One week ago, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man named Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three of his neighbors in a condominium parking lot. While many people insist that this was simply a dispute over parking that ended in unnecessary violence, there’s are also people who insist that this was a religious hate crime, as his victims were observant Muslims while Hicks was an atheist. While the idea that a Muslim family would be the target of a religiously motivated hate crime in Bible Belt North Carolina is sadly not all that surprising, the one confounding element is that Hicks, as an atheist, was not the person anyone would expect to be the perpetrator of that kind of crime.
Because he was overtly irreligious himself, many people don’t know how to talk about what happened. I’m against the idea that this should be a “wake up call” for atheists, as some articles on the topic have been stating. Whatever that “wake up call” would entail, I genuinely have no idea. Atheism isn’t really something that has a concrete community or ideals and dogma behind it the way religion does—it’s simply not believing something—and I personally don’t think it should be. In the religious South, the idea of an atheist community is more plausible, but I don’t know if sharing atheistic posts on Facebook really qualifies a man as being a part of it. Even so, the more notable and outspoken atheists have gone on the record condemning this action. While I don’t think they should have had to do that, atheists are still the least trusted group of people in America, even behind Muslims, so this mass condemning of the shooting comes across more as a way for an already disliked group to keep afloat during this rough period.
I’m not sure if this was a hate crime, and I don’t think anyone will ever be sure. Islamophobia is not an isolated incident in America by any means, but, then again, neither are parking disputes that end in people dying. They’re a surprisingly and sadly common occurrence in this country. Either explanation, in that sense, seems perfectly plausible. So automatically labeling it as a religious hate-crime when the motivations are, at best, unclear, I don’t think is helping that much. I also don’t think those on the other side are being all that helpful either. It being “just” a parking lot dispute that ended with three people dying doesn’t make it any better. You could argue that it makes the situation worse.
Going under the assumption that Hicks was not just an atheist, he seemed to also be an anti-theist, which is what many people are failing to call attention to. Atheism and anti-theism are not the same thing. They can often go hand-in-hand, but they’re ultimately separate. Even if anti-theism is the main component of this crime, I’m weary to write off anti-theism as a whole. Just from personal experience, one of the main reason the people I know who label themselves as anti-theists give themselves that label is because they deplore the violence often done in the name of religion.
What’s difficult for me to put words to, though, is how I still think this is different from something like Charlie Hebdo or the Army of God from the 1980s targeting abortion clinics. In those situations, people were committing violence overtly “for God,” with religion and the words of religious texts being their justification for violence. You could argue that they bastardized the religious texts to interpret them in a way that encouraged violence, but when something is presented as the divine word of God, that just makes malicious interpretations all the more dangerous. I ultimately think they’re different things simply because there is no “word of God” for anti-theism. There are no tenants and rules that anti-theists (or atheists, for that matter) are told to follow. There’s no one book that is presented as the definitive word of what people who call themselves anti-theists should believe and do. And if Hicks read “The God Delusion” and got those violently anti-theistic ideas in his head, Dawkins could come out and condemn him for it, unlike with older texts that are open to be interpreted however the reader wants. If there were only one concrete interpretation of a religious book, sects wouldn’t exist. The people who say that their religion doesn’t encourage violence ultimately just have a different interpretation than the people who say that their religion tells them to kill blasphemers. I’m glad that there seems to be more people in the first camp of religious thought than the second one.
All that being said, if people want to challenge extremist anti-theistic thought without conflating it with atheism or automatically deeming anti-theism as a whole to be an inherently hateful idea, I’m all for that. As someone with vaguely anti-theistic leanings myself, I’m often put off by how many anti-theists equate non-constructive insults toward religion with legitimate criticisms of religion. As with any other topic, poorly spoken people with loud opinions are incredibly unhelpful toward building any kind of conversation or common ground. I think the people who utterly dismiss the idea that the Chapel Hill shooting could have been anti-theistically motivated attack are just as unhelpful as the people who refused to acknowledge that Islam had anything to do with the shootings in France earlier this year.
This should not have happened, and no matter what the shooter’s reasons for doing it were—religious or otherwise—it’s a deplorable situation that happens far too often. Hopefully, though, it at least brings some light to the myriad issues at hand.
One of the greatest challenges for atheists is that the only atheists most people recognize are the loud anti-theists. Believers then assume based on what they know that all atheists are loud mouthed anti-theists. It would be like looking at the Westboro pseudo-Christian hate cult and generalizing about all Christians from this evil group. Similarly, one of the favorite attacks on atheists by believers is to cite the number of deaths associated with communism and use this to blame atheism. This too is another distortion because communists were acting politically and not “in the name of atheism.” It would be like saying that since Germany and Italy were majority Christian countries, Christianity is responsible for the millions of deaths from World War II. It appears for many believers, these important mischaracterizations of atheism are just too difficult to move past.
It is difficult to get believers to understand that atheism has no one moral code, no one political persuasion, and no one stance on things like materialism. Atheism as opposed to anti-theism is just lack of belief in theism. Atheism has been conflated with secular humanism, which has been classified as a religion for legal purposes. Atheism has been conflated with evolution, which actually says nothing about religion except that literal 7 day creationism is impossible. Atheism has been conflated with the Big Bang theory, which was actually proposed by a Catholic priest. Atheism is also associated with liberal politics in general, which completely ignore the fact that one of the great “prophets” of conservative libertarian politics, Ayn Rand, was a staunch atheist. Neither secular humanism, evolution, the Big Bang theory nor anti-theism are requirements to be called an “atheist.”
Claiming that atheism has any sort of requirements around politics, ethics, science, or social policy is like saying if like the color red you must be conservative god fearing Christian.
I believe the problem is that so many people are so afraid of atheism and the general trend toward secularism in developed countries, that any time something like this happens, people are willing to generalize from individuals to condemn all atheists.