President’s Column: Atheism & Chapel Hill

Published by MNA on

Photo of a burning votive candle against a dark background.

By Eric Jayne

On February 10, Craig Stephen Hicks, a white middle aged atheist, gunned down three young Muslim college students—all of whom were of Palestinian descent. Deah Shaddy Barakat, the oldest victim at the age of 23, was pursuing a doctorate in dentistry and planning a trip to Turkey to assist children in a Syrian refugee camp with emergency dental work. Also killed was Barakat’s wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Yusor was planning to study dentistry in the fall at North Carolina State University and Razan was a sophomore there.

The Chapel Hill police indicated that a longtime dispute over a parking spot was Hicks’ motive but many have speculated that Hicks was instead motivated by a hatred for the Muslim faith. The FBI opened an investigation to determine if this was a hate-motivated attack but some have already jumped to that conclusion pointing to Hicks’ antitheism and his outspoken sharp criticism of religion on Facebook.

This has left many Muslims feeling distrustful of atheists and it’s prompted many atheists to carefully look within ourselves and respond with sincerity. As we grieve with the victims’ families and the larger Muslim community over the loss of these three remarkable young people, we are also compelled to correct damaging misrepresentations about atheism cycling through the news. The atheist response has been mostly empathetic, clear, and honest, and it must remain that way if we are to repair trust between atheists and Muslims.

Perhaps the finest response came from Foundation Beyond Belief. They raised over $20,000 in honor of the victims. The money will go to the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation; the organization Deah was going to travel with this summer to help Syrian refugee children. Along with the donation came this critical acknowledgement from FBB’s executive director, Dale McGowan, “We wanted to say this guy may have been an atheist but the atheist community absolutely disowns this action, and we wanted to make it clear we recognize the victims as victims and make a gesture of healing.”

I think most atheists know that an atheist, like anyone else, is capable of committing horrific acts of violence but I think it’s important for prominent secular voices like McGowan to publicly acknowledge this. It should also be mentioned, however, that there’s nothing in the atheist worldview making allowances for harming others.

Nevertheless, many blogs and news stories admonished anti-theism (atheism’s saucier counterpart which is also sometimes branded “militant” or “new” atheism), led by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, for creating hate-inducing extremism among atheists. Even though I think I fit the description of an antitheist—somebody who sees atheism as more than just a personal identity but as a necessary social and political movement to confront the deleterious impact religion has on individuals and society—I choose to identify simply as an atheist. I prefer its simplicity and I think “atheist” is plenty bold within my social and professional network but I know others would rather identify as antitheist and that is a perfectly respectable, non-hateful, thing to be.

Antitheism was readily faulted by an editorial in The Guardian for influencing Hicks to murder because “[Hicks claimed] their faith was an affront to his atheistic principals.” And in a recent NPR story Reza Aslan summarized antitheism as a “virulent opposition to the very concept of belief.” He identified antitheists as “extremists” and draws a direct comparison to extremists within Islam. With little surprise, Sam Harris offers a notably cogent reaction to this misleading and destructive narrative.

“The analogy between militant atheism and militant Islam is a terrible one,” according to Harris. “It is false in every respect. Atheists are simply not out there harming people on the basis of their atheism. Now, there may be atheists who do terrible things, but there is no atheist doctrine or scripture; and insofar as any of us have written books or created arguments that have persuaded people, these books and arguments only relate to the bad evidence put forward in defense of a belief in God. There’s no argument in atheism to suggest that you should hate or victimize or stigmatize whole groups of people, as there often is in revealed religion.”

We are fortunate that humanity, itself, has advanced morality far beyond the male-dominated teachings from ancient Mediterranean tribes. But even though many contemporary mainstream mosques/synagogues/churches overlook the bad parts written in their respective sacred texts there are several people from these faiths who do not. In fact, several actually embrace these pernicious holy decrees.

Not only are the arguments trying to connect militant atheism to militant Islam bad, but they are also distracting us from dealing with the very real and very genuine harm facing the world today. Harris continues, “All the people who are comparing these murders to Charlie Hebdo – or to ISIS, as insane as that sounds – are really trivializing a kind of violence that threatens to destabilize much of the world. And ironically it is violence whose principal victims are Muslim.”

We grieve and empathize with the Muslim community over the deaths of these three young people. But at the same time we need to feel permitted to criticize ideas and beliefs, and we should also continue to address misrepresentations of atheism (and antitheism). Through this kind of empathy and honesty our young species will hopefully mature into something more tolerant and practical and less likely to harm, or even annihilate, ourselves.


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