Religion's new atheist scapegoat: Why the Chapel Hill shootings weren't about Islamophobia

The killing earlier this month of three young Muslims by an atheist was horrible — but it wasn't a hate crime

Published March 1, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Fiona Hanson)
(AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Fiona Hanson)

By now, certain facts appear well-established: in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Feb. 10, Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old avowed anti-theist and "gun-toting atheist" without a criminal record, had a conflict over a parking space at his residential complex with three young Muslim Americans (Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, all between the ages of 19 and 23), and shot them dead inside their apartment with a weapon selected from his abundantly stocked private arsenal. He departed the scene and later that day surrendered himself to the authorities.

The beautiful, radiant faces of the victims, subsequently broadcast to the world, brimmed with all the promise of youth – a promise broken by an abrupt, insensate act of violence. A grand jury in Durham has indicted Hicks on three counts of first-degree murder, which carries the death penalty. Members of the victims’ family told the press that they believe Hicks targeted them for being Muslim. The chief of the Chapel Hill Police, Chris Blue, announced, however, that their “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” but added that, "We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case."

The killings might have passed almost unnoticed in the United States, where, in 2013 alone, there occurred more than 11,000 firearm homicides. But the combination of Hicks’ anti-theism and the Muslim faith of those he slaughtered led to (comprehensible) suspicions that his murder could be classified as a “hate crime,” and sparked a social media campaign that prejudged Hicks’ foul misdeed to be an anti-theistically or atheistically motivated execution.

Local press coverage of the Chapel Hill shooting quickly turned national and then international, with the result that ISIS-abetter Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s crypto-Islamist president, chided President Obama for his silence on it, which apparently prompted the president to wade into the affair with a written declaration that "No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship," when there is still no evidence that that is what happened in Chapel Hill. Egypt’s Islamic Al-Azhar University decried a "terrorist cowardly act" rooted in "racism and Islamophobia." The Organization of Islamic Cooperation – the same entity pushing in the United Nations for a global law criminalizing “insults” to religions – declared that “This gruesome crime has left Muslims worldwide in a state of shock and has raised concerns of the growing feelings of hatred towards Muslims and the increase of acts linked to Islamophobia in the United States.”

Without checking the books, some journalists rushed into print and backed calls for an investigation into whether Hicks’ murder was a hate crime, and Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered civil rights lawyers at the Department of Justice to do just that. But North Carolina law has no statute that would even allow prosecution of murder as a hate crime. Glenn Greenwald went beyond hate crime, tweeting: “Horrifying: Radical atheist terrorist murders 3 Muslims in Chapel Hill,” which presumes Hicks’ killing qualifies as terrorism. Check out the FBI’s definition of terrorism: Whether Hicks’ atrocity meets the criteria hinges on his motive.

And his motive, I repeat, is not yet clear. The Chapel Hill police have not revised their position that Hicks’ motive was a disagreement over a parking space. We have not heard from Hicks about what impelled him to pull the trigger, but his ex-wife Karen Hicks backed up the police account and issued a statement saying that "This incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims' faith, but in fact was related to the longstanding parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors."

Postings from Craig Hicks’ Facebook page would seem to corroborate her words: "I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they” – Muslims – “have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do." Hicks wrote this in support of American Muslims who wanted to build the once notorious (but never-built and now forgotten) “Ground Zero Mosque” in Manhattan – not exactly something one would expect from an Islamophobe. On the same page he also opined that "It's OK if we have a Muslim president." Fifty-four percent of Americans, and certainly all Islamophobes, would beg to differ.

Neither these Facebook postings of his nor others reveal murderous sentiments toward Muslims as Muslims. Hicks’ profile picture shows not his face, but the logo "Atheists for Equality." Neighbors spoke to the media of his aggressive temperament and their fear of him (he was often openly armed and confrontational over minor matters), but none have suggested that animus toward Muslims, much less anti-theist convictions, had anything to do with his crime. That could, of course, change.

The sad fact is that no surprise should attach to the possibility – still the only officially bruited one -- that Hicks killed for a banal, trifling motive (a parking space) unrelated to Islamophobia or anti-theism or atheism, “New” or old.

Nevertheless, New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have suffered indictment by at least two well-known opponents of honest discourse about Islam for purportedly inciting Hicks with their “strident” atheism. Hicks’ Facebook page shows him to have been an admirer of Dawkins’ "The God Delusion," which may have prompted the renowned scientist to tweet: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?” Reza Aslan responded with infelicitous petulance to this and other sympathetic tweets Dawkins emitted: “Sorry @RichardDawkins no matter how many times you condemn #ChapelHillShooting we are just going to keep assuming you haven't and don't.” Aslan continued in this taunting vein with tweets about Sam Harris, who strongly rebutted him on his blog.

Here you can read a summary of the wider (and unfounded, given the dearth of evidence) New Atheist indictment frenzy, but one article in particular blaming New Atheists for what happened in Chapel Hill does deserve special attention. I’ll get to it in a moment. First, a necessary digression. Neither atheism, “New” or old, nor anti-theism possesses a canon calling for violence against believers or in any way suborning it. Atheism denotes one thing and no more: the absence of belief in God or gods; and anti-theism, the rejection as undesirable of the existence of God or gods. The closest thing to any modern-day statement of what anti-theism is belongs to the late Christopher Hitchens, who declared, in his 2001 book "Letters to a Young Contrarian," "I'm not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful." Nothing here could be construed as provocative of violence. And it goes without saying that there exists no equivalent of an atheist “church” that could sanction what Hicks did.

Though I’ve never introduced myself as an anti-theist or much bothered with the term, I concur with Hitchens’ definition. Obeisance to imaginary celestial despots and faith in ancient Middle Eastern “holy books” of whatever kind have never owned a place in my life. If believers should try to convert me, I would respond with one or another version of Lucifer’s fabled retort to God’s command to submit to Him or be cast out of heaven: Non serviam! I shall not serve!

But back to the matter at hand. Lack of demonstrative evidence linking atheism, “New” or old, to the Chapel Hill shootings did not stop Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a journalist and Ph.D. candidate in religion and critical thought at Brown University, from drawing up her own bill of indictment against Dawkins, Harris, et al., for the New Republic. In a wrongheaded essay titled "The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists," she begins by citing a Pew survey showing that atheists and Muslims both enjoy almost equal unpopularity in the United States – a fact of singular irrelevance to the Hicks slayings.

Other irrelevancies follow, but Stoker Bruenig then echoes Reza Aslan in declaring that “There is a distinction to be made between atheism in its pure sense, which describes anyone who does not believe in a god or gods, and New Atheism, the contemporary phenomenon of aggressive disbelief coupled with a persistent persecution narrative.” She describes New Atheism’s “core creed” as “a species of Enlightenment liberalism that exalts reason and free inquiry, without bothering to define reason or to explain what is worthy of inquiry, and why. For a school of thought that presents itself as intellectually robust, it is philosophically bankrupt and evidently blind to its similarities to the religions it derides.”

But New Atheism neither has a “philosophy” that lends itself to insolvency, nor does it possess “a school of thought” similar to “the religions it derides.” If Stoker Bruenig is really referring to the at-times-forcible tones with which New Atheists have advanced their arguments, she should compare them to the hellfire and brimstone tirades so beloved of Calvinist and Evangelical preachers. For a taste of these, check out Jonathan Edwards’ 18th-century sermon, "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." (Just imagine the mind-warping terror you would feel if you actually believed what this crazed Puritan pulpiteer was ranting about!) There is no doubt about who the most “strident” is or has been throughout history.

The spirit of “free inquiry” Stoker Bruenig cites needs no defense from me. Suffice it to say that this spirit clashes with the stultifying dogmas and pompous commands – cogently described by New Atheists -- to accept the rank absurdities (the existence of gods and djinns, the talking snakes and parting seas, the burning bushes and pregnant virgins, and so on) that pepper – indeed, form the bases of – the Abrahamic faiths’ foundational texts. As regards Christianity, fans of the early theologian Tertullian will recall his finely phrased “Credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd), penned in reference to the “Son of God’s” alleged death and resurrection. Mind you, such a notion seemed absurd even to a Carthaginian writing some 19 centuries before the mapping of the human genome or the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Throughout the millennia, those voicing doubt about such “sacred” nonsensicalities (or even, in the case of the Holy Inquisition, just being suspected of doubting them) faced hails of stones, skull crushers and the rack, auto-da-fés and strangulation, and much, much more.

Stoker Bruenig then presses Dawkins’ (above-instanced) tweet into service to show New Atheism's culpability in the shootings, "because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of.” This is textbook begging the question. She has provided no proof – nor has Hicks, nor have investigators – that New Atheism or anti-theism had anything to do with motivating the crime.

Stoker Bruenig then flashes her credentials as a postmodernist and highlights the gender of the atheists (mostly male), their average ages, their high level of education (which Hicks did not share), and conflates all these factors to assert that “the id of New Atheism tends toward ordaining modes of thought and expression that privilege educated white men.”

This statement is, to borrow a phrase from the Honorable “slayer of intelligent design” Judge John E. Jones, a “breathtaking inanity.” None of these factors in any way bear on the veracity of atheism, its merits or demerits, or the “id” presumably impelling its advocates. People of all genders, ages and races would benefit by abandoning stone-age myths and morals – and especially women, who suffer the most from them, with their rights to do as they please with their bodies under threat from Neanderthals with high pulpits and deep pockets, and, in certain well-known parts of the world, their very genitalia threatened by razor-mad butchers. To ignore these realities is to miss the genesis of said “id.”

Stoker Bruenig might have stopped there. Instead, she proceeds to announce that, “In [the case of the New Atheists], the assumed obviousness of Islam’s putative wrong-headedness is accompanied by a thoroughgoing persecution narrative, in which those few brave atheists willing to offend Muslims view themselves as crusaders for common sense.”

“Persecution complex”? A fear of massacre, far too often justified, attends all – including cartoonists and Femen activists -- who fail to heed calls for “respect” (really, demands for submission) emanating from some Islamic quarters. Stoker Bruenig herself even helpfully provides a link to the 2006 Hitchens essay containing the following line: “... the plain fact is that the believable threat of violence undergirds the Muslim demand for 'respect.'"

Stoker Bruenig produces another jargon-laden pronouncement on “id” and anoints New Atheism as one of many “global faiths” before issuing the question-begging gravamen of her charge: New Atheism’s “adherents can take its reasoning too far, and cross the line into violence.” She closes with a trite truism: “no ideology, supernatural or not, has a monopoly on evil.”

At one time or another, critics have taken all “New Atheists” to task for the “id” Stoker Bruenig decries. Vehemence would be a more accurate word than the Freudian jargon, but in any case, the sentiment derives mostly from one incontrovertible fact: the shocking repetitiveness of outrages inspired by explicit injunctions to do violence inscribed in the Islamic canon, coupled with, of course, endless calls for “respect” for that canon. Likening the rationalism of Dawkins and Harris to the record of bloodshed of which all three Abrahamic faiths can boast is a gross insult to reason. And if you would like to generate a surfeit of “id,” just propose, without providing a scintilla of credible evidence, that we not only believe an assertion – say, that Jesus was the Son of God – but defer to those making it.

Enough said about the flaws of this essay.

The Chapel Hill murders are a tragedy, and must be investigated carefully. Perhaps Hicks will, after all, unbosom his motive as hatred of Muslims. By doing so, he would not, after all, enhance the severity of his punishment, given that North Carolina’s statutes do not provide for this. Moreover, he could not believably or demonstratively justify his homicidal actions by citing works by atheists or anti-theists. But whatever his motive, one fact remains: the answers, ultimately, to the growing problem of violence perpetrated with religious sanction lies not in more religion (that is, in more superstition and irrationality), but in a collective determination to resolve our problems through reason, discussion, and secularism.

If the promise of youth for the Chapel Hill victims has been tragically shattered, the promise rationalism and the renunciation of dangerous myths, void of prescriptive value ab initio, but openly called into question by atheists over the past decade or so, remains ours to realize.

Reason, consensus, and secularism – I defy anyone to exploit these lofty, laudable concepts to arrive at anything but progress.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

MORE FROM Jeffrey Tayler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Atheism Chapel Hill Murders Editor's Picks Islam Islamophobia Muslims New Atheism