“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
Heinrich Heine, a 19th century Jewish and German poet, wrote these words in the face of extreme German nationalism. At the time, books that were deemed un-German were tossed into bonfires. His words tragically foretold the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews and at least 5 million other victims were systematically murdered.
So we should all be concerned about the book-burning event that recently took place in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Led and livestreamed by Greg Locke, a pastor of Global Vision Church, churchgoers threw books that they deemed to be “demonic” and associated with “witchcraft” into a massive bonfire.
In the video, Locke stated, “We have a constitutional right and a biblical right to do what we’re going to do tonight. … We have a burn permit, but even without one a church has a religious right to burn occultic materials that they deem are a threat to their religious rights and freedoms and belief systems.” Locke, who is banned from Twitter for spreading Covid-19 disinformation, has also claimed that children with autism are possessed by demons because “the diagnosis doesn’t exist in the bible.”
Locke is FFRF’s old nemesis. FFRF placed billboards targeting him and another irresponsible Nashville megapreacher last year. Locke once even burned a book written by FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel. He has perpetuated QAnon conspiracies and was in the mob outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack.
Frighteningly, Locke’s book burning is hardly an isolated event. In November, a Virginia school board member suggested that books with “sexually explicit” content should be “thrown in a fire.” The board member explained the religious rationale, “I guess we live in a world now that our public schools would rather have kids read about gay pornography than Christ.” And just last month, a Tennessee school board voted to remove Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
The American Library Association (ALA) has reported that there is an “unprecedented” rise in requests to ban books in public and school libraries. For example, there were 330 book ban requests in just the fall of 2021, compared to 156 book ban requests in the whole of 2020. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, reflected on these unparalleled ban requests: “In my 20 years with ALA, I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.”
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This increase of book bans relates to educational bans on critical race theory, “an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism.” In FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin, Republican legislators recently attempted to ban public schools from teaching students and training employees about systemic racism and implicit bias. Thankfully, Gov. Tony Evers rejected this harmful bill.
But challenges to critical race theory proliferate across the nation. In fact, there have been efforts in 36 states to restrict education on racism, bias, and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups in the United States. Outrageously, some parents in Alabama have even objected to Black History Month, claiming that it is part of critical race theory.
These book burnings, book bans and restrictions on education should be especially alarming to secular folks. After all, critical thinking is core to atheism. Instead of blindly following the leader, freethinkers relish learning and challenging our existing worldviews. In fact, studies show that critical thinkers are less likely to believe in God and that religious beliefs decline when analytical thinking rises. Therefore, it should be no surprise that bans, restrictions and censorship of information are largely spearheaded by the Religious Right.
Intellectual freedom is a secular value and bans on information are a symptom of fascism. Freethinkers who stand up for democracy are needed more than ever.