Book Burning


Why do we feel such an instinctive abhorrence for the act of burning a book? Last week the Reverend Jones, a fundamentalist preacher in Florida, USA, declared that he was going to burn copies of the Koran, allegedly in protest against “fundamentalist Islam.” (As though that is in some ways worse than fundamentalist Christianity.)

He joins the ranks of other noted book-burners down the ages: fine, upstanding folk like Adolf Hitler, Uncle Joe Stalin, and of course we can’t forget Mao Tse Tung and his “cultural revolution” which attempted to destroy Chinese culture in its entirety. Burning books goes back to the third century BC when books were burned by the Qin dynasty in China, and scholars buried alive for dissent. The practice is a long standing Christian tradition—the Spanish Inquisition burned the Koran wherever it was found.

Many people have commented on the Rev. Jones’s planned idiocy, but I haven’t read or heard anyone who actually gets the point. It is generally agreed that whilst burning the Koran is legal, it isn’t desirable for a host of reasons, such as: it will inflame Muslims and increase radicalism; it will be a recruitment wet dream for Islamic terrorist organisations; it will trigger retaliatory action by even moderate Muslims, and so on.

What they miss is the fundamental stupidity of the notion that you can destroy an idea by burning a book that contains it.

I think that what Messrs Hitler, Stalin et al had in common was a shared delusion that by burning a book they could make the ideas contained therein somehow vanish. This, of course, is not what happens. The physical book may be destroyed, but the burning (or banning) draws attention to the ideas rather than destroying them, and those ideas often go on to destroy the book-burners (which is what they were afraid of in the first place.)

The way to destroy an idea is to show that it is not true in matters of fact and its arguments are not logically valid. This is extremely difficult in the case of religious works because they are supposed to be the word of an infallible supernatural being. Pointing out that some of the “facts” revealed by the deity are provably wrong doesn’t phase the faithful in the slightest. They merely move the goalposts and assert that the questioned passages are allegorical and not to be taken literally, and logical inconsistency is an artifact of our poor human brains that are not able to understand the grandeur of God’s plan.

The only way to combat this sort of psychosis is to repeat the obvious to the faithful calmly and often. Perhaps, once in a thousand times, the seed of doubt will sprout and you can convert someone to sanity. I know this works because I was once a devout Christian (at about the age of 13) and now am not. Faith was defeated by critical thinking.

Perhaps we should inundate the moron Jones with emails explaining that snakes can’t talk, the dead can’t walk, and water cannot be turned into wine without the added ingredients of sunshine and a grapevine.

“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” – Heinrich Heine

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

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