After the discovery that the man who murdered three Muslim students in North Carolina on Wednesday was an atheist, it was a matter of hours before the media conversation shifted from simple horror and mourning to a discussion of the attack’s implication for atheism.
Vox reported that atheists faced an “uncomfortable conversation,” and The Washington Post immediately called on “End of Faith” author Sam Harris for an explanation. On Twitter, historian Vijay Prishad did not hesitate to say the killer was “inspired” by so-called New Atheist writers, and the author CJ Werelman hoped the tragedy would awaken America to “threat” of atheism. The American Humanist Association felt compelled to put out a statement condemning the attack.
But connecting the killings in any way to atheism rests on a dangerous underlying principle. To begin with, the link between the religious or political persuasions of criminals and their criminal behavior should always be approached cautiously. While the “parking dispute” narrative pushed by Richard Dawkins is thoroughly discreditable, the violently insane have all manner of obsessions and can crib any set of principles to rationalize their acts. To suggest that the atheistic beliefs of Craig Hicks turned him murderous is akin to saying that Jodie Foster caused Reagan to be shot, or that Judaism caused the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.
Despite this, the attacks were used by some to revive preexisting complaints against atheism. Writing in the New Republic, Christian writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig demanded a reckoning, framing the murders as a wake-up call to atheists about dangerous tendencies among them. She argued that the cocksureness that comes with atheistic certitude has allowed more-rational-than-thou young white men to blind themselves to a growing strand of hatefulness. Atheists, she said, need to consider the possibility that such violence is an “outgrowth of a system” that fails to sufficiently question its moral commitments.
Yet in demanding that the wider group answer for the acts of individual deranged members, Bruenig deploys the same cruel logic that forces Muslims to prostrate themselves every time Islamist violence occurs. The blaming of communities of belief for the lunatics among them is precisely what lets atheists wrongly tar Christianity itself for the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. Viewing such acts as a necessary consequence of the belief, of the belief “taken to its extreme,” unfairly blames a demographic for the seeds of violence in its metaphysics, rather than grappling with the violence in human nature more broadly.
A similar discourse was applied to civil rights protesters after two police officers were shot in New York by a man who had voiced anti-police sentiments on social media. Despite evidence that the killer was mentally ill, the shooting has been used by cops and conservatives in order to assault the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, everyone who believed it was wrong to shoot 12-year-olds to death was being asked to state for the record that they did not thereby support the murder of police. It is this mode of reaction that needs to stop: the demand for wider wake-up calls after every tragedy, that dishonest politicization that is often simply an effort to undermine groups one already disagrees with.
This is not to say that present-day atheism is free of problems; in fact, nearly everything that critics of the New Atheists say is true. Christopher Hitchens gleefully daydreamed about the murder of Islamists, and while Sam Harris always insists he hates the belief rather than the believer, there is no denying the venom of the hatred itself. It is unfortunate that Richard Dawkins has to be atheism’s most prominent exponent—though Dawkins once demonstrated a capacity for engaging seriously and respectfully with religious scholars, in recent years he has dedicated himself to demonstrating that he should never have been allowed to open a Twitter account. The charges of Islamophobia among prominent atheist writers are well-substantiated; many of our supposed humanists are simply not very humane.
Those who are skeptical of religion have long been overdue for a renewed emphasis on the positive side of their beliefs (yes, beliefs.) Answering existential questions and building a robust morality without the cheap prepackaged solutions of religious dogma is no easy task, and it should be gone about with diligent and sober effort. In their zeal to take potshots at the faithful, New Atheists have indeed forgotten that atheism needs to not only puncture myth, but to supply comfort, guidance, and joy.
Fortunately, atheism and agnosticism have a long line of beautiful and sensitive thinkers from which to draw for this task. Beginning with the ancient doubters, and stretching to Shelley’s nonviolence, Dewey’s democracy, and Russell’s anti-war socialism, previous ages had an atheism that was truly “liberal” in the best sense of that word. Kurt Vonnegut managed to both disbelieve and crack jokes, quipping memorably that “I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap.” It’s also time for humanism to give greater prominence to feminist voices, from Skepchick Rebecca Watson to Egyptian dissenter Nawal El Saadawi (who does not identify openly as an atheist, but describes religion as merely a kind of politics and states that “religions in general, are in my view, devoid of justice and are oppressive to women and the poor.”) The task of skeptics is to recapture the spirit of Thomas Paine and combine a rejection of religion with a fierce opposition to injustice.
Repairing mainstream atheism does not mean there will never be a psychopath who shares its tenets. For writers like Bruenig to think that tragedies necessitate group reckonings, because they are a belief’s “outgrowth,” is the same mentality that asks a person to denounce the Charlie Hebdo attacks simply because he or she attends mosque. Yes, Richard Dawkins and similar hypocrites should suffer a humbling realization about their blustery double-standard for Islam and atheism. But Bruenig herself sounds exactly like Dawkins, linking a horrible crime with some supposed kernel of hatred that exists within the wider community, suggesting that some logic internal to the belief bears blame for the North Carolina killings. Without any evidence, Christians have listed the cause of death as Sam Harris.
It may seem as if atheists have little to complain about. Though they are widely despised and mistrusted in America, they simultaneously have prominent platforms from which to scorn the faithful. Some tweeters have already complained that white men are using the tragedy to become defensive about atheism, rather than spending their time condemning Islamophobia. Naturally, rooting out and rejecting hate is a priority. But the rooting out of hate, Islamophobic and otherwise, requires the application of a universal principle: Do not smear entire groups based on the actions of psychopathic individuals. To reject Islamophobia without accepting that principle means maintaining that faulty, hateful trope, “it was the inevitable consequence of their religious views.”
Atheism has needed new spokespeople for a long time. But to draw links between Richard Dawkins and a deranged triple-murderer is spurious, and rests on a principle that is rightly rejected when applied to other groups. By all means, speak of atheism’s failings, but do not do so in the context of this tragedy, whose only political meaning is that bigotry and violence are as poisonous as ever.