Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Defense of Book Burning

It has been several months since Terry Jones, pastor of a small Florida church, made international headlines by threatening to burn Qurans. He was back in the news recently:

The Manhattan "Ground Zero Mosque" was also in the news:

When the Terry Jones story first came out, I wrote the following article. I was reluctant to publish, because I don't want WASH in the same category as Terry Jones. However, I'll post it here, and readers should feel free to comment:

Humanists respect knowledge, so it is difficult to advocate for any kind of book burning. However, Terry Jones and his tiny Florida Christian church got an absurd amount of coverage from the nationwide media for planning to burn Qurans. The sheer amount of attention makes it very tempting to do something similar just for the publicity. Not only that, everyone seems to have agreed that it was a bad idea to burn Qurans, from the major media to the Secretary of Defense. Muslims would find it insulting, of course.

But in the U.S., the conclusion was because some people thought that it would make some Muslims become violent, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This sounds like bowing to blackmail from only the possibility of violence. Does this willingness to accommodate religious oversensitivity and violence mean that the terrorists have won?

I disagree that it is bad to burn religious books, either Qurans and Bibles. I would give the following reasons.

The religious books are the most widely published books in the world. The Bible was the first book printed by Gutenberg after the printing press was invented. Both books are readily available in electronic form, so they can be copied almost limitlessly with the touch of a button. As a result, we don't expect that burning a few paper copies will affect anyone's access to reading or possessing the books.

The books are burned only for symbolic reasons, of which there are two very good ones.

The first reason has to do with freedom of expression for the religious and the non-religious. Religious freedom in the U.S. is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is one of our most valued freedoms from government interference. Muslims want to build a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, and they are free to do it. But if non-Muslims choose to burn a few copies of the Islamic foundational text, they are also free to do it.

An important aspect of the freedom is to accept that the freedoms also apply equally to other people, even without agreeing with them. So if Muslims accept the freedom to build a mosque, they must also accept our freedom to burn a Quran. We should remind them, and ourselves, that we have the freedom, and we must exercise and defend the freedom. A freedom that no one uses because they are afraid of violence, bullying, or coercion is not a freedom at all. We refuse to let threats of violence destroy our freedom.

The second reason to burn a few copies of Qurans and Bibles is to remind ourselves about what is really important about them. The importance is not the physical paper and ink. Some superstitious people may think that these books are sacred, and they will be protected by God so disaster will strike anyone who mistreats a book. But these books are discarded and burned all the time, as are many other books. Individual copies don't matter. The books are only good to the extent that people read them, understand them, and use them to make their lives better.

But sometimes, people read these books and decide that they don't make their lives better at all. Some read the books and use them as an excuse to make war or be violent, or to make lives worse.

To these people, I say that these books are not worth keeping. Many people have become atheists or Secular Humanists because they reject the obsolete, outmoded teachings of these books. To people who reject the worldview of these books, we should say, throw them in the fire. We don't need them. We can live good lives without them. We don't live in fear that there is any god that can or will strike us down for doing it.

In the words of Robert Ingersoll,

"All that is necessary, as it seems to me, to convince any reasonable person that the Bible is simply and purely of human invention--of barbarian invention--is to read it. Read it as you would any other book; think of it as you would of any other; get the bandage of reverence from your eyes; drive from your heart the phantom of fear; push from the throne of your brain the coiled form of superstition--then read the Holy Bible, and you will be amazed that you ever, for one moment, supposed a being of infinite wisdom, goodness and purity, to be the author of such ignorance and of such atrocity."

If you don't like what the book says, and you don't need it to have a good life, then throw it out.


Don Wharton said...

Wow! This is quite rational. However, given the madness around this issue it is an act of courage to say what is real.

Anonymous said...

If you have a chance, read a few passages from the Bible, or the Quran, or any other book belonging to the great religions. I read the Bible to be aware of my cultural heritage, and because, in it, I can find many passages of great beauty. As a bonus, it can be entertaining too. I have also begun to read the Quran. That's tough.

Kevin I. Slaughter said...

I have friends who have a visceral reaction to book burning, and have stated that no book should ever be burned.
I, however, have considered starting a line of firestarter logs made up of Reader's Digest Condensed books that jam up the shelves of thrift stores.

Vincent said...

It's not fair to compare burning a Qu'ran to burning of any other book. Burning a Qu'ran is more like defiling a communion wafer. That book is held with nearly as much reverence by its followers as the eucharist is by Catholics. As a publicity stunt it's effective but crude. I don't think this book deserves to be removed from the world of human literature. It should be read like any other book.

Don Wharton said...

Vincent, obviously the Quran will not be removed from the world of human literature. The question is should people live in fear of of the possible violent reaction of those who have excessive reverence for the contents of the book.

Don Wharton said...

Kevin, Thanks for the laugh. Those condensed books are sooo predictable.

Vincent said...

I assume your question is rhetorical.
I was referring specifically to the closing lines " To people who reject the worldview of these books, we should say, throw them in the fire. We don't need them. We can live good lives without them."

Perhaps I misread "without them" to mean out of the realm of human literature.
I guess the question may be by singling out that specific book for burning, are we giving it more credit than it deserves? I see no more reason to burn that than to burn something by Melville. In my ideal world it would be treated no differently than an other book, no better and no worse. Since that is my ideal, that is how I will live, and so burning it is meaningless carnival showmanship.

Don Wharton said...

Vincent, There is the general problem of parsing symbolic communication when language is not the vehicle by which the message is conveyed. I think Bill is saying that the messages in the Quran can be viewed with disfavor and the buring of them can be a legitimate expression of our disfavor. This is certainly an explicit meaning and should be as Bill suggested be a legitimate expression of free speech.

Bill Creasy said...

As I said in the beginning of the article, it would be physically impossible to destroy all copies of the Quran, as long as anyone wants to keep one. I wouldn't advocate destroying the last copy, if it were possible, to remove it from human literature. Certainly, we shouldn't send troops to people's houses to confiscate them. The point I was trying to make is that the "sacred" books aren't sacred to many people. For people who consider them to be just books, they are no more immune to incineration than any other book that has lost its value or that doesn't provide insight to the reader.

rwahrens said...

"For people who consider them to be just books, they are no more immune to incineration than any other book that has lost its value or that doesn't provide insight to the reader."

Or that needs to serve as a symbol or a message.

I think that is the real message that the crazy preacher Bill mentioned was trying to send - that the Quran isn't sacred to US, here, in this country, and that Muslims need to bring themselves into the twenty-first century regarding tolerance of other religions and points of view.