Back in the 80s, the fourth-century burning of the great library at Alexandria was a popular totem among atheists I knew. At the time it was widely believed that Church leaders torched it because they were afraid of knowledge, and the legendary act became a symbol of the kind of tragedies that can arise due to ignorance and fear. I recall a professor friend recounting the event in vivid detail one evening when my family visited his house, almost getting teary-eyed as he said, “Imagine all those rare books—gone. A collection unique in all of history, never to be seen again.”
Though we now know that it may not have been Church leaders who took out the library, it’s still troubling to imagine stacks of worn volumes containing invaluable ancient wisdom, history and literature, going up in flames, lost forever. Though Alexandria may not be the example du jour, the image of book burning comes up a fair amount when I talk to atheist friends about religion. Unfortunately there have been some misguided folks throughout history who did destroy libraries and throw books on bonfires in the name of God, and atheists sometimes point to these incidents as examples of the dangers of religion. I don’t find these examples to be troubling in the slightest; such cases are simply matters of people misunderstanding what serving God is all about and misdirecting their zeal (and, in many cases, disguising political or personal rivalries as religious issues).
But I do think that this acute sensitivity to the tragedy of lost information that I’ve seen when discussing book burnings can be useful in a different analogy.
If you’ve ever tried to defend the pro-life position to someone with a secular worldview, you’ve probably found that one of the hardest cases to make is for the dignity of newly-conceived life. In a world where a person’s value is defined primarily by what he can contribute to the world, it’s hard to get people worked up about the destruction of a human who is only a single cell—in fact, it’s hard to convince people that that is a human being at all. (Which is silly, since the facts of biology are indisputable—Dr. Gerard Nadal covers this subject well.)
That’s where the library analogy comes in.
When a lover of knowledge and information thinks of irreplaceable books going up in flames, it would be hard for him not to feel moved by the sheer tragedy of such an event. And yet, is this not what happens when abortions are performed at even the very earliest stages?
Even a zygote contains a complete set of DNA. Were this new person to live to be 100, his body would never need more genetic information than it has now. It’s all there. Even if you deny that this is a human, even if you insist that such a simple organism could not have rights, you cannot deny that, encoded within this little cell’s DNA, is a staggering amount of precious information. Billions of “letters” contained within the “books” of the chromosomes, elucidating the secrets of human life—a collection of instructions unique in all of history, one that has never been seen before, and will never be seen again.
And so when my secularist friends and I talk about early-stage abortion and the dignity of newly-conceived human life, I sometimes just ask them to think of it as the burning of a great library. Even if you can’t see that this is a fellow human, at least admit that within this tiny structure is a vast and utterly unique set of precious information, greater than even the shelves in Alexandria. And is it not a tragedy when something like that is destroyed?