Muslim Student Murders A Wakeup Call For Atheists: We’re Capable Of Violence, Too

EXCLUSIVE - Bill Maher speaks on stage at the 2014 Television Academy Hall of Fame on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision for the Television Ac... EXCLUSIVE - Bill Maher speaks on stage at the 2014 Television Academy Hall of Fame on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images) MORE LESS
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At the latest National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama made some comments that, despite being objectively true, nonetheless kicked off the latest round of outrage-mongering on the right. Faith, he said, can inspire “people to lift up one another,” but it can also be “used as a weapon.” He also said this tendency is not unique to any faith, but happens across the board, citing many examples of Christians using their religion to perpetuate evils like slavery, the Crusades and Jim Crow.

The maelstrom this has incited on the right is so juvenile: A widespread temper tantrum thrown by those who are too defensive and childish to hear anything but how their beliefs could never be twisted to justify evil. It’s frustrating because, as an outsider, it’s easy to see that this defensive posture is why evil in the name of religion continues to be perpetrated. Preventing future violence requires introspection. It requires admitting that dehumanizing rhetoric against people outside your “tribe” can fall on the ears of those who are hateful and violent and provide them rationale for their behavior. If Christians are too busy being defensive, they can’t police themselves, which allows fanaticism to flourish.

Then a man named Craig Hicks, an avid atheist, shot three young Muslim neighbors in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in what clearly appears to be a premeditated murder. At this time, there’s a lot of debate and not a lot of facts about his motivations, though the police do point to a dispute over parking and there appears to be a history of Hicks feeling his neighbors were a bother to him. The family of the victims say it was a hate crime. The wife of the killer says he wasn’t a bigot, just strongly hostile to religion—all religions. Hopefully, more information will come forward, as Hicks has been arrested and is apparently cooperative with authorities.

So now the question is: What are atheists going to do about this? Atheism is a relatively new movement; people who don’t believe have always been with us, but it’s only been in recent years that atheism has really developed as an identity and a community, with a growing online presence, bestselling books and popular documentaries, and regular and growing conferences and conventions for non-believers to congregate in. (Full disclosure: I am a regular speaker at many of these events.) We are not content simply to not believe, but are outspoken and aggressive in pointing out the logical fallacies of belief while also criticizing the negative influence faith has on society.

Unlike all the major world religions, atheists have no history of violence being done in the name of atheism—at best, you can try to round up some communist violence, but that’s hardly the same thing. Because of this, it’s easy for us to lull ourselves into believing that atheism is an ideology that is inoculated from fanaticism. Regardless of what Hicks’ motivations turn out to be, the fact that it was easy to picture an angry atheist developing a murderously hateful obsession with his neighbors has disturbed that hope. It’s time for atheists to admit that, as with religion, non-belief can, as Obama said, be used in the name of good, but also in the name of evil.

And we don’t need a hate crime to prove it, either. The reason that the Hicks murder is causing so much turmoil is that there are a number of prominent atheists who don’t restrain their arguments to discussion about the fallacies of religion generally, but who have a zeal for singling out Islam and arguing that it is uniquely capable of inciting violence and cruelty. Pundits like Bill Maher and Sam Harris make comments regarding Muslims that rival the dehumanizing, tribalist rhetoric that so offends atheists when we hear it coming from Christians. If that kind of rhetoric, which goes beyond criticizing ideas and shades into dehumanizing people, can incite violence and hatred coming from believers, then atheists need to admit that it can do so coming from non-believers. It’s already been employed to justify wars in the Middle East, and there’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t provoke hate crimes as well.

So regardless of how this Craig Hicks situation shakes out, this event should be a wake-up call to atheists to learn from the mistakes made by believers and strive to do better. We should speak out loudly against those who use atheism as a cover for bigotry. We should remember that just because we don’t believe in God doesn’t mean we’re somehow protected against prejudice or false beliefs about other things. Instead of crouching in a defensive posture when an atheist does or says something dehumanizing or violent, we should denounce them openly and make it clear that is not acceptable. Craig Hicks may or may not have committed a hate crime. But atheists have an opportunity here to speak out and help prevent future hate crimes from occurring.

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.

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