It was going to happen sooner or later. It must now be dealt with.
Craig Hicks, an otherwise unremarkable man, has been charged with the murder of three people. He shot them on the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus and handed himself over to police shortly thereafter. He has been cooperative, according to police, and the investigation has so far suggested that the fatal altercation developed out of a banal dispute over vehicle parking.
A sad and upsetting tale, surely, but one that in most cases would be treated as just another tragedy for the local authorities to clean up and settle. Yet this story has gone viral. Why? Interestingly, the three victims of this horrific event, Deah, Yusor, and Razan, were Muslims, and the incident is regarded by some as a hate crime against the people of Islam. Although such a fact should raise some concerns regarding whether or not their murders were inspired by hatred and bigotry, their faith is not an exceptional factor considering Deah and Yusor were married and Razan was Yusor’s sister. Simply because of their relationships with one another, it was overwhelmingly likely that they shared religious beliefs, which means Hicks’ attack on them was probably no more hateful than if he had attacked any other family sharing any other faith.
But that is not exactly why everyone is hearing about these murders. We are hearing about them because Craig Hicks is an atheist.
In case you’re only just hearing this from me, the media is having a heyday bringing Hicks’ atheism to the forefront of the conversation. Hicks is an atheist who frequently criticizes religion on social media. The Washington Post quotes Hicks as saying: “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem, not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism”. Another statement in question is one that CNN could admittedly not confirm: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I”. This has led people to suggest the motive for Hicks’ crimes is rooted in his atheism and ‘anti-theism’.
We are thus immediately thrust back into the debate we always have whenever a militia of Muslims slaughters a village or whenever orthodox Jews bar women from an airplane: Was the atrocity motivated by religion? Was the perpetrator misusing or misrepresenting the ‘true’ version of what they believe? What does it mean to be a ‘true’ believer? Fortunately, because he is an atheist, Hicks makes these questions easy to answer.
Hicks appears to hold as much conviction as any atheist, but there is nothing about this, nor independent of it, that suggests he felt justified in murdering people specifically because of their religious affiliation. You wouldn’t think so if you took Adam Withnall’s word for it. His hot air balloon of an article, run by the Independent, is almost too simplistic to mention, let alone take seriously. But because people will mention its contents and will take its implications seriously it must be popped not with a pin but with a rapier’s edge.
Hicks may be the most irrational and Muslim-hating idiot there ever was – something we don’t even know yet – but that would be a condition independent of his non-belief. Whereas it is easy to find and point out theological justifications for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even Buddhists to commit atrocities (often towards each other) there is no such thing as ‘atheistic dogma’. To be an atheist means to lack belief in god(s), full stop. Unlike all variations of the aforementioned religions, atheism does not come with ethical baggage. Implying that Hicks was motivated by atheism to commit murder is to assign ethical persuasion to atheism, persuasion that just isn’t there. Atheists are not necessarily good people, nor necessarily bad people. Contrast this with religious people, who throughout history have acted unethically precisely because of religious instruction, and it is astounding that Hicks’ atheism is being demonized by the same publications that treat the Islamic State’s name as a subject of controversy.
Consider this comment by Nihad Awad, National Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations: “Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case.”
In an extraordinary feat of stupidity, Awad, and presumably many others like him, have equated the condemnation of religion with the condemnation of people. This doesn’t stand up to the laziest scrutiny. Let us compose a thought experiment: Suppose Neah, Yusor, and Razan had identified as Republicans. Would Hicks’ criticism of the Republican Party been grounds for alarm and contempt, and would Awad have smeared Jon Stewart for inspiring anti-Republican rhetoric in American society? Or would it have been enough, with the so far limited information available to us, to simply treat Hicks as the murderer he is? The fact of the matter is that religions are accustomed to feeling cozily immune from criticism, and as a result any dislike and distrust, however mildly or belligerently put, is perceived as savagery towards not only religious beliefs but also those who hold them. This is why we are hearing so much about Hicks and his ‘anti-theism’, because our society buys Awad’s argument.
There was going to come a time when someone committed a crime in the name of atheism. That time may or may not be now, but so far we are being forced to treat this case as if it were so. It is every thinking person’s duty to participate in the counter-narrative, to assert that atheism is not some senseless ideology, resurrected from the time of Stalin and Pol Pot and prone to violence for its own sake. As I write, #MuslimLivesMatter is trending. And of course they do. What is forgotten is that their lives matter to atheists and secularists, too. It is the atheists and the secularists who most passionately stand up for our Muslim brothers and sisters against the threats of theocracy, of extremism, of oppressive iron-age doctrines. Hicks’ actions do not represent atheism. Should he claim his disbelief as the motive for the murders of Neah, Yusor, and Razan, the world will hear us pass our judgement on him twofold.