Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.
Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings.
– Heinrich Heine, Almansor
Fire, and its destructive capacity, has a special place in human psychology. It represents both a tool that when harnessed properly played a critical role in the development of civilization, but also a danger that bears the constant threat of destroying that civilization. From Nero fiddling (or not) as Rome burned in 64 CE, to London’s Great Fire in 1666, to Chicago’s blaze of 1871, to the terrifying firestorms deliberately created by World War II bombing raids of cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, history is replete with fire’s ability to raze everything that mankind can create.
It’s inevitable, then, that fire plays a central role in our species’ various mythologies. The Titan, Prometheus, stole fire from the Greek pantheon of gods and gave it to humans. For his impudence in raising humanity thus, he was sentenced to an eternity of torture, his liver pecked away by an eagle each day, only to regrow each night. Humanity received the punishment of the evils of the world as released from Pandora’s Box as a result.
The Bible, too, contains multiple references to fire both as a symbol of power, and as a cause of death and destruction. God appears as fire – to Moses as a burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6), and as tongues of fire baptizing the faithful (Acts 2:3-4). Fire kills and destroys as divine wrath and retribution too. 250 men are burned alive for the crime of using incense (Numbers 16, 35); others from grumbling about life in general (Numbers 11:1); and 102 more were incinerated to demonstrate what a badass God was (2 Kings 1:10-14).
Evangelicals LOVE the notion of fire. It fits well with their idea of a wrathful deity. Fire’s destruction, according to evangelicals, is a purifying force. The ‘sin’ of homosexuality, with which Evangelicals are obsessed, was purged through fire with the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 24-25). God’s power is seen as protecting the righteous from the harm of fire, such as when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago were led by an angel through the furnace where they had been cast by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3: 19-25). And, of course, there is the notion of hell, the everlasting lake of fire, into which the unrighteous are (with glee, to the Evangelicals) cast to suffer for all eternity (Revelation 20: 14-15).
It’s therefore unsurprising that Pastor Greg Locke, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from a Tennessee church chose to burn a copy of the excellent book, The Founding Myth, by FFRF’s Andrew Seidel. It’s a great book, exposing the nonsensical lies spread by the religious right in their claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I didn’t expect Pastor Locke to read the book, though I am jealous that apparently homophobic, bigoted bible thumpers warrant a free copy and secular movement lawyers don’t (yes, that’s a hint, Andrew). But burning the book, and posting a video of it on Twitter, is a particularly nasty and frightening step beyond simply using it as a paperweight or re-gifting it at Christmas.
Burning books has a terrible place in history. The destruction of knowledge and research, often in the name of religion, such as in China under the Qin dynasty, or by the Mongols with the arson of the Baghdad House of Wisdom, has set back humanity countless years. As society has progressed, despite the book burners, the impossibility of the destruction of knowledge by burning its physical incarnation has become clear. A government or a religion can no longer eliminate a viewpoint by destroying or banning books. Knowledge and thought survive, and the internet simply makes this easier and easier. CFI is currently running in the Translations Project, where many of the books of Richard Dawkins are translated into multiple languages and their free distribution in countries where they are banned.
But book burnings still occur, and their impact is now more symbolic. It is impossible to see a book burning without one’s mind being cast back to the darkest hours of modern Europe, and the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In 1933, the Nazis held mass burnings of books by liberals and socialists, pacifists and homosexuals, and, most centrally, Jews. The knowledge contained in such books was not destroyed, but, instead, it was publicly and symbolically demonstrated as worthless, contrary to the governing ideology of the new Germany. Celebrating the conflagration, Joseph Goebbels announced “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.” Into the bonfire, along with the books, went the notion of free speech and debate, the discussion of differing views, and the idea of societal progress through study and research. And in a mere 10 years, the Nazis had progressed from burning books, to burning cities, and burning whole peoples, again, primarily the Jews, in the gas chambers and furnaces of the extermination camps.
Pastor Locke does not have the power to destroy secularism or secularists, and his cheap stunt on Twitter does not herald the start of a dictatorship. But its message and underlying intent is the same. Fundamentalists cannot challenge the ideals of secularism, so instead they seek to make them taboo. There is no intelligent, reasonable argument against Seidel’s message that Christian Nationalism is based on a false reading of history. So rather than challenging it, the book must be incinerated. The knowledge contained is dangerous, and those who spread it are heretics. Evangelicals fear education above all else, because it is by education that people challenge the beliefs drilled into them by rote. And if the unbelievers are sentenced to eternal torture in fire by their ever-loving, never-flawed God, then burning their books, or, indeed, their earthly bodies can’t be that bad.
Fire brings warmth and light, but it brings with it the ever-present danger of devastation. As secularists, we believe in building up society and civilization, not razing it to the ground. Ideas that are wrong must be addressed and defeated, not ritually burned. Fire is a tool, but the smallest spark, or the most seemingly insignificant firebrand can, if not properly used and watched, destroy the greatest achievements of man. Burning books shows nothing but fear of their contents. Secularists do not fear knowledge; that is the way of the Fundamentalists.