It’s fair to say that the fifteen minutes of fame recently afforded to Terry Jones—the once-obscure Florida preacher with the misguided plan to burn copies of the Koran at his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, on September 11—inadvertently proved the value of humanism. Thanks to Jones’s absurd promotion (and subsequent cancellation) of “International Burn a Koran Day,” rationalism and critical thinking never looked so good; blind devotion to ancient theology never looked so wrong and dangerous.
During the uproar condemning Jones’s proposed stunt, humanists joined the chorus of those who found his book-burning antics and other statements to be bigoted, ignorant, and certain to cause emotional pain if not physical harm. Whether it was President Barack Obama or General David Petraeus who ultimately convinced Jones to abandon his plan, or whether it was the interfaith community, a death threat from overseas, or the group of New York City police officers who surrounded him when he checked into a Queens hotel room on September 10, all agreed that it was a good thing Jones backed down and canceled the event.
The fact that Americans of all races and religions (along with leaders from around the world) spoke out against this attention-driven circus is an encouraging sign, one hopes, of a positive shift toward religious tolerance and inclusivity. Still, while Jones’s Koran-burning plan was being roundly criticized, isn’t it peculiar that the feared outcome of his actions—possible violent retaliation by certain offended Muslims—wasn’t?
After all, if everyone agrees that Jones wins a wing-nut award for International Burn a Koran Day, why are we so silent about those who would react violently to it?
It’s common knowledge that items of personal property can have very important meaning—a flag, a photograph, a religious symbol. Considering that the Koran is the holy book of Islam, we can expect that some Muslims would take great offense to its burning, just as many Christians would take offense to Bible burning and Jews to Torah burning.
Still, despite the rudeness of those who would torch the sacred scripture of others, we should expect the offended individuals to recognize that virtually all public opinion sympathizes with them and agrees that the act is offensive. In a civilized, pluralistic democracy, regardless of the intolerance and bigotry of those who would burn religious texts, a violent response to book burning is unacceptable. This message was commendably suggested in the Muslim world by Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the following statement on his website (reported by Bloomberg Businessweek on September 11): “We denounce the assault on the Holy Koran…We urge Muslims, wherever they are, to exercise the utmost restraint” and “do not do what would harm Christians.”
In a nation that grants free speech as a fundamental constitutional right, tolerating rudeness is a way of life for Americans. We even allow religious nuts (and yes, that is the right word here) to picket outside the funerals of fallen soldiers, the only consolation being that the offensive is itself testimony to the freedom for which the soldiers supposedly fought. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary one. Freedom means tolerating, with dignity, moronic behavior by loudmouths and publicity seekers.
So instead of asking why the Terry Jones affair was major news, perhaps we should ask why we were so worried about a violent reaction. The answer, surely, is that we fear there are large numbers of individuals out there who value their religious dogma more than their 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 religions would not want to face this fact, they (and we) should realize that it is indeed a problem—a big one.
Humanists, unlike those who ascribe to traditional, revelation-based religions, are sensitive to religious freedom but aren’t willing to suggest, even implicitly, that a violent reaction to a symbolic religious offense is justifiable. While there were many religious liberals and even many religious conservatives who joined us in condemning Jones, and who worried vocally about how his actions might affect U.S. troops aboard, most of them were strangely silent regarding the impropriety of violent reaction by religious extremists.
Humanists strive for a world where violence and fear are not the drivers of ideals and actions. Jones crossed the line of basic decency, but those who condemned the planned book burning should have spoken out just as loudly against the threats of a violent response to it. The possibility of such religious violence only highlights the need for the sober, post-theological worldview of humanism.