On Placing Blame for the Chapel Hill Killings

February 13, 2015

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On Tuesday, a 46-year-old white man, an atheist, shot and killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As we expressed in our statement, everyone at the Center for Inquiry is horrified by the actions of the murderer, Craig Hicks, and deeply saddened by the deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.

We do not yet know exactly what caused this horrible crime. Some reports suggest it was sparked by an ongoing dispute over parking spaces. Others suggest it had to do with the shooter’s well-known and self-described “anti-theism” since the three students were Muslims who he had intimidated before. Of course, these possibilities are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible — and seemingly likely — the shooter was driven to antagonism and violence over parking spaces because it involved Muslims

But, still, the shooter’s precise motive in this instance remains a mystery for the time being — which is why I am as disturbed by atheists who have been quick to blame Hicks’ crime on nothing more than a parking dispute as I am by people who are already tracing his crime back to the strident but non-violent rhetoric of prominent New Atheists. 

As I write this, some opponents of the so-called “New Atheism,” or at least its leading figures, are taking to social media and magazine pages to suggest that the causality for these murders can be traced back to the rhetoric of figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. This is troubling. Yes, the New Atheists have strongly criticized religion, especially Islam. They have even strayed into criticism that could be construed as relying on stereotypes, or that even fulfills stereotypes.

But it takes much more than harsh, even tasteless criticism of religious ideologies to lead a reader of that criticism to kill religious believers. It requires the killer to strip both himself and especially his victims of their basic humanity. Even in their harshest criticism of religion, Dawkins and Harris have never advocated for the dehumanization or murder of anyone based on religion (although it must be noted that atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has troublingly urged a more militant approach to religion). In fact, their criticism of religion is more or less in line with that put forth by thousands of other atheists across history, which has rarely compelled other atheists to commit horrendous acts, most relatedly at the individual level.

Indeed, Dawkins’ and Harris’ books have been for sale across the world for roughly a decade. Millions have read them — including myself, several times over. This raises the question: how could it be that Craig Hicks is the first to find inspiration for murder in these pages? Why have, by my count, precisely zero other atheists found inspiration to commit murder in New Atheist books? 

On the other hand, some atheists have taken to social media to quickly embrace reports that the shooting happened solely due to a parking dispute. The speed and excitement with which atheists have embraced this plotline (one comment I spotted on Facebook read something like this: “It was over a parking spot! Get a grip, people!!!”) is disturbing. It would appear these tribally minded atheists are nervously and hurriedly looking for any shield they can find, lest they have to answer complex questions like: “Why did this man feel compelled to kill three young Muslims over any argument?”, or “Is it possible that some extreme anti-theist rhetoric is dangerous insofar it could provide a narrow-minded individual reasons for committing violence against believers?” or “If so, should we contemplate the use of this kind of rhetoric going forward?”

It is even more disturbing that this hasty, breathless embrace appears to come at the expense of heartfelt and clear condemnation of the killings, and compassion and concern for the victims, their families, and our rightfully terrified Muslim friends and neighbors. If the first thing you do after a triple murder is scramble for justifications that relieves your community of any possible relationship to it, you might want to reflect before speaking.

This reaction is also particularly odd because it appears driven by the idea that atheism itself needs to be defended, when it does not. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in a god, and the tragedy earlier this week implies little regarding the existence of a god. Instead, it suggests the obvious, eternal point that beliefs about religion can divide us far more than they should, as do beliefs about most things.

More importantly, as merely a position on whether god/s exist, atheism is no guarantor of moral behavior, and no guarantee should that be expected from it. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and many others — apparently now including Craig Hicks — are atheists who have killed. A person’s atheism only tells you that they reject the idea of a god. It does not tell you about the rest of their character, which, as with all people, can include a very human but very misguided hatred. I guarantee some atheists will continue to do violence in the world so long as both atheists and the world exist. Why atheists continue to defend atheism at the expense of a broader moral and philosophical framework remains a mystery to me. This event should remind us that mere atheism is not enough — that for humans to find decency and sustain it, we must construct and nourish moral frameworks that engender complete respect for our fellow humans regardless of their beliefs on religion or gods. Hicks was an
atheist, but he was apparently not also humanist. Humanism provides no shelter for such hatred and murder.

Which brings us back to the issue of causation. It is very easy to point at reports of a parking dispute, or quotes from a Sam Harris book. But, as when examining terrorism and violence carried out in the name of religion, it is much more difficult to address complex reality, which in this case is that Hicks was most likely driven by a multitude of factors, which hopefully the police investigation will reveal. But, whatever his inspiration, Hicks is responsible for his actions. Yes, he might have found intellectual and emotional comfort in anti-religious writings. But not a single report has shown that the writings he consumed, or that he shared on his social media accounts, condoned violence against any innocent persons, including religious believers. One can think that religion is a burden on society, and that we would be better off without it, while also respecting the dignity and autonomy of individuals to believe in a religion and lead their lives peacefully. For all their stridency, I see no evidence that Dawkins or Harris believe otherwise, or that Hicks found otherwise in their writings.

Of course, some anti-religious rhetoric is charged, and could provide cover for, or amplify, stereotypes of believers. Atheists must have a serious conversation about what counts as this kind of unfair rhetoric, what rhetoric should be welcomed and promoted, and what rhetoric should be rejected outright. But even when we decide on what counts as “too far” in intellectual criticism and argument, are we willing to blame the peaceful anti-religious people around us for inexcusable physical acts like cold-blooded murder?

Postscript: one of the murdered students, Deah Barakat, was pursuing his doctorate in dentistry at UNC Chapel Hill and planned to travel to Syrian refugee camps this summer to perform emergency dentistry for refugee children through the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation. At the time of his death, he was raising funds for SAMS to equip the teams in the refugee camps. The atheist and humanist community, through the Foundation Beyond Belief, is mounting a drive for SAMS in support of Deah’s vision. All donated funds will go directly to the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation to honor the lives and celebrate the memory of Deah, Yusor, and Razan. You can give here.