s not the explicit goal here.
I’m also not trying to convince you that it’s somehow beyond the pale for you to say “hey, I don’t think you are right in believing what you believe - I think it’s false, and that you should stop”. I have more than a few friends, some relatively close, who do that all the time. It’s an honest argument. It doesn’t work, but it’s not like it’s sneaky.
The argument I do mind comes from a different place - one where someone is trying to be enlightened and kind by not attacking beliefs they disagree with. That’s nice enough (and appreciated, as motivations go) but it loses most of its positive force when you dig down a little and find that the beliefs they envisioned are mostly fake double-speaky pretending of a kind they imagined carried no actual force or sincerity - the kind you can claim to have while simultaneously negating as they become socially embarrassing when judged by an ever-changing secular standard of right.
Editor Nick said something to the extent of “I think it’s a mistake to not address the ‘benevolence is incompatible with hell existing” aspect of things”, basically because there’s a way of looking at this where if those things really are incompatible, then there’s a “well, if that’s so, you MUST pick one” alternative to the “I’m being told to pick and choose beliefs to accept based on what I like” thing I eventually get to.
I’m not doing this here, broadly because this isn’t an article about The Problem of Evil. But even if it was an article about the The Problem of Evil, we wouldn’t probably focus down on one individual perceived evil like this; we’d tackle the whole thing. And if it was an article about the problem of evil and Dave’s prior held (if a bad thing exists, then god can’t) we wouldn’t stop at getting rid of hell - we’d stop at getting rid of god.
There’s some minor ways this looks different than the problem of evil, but I don’t think they are substantial - the argument of The Problem of Evil has always been something like “bad thing exists - and there could be no reason god would let it be so except meanness.” The assumption here (to the extent it’s relevant to either of our arguments) is pretty much the same.
The argument made here is almost always a secular argument. David, for instance, isn’t arguing that the Bible supports what he’s saying in any way. Sort of the opposite; he’s saying that even if the Bible said god didn’t lie, that it wouldn’t count as evidence he didn’t.
I’m not changing this. I think it’s funny and I don’t care what you think of me.
Conversely, and working on the same principle, the astronomer friend also couldn’t cause a new planet to exist just by wanting one real bad and ignoring the non-existence of wobbles. Things are either real or not, in the conventional usage of “real”.
I usually don't argue about religion on the Internet, but you seem really nice, so I'll give it a try.
First, sometimes it's a good idea to adopt relativist debate norms even if you think the thing you're debating is real. For example, music is real, and so are musical preferences -- if I go to a Jonathan Coulton concert, I will have a lousy time, and if my housemate goes to a Shostakovich concert, he will have a lousy time, but if you flip it around, then we'll both leave our concerts feeling inspired, refreshed, and satisfied. Neither of us thinks the other is mistaken -- it's just that we're wired differently, so what works for one of us doesn't work for the other. Why? It's hard to explain, even though we both know plenty of music theory and plenty of sociology. We try to trend gently on each other's feelings while talking about it, not because we think the other person's enjoyment of their music is somehow imaginary, but precisely because it's real, and because we know that most of our thoughts about music are inherently private or personal, i.e., they're quite difficult to effectively share.
If I tried to insist that my way of appreciating music was objectively better, I'd just hurt my housemate's feelings without accomplishing anything useful -- because even though the music is very real, its goodness is relative, not objective. If I observe the position of Uranus, I can tell you in precise mathematical terms exactly where Uranus is and you can confirm it with your telescope and make the exact same observation, but if I observe a Shostakovich concert then even if I tell you where the symphony is playing, you still can't reliably have the same Shostakovich experience that I did. I think religion is a lot more like music than astronomy.
Second, mainstream Christianity usually presents itself as a sort of self-protecting chain of arguments. The Bible is supposed to be literally true, and one of the things the Bible tells us is that we should obey God, and one of God's commandments is to believe in the literal authority of the Bible. If you begin by agreeing with any one of those statements, then you often end by feeling compelled to agree with all of them, and after that it feels silly and disingenuous to talk (as David Friedman does) about editing bits and pieces of your religion to better suit your ethical feelings. If you're used to thinking of God and religion as "aspects of that self-reinforcing loop of arguments that dictate an entire worldview," then anyone who blithely suggests that you just unilaterally change part of your worldview looks like they're not taking "God" or "religion" seriously.
However, speaking from personal experience, it's very possible to take God and religion very seriously indeed and yet not subscribe to that self-reinforcing loop. I don't think there's anything imaginary about God -- and yet, like Galileo, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. I think the Bible was divinely inspired -- but what happens when you apply divine inspiration to a bunch of cantankerous, illiterate Bronze Age shepherds is that you get a real mixed bag. Parts of the Bible are timeless enough to still be worth studying and meditating on today; other parts are trivial, cruel, or incorrect.
So, if I suggest that you might not need to call 911 about the fire in your apartment, it's not because I think you're hallucinating the fire -- it's because, in my experience, most kitchen fires can be safely put out with an ordinary fire extinguisher. And, if you strenuously disagree with me and say, no, no, I definitely need to call 911 about *this* fire that's in my home right now -- I will cheerfully nod and say, "OK, go ahead and call them, then." Not because I think there's no right answer about the danger posed by the fire, but because I acknowledge that fires can be different from each other, and it would be unrealistic to expect you to pause and send me a video of the fire. Any such video would naturally be obscured by smoke, and fires are urgent and scary enough that it usually makes more sense to get on with the business of dealing with them as best we can instead of endlessly arguing about their size with friends. After all, the fire is in *your* home -- by the time I could get over there and help you with it, it would usually be too late. Since you're the one who inevitably has to deal with the fire, and you're the one with the best view of your fire, I'm willing to trust your judgment about your fire even if your claims about that fire seem a priori unlikely to me.
Interesting essay, RC. As someone who was raised Catholic, became an atheist around college-age and has now retreated to some nebulous "agnostic" position, my feelings on religion and spirituality are uncertain but still fascinated.
One somewhat recent "revelation" (if you'll forgive the punny word choice) was finally gaining deeper understanding of the concept of being "fallen" in a Christian context. Turns out, Christians have a much better grasp of human nature, in that can strive for an ideal (such as Jesus' teachings) but are somewhat destined to fail (sin) through our very nature as imperfect human beings. The trick is to fail as little as you can.
I've thought a lot over the past few years about what I think is wrong with contemporary, Western society and one theme I keep coming back to is this hostility to "guardrails" on behavior, including a lack of a sense of duty or obligation to one another. Religion is anathema to that concept - that we have a duty to be bound within certain standards of behavior before a god and one another. Those guardrails long gained legitimacy by being divine.
The Enlightenment focused on a materialist vision of human nature; as an aside, Locke and Hobbes were both wrong in viewing human behavior as somehow divisible down to the individual level; human beings come in individual units, but are social creatures by nature. Anyways, whatever could not be directly or indirectly observed was suspect, and the primacy of individual human beings was set as a guiding principle. We failed to keep our very real needs as animals - interconnectedness with our environments and each other - in proper focus. I think religion and spirituality - no matter what else they are, including possible actual connections to the divine or supernatural - are at least a human reaction to the very real warmth one feels when one feels that interconnectedness in an actualized way: the awe of nature, the transcendence of communal worship, etc. The feeling of something larger than oneself received a name: god.
A little bit of brain droppings, sorry.