A few years ago I wanted to write a blog post about frustrating evasions that religious people make when we try to criticize their beliefs, values, and institutions. The first thing I was eager to rail about was the way that they accuse us of calling them “stupid” when all we are doing is showing them the flaws in their reasoning processes–which is perfectly intellectually legitimate. It’s wrong to insinuate that all criticism of your ideas is abusive treatment as a way to avoid the burden of actually reexamining your beliefs and attempting the difficult work of refuting challenges to them.
But before I made much progress on the post I suddenly started noticing something. All over my Facebook feed, teeming with the kinds of atheists who like to socialize with other atheists on social media, were atheists who were calling religious people any of a variety of variations of the word stupid. Perhaps they were musing that they were “religitards” or if they were also political conservatives perhaps they were being mocked with the sexually degrading nickname of “teabaggers” (an allusion to Tea Party activists’ ignorance when they unwittingly suggested something sexual by proposing to “teabag” Washington by flooding the Congress with teabags sent by mail).
I wanted to make the case that atheists generally were like I was—focused only on criticizing religious people for what was objectively criticizable about the content of their beliefs, values, institutions, and harmful actions that could be tied in some significant way to their religions causally. But the harsh reality was that a fair number of my fellow anti-theists crossed the line all the time into getting their jollies demonizing religious people tout court and using verbally abusive insults to describe them–whether as a group or individuals–on account of their false beliefs.
And so I intensified over the next couple of years in my attempts to call for greater civility in how we treated one another. Because as far as I’m concerned, the dehumanization that results in violence begins as speech. I have cleaned up my Facebook feed drastically in the last couple years. I no longer hear much from anti-theists like the one in October who saw said “I’d like to smack that idiot in the mouth with a brick” when said “idiot” had done nothing more than reply to a cute owl video with the remark “God has given us so many wonderful creatures to enjoy”. That was the day I ended my friendship with the guy who liked to celebrate his violent feelings towards religious people.
I don’t believe in being friends with or making excuses for bigots and bullies. I don’t care whether atheists or any other group is marginalized, I don’t just turn a blind eye when they use dehumanizing and abusive rhetoric about other people. I don’t let people get away with calling themselves skeptics while promoting a black and white picture of the world where their own tribe can do no wrong and their opposition is the root of all evil. I don’t let people claim they’re only criticizing ideas when they’re also verbally assaulting people. I don’t let people claim that they’re enemies of hate when they’re unapologetically expressing hatred itself.
And, specifically, germane to today’s news about the awful murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by an anti-theist active on social media, I don’t let slide the claim that no atheist criticism of Islam ever has anything to do with irrational bigotries because “religion is not a race” and “criticism of ideas isn’t hatred of people”.
Islam indeed should not be sacrosanct from criticism. Muhammed should not be immune from mockery. But neither should racism, jingoism, or plain old hatred of religious people be allowed to be passed off as just the criticism of ideas.
I don’t know if this murder was specifically motivated by a desire to kill these three Muslims because they’re Muslims. The cops are so far saying they think it was triggered by something as heinously trivial as a simmering parking dispute. I have a hard time understanding how that leads to three people’s deaths. I have an even harder time swallowing the idea that none of the common propensities to dehumanize Muslims for being foreign in appearance or even for being religiously Muslim played any role in whatever matrix of causes was at work in Craig Hicks’s mind. I don’t know if this is indeed a terroristic hate crime but I don’t blame the Muslim community in America for responding in terror and outrage and feeling threatened. And the fact is that the effect of this crime is the effect of terrorism and it is the effect of a hate crime. If you don’t want your ideology to be blamed for violence against one of the groups you constantly denounce then you don’t get violent with precisely those people.
And the fact is that even if Hicks wasn’t motivated in the main by hatred of the religious or of Muslims in specific, it’s always possible that the member of any tribe can go off the rails into violent expression. And that’s just one more reason that I am so insistent we not create a climate of routine dehumanization of our enemies, whoever they are. Because if some day there is the most unambiguous of all anti-theist motivated hate crimes against religious people, I don’t want to know that just the day before I was carelessly intermingling my justifiable criticism of bad ideas with unjustifiably dehumanizing rhetoric, right along with that violent person, and clicking like on his very own criticisms that blurred the line between scathing critique and outright hate.
I want to make it clear that the only kind of humanism that’s real and which I support is the kind that is humanizing in how it is advocated and has a demonstrably humanizing effect on those most passionate about it.
Maybe the bitterest evidence that merely abstract lip service to the right ideas is insufficient is the post below from Hicks’s own Facebook page in which he himself seems to understand, through sarcastic expression, that in the abstract you cannot directly blame Christianity simpliciter for the Ku Klux Klan or Islam simpliciter for terrorism. It’s one of many humane and valuable ideas (including adamant support for LBGT rights, women’s reproductive rights, and the freedom of religion) expressed on his Facebook page and which he unconscionably betrayed.
Abstract understanding is not enough. How we treat people is what matters.
And maybe some of that gun control Hicks seemed to have such contempt for could have helped too.
Hemant Mehta has collected together the condemnations of the crime by the major voices in the atheist movement.
“How can you be racists to Muslims if they’re not a race?”
Moral Considerations on Hate Crimes, Free Speech, and Threatening Speech
Islam Is Not A Race–But Anti-Muslim Bigotry Is Still Very Often Racist
The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge
Stop Calling People Stupid.
Love Religious People
What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?