Why the Chapel Hill Shootings Don’t Say Anything About Atheism

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The murder  of three young Muslims in their apartment in Chapel Hill, NC on Tuesday is an unspeakable tragedy. As a mother, I cannot and do not want to imagine what the victims’ parents must be going through, and my heart aches for them and their dead children. Like many other Americans I also feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration at the plague of gun violence that rages unchecked in our communities, leaving lives shattered and families in ruins. Although at this time there is no evidence to indicate a hate crime, the fact that all three victims were Muslim understandably raises questions, and the police are right to investigate every angle. Also raising eyebrows: Openly atheist posts and materials on the alleged shooter’s Facebook page.

In a display of smug righteousness that in some cases borders on celebration, many are seizing upon the shootings as a victory for religion, a “gotcha” event that finally proves once and for all that atheists are amoral savages who have no conscience without god, or that they are just as willing to kill for their beliefs as anyone else. Aside from the absence of evidence of a religious motive and the fact that gloating over a triple murder is a callous and unseemly thing to do, the folks making this accusation are patently wrong for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that atheism is not a set of beliefs and that most atheists hold all religious belief in the same regard (which is to say, that it is all equally false and, to many of us, all equally harmful).

An article in today’s The Daily Beast offers a different but no less wrongheaded (or perhaps even more wrongheaded) response, in which the author, Arthur Chu, seems to think that representatives of the so-called New Atheism are to blame for the attack. “We actually got to witness a miracle,” Chu crows, “educated white anti-Muslim atheists having to publicly, ritually denounce extremists in their ranks in response to negative press.” Chu describes the shooter as a “white anti-Muslim” and lashes out at “rationalist skeptics” for inciting the shooting with accusations of white male privilege which he fails to link to atheism in any meaningful way. He brands Christopher Hitchens a “cheerleader” for the Iraq war for having “waxed lyrical about the destructive potential of cluster bombs,” conveniently ignoring the point Hitchens was making about the elimination of Taliban targets with some degree of precision, which he reasonably saw as a sound wartime strategy for the reduction of collateral damage. He was not swooning over the allure of American military power or pumping his fist at the indiscriminate killing of brown-skinned foreigners; rather, his concern was for the safety and liberation of Afghan civilians from the brutal oppression of the Taliban. He similarly mischaracterizes Sam Harris’s thoughts on torture as a tool in the war on terror. Admittedly Harris can be a polarizing figure, including among atheists, but on this too Chu twists the truth. In fact, Harris was asking people to weigh the morality of torturing one undeniably guilty terrorist (such as Osama bin Laden) to avoid warfare that could claim the lives of thousands of innocents, including children, vs. eschewing torture at the risk of increasing collateral damage. While I strongly disagree with Harris on these points, his remarks were hardly a wholesale endorsement of indiscriminate torture of Muslims.  Chu even goes so far as to make the outright false claim that Timothy McVeigh was an atheist, despite McVeigh’s being raised and confirmed as Catholic and reaffirming his Christianity in a 2001 interview with Time Magazine.

We are presumably supposed to conclude from all this that atheists are a dangerous lot, at least as dangerous as those who would kill in the name of their god, and that this crime is a sort of comeuppance – a chance for Chu and others to delight in seeing atheists in the glare of the very scrutiny under which Muslims find themselves following every act of Islamic terrorism.

Let’s set aside for a moment the sub-standard journalism that assumes and disseminates a motive for a crime when the police as of yet have no evidence for such motive. Let’s set aside the entirely plausible assertion that the shooting was likely about parking, something for which the authorities in fact do have evidence. Just last month a Baltimore man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting two people over a parking space, and the news is rife with deadly shootings over similarly petty grievances, including loud parties, texting, and even unfriending someone on Facebook. There have been so many road rage killings that there are too many to link to here. It is therefore no stretch at all to think that this was just about parking. Finally, let’s set aside the fact that Chu seems strangely ignorant of the fact that the most shrill and outspoken criticisms of Islam in the US come not from high-profile atheists but from high– (and low-) profile Christians, not to mention the whole of the right wing media who have spent the last six years screaming about President Obama being a closet Muslim and the eight red-state (read: heavily Christian) legislatures that have passed bans on Sharia law.

What is most striking about Chu’s piece, however, is that he does to atheists the very thing of which he accuses them: Asserting that membership in a particular group is the default motivator for negative or violent behavior, and demanding that the entire group take responsibility for the actions of a single outlier. Chu makes plain his contempt for the atheists who have dared to publicly criticized Islam, many of whom have been (unfairly, in my opinion) branded racists and islamophobes, even though their criticisms of Christianity are equally harsh. “I take a certain gleeful schadenfreude in Richard Dawkins acting surprised and bewildered when he has to answer for the actions of someone who happens to share his belief system,” Chu writes, and then proceeds to lament the outrage that individual Muslims have been expected to – well, answer for the actions of someone who happens to share their belief system. He continues, “If it were repeated several dozen times within the next decade, I might even say that the world was becoming something close to fair.” Wait, what? Chu wants several dozen more people to be murdered so that he can paint all atheists as dangerous extremists? And what is “fair” about wanting to subject group A to the same injustice as group B so that they are both treated poorly?  Doesn’t it make more sense to remedy the treatment of group B so that everyone gets justice?

To be clear, I am absolutely not, in any way, criticizing the families of the Chapel Hill victims if they suspect deeper motives for this tragedy. Grieving parents are allowed to think and say whatever they want, and the only acceptable response from the rest of us is love and compassion. If it does turn out that religion played a role in this crime, then there is no difference between this shooter and any other radical who kills for his beliefs. But if it is unfair to say that unless your Muslim co-worker publicly renounces radical Islamists she must secretly condone them, it is equally wrong to insist that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other atheist publicly renounce this killer simply for being an atheist. I will continue instead to renounce all killers, no matter what their motives are.  And so should everyone else.

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