At the end of September, libraries and bookstores everywhere will be celebrating “Banned Books Week.” This got us thinking: why do people ban books (or, in extreme cases, burn them)? Literature is such a fundamental part of human life, and yet time and time again throughout history there have been concerted efforts to suppress or destroy certain books.
These days, when we talk about banned books, titles such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” usually come to mind. However, let’s not forget that one of the most commonly banned books worldwide is not some provocative piece of modern literature, it’s the Bible. Today, owning a Bible in certain countries is downright dangerous and can lead to arrest, assault, or worse.
Book Burning Throughout History
At the same time, it’s worth noting that censorship is nothing new when it comes to political and religious texts. Almost every country or religion has experienced some form of book burning. In 213 B.C, a Chinese Emperor burned philosophy and history books from states other than Qin, because the books did not comply with his dogma. Torah and Talmud scrolls have been burned since the early days of Christianity up until the Holocaust. Catholic priests burned Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
Even Harry Potter is Not Safe
Unfortunately, book burning remains in fashion even to this day. Perhaps the most well-known modern example involves the popular “Harry Potter” book. J.K. Rowling’s now-famous stories have been frequently criticized by religious figures for romanticizing the occult and promoting devil worship. Some pastors, claiming the books were harmful to children, went as far as to hold public book burnings in an attempt to rid the Earth of the “ungodly” themes of wizardry promoted within.
Then again, book burning is not nearly as common as it once was. These days books deemed too offensive to read in school are put on the “Banned Books” list. Many school libraries throughout the U.S. continue to block students from reading certain supposedly-dangerous texts.
Censorship in Religion
Religious leaders often choose to stifle ideas that don’t align with the core teachings of their faith. For example, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” is rarely welcome during discussions about creation among people of faith. But isn’t there value in understanding ideas that contradict your own? Without reading the evidence behind evolution, how could a Christian successfully defend his/her belief in Creationism?
Great literature is worth reading and discussing, whether we believe with the point-of-view of the author or not. If a person is not strong enough in their own beliefs to stand against an opposing viewpoint, then censorship is the inevitable outcome. But is it the right one?
Why Ban Books?
Supporters of banning books argue that we need to protect people (and children especially) from offensive, inaccurate or obscene printed content. Critics, on the other hand, insist that all readers – even younger ones – deserve access to the written word, no matter how controversial it might be.
Now, parents may have good reasons to prevent their child from reading a particular book, but that’s hardly the point. Parents are well within their rights to make that decision. Issues arise, however, when censorship of ideas come from the top down – say, from a church or a school district.
In writing on this topic, we were reminded of a famous quote by Potter Stewart, a former member of the Supreme Court: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”
Where do you stand? Does censorship serve to protect, or to harm?