On Burning Books

I don’t approve of burning books anymore than I approve of burning people. But, as Heinrich Heine pointed out so long ago (and as Christopher Hitchens reminds us) it seems that one inevitably follows the other.

A few weeks ago, that certain pastor in Florida made good on his promise to burn a copy of the Koran. The response from the Islamic world was what we’ve come to expect from the fundamentalist sects: outrage, murder, and madness.
The response from the western world, however, is what really troubles me.

Overwhelmingly, American journalists and media pundits have thrown the blame for these deaths and a perceived “increased risk to our troops” at the feet of this misguided pastor.
Now, think for a moment. What does this mean?

If you, for example, were to burn a copy of one of my books, would I have a right to shoot you? I wrote the bloody thing, after all. Would the news outlets and journalists of the world be chiming in saying, “Well, he did burn the man’s book, you know. It meant a lot to him.” Of course not.

And for you squeamish, un-evolved, compartmentalizing apologists out there who would point out that the pastor insulted the Muslim ‘religion,’ as though that made a difference, I have a question for you. Why does religion get a special pass? Why does one group of people have a unique right to be offended, and, as the aggrieved, then also have the right to raid and murder dozens who weren’t even involved?

If I were to burn the Mexican flag, (which I would never do) would any Mexican have the right to kill me? How about if I to take a blade to a stuffed elephant, could then republicans threaten my family? Ahh, but what if I were to burn a bible, and then get assaulted by a christian? I’ll bet some of you see that as different, somehow. This is the chasm in rational thought that I’m talking about.

If we attach faith to heinous behaviors, there comes a sort of queasy understanding from those that know their holy books are just as cruel, just as primitive, and just as steeped in myth and nonsense.

Free speech is a concept that has been shown to foster not just the most innovative and creative people, but societies as well. The right to express yourself and put forth your own ideas about even the biggest and most controversial topics is a human necessity. So long as I never threaten or harm anyone, I expect that the most horrendous passages in my books not be censored, not cause my life to be in danger, and certainly not cause the death of anyone.  (As they say, ‘my right to swing my fist ends at your nose’)

There’s a strange dichotomy in the air about some groups. Even otherwise freethinking, evolved human beings may rail against such medieval stupidity one moment, then  in the next, they’ll advocate the de facto observance of Islamic law by condemning those who don’t abide by it.

I, for one, am not bound by Sharia, and I will not be intimidated and frightened into blaming one stupid pastor for the murderous acts of thousands of misguided people acting under the shield of “religious faith.”

How dare anyone allow them that shield? How dare anyone give leeway for torture and public execution when that old con-job of “faith” is involved?

As an atheist, I find this offensive. As an artist, I find it unacceptable. As a human being, I find it a disgrace.

Where do you stand? Are you standing at all? Or, are you already bowing, perhaps?

Socrates was killed for “impiety,” and corrupting the youth with ideas. I won’t drink the hemlock, folks. I will turn pale, hemmorage and die in an empty cell writing blasphemies in my own blood before I allow anyone to tell me what I can or cannot express. I’d like to think you would too, but lately, I have to wonder.

Disclaimer: Yes, I am aware of and applaud “moderate Muslims” out there. Although your outrage over such overt acts of violence by your brothers in faith has always seemed strangely quiet, if not altogether absent. And yes, if it were any other group of any other kind that was trying to intimidate free speech out of our rights, I’d be just as fervent and combative.


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7 Responses to “On Burning Books”

  1. Chris Says:

    Well, you can blame both.

    Terry Jones is an idiot. And he is on some level guilty of all those things he has been blamed of, including the endangering of troops.

    The Islamic crazies…er, I mean fundamentalists…who went on a rampage and injured and murdered people in a horrific manner (Beheadings? Seriously? Over a book?) have no justifiable defense for their actions. I’m pretty sure you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere in the Koran (or however you wish to spell it) the quote from Mohammed, “If someone should write down the tenets I teach and someone should come along and burn a copy of that text, people thousands of miles away and in no way connected with that person should be murdered.” At least I doubt it.

    There is no need to let either side off the hook while placing blame. One’s guilt does not lessen the guilt of the other.

    Of course, if you want my gut level opinion on the matter, what happened in Afghanistan is far worse than what happened in Florida and there’s no way anyone of any faith will be able to equate the two in a rational way.

    Fundamentalism in any fashion is dangerous to humanity as a whole. Fundamentalists always claim to serve a higher power, but in the end always bring nothing but suffering. Religion and religious faith have no place in government, here or anywhere else. Morality and doing right by others does not require a deity, only a conscience and the will to use it.

    As I like to say (with a huge debt to Hippocrates), first do no harm; all else follows.

    As for the “believers,” I propose that anything that requires your belief in order for it to be true, it probably is not.

  2. Chris Says:

    On a related, but tangential, I suppose, note: I suspect that if there is an Islamic law regarding the burning of the Koran it is rooted in an age when a copy of such a book would be a very rare, valuable, and potentially irreplaceable item. I doubt they envisioned a time when you could print a copy of it at home, in triplicate if you wish, on your printer with any color paper you like. Or a time when you could waddle yourself into a bookstore pick one off the shelf for a nominal fee (well, probably not Walmart of Zondervan, but you know what I mean). I’m just saying every copy of a “holy” book these days isn’t all that holy or rare or valuable. It’s another example of an outdated teaching that has no place in a modern world.

    Jones has probably never read anything in the book he burned and if he did he’d probably be hard pressed to disagree with much of it if he had an open mind about it.

    Either way, I still want to bitch slap him.

  3. Dylan Says:

    I’ve put some thought into the motivation of those who get so angry when their religion or holy books are disagreed with or shrugged off. After some interesting logic jumps I think I found a plausible correlation. To get there, we’ll have to start with just what books are and mean. Books are the physical manifestation of spoken word. The spoken word, i.e. communication, essentially what most people claim separates us from the wild (limited I know, but go with it). Additionally, the written word was a momentous achievement for mankind because we now had the ability to take our speech and essentially immortalize it. What was once a fleeting gasp of air evolved into history; something more tangible. Now most religions take their founders history, words, thoughts and beliefs and reverently transcribe them in order to remember and learn. If you read them with the right kind of eye, these are some of our earliest attempts on what we would call in elementary school, a history book. Dates, people, events, all written in the eye and thought process of that time and culture. In short, when you insult and disagree with a “holy book” those who are dedicated to this book take it as an insult to the memory of those they deem worthy of remembering. You insult their history and the dedication it took for their ancestors to keep it safe and pass it down from generation to generation.
    It would also seem plausible that when you burn this book (or any book really) you are burning mankind’s physical proof of stepping out of nature and into a world of our own creation.

  4. Jonas Samuelle Says:

    @chris- Yes, the idea of burning a book is (or rather, was, historically)essentially an attempt to destroy the concepts within. Given that simple text was our only truly enduring media, to burn a book was to severely risk loosing the information within it forever. This fervor comes from a combination of leftover anxiety over literally “losing on’es religion” and an adherence to strict and unquestioned laws that have been hard-wired into the culture.

    @Dylan-Much of what I said above applies to your point. I have good reason to believe that few, if any of the rioting masses have given such a depth of thought and instrospective evaluation into their own blind rage as you have.
    Certainly, it’s a valid line of thought. There is no doubt some truth in what you say. But, whatever these books started out as, they have long since become methods of retaining power.
    Not so long after the agricultiral revolution, societies started getting better at understanding what it takes to survive.
    As our understanding of soil and weather grew, thus persished the plant gods. When we came to recognize the regularity of the seasons, the gods corresponding to them went out of style. The Judeo-Christian religious tree is one of the earliest invented for the sole purpose of comtrolling people and sustaining itself, instead of keeping people alive and sustaining society.
    Any historicity they might once have held is buried in centuries of dollar signs and “god”-seized power.
    They don’t defend their origins so much as what they see as their own special right to god’s power. It’s the book that makes them more special than other people, and gives them the right to act like lunatics. They attribute a divine quality to it, even while there obviously is none.
    They don’t seem, (at least not consciously)to care about man’s triumph over ignorance and ability to build on knowledge that came in tandem with the written word. They know that they are “allowed” to get offended over this, and so they use this excuse to indulge in the very worst parts of themselves.

  5. Jonas Samuelle Says:

    Here’s a link to a fellow who illistrates some of the points I’m making.
    His most recent videos deal with this exact issue. (The bastard even used a line I wrote here, although I think he technically posted his video before I posted the final version of this blog entry, so I’ll just assume that it just was one of those strange moments of synchronicity.)

  6. Tuli Reno Says:

    A few years ago fire devastated a few hillside communities near San Diego. A Christian bible was found near a burnt out church. It was intact. People were proclaiming god’s miracle. Two people died in these fires, but an unburnt book which could be purchased for a few dollars…this was proclaimed as god’s goodness.

  7. Jonas Samuelle Says:

    @Tuli-The unconcious act of dismissing evidence against your preconceptions while internalizing any percieved evidence in their favor is somthing that’s difficult to de-program out of people.

    If I’m convinced that I’m a great writer, for example, everyone who agrees is correct and those who don’t are near-sighted.

    A great point. Thanks, Tuli

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