Thursday, September 09, 2010

Against bibliolatry

Pastor Terry Jones has lost his bottle, or seen sense, depending on your interpretation of this absurd story. I don't see that it matters much. Whatever the motive, Pastor Jones has opted for the more rational path. But then again, it would have taken superhuman powers of obstinacy to do anything other - what with the President of the United States, his Attorney General and the Secretary of State - along with General Petraeus, Interpol, the Vatican in concert with every other expert in the supernatural you can think of, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the ACLU, Sarah Palin, Angelina Jolie and our very own sage on all matters political and spiritual, the former Prime Minister himself Mr Tony Blair, all sticking their oar in, imploring Mr Jones to refrain from his threatened desecration.

The history of religion teaches us that the notion of an invisible God endures, while the sociology of religion shows us that it has proved more often than not to be a burden too great for man to bear. People feel the need to reach out and touch the divinity - through the attendance at buildings, the performance of physical ritual, or through iconography of various kinds. Islam is like protestantism in that is has gone the furthest in eliminating this kind of thing but if this affair shows anything, it is that religion is unable to rid itself of this need to break into the physical world completely. Consider what is being held sacred here. Not just the message, which Muslims believe was dictated by God to Muhammad. It goes further than that to the stage where the divinity of the Logos bleeds into the physical object of the book itself.

As a protestant atheist, I would not halt to call this idolatry - but what matters is not what I think but what others hold sacred. On this point I would have no hesitation in adding my name to those who were attempting to persuade Pastor Jones to desist. I would no sooner burn a Koran than I would abuse the sacrament in a Catholic Mass - not because they mean anything to me but because I recognise that they do for others.

But that's all I am willing to concede to those who are nominally in my camp. The crass stupidity of this particular Pentecostal outfit is not in question but their affiliation to other gangs of religious morons or their motives for this attention-seeking nonsense are irrelevant to me. One or two commentators have linked this small band of fanatics and their behaviour to the famous saying coined by Heinrich Heine who said, "Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people." The rise of the Third Reich ensured the eternity of this aphorism and also made sure we are lazy about its use. The fact of the matter is that the burning of books, whilst indicative of a certain level of philistinism, does not necessarily, or even usually, lead to murder. Whereas history is replete with examples of those who skip the whole supposedly inevitable book-burning phase and jump straight to the wiping out of their fellow human beings in the sharp slide into murderous tyranny.

It's here a little perspective is called for. What Pastor Jones was intending to do was gratuitously offensive - but what made it potentially insane was the disregard for its consequences. What I find utterly depressing about this whole affair is the extent to which these were taken as a given - a fact of the world to which we have to adjust. In case anyone is unclear about what this is, let me spell it out: the burning of the Koran would have had disastrous consequences because everyone with any sense understands that there are not only people who consider a book to be more more sacred than the lives of their fellow human beings but who are both willing and able to use murderous violence in order to see the incarnation of this belief.

It is the routinization of this - the acceptance of this as a banal fact of life - that I find so absolutely depressing. It shows itself in the comments made by even people who are resolutely opposed to any of the claims made by politicized millienarians. Martin writes, "In their fundamentalism and intolerance, Pastor Jones and the Islamists are mirror images of each other." No, I don't think so. The reason that there was such an intervention over this matter is that everyone understood that if this group of fanatics had burned the Koran, people would have died. But Pastor Jones did not threaten to kill anyone. In contrast, death threats had already been made - not just against Mr Jones, which is in itself insane - but against Americans in general. Because merely being one of the some 330 million citizens of this nation is enough for you to deserve death because of your association with the behaviour of fifty embittered religious eccentrics. You can call for this and it will be unremarkable - as long as you don't mess with the Books.

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