I’ve been avoiding the topic of burning the Quran, primarily because I didn’t feel like I had anything noteworthy to add to the discussion. But a recent Facebook discussion has given me something to chew on, and I think it’s worth writing about.
Several atheists have said, in essence, that burning books is always wrong, and oppose the reverend Terry Jones’ apparently defunct plan on that basis alone. But I submit to you, gentle readers, that it isn’t so. To say such a thing is to fall victim to the same fallacy as theists who think that morality is a quality of actions, not a value judgment. A book is a book, and there’s nothing magical about it.
What’s awful about many book burnings is the meaning behind them. Book burning is often an act of suppression. It is an effort to eradicate an idea without considering it in the light of reason. It is using force to destroy ideas. I agree that this is abhorrent.
But I was thinking about how to respond to Terry Jones’ plan, and it occurred to me that a profound symbolic gesture would be to hold a Bible burning party a couple dozen yards away from his Quran burning party. Why? Because Terry and his congregation would get their panties in a twist and start shouting the Bible burners down. They might even try to physically stop them.
What would be the point? To prove that Jones and his sheep are just as irrational about their religious beliefs as Muslims.
But after I thought about it for a minute, I realized that wouldn’t work. Nobody would get it. Such a book burning would have a different meaning than your average book burning. It wouldn’t be an act of suppression. It would be an act of irony — of pointing out hypocrisy. But most people wouldn’t get it because they’d be so upset about the act of burning books itself. And that would totally miss the point.
It would be doubly awful if such a Bible burning was done by atheists. Theists everywhere would have their “proof” that we’re intolerant hateful people. It would undo years of tedious efforts to demonstrate that we’re not the devils they’ve made us out to be.
After I fed all this information through my brain, I realized that I had missed the broadest and most direct meaning behind book burning. The problem was that I was thinking from the perspective of the burner, with a removed cerebral approach. And burning books is not removed or cerebral. When someone burns a book that I value highly, they are looking me straight in the eye and saying, “I hate you.” Regardless of anything else that might or might not be symbolized by the act, it conjures up the worst parts of human history. Fire is death. When we burn someone’s book, we are burning a part of them in effigy. And no amount of ironic symbolism can take that element away from it.
So I’m glad Jones decided not to burn Qurans. Not because we ought to give in to the demands of Muslims, or for fear of retribution. No, we should not burn their books because that is a hateful act. Drawing Muhammed? We can chalk that up to humor, irony, or in-your-face rhetoric. But not book burning. It’s too primal. Too hateful. There have to be better ways of getting the point across.
(Incidentally, should such a Quran burning ever take place in the future, I think a better response would be to parade outside with signs bearing the hateful passages of the Bible juxtaposed against the hateful passages in the Quran. Same message, less fire.)