The tragic and detestable murder in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Tuesday, February 10th, 2015, of 3 young Muslim students at the hands of Craig Hicks has presented a critical opportunity for us to examine the rhetoric used in the ongoing debate between theism and atheism. This happening as it did, in the wake of the controversy caused by President Barack Obama acknowledging that atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity forces to the fore the need for clarification.
Does religion cause atrocities? There have been volumes written to answer this question with a resounding “yes” (perhaps most notable of these is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens, whose book reads like a Ciceroesque polemic against religion). It is an easy talking point for atheists: the atrocities committed during the crusades, the inquisition, the Muslim expansion shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, The Reconquista, The 30 Years War, The Holocaust, the human rights violations and war crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians, almost everything the Catholic Church has ever done (like raping children and working to cover it up, or discouraging condom use in AIDS-ravaged parts of Africa, using Church resources to advocate and facilitate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), 9/11, and so on. Theists are always quick to counter with examples like Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, The Kim regime of North Korea, Stalin, Hitler (who was a theist and had close ties to the Catholic church, and whose anti-semitism was nothing new in Europe and derived from medieval Christianity), and coming soon to an apologetics forum near you, Craig Stephen Hicks.
A quick look at Craig Hicks’ facebook page feels kind of familiar. I’ve seen most of these memes, read about most of these stories (the recent Stephen Fry interview, that time Neil Degrasse Tyson wished Isaac Newton a Happy Birthday, Ricky Gervais tweets, et cetera), I support a lot of the same causes (he seems to be a very enthusiastic proponent of marriage equality), and quite honestly have used a lot of these talking points.
He really seems like a normal guy, he’s got a wife, he likes cat videos, he apparently thinks BuzzFeed videos are funny, he likes Mark Wahlberg’s 2001 movie Rock Star, and he’s even obsessed with a NFL team in a completely different region of the country from where he lives.
He lives in what seems to be a shitty apartment complex where people have sex in their cars in early evening.
And he’s got a hobby apparently.
So what caused him to murder three innocent people? I think we can learn a lot about ourselves and the “new atheist” movement in general if we ask ourselves that question. By some accounts, the murder stemmed from a dispute over parking, but I find myself in the precarious and unenviable position of agreeing with the opposition.
Unlike most things from FFAF that story is real. His wife hilariously swears that her husband was a psycho who would have killed anybody over a parking space, that he was an equal opportunity murderer.
“I can say that it is my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victim’s faith, but in fact was related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors (sic) regardless of their race, religion or creed,” Karen Hicks said in a statement”
After Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a lunatic, there was a nationwide call to dial back the vitriol. It was thought that Republicans painting Democrats as God-hating socialists hell-bent on destroying Reagan’s America of milk and honey and replacing it with breadlines and compulsory gay abortion was perhaps rousing too much rabble. I propose that we dial back the anti-theist rhetoric for two reasons.
- We’re getting it all wrong.
- It dehumanizes the very people we hope de-convert.
We’re getting it all wrong. Religion is the problem, not the religious. I think a lot of this stems from the misguided notion hawked by theists and a few atheists that belief is a choice; It is not. When did you choose not to believe in God? If you wanted to could you choose to believe? The nature of belief is that it’s not rational (at least belief in a physical claim). Atheism is realized, it’s not chosen. It’s the same for theists. They can’t just flip a switch and turn off their belief, it has to be realized. Until it is, all this hate and vitriol is only going to make the vitriol worse.
When we treat theists as less than human, we do ourselves a disservice by disconnecting from society at large; it’s also incredibly hypocritical because the same level of dehumanization is used against us. Theists are humans, most of them pretty harmless, but there are some very bad ones, most of whom have been manipulated by people with illusions of grandeur. Theists are more often than not victims, rather than perpetrators.
This, of course, isn’t to be confused with the Ben Affleck/Sam Harris controversy. I’m not in any way trying to say that we ought not criticize religion; I’m saying we should criticize religion with a level head. Not all religion is destructive. Not all Muslims are radical. Not all Christians are homophobic. Not all Jews advocate the mistreatment of the Palestinian people. Not all Palestinian Muslims advocate killing innocent Israelis, for that matter. Not all Americans advocated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all Shintos advocated war with the United States during World War II. These kinds of hasty generalizations are holding not just atheists back, but they’re holding humanity back from true solidarity. It was one of those generalizations that caused Craig Hicks to treat his neighbors with such disrespect, and it was likely that perspective, that dehumanized view of his fellow humans that allowed him to pull the trigger… thrice. We need to take a long look at ourselves and be honest about it. Atheists don’t automatically hold the higher moral ground, but some of us actually assumed that since he carried out a sinister act, he must have been a theist. Let’s not kid ourselves.
It seems that many atheists see atheism as the apex of human understanding, that the highest and greatest human ideal is that there is no God. Not only is that vapid, but it’s dangerous. As a result of the perceived elevation of the atheist ideal, it’s then assumed that atheism requires moral nihilism (who hasn’t heard the argument that without God there’s nothing stopping us from killing one another?) and that would be an easy argument to refute – if people like Craig Hicks didn’t play to the stereotype. Holding the disbelief in God as the climax of philosophy creates anomie, and prevents us from attaining our full potential.
We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. I don’t know about you, but I get so sick of hearing about how much people love not believing in God. We’re in an interesting position, we atheists; we’re all bound together by our lack of a belief, but that’s the only thing we’re sure to have in common. I say we should look at atheism as a starting point, not a stopping point- okay you don’t believe in God, so what? What do you believe in? For me, it’s solidarity, empathy, human advancement, the free and unlimited quest for happiness and purpose, humanity; in a word, I stand for humanism. What did Craig Hicks stand for? What do you stand for?