“Sporting chivalrous contest helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore, may the Olympic flame never expire.”
“Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
“The hostility that America continues to express against the Muslim people has given rise to feelings of animosity on the part of Muslims against America and against the West in general.”
“Enable every woman who can work to take her place on the labour front, under the principle of equal pay for equal work.”
“I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being – which your religion does with self-righteous gusto. […] When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I. But given that it doesn’t, and given the enormous harm that your religion has done in this world, I’d say that I have not only a right, but a duty, to insult it, as does every rational, thinking person on this planet.”
I agree with the ideas expressed in each of these quotes. You might ascribe any of the first four to an American politician, academic, or pundit, and the last to one of the four horsemen of new atheism. (Of course, the writing isn’t up to snuff) We could take issue with style or make an exception here or there, but holistically, these are reasonable ideas that have a place in civilized discourse.
However, the first four quotes were made by men who have committed some of the worst crimes against humanity in history, and the last by a man who is accused of committing a heinous act of triple murder. They are, respectively: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, Mao Zedong, and Craig Hicks. If you agree with the quotes that I listed above, it doesn’t mean that you condone anything else that they did or said. Furthermore, just because they said them, doesn’t mean it motivated their crimes.
As many of you will have heard, three young people were shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Tuesday. Craig Hicks was arrested and arraigned for committing this heart-wrenching crime after recently turning himself in. The immediate reaction of the press (which is always a dubious start) focused on the fact that Craig Hicks described himself as an “atheist” on his facebook page, where the above quote was also pulled and published.
It cannot yet be determined what motivated the crime. Hick’s ex-wife insists that it was a conflict over a parking space, and not anything to do with religion. The victims’ father insists that Hicks had been a hateful neighbor, bullying and threatening the victims “for what we are and how we look”.
Many atheist organizations have leapt to condemn the crime to avoid any appearance of hypocrisy. Many atheists and atheist organizations accuse religion of motivating immoral acts, and they criticize the pious for not condemning acts of violence committed in their name. The instinct appears right, but I would argue it’s misguided and sets a bad precedent.
The American Humanist Association is “deeply disturbed that this person identified as an atheist”. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is “very sorry to see someone identified as nonreligious in the news for a violent crime. Such an action is almost unheard of in the freethought world.”
If I had been running AHA or FFRF, I would not have included ideas like this in a press release. I’m no more disturbed or sorry that this crime appears to have been committed by an atheist than by a human being. There are violent and mentally disturbed people of all faiths and no faith. Securing justice for the victims of the Chapel Hill shooting has nothing to do with a suspect’s atheism, nor is this crime relevant to the conversation about the effects of religion on human behavior. What’s needed from these organizations in times like these isn’t defensiveness, but precision.
Atheists aren’t a member of a special club, and we don’t follow any doctrine or dogma. As is often said, the only way to be a bad atheist is to believe in a god. Of course, there are many more ways to be a bad human being.
It may be the case that Craig Hicks killed those people because he thought that their adherence to Islam meant that they deserved to die. He might have killed them because he believed that religion in general was so evil, and these three students so much to blame, that he was doing right by ridding the world of them. He might have also been motivated by the Kool-Aid man. Speculating on any such narrative based only on irrelevant crap that he wrote on his facebook page (as most media outlets seem willing to do) is as absurd as ascribing the holocaust to promoting the olympics. I want to give credit to the few media figures like Rachel Maddow, who didn’t bother dredging up salacious facebook posts like these and didn’t mention that Hicks was an atheist. It’s ok to report that there are suspicions of a hate crime, but it’s not ok to take advantage of the audience’s bias against atheism to paint a more salacious story.
Likewise, if a doctor who worked at Planned Parenthood was murdered, it would not be appropriate for the media to report that a suspect was a pro-life christian, insinuating that this was an act of anti-abortion terrorism, if that was all they had to go on.
Now, let me draw some distinctions. If Hicks had said that his muslim neighbors deserve to be killed, or that he was driven to shoot people because of his atheism, that would be relevant. When radical muslims advocate violence, explicitly in the name of Islam, I believe them. When Christians say that they literally believe every word of the bible, full of injunctions for slavery, genocide, rape, torture, and murder, I believe them. These are neither benign nor rare impacts on our civilization, and they need to be confronted in the open. The Chapel Hill murders should do nothing to hamper that confrontation.
Self-identifying as a Christian or Muslim isn’t an arbitrary identity. If you declare yourself associated with immoral or absurd scriptures or belief systems, you bare some responsibility for their effects.
It’s both rare and absurd for atheists to claim that they are compelled to do anything by their atheism. There is no atheist holy book. If you find that a convenient cop out, then you are right. That’s the virtue of atheism, individual responsibility. However, in a world with extraordinary press access and over 7 billion people, rare events are reported all the time. So, there’s bound to be some asshole who resorts to violence in the name of something absurd.
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” – Steven Weinberg
I’m writing this because there isn’t sufficient evidence that Chris Hicks had any such motivations. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be cause for atheists and atheists communities to get defensive.
It may very well be that Craig Hicks brutally murdered three young people because of their religious beliefs, race, or attire. It makes absolutely no difference what he thought about religious discourse or content, the olympics, education, or women’s rights. We prosecute people for crimes in this country, not thoughtcrime… at least, we’re not supposed to.