Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting

I hope there’s a day when I won’t have to write about the latest mass murder in gun-crazed America, but today isn’t that day. This time, the tragedy took place in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where a young family – Yusor Mohamad Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, all observant Muslims – were shot and killed in their home, allegedly by a neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks.

But there’s an additional element that we can’t ignore: the accused killer was an outspoken atheist who regularly posted anti-theist messages on social media, described himself as a fan of Richard Dawkins and Thomas Paine, and fantasized about how religion would go away.

Officially, at least, this isn’t being treated as an anti-Muslim hate crime inspired by animus against religion. The police have said the killing stemmed from a dispute over a parking space, and there seems to be some evidence to support that. Among his neighbors, Hicks had a reputation as hostile and confrontational, obsessed with parking and noise, and was known for trying to intimidate people by showing up armed at their door. It seems unbelievable that anyone could murder three people in a dispute over a parking spot. Then again, my wife has worked in local government, and I can readily testify that there are angry obsessives out there who’ll war to the bitter end for the sake of a grudge against a neighbor, even one that started over some seemingly trivial disagreement.

On the other hand, the point is well-taken that a crime like this is almost never just about parking. Even if the killer was an angry man in general, it’s unlikely that this dispute would’ve escalated to murder if he wasn’t already tainted by prejudice, if he didn’t see his victims as less than human in some way. Bigotry doesn’t have to be at the forefront of someone’s mind to be a real force influencing their decisions.

So, I’m not denying the possibility that this was a hate crime. Even so, it goes much too far to claim, as some have, that atheists in general are responsible for this awful act. There’s no denying that Richard Dawkins, for example, has made some embarrassingly ignorant, badly judged comments about Islam. But I don’t think anyone could realistically believe he would condone or support vigilante violence. (This is borne out by a CNN religious editor who pored over Hicks’ social media accounts and saw many anti-religious quotes but none that advocated violence.) And if there was any doubt remaining, a long list of atheist organizations put out statements that unequivocally denounced this deed.

I think that vigorous, sharp criticism of religion can coexist with respect for the rights and humanity of religious believers. In fact, I’d argue that this is more respectful than papering over our differences in a false pretense that they don’t matter. It treats theists as intelligent adults who can listen to reason and make up their own minds, rather than moral children who need to be sheltered from reality for their own good.

So, at least in this case, I don’t think that atheism goaded the killer into violence. But lest anyone think I’m a partisan just trying to exonerate my side, I’m not going to claim we’re guiltless. I think the atheist community failed here – just in a different way.

There’s nothing wrong with being against religion. But how could anyone absorb that part of our message and completely miss the part about how it makes our common humanity infinitely more precious? Many nonbelievers, including me, have written about how atheism makes life more valuable, not less. But are we not highlighting the moral dimension of atheism enough? Are we not doing enough to make it clear that we think and act as we do because we love the good? Have we not emphasized strongly enough that criticizing religion’s inhumanities is shallow and meaningless if we don’t hold ourselves to a better standard? Those are the questions that I think atheists should be asking ourselves in the wake of this horrific crime.

It’s not impossible that nothing anyone could have done would have changed this outcome. It may be that there are some people who are just full of bottled-up anger and are going to explode sooner or later, no matter what their belief system is. (Michelle Goldberg points out that “the most common kind of terrorist in America is a white man with a gun and a grudge”, elements that exist in many belief systems.)

But the mere possibility that we, as a community, could have prevented this ought to give us pause and inspire self-reflection. Even fair and valid criticism of religion can be dehumanizing when it’s not balanced by sufficient emphasis on peacefulness and the need to respect all people’s rights. We can’t undo the harm that one person has done, but if we act more conscientiously, perhaps we can keep crimes like this from happening again.

Postscript: The Foundation Beyond Belief is running a donation drive for the Syrian American Medical Society, which helps Syrian refugees and which one of the shooting victims, Deah Barakat, was planning to volunteer for after finishing his doctorate in dentistry. Please give if you can, and help honor their memory.

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