In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill murders, Ash Imani ponders how atheists should respond after reports labelled the gunman as an “atheist killer”.
On February 10 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, three young Americans, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha, were senselessly murdered by Craig Stephen Hicks.
Some pockets of the media reported the tragedy in typically dichotomous fashion: “Muslim victims” gunned down by an “atheist killer”. Constantly referencing Hicks’ atheism, they continued the practice of fitting criminals with provocative labels designed to divert attention and sweep more profound questions under the carpet.
What precisely is an “atheist killer”?
Is it ever possible to kill in the name of atheism?
Attempts to define precisely what atheism is have traditionally descended into complete confusion.
At its most “extreme”, atheism is the staunch and positive belief that there is no deity. At its most rational and reasonable, the terms “atheist” and “non-theist” and are used interchangeably. An atheist, from this perspective, is someone who takes the position that, since there is no evidence available regarding the truth of God’s existence, let alone the truth of divinely received revelation, one should reject any such belief and choose not to live according to the tenets of any divine law. Atheists purport to use reason and the scientific method to find their way through the maze of existence, but the success of this method is by no means a foregone conclusion. As any psychologist or neuroscientist will tell you, our feeble human brain often thwarts its own best intentions. A blank slate may be open to more possibilities, but that also makes it more vulnerable to bad ideas.
A twisted and irrational belief that adherents of religion should be killed does not owe its distorted world-view to atheism, though atheism may well be a prerequisite. Neither in atheism, nor in faith, does a rejection of beliefs require a hateful compulsion to destroy those holding those beliefs. Despite popular opinion, even in its most striking (and some might say deluded) certainty, atheism does not compel any positive action whatsoever.
Islamophobia is real and dangerous. It feeds on irrational fear and hatred. It is a rejection not of ideas or beliefs, but of people, humanity and the very freedoms underpinning the Democratic ideals that we purport to hold so dear. Although reported to have been triggered by a parking dispute, Islamophobia may well have led to the senseless tragedy in Chapel Hill.
Just as Islamophobes do not become Islamophobes simply by their rejection of Islam, atheists become neither Islamophobes nor murderers simply by their rejection of God. The term “atheist killer” is as senseless as the murder of these three innocent victims and heartache caused to their families.
Debates about religion will no doubt persist. People of faith will continue to argue that a bastardised and misinterpreted version of an essentially noble and peaceful religion has no right to call itself by the name of the one, true faith. Atheists will continue to point out that such arguments are meaningless to those who read the doctrines without having accepted the underlying premise of divine revelation. Religion will continue to label Atheism as an equally faith-based dogma. Atheists will continue to respond that a mere lack of belief has never caused anyone to do anything.
In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill killings, however, some atheists may have for the first time become acutely aware of the power of language to manipulate through the casual linking of identity to abhorrent acts of violence; through the blending of positive self-images into a jumble of horror, completely foreign to the personal beliefs and narratives of those caught in its linguistic web.
Some of us may have felt pressure to condemn the murders, having been portrayed as committed in “our name”. Perhaps we can now understand the complete irrelevance of the response that the labels were used as a simple statement of truth? That no one is suggesting that all atheists are killers but simply pointing out that this one was.
Perhaps some of us, for the first time, felt a tinge of fear in having so freely identified ourselves as atheists and expressed our views so openly? Some of us may now feel compelled to keep that part of our identities hidden in future, lest we are looked upon with disgust and hatred or treated with a fear borne of ignorance.
If the pockets of skewed media coverage have opened a small window of empathy into the emotional turmoil experienced by a Lebanese-Australian reading the phrase “Lebanese rapist” or a Muslim hearing the words “Muslim terrorist,” the lesson was well learned.