On Atheism And Book Burning

December 31, 2007 at 2:33 pm (books) ()

Just got back from the desert (we had a wonderful time); I’ve jumped into my feed aggregator head first. And what should find me first but this post at Pharyngula. The post is about this incident, in which a kid in a high school English class decided to incorporate tearing pages out of a Bible into his class presentation, causing great distress for at least one religious student. He prefaced his shenanigan with the statement, “I’m going to do this because I can. I’m going to do something that your stupid, little minds aren’t going to be able to comprehend.”

Pharyngula blogger PZ Myers’ reaction:

Ripping up a copy of your own book is perfectly legal. Freaking out because somebody tore pages out of a book is silly — while I can’t approve of destroying any books on general principles, the kids at that school learned a valuable lesson: nothing is sacred.

Which is a fair enough, I suppose, but, I think, pretty inadequate.

Sure, it’s legal to ruin any inanimate object that one owns. As it should be. But the destruction of books, while not criminal, isn’t analogous to smashing a dinner plate.

Books are boxes of information. They are cultural currency. They are time-capsules. All books, even false or stupid or bigoted books, are worthy of preservation. They are, in a word, sacred.

Fascists and and religious zealots destroy books. It is part of the quest to destroy freedom, to destroy intellectualism, to destroy history. And it’s fundamentally wrong. Anybody who values knowledge, science, progress — ahem, atheists and secular people — should be opposed to destroying books.

And students shouldn’t destroy books — any books — in school. That’s just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Destroying a book is so obviously antithetical to learning that there is no reason it should ever be permitted in a classroom. Under any circumstances.

Now add to that the fact that this kid was being a bit of an asshole and clearly pulling a melodramatic stunt for attention, and this is a pretty condemnable action. Indignation is not silly, it’s necessary. Destroying a copy of a work of literature of immeasurable historic significance is ignorant, unnecessary, and unhelpful.

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8 Comments

  1. destroying the Bible in school | Blog and News Tidbets said,

    […] On Atheism And Book Burning […]

  2. Justin said,

    The last line of Myers’ quote is really telling–the students learned that “nothing is sacred.” I stopped reading Myers a while ago, because while I appreciated his pointing out real outrages, I thought that he was motivated more by animosity more than a desire for a decent society, and it shows. I’m not religious, but I don’t get anything out of that animosity.

  3. Daisy said,

    I like him in general, and some of his hostility is justified. But I’m definitely with you on this post and similar ones.

  4. San :) said,

    I have to agree with you in some points but then again I have to disagree about some others.

    I love reading and I have a thing for books inherited from my father, someone that I will remember always (always, always) reading. In my house we had a bookcase in each room, including the bathroom and my mother just finished an inventory of the books and the final number, between my parents home and my father’s office was around 13000. Yeah, 13000 books, most of them owned and more importantly read by my father.

    This long introduction is to assure you, believe me, that I LOVE books. And in fact, for me, an atheist, books are as much “sacred” as I can go. So I agree with you that no book, no matter what, should be destroyed.

    But, what bother me a bit about your posting is the fact that our own values while makes us ‘good’ makes us ‘weak’. By us, I mean progressive and atheists. Yeah, destroying books is bad. But is legal and as you have very well said is a common practice among religious zealots. Those ones that are always backed up by religous idiots.

    So they can do it, they can destroy books just because they are idiots and we will critcize them but that is all. Now, when one teenager, probably disturbed, but probably intelligent enough as to be just fed up with religion decides to rip off just one book in a stunt to shocked the rest, and we decide to not back up his freedom of speech? to instead criticize his choice?

    I know that we shouldn’t take the path of the religion extremists. But there is a bit to learn from them. We do not need to go all the way to their methods (remember the movie The Last Supper? this one in case you have not seen it: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113613 ) but we do need to learn a bit about not being so soft and so prone to say “sorry” each time a statement from our side is a bit too tough. We need to learn to be tougher.

    Remember, they never say “sorry”. They just go to confession.

    PS: I am not a native English speaker in case my English sounds a bit weird… :))

  5. Emily said,

    Hey San. Thanks for commenting.

    While I appreciate much of your sentiment, I want to pick just a little at some of what you wrote. Like:

    “But, what bother me a bit about your posting is the fact that our own values while makes us ‘good’ makes us ‘weak’ ”

    Where did this framework come from, and why should we buy into it?

    Also:

    “Now, when one teenager, probably disturbed, but probably intelligent enough as to be just fed up with religion decides to rip off just one book in a stunt to shocked the rest, and we decide to not back up his freedom of speech? to instead criticize his choice?”

    Can we not effectively do both? I haven’t seen any criticisms in this post or PZ Meyer’s (the only two I’ve read about the incident) of this kid’s expressed sentiment…only of his chosen method of relaying it and his perceived jerkiness about the way he went about it.

    I agree that atheists should be prompted and willing to be loud and out about what they think; strong and unashamed, that their thoughts should be respected and culturally acknowledged, and that what this kid did is perfectly legal. But that doesn’t mean that nothing about what he did is not ethically condemnable. As you implied, we should learn from opposing extremists, but not follow their lead.

    P.S. Your English is very good, I wouldn’t have guessed that it is not your native language.

    And, wow, I want to watch that movie so badly! Now!

  6. San :) said,

    Hey Emily,

    The concept of “…what makes us ‘good’ makes us ‘weak’… ” was in fact something the shook me profoundly from the movie I was talking about. Again, in the movie they go to an extreme, but just that small line about how because we are who we are (free thinkers) and as such, we doubt ourselves and that is good but that is also our weakness, made me think about it and sadly, I believe is true.

    About your second question: of course I believe that we can do both…. But still, is a teenager (and I am tempted to add, “for God’s sake!”, sorry can’t help the jest!) :)) Do you remember how it felt to be a teenager and one with his/her own ideas? And how it felt when (if) you were surrounded by lambs that would buy into anything that come out from MTV? (sigh). Yeah, of course there is some jerkiness there, and of course we can do both but we can also say “You know what? This is not the way, but I feel you kid… I feel your pain” ?

    Aaaanyway… let me know if you got to see the movie, how do you like it…. :)

  7. Emily said,

    Do I remember how it felt being a teenager like that? I am a teenager like that! Haha. Though thankfully no longer in high school.

    Yeah, of course there is some jerkiness there, and of course we can do both but we can also say “You know what? This is not the way, but I feel you kid… I feel your pain” ?

    We as in atheist observers outside that classroom? Yeah, sure…that’s the sort of reaction I did have and the underlying premise of my first comment. And I don’t think that directly counters anything said in the post. And that DOES do both. So: yes.

    It’s just that I agree with Daisy, the author, that the act of book-destroying is always antithetical to constructive learning and has no place in an educational setting.

    I rented movies at Hastings yesterday, and looked for that one you recommended, but couldn’t find it. Couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch, actually. *grumble grumble i hate hastings grumble*

    Hopefully soon!

  8. San :) said,

    “Do I remember how it felt being a teenager like that? I am a teenager like that! Haha. Though thankfully no longer in high school. “

    (sigh) I forgot that the fact that I feel young does not make us the same age… lol

    I hope you get to see the movie. Is a small movie but with a couple of interesting tweaks..

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