Three young, attractive, and by all accounts bright, loving, and wonderful students were shot dead last night in Chapel Hill. They were all Muslims. Many online are complaining that that fact isn’t yet mentioned in the headline of the New York Times article on the tragedy. In their defense, the New York Times is probably just doing an ultra-diligent covering-their-ass fact-checking thing where they reserve judgement on the crime’s motive until the police have announced it. If they were to make religion the focus of the article and then for some reason turn out to be wrong they’d be in even more trouble. But for the rest of us, there seems to be compelling evidence that the victims’ religion wasn’t a mere coincidence. My immediate thought was that it was probably a right-wing Christian nut (not very fair-minded of me, perhaps, but I was basing my prejudice on previous cases like that of Anders Breivik.) Then my heart sank when I read that the killer, based on his Facebook postings, appears to be a staunch atheist, even an anti-theist like myself: someone who not only doesn’t believe in god but thinks that religion is overwhelmingly a negative force in the world.
I remember on September 11th my mother said that the first thing that went through her head was “I hope it was a white guy like Timothy McVeigh who did this.” I’ve also heard Muslims say that when news of a violent terrorist act breaks they fervently hope that it doesn’t turn out to have been committed by Muslims. They’re tired of evil people committing acts in the name of their shared faith and afraid of a backlash. Aside from the fact that the backlash (in the United States, at least,) was usually limited to a few redneck idiots shooting at convenience stores or calling people racist names, I’d always found this thinking strange and oddly solipsistic - why would the first thing you think of in the face of horror and atrocity be about you and people like you? I confess, that’s the way I’m feeling right now. And I feel slightly embarrassed that some of my first thoughts were immediately about what this might mean for atheists.
The police are currently saying that the triple murder might have been over a dispute about a parking space. Maybe that’s true. But even if it is, an atheist murdering three Muslims is not going to be dismissed so easily. This will likely be considered in the court of public opinion to have been a hate crime even if it is found to technically not be. Whatever the final case, the very possibility of an atheist killing people over faith is something we need to consider.
The thought of an atheist murdering three innocent people because of their religion sickens me to the core of my being. I’ve always been quick to point out that atheists weren’t blowing up mosques or churches or temples or shrines in the name of atheism - what a laughable idea! - other religionists were committing those crimes in the name of their competing faith claims. But now there’s a chance that one of us has and it’s probably going to be flung in our face and held against us for a long time to come. Many polls show that atheists are already one of the most mistrusted (if not the most mistrusted,) groups in the United States. People are far more likely to vote for a Muslim or a gay person than an atheist. Although we’ve been vocal of late, we’ve usually been on our best behavior and not committed atrocities. Leave it to the Christian fanatic to attack Gurdwaras (betraying his ignorance along the way by conflating Sikhs and Muslims.) Leave it to the lone wolf Islamic radical to behead his elderly Christian co-worker. Atheists use words, reason, and argument to prove their point. Possibly not this time.
Some people have defensively pointed out that atheists can’t be considered ideologically similar in the same way that religionists can - we don’t have codified dogmas, clergy, or creeds. Someone said that collectively blaming atheists for the act of one atheist is like blaming the act of one person who doesn’t like baseball on everyone who doesn’t like baseball. This might on the face of it be logically true, but there are some of us who are committed and active secularists, who push back on the influence of religion in the public sphere - and that’s not a shared ideological commitment to be taken lightly. It appears that the killer may have identified as one of us, and that’s something we need to reckon with.
I’ve received criticism for saying that the people who need to combat Islamic extremism are, first and foremost, Muslims. Radicalization is something which arises all too often within their communities so they need to take some responsibility in stopping it. Some people have ironically asked for all atheists to condemn the atrocity last night, in the same way that people ask Muslim leaders to condemn any act of Islamic terrorism. We atheists should, and we will. Richard Dawkins already has. I think it’s important that those of us who are involved in the fight against theocracy, unreason, and superstition, speak up and say that a killer of innocent people in no way speaks for the rest of us. I happen to be at the less friendly and respectful end of the atheist spectrum. I think religion is wicked, and I think it causes far more harm than it does good in the world. I also think that at this time in history Islam is the most problematic religion on the planet and to pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant. I’ll even admit that when I read about the horrors committed by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS I think it would be a rather good (possibly even quite satisfying,) act to kill one of their fighter-rapists. But killing innocent people because of their beliefs is the opposite of secularism. It’s what religions have done throughout their history and its one of the reasons I’ve proudly called myself an atheist: we don’t do that. This time one of us may have. And we need to face that and show that a killer - atheist though he may be - who murders innocents for their beliefs is not the face of unbelief. He would be a perfect example of the unreasoning mind and a traitor to the secular ideals of the enlightenment.
Recently I responded to the fatuous argument from religious apologists who, referring to extremist Muslim groups say, “you wouldn’t claim that the KKK represents all Christians, would you?” Of course not. But just because the KKK wasn’t representative of mainstream or majority Christianity doesn’t mean they weren’t a Christian organization. They “self-identified” as Christians, and they justified their actions with fairly straightforward interpretations of scripture. In the same way, those who say ISIS don’t represent all Muslims are missing the point. Of course they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an Islamic group. They justify their acts with rather uncomplicated interpretations of scripture and doctrine. Who gets to decide that they aren’t true Muslims? I now find myself in an unexpected position. I’ve laughed off charges of atheist “fundamentalism” and atheist “extremism” in the past. Maybe we can’t afford to do that anymore. Even if this does turn out to be a one-off and incredibly rare example of an atheist taking their hatred of religion to a violent extreme, it goes to show that atheists, secularists, and anti-theists like myself have no reason to expect to be immune from extremist tendencies. It’s something we need to accept, confront, and fight just as strongly as we fight the violent excesses of religious radicals.
My sincerest condolences are for the families of the three victims, whatever the killer’s motive. When innocents are hurt, humanity itself suffers. There's no question that #muslimlivesmatter just as much as anybody else's.