Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Book Burning Is a Threat to Humanism

The Aug. 3, 2010 edition of one of my favorite blog sites, "Atheist Revolution" included  "CNN Features Battle Of The Idiots", a post which highlighted a debate in which a Christian fundamentalist minister from Florida voiced his church's intention to conduct a burning of copies of the Quran on the anniversary of  9-11 as a statement against Islam.  His views were opposed by the CNN interviewer on the basis that such an act against their "sacred" book is insulting to Muslims, just as Muslims' burning the Bible would offend Christians.  "Atheist Revolution's" position on this issue is that there is no such thing as a "sacred" book and its owner has the right to burn it if (s)he so chooses.    

I agree that arguments about religion are pointless when they are framed in terms of whose holy book, doctrine, or deity is more sacred or deserving of reverence than that of another faith.  It's like children arguing "My  father can lick your father". Further, I don't deny that the owner of property including books has a right to privately dispose of them  as (s)he sees fit.  But from my perspective as a secular humanist and a bibliophile, an organized public burning or other such destruction of books based on hatred, along with an encouragement by the perpetrator for others to do likewise is a whole different matter.

I remember a saying that I heard many years ago:  "Books are our ancestors speaking to us through the ages." My sentiments exactly.  Books, especially those that are antiquarian, often reveal— intentionally or otherwise—a great deal about past cultures and serve as insights into the way that people thought in a given era.  For example, they are excellent sources for comparison and determination of progress—if any—that later or contemporary  societies have made since the era in question.  Beyond that purpose they are no less valuable than other artifacts and abstractions that have been produced by the human imagination through the centuries such as art and music.

Who knows, for example, how much knowledge was lost in the fire that destroyed the Library at Alexandria in 48 BCE and subsequent destruction of temples in that city that housed the great works as well as ordinary documents of their eras.  There is a dispute as to whether  that repository was deliberately burned or was just collateral damage in a larger conflagration that burnt the city.  But the outcome was the same:  irretrievable loss of  important records of past civilizations and human history.

However, there is little doubt that the fire that burned the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 was the work of arson. BTW I happened to be working in the area at that time and witnessed this devastating event in which nearly 500,000 were lost and an equal number badly damaged.  Heroically painstaking efforts were made to salvage thousands more. It took years to restore this great institution.

Probably the most famous incidents in history of malicious destruction of books by fire was the book burning conducted in 1933 by University students under the Nazi regime.   Thousands of books especially those by Jewish authors were destroyed in this campaign.   This was done not just as a policy of anti-Semitism but as on overall attempt to "purify" German thought and culture. But those who authorized this heinous act may in actuality have secretly feared  that the accumulated knowledge written in the works that they were destroying was far superior to their own warped ideology.   

Books are not only a bond with the past but can serve as a clarion call for social change.  Consider the effects on American society by such works as Common Sense, Uncle Tom's CabinThe JungleSilent Spring and The God Delusion .(Strictly speaking, the author of  The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins,  is not an American, but his works have probably created more of a stir in the U.S. than in his native England.) Often books such as these which challenge  the status quo are so disturbing to the Establishment that government authorities attempt to ban or censor them, as was the case with the The Pentagon Papers.

So by condemning acts of violence and suppression against the  written word including works of a religious nature, atheists are sending a message  that we support the rights of all to express their beliefs.  In the end, by taking the high road and advocating the preservation of  books and other expressions of human creativity, even those that have theistic themes, we are standing up for our own rights and ideas as well.