A Mighty Blunt Instrument

The Bureau of Prisons goes overboard in removing books on religion from library shelves.


Of the many things 9/11 might be blamed for, the dumbing down of the nation ranks among the worst of the worst. For recent evidence of this effect—ah, where the war on terrorism has taken us— consider the decision by the federal Bureau of Prisons to remove hundreds of thousands of religion books from prison library shelves.

The inspiration for this action, according a story in the New York Times, is a 2004 Justice Department report recommending steps prisons should take to avoid becoming recruitment centers for jihadists or other militant religious zealots. To help presumably incapable prison librarians and chaplains accomplish one part of this task, the bureau has provided lists of up to 150 approved books and 150 multimedia resources for each major religion. Books and resources not on the lists must be jettisoned.

The results of this attempt at zealous oversight are just what you might expect if you allowed a federal agency to draw up a recommended reading list on, well, almost any subject. To most informed observers, the criteria for selection appear bizarre to the point of capriciousness—and that's putting it nicely. The list of approved Christian texts, for example, allows nine books by C. S. Lewis and not one by Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the leading theologian of post-World War II America. Make sense? Of course not. But one could continue forever with equally silly and pointless exclusions on all of the lists.

Most reasonable people probably wonder why a more sensible course of action wasn't pursued. Why not draw up a list of unacceptably inflammable tracts and possibly supplement it with general guidelines for assessing others that come along? True, that would involve the element of human judgment. And allowing for such would contravene the spirit of formulaic vigilance that we have instituted in other areas of post-9/11 American life, including airport security. (Think of those wonderfully randomized inspections that guarantee that disabled nonagenarians get their chance for a full-body search along with everybody else.)

But from almost every idiotic action, somebody somewhere gains. In this instance, I think the great beneficiaries will be that group of thinkers dubbed the "new atheists." What distinguishes this collection of nonbelieving crusaders—including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—is, as I have discussed elsewhere, their conviction that all religion, even moderate religion, is dangerous. Moderate religion, as Dawkins says, "makes the world safe for fundamentalism" by making all religion seem so harmlessly well-intentioned as to be above critical scrutiny. In other words, the mere existence of reasonably enlightened religious people reinforces the conventional view that it is bad manners to discuss religion, at least beyond a certain point. Whether this is true or not—and I would argue, for the most part, it is not—the presumption that religion is an insidious force seems to have found inadvertent support in the Bureau of Prisons. Religion has been deemed such a potentially powerful incitement to fanaticism that to control and limit it, the bureau has apparently decided to err on the side of excess.

But shouldn't we hope for a little more attention to other areas of culture? Haven't literature and philosophy also produced their share of monsters? Hitler, after all, was an avid reader of Wild West stories, particularly those by Karl May, and look where that got him. Speaking of Karls, should we really allow prisoners to read Karl Marx? And anything with a title like Crime and Punishment—-well, forget about it....