By David Niose, President of the American Humanist Association
Terry Jones, the once-obscure Florida preacher, attained celebrity status with his painfully ignorant “International Burn A Koran Day,” and during the uproar the American Humanist Association joined the chorus of condemnation. Like countless others, the AHA found the book-burning antics to be bigoted, ignorant and certain to cause emotional pain if not physical harm. In all respects, Jones was wrong, and it was good that in the end he backed down and canceled the event.
The fact that Americans of all races and religions spoke out against this attention-driven circus is an encouraging sign — signifying, one hopes, a positive shift toward religious tolerance and inclusivity. Still, while Jones’s planned book-burning was rightfully criticized with near unanimity, it is noteworthy that the feared outcome of his actions — possible violent retaliation by some of those offended by it — was not being commented upon.
After all, if we all agree that Jones wins a wing-nut award for calling for book burning, why are we so silent about those who would react violently to it?
It is common knowledge that mere items of personal property can have important meaning — a flag, a photograph, a religious symbol. As such, with the Quran being the holy book of Islam, we can expect that some would take great offense to its burning, just as many Christians would take offense to Bible burning and Jews to Torah burning.
But, despite the rudeness of those who would torch the sacred scripture of others, most of us would expect the offended individuals to act in a civilized way, perhaps comforted by the fact that virtually all public opinion sympathizes with them and agrees that religious book burners are offensive. Regardless of the intolerance and bigotry of those who would burn religious texts, a violent response to book burning is unacceptable.
In an America with free speech as a fundamental constitutional right, tolerating rudeness is a way of life. We even allow religious nuts (and yes, that is the right word here) to picket outside the funerals of fallen soldiers, and we take only slight consolation in knowing that the offensiveness is itself testimony to the freedom for which the soldiers fought. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but a necessary one. Freedom means tolerating, with dignity, moronic behavior by loudmouths and publicity seekers.
Guided by reason, those offended by book burning need to remember that a book is only an item of personal property, and that it is senseless to react violently, regardless of one’s religion, to the destruction of any text.
Indeed, we should question why we were so worried about a violent reaction. The answer, surely, is that we fear, perhaps justifiably, that there are large numbers of individuals out there who value their religious dogma more than their constitutional freedoms. Stated bluntly, there are some individuals who take their religion very seriously, more seriously than the values of tolerance and pluralism. Though many followers of traditional religion would not want to face this fact, they (and we) should realize that it indeed is a problem — and a big one.
Humanists, unlike many who ascribe to traditional, revelation-based religion, are sensitive to religious freedom, but not willing to suggest, even implicitly, that a violent reaction to a symbolic religious offense is justifiable. While we realize that there were many religious liberals — and even many religious conservatives — who joined us in condemning Jones, we note that most of them were strangely silent in calling attention to the reason for the public outcry: the fear of violent reaction by religious extremists.
The AHA strives for a world where violence and fear are not the drivers of ideals and actions. While a fearful, emotional response to the pastor’s actions is perhaps understandable, these emotions must be put into perspective. Perhaps it is rational to encounter the products of hate and respond with fear, but if so, we should be asking: Why must we fear violence in response to an offensive religious act or statement?
Jones crossed a line of basic decency, and his book-burning threats deserved great condemnation. But those who condemned the book burning should have spoken out just as loudly against the irrational passion that would cause people to react to it violently. The possibility of religious violence only highlights the need for the sober, post-theological worldview of humanism.
The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.
Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.