Thursday, February 12, 2015

Second Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders

As is usual on the internet, some of the responses I received to my last post seemed to be missing my point, so I’d like to clarify a few things.

Jumping to Conclusions

One of the most dismaying things I saw online was the number of people castigating the media (always inexplicably seen as some monolithic entity,) for not declaring this to be a hate crime before the police had finished (or barely even begun,) their investigation. In my post I said that there seems to be some evidence that it might have been a hate crime, and that whether it was or not it should be an opportunity for atheists to reflect on the possibility that someone who identifies as an atheist did this and what that might mean for the rest of us. But the scorn people poured on news outlets for being careful and saying that they weren’t yet completely sure of the motive was scandalous. Many people seemed to be of the opinion that if a white man who claimed to hate religion kills three Muslims there can only be one conclusion. This is a terrible precedent. If we were to assume that every time a Muslim is attacked by a non-Muslim it’s because of their religion that would be a complete abandonment of fair-mindedness, and just as ridiculous as assuming that every time a Christian is attacked it’s because of their religion or any time a gay person is attacked it’s because they’re gay. It’s perfectly understandable for individuals to have those suspicions, but to demand that our news outlets report on motives they can’t possibly yet be certain of is awful. People also claimed a double-standard, saying that if a Muslim man had killed three atheist students the media wouldn’t have hesitated to call him a terrorist and declare religious hatred to be the motive. That’s just not true. Mainstream news outlets (with some exceptions, of course,) are usually very circumspect about these things because if they jump the gun and end up being wrong they have egg on their face and lose credibility. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings the media did exactly the same thing they’re doing now: they wrote that there was some suspicion that the suspects may be radicalized Muslims but that it was too soon to confirm. Even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks western media was impressively fair-minded, reporting that some at the scene had said that the suspects had shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and that based on previous threats and attacks there was reason to believe the magazine was targeted due to their criticism of Islam, but they didn’t confirm it until more facts were in. In the case of Chapel Hill, most of the media did the same thing: reporting that some people (including the victims' father,) suspect it might be a hate crime based on the victims' religion and some of the suspect's previous writings and that the police are investigating that possibility, but that so far the police say that most of the evidence is pointing toward it being the result of an unhinged person involved in a dispute over a parking space.

It just so happens that I have a perfect example of when this kind of speculation goes wrong: the 2005 massacre of the Armanious family in Jersey City, which I took as the topic of my Journalism School Master’s project. The Armanious family - a husband, wife, and two daughters of 8 and 15 years old - were found brutally stabbed to death in their home. The family were Coptic Christians, members of an Egyptian sect of Christianity and one of the oldest surviving churches in the world. Jersey City has a large population of Egyptian immigrants, about equally divided between Copts and Muslims. That’s not the case in Egypt, however, where the Copts are a long-suffering minority, often the target of persecution and religious violence. Many Copts moved to New Jersey to escape that life. For some, the murder of a peaceful family of four Coptic Christians could only lead to one conclusion: the persecution their people had faced living under a Muslim majority in Egypt had followed them to America. The leaders of some Coptic organizations immediately denounced the murders as the obvious acts of Islamic extremists (the Coptic Pope, Shenouda, urged people not to jump to conclusions, which is good advice in general, but probably pragmatic, too, because he knows that the continued existence and relative safety of the Coptic community in Egypt depends on their being rather meek and deferential to the Muslim majority.) Rumors flew that the father, Hossam Armanious, had been warned and threatened for speaking against Islam in the past, that the family had been slaughtered like Halal livestock, that Christian cross tattoos on the families arms had been stabbed and gouged and cut out. The relatively comfortable co-existence between Copts and Muslims in Jersey City (and America at large,) was in serious jeopardy. At the family’s emotional funeral procession through the streets of Jersey City, an Imam and Muslim delegation who had shown up to offer their condolences was attacked by angry mourners.

As it turns out, the family was found to have been murdered by a drug dealer named Edward McDonald, who had rented an apartment from them and seems to have been under the impression that they had lots of money in their home. He broke in to the house wearing a mask and tied the family up. It is believed that while he was searching for valuables, the youngest daughter broke free and saw him with his mask off. His cover blown, he brutally murdered the whole family. Religion had nothing to do with it.

Atheism had nothing to do with it.

I heard this from several people - the killer’s atheism is entirely irrelevant. After all, atheism is just the lack of a belief in god, it isn’t a positive philosophy or moral system at all. Discovering that someone is an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about what they do believe, only what they don’t believe. I had thought I’d been pretty clear that I agree with this in my last post, but apparently people either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood me. There is a distinction between passive atheism (simply not believing in a god,) and active anti-theism (a dislike or hatred of religion, in which camp I absolutely place myself,) and this distinction is not being made or acknowledged. Religion, and particularly its intrusion in public life, is something that I believe needs to be resisted with argument, debate, and reason. There’s no reason why a thoroughly unbalanced person might not take his own hatred of religion to violent extremes. His lack of belief in god doesn’t technically have anything to do with it, but his proactive hatred of religion might. I was somewhat surprised to see that many of the things he’d written on his Facebook page are things I might have said (albeit more eloquently, I hope,) in my own angrier moments. Nothing on his Facebook page advocated violence against religious people, but there were plenty of frustrated and angry denunciations of faith which were not illogical and with which I can more or less agree.

The point I had been trying to make is that atheists would be unwise to dismiss out of hand the idea of a madman killing “in the name of” atheism. We might know that atheism means nothing but a lack of belief in a deity, but for plenty of other people who don’t know or care about that distinction, atheists might as well be a religious group of their own, or at least some kind of watered-down religious interest group. The fact that atheist and secularist political groups have become more politically active, vocal, and organized in the past several years is bound to fuel those kinds of misapprehensions. The point is that even if this has nothing to do with the victims’ religion or the killer’s hatred of religion, these days an accusation or correlation is enough to convict people in the court of public opinion, including by association. Whatever the result of the investigation, there will be people who remain unswervingly convinced that it was a hate crime committed by a self-identified atheist and therefore it must be because of his atheism, and that is going to make things very tough for the rest of us who hate, mock, ridicule, and insult religion without resorting to violence. And it may well encourage the people who cry “Islamophobia,” and want to make criticism of Islam hate speech. They’ll have an argument at hand, weak and unfounded though it may be, that there are atheist terrorists, too. We’d be stupid to ignore that. Of course even if this one lunatic did commit these acts because of a hatred of Islam specifically or religion in general, it’s nothing compared to the theocratic government-sanctioned violence and intolerance in many Muslim countries, and it’s much harder to imagine American non-religious school children refusing a moment of silence for the victims as many French Muslim students were reported to have done after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. People in the West overwhelmingly condemn these horrific acts. In many parts of the world religious murderers are all too often celebrated as heroes and martyrs. My concern is that if some psychopath with a gun who happens to be an atheist slaughters people and it turns out he did it because he hates their religion, then it’s going to be much more difficult for us atheists to say with indignation (as I often have,) that we find religion just as offensive as any cartoons or novels but you don’t see us attacking random believers.

Atheism is not a religion

It is obviously true that atheism is not a religion and I never said anything even remotely suggesting that it was, and yet people seemed to think that that’s what I was implying when I talked about the possibility of someone killing in the name of atheism. Reference was made to Stalin, as though I’d repeated the canard about atheism being responsible for many atrocities of the 20th century. I never said any such thing. The charge of Hitler’s atheism is easily refuted by reference to his speeches, the slogans and language of the Reich, the teutonic mythology of National Socialism, and international fascism’s mutual sympathy and alliance with the Catholic Church. Stalin is a slightly tougher refutation but only slightly. It’s true that the ex-seminarian extensively persecuted religious people and advocated atheism. But rather than any deep atheist conviction this was almost certainly another all-too-typical extension of Stalin’s paranoid and cruel repression of any ideology which might threaten his power or the state’s official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin was ultimately a pragmatist, if a misguided and brutal one. Kruschev was the first to suggest after Stalin’s death that Soviet Communism and the cult of personality had simply become a religion of its own, with just as much dogma, unwavering faith, and heresy hunts as any other.

Which brings me to my final question and concern. If Stalin made state communism into something so closely resembling a religion, is there a danger that “organized” atheism as it exists today in the West could be vulnerable to such perversions? There are now atheist, secularist, and humanist meetings, clubs, support groups, lobbies, events, specialty magazines, conventions, and a huge market for books and films on related topics, not to mention a thriving online “community.” I’ve participated in all this to varying degrees at different times and I’ve overall seen it as a positive development in the resistance to theocracy, religious power, and faith-based thinking. But the “organized” part of it has always made me slightly uncomfortable. And while I think that most atheists are probably relatively free-thinking and individualistic and broadly skeptical, I was always sure to meet a few people who were a little too sure of their own convictions, people for whom doubt wasn’t a major factor in their worldview, people who, rather than debate, were content to self-satisfyingly quote Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris as incontrovertible authorities rather than intellectual thinkers to engage and possibly disagree with on some things. In fact, I was even more uncomfortable with those who wanted to saddle atheism with some of the outward trappings of religion - that seemed a distinctly creepy impulse to me. People who wanted cringeworthy “un-baptism ceremonies,” or regular sunday non-belief services, or people who wanted atheists to have a table at Mayor Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast were always missing the point in my eyes. I wanted to avoid everything about religion and I certainly didn’t want atheists to start treating their lack of belief as something doctrinaire or remotely resembling a religion. I didn't want atheism to have the same special status as religious groups, I didn't want religious groups to have special status of any kind.

But I’m beginning to wonder if when any group goes from being merely speculative or philosophical to being actively political it runs the risk of extremism. I think that people of no faith and their religious allies who support secularism absolutely do need to be more political. In fact, I don’t think we should shy away and maybe even encourage more “extreme” and unapologetic ideas in our discourse, and I don’t think we should play nice or water down our own convictions, opinions, or beliefs. But I also think we need to at least consider the troubling possibility that some people who sympathize with our goals may have radically different ideas about methods. 

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