Ash Imani

Chapel Hill: Killing in the name of…atheism?

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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.

Ash Imani

Ash Imani is a lawyer (recovering) and born-again writer struggling to reconcile his ontological presence with his epistemological uncertainty. As a philosopher he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, but as a student of the human condition(s), he’s all-ears.

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11 Comments

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  3. thebigsmoke said:

    Hey Luke

    This sounds like really rewarding opportunity. I’m going to discuss with the team and see how we might facilitate something. Shoot me an email at [email protected] so we can communicate that way. Cheers! Paul Bugeja. Editor TBS

  4. Luke said:

    I can certainly see an avenue for future TBS articles being complimentary texts or straight up segways into topics in my classroom. Alternative voices, to me seem to reverse the tide of drowning noise we call mainstream media.

    It would actually be a pretty good idea to have some students collectively write an article on a topic of their interest for TBS. I mean, when it comes to education everybody has an opinion right? Sort of feels like everyone under the sun has their voice heard except for the students themselves. The best example I can think of is the debate played out in the media over school chaplains over the last year or so. I read a range of articles from a diverse mob of authors who demanded ‘religion stay the out heck of public schools’, or ‘Separation of the Church & State!’. In reality most people have no idea what a chaplain is or have ever met one. The school I was at at the time actually had a pretty cool chaplain. He is a local & was a former professional surfer that was idolized by the students. Most of the kids didn’t even know he was religious and if they did, didn’t give a hoot. To them, he was also much more than an idolized figure, he was a friend, someone they could talk to, someone who often communication between school and them, and someone who they opened up to about home life.

    I think if they wrote an article, they would have entered the debate with a unique perspective. Anyway, that’s just an example, there are tons of topics they feel passionately about.

    Cheers, Luke

  5. thebigsmoke said:

    Great that you want to share this with your students Luke! Hope TBS will have similar articles in the future you can share also! PB

  6. Luke said:

    Thank you for the reply. Your article was refreshing & insightful. I am a High School teacher and have printed a copy to show a few students.

    “In that regard, I think experiences vary depending on the particular social context of the individual atheist, especially in relation to the country one finds oneself in.” I like this sentence, isn’t this what science teaches us?

    “As an atheist, I don’t consider myself as part of a group or a member of a collective with a particular identity that forms part of my individual narrative. For me it’s
    simply the approach I’ve adopted to consider questions of metaphysics.” I am
    the same.

    “Thanks for your recommendations.The research you refer to and the conclusions it reaches are certainly interesting. I’m not familiar with the particular research you refer to but my initial thoughts are that, assuming the methodology was sound, the only conclusions that can be drawn are in relation to human behavior more generally and the prerequisites that people feel they need to make sense of their existence or to contribute actively to their social environment.”

    I think this is also well said. I really do encourage the books recommended.
    Most of the contributing authors are from academia, associated with
    Universities, Journals, or are specialist researchers. For me, this part “…contribute
    actively to their social environment” deserves the most attention. A lot of
    research seems to lean towards Atheistic groups devoting significant portions
    of their time to trivialising and debunking religion. Their ‘understanding’ of
    such topics is really just simplification. It’s had to take groups of this
    nature seriously when they systematically ignore the relevance of organised
    religion. Without waffling on, id actually say without religious groups in most
    of the world, societies would collapse & crumble. For example, take the
    Salvation Army which is a church run organisation. The services they provide for
    needy Australians each week are incredible. Information on this is easily assessable
    for anyone who can ‘google’ (family/drug counselling, emergency accommodation,
    food, clothing, medical help). On a national level, Church leaders seem to be
    one of the few groups bringing any sort of serious debate or activism to Australian
    political parties. Areas like, Human Rights, Homelessness, and Indigenous
    Issues are just a few of the topics they are outspoken about. I can expand on
    this if anyone would like more examples, there are thousands.

    The gap between rich and poor is widening. MOST evidence
    highlights this. As the gap grows more people will become reliant on church
    groups’ help. I came through University with classes filled with atheists, who,
    clearly suffering historical myopia veered away from bettering the world in a
    humanistic sense, to use logic and reason to declare flying spaghetti monsters don’t
    exist.

    The last few paragraphs have little to do with your article, however I think they are at least thought provoking and worthy of a glance. Thank you again for a good read, it is rare to find something well written! Email sounds good to me.

    Regards, Luke.

    PS, Jen your comment is ridiculous. Any references please?

  7. Ash Imani said:

    Thanks for your comments Troy. Glad you enjoyed the piece. False dichotomies are the surest way to snatch ignorance from the jaws of understanding.

  8. Ash Imani said:

    Luke, thanks for your comments.

    Just to clarify certain points raised my piece in response to your post:

    The 3 paragraphs leading to the last paragraph were intended
    as a lead up to the point I was making in the last paragraph. I was not attempting to suggest that atheists are systematically discriminated against in the same way as religious or other
    minorities are in many places. In that regard, I think experiences vary
    depending on the particular social context of the individual atheist,
    especially in relation to the country one finds oneself in. Speaking only in
    relation to my experience, (I was born into a religious family and was for a
    long time part of a tight-knit religious community) my “conversion”, if you like, to atheism was
    certainly look upon negatively and was the subject of some discussion ranging
    from attempts to persuade to pleading for me to come to my senses to downright
    hostility, but I certainly would not suggest that I was “discriminated against”
    for my atheism.

    The paragraph concerning discourse between religion and atheism was just that. I was speaking in terms of the very general dialogue between the 2 word-views and didn’t intend to suggest an exhaustive list of all participants in that discourse. Certainly, many who identify as agnostic have their own views about staunch atheists, people who consider themselves religious or spiritual more generally have their own views about organised
    religion as an institution, many non-theists are open to supernatural or
    metaphysical phenomenon… and so on.

    In relation to my comment about atheism not compelling any
    positive action, my meaning was simply that atheism in itself does not compel
    any activity in and of itself, whether “good” or “bad”. I meant the word “positive” in it’s strict
    sense. As an atheist, I don’t consider myself as part of a group or
    a member of a collective with a particular identity that forms part of my
    individual narrative. For me it’s simply the approach I’ve adopted to consider
    questions of metaphysics

    Thanks for your recommendations. The research you refer to
    and the conclusions it reaches are certainly interesting. I’m not familiar with the particular research you refer to but my initial thoughts are that, assuming the methodology was
    sound, the only conclusions that can be drawn are in relation to human
    behaviour more generally and the prerequisites that people feel they need to
    make sense of their existence or to contribute actively to their social
    environment. I’m not sure any conclusions can be drawn in this regard about atheism as a method of metaphysical enquiry. But I may be wrong. It might be worth reading further.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I’d be happy to
    continue this discussion with you via email, if you like. Maybe one of the TBS
    staff can forward me your email if you want to keep sharing thoughts.

  9. Luke said:

    “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.”

    This part is interesting. Most relevant research on secularist activism discusses this. Elisabeth Arweck in ‘Secularity and Non-Religion’ – “Although more than half of the respondents believed that atheists are still discriminated against, few could cite any incidents where they felt such prejudice.”

    Sam Harris is much the same. Bellowing he is ‘under- siege’ and they’re all out to get him… This is actually a component of fundamentalism.

    “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.” Scholars are making similar links, its not just the religious…

    you say, “even in its most striking (and some might say deluded) certainty, atheism does not compel any positive action whatsoever.”

    “Research has found that “seculars” (those not affiliated with a religion) are significantly less likely than church members to belonging to other organizations, to volunteer, or to contribute to charity…” (114) Arweck.

    Cool article, do you know of any Atheist group on a local level? My problem is this, science is such a crap way of approaching and understanding religion, but its also a totally a crap way of approaching law, philosophy, literature and all the rest of the arts and humanities. yes, there are aspects of science in all of these , but purely scientific approaches to identifying fashion trends, writing music, and describing political ideals have routinely failed.

    A large majority of Atheist groups I have personally experienced are rather the opposite of intellectual. Despite the claim of being ‘brights’ most of the noise they make is usually something about spaghetti monsters, the devil or their own psychotic interpretation of biblical verses as being obviously universal. Here is something I found interesting in Cimo’s survey, where the question was asked ‘if atheists should focus on debunking religions or making a
    positive identity for themselves’, most of the respondents said they preferred
    to keep the anti-religious edge and almost half said that rituals need more
    attention in their organizations. More spaghetti talk I assume.

    I recommend reading,
    There Is No God:Atheists in America by David A. Williamson Atheism and
    Secularity (Praeger Perspectives) (2 Volumes) by Phil Zuckerman
    Secularity and Non-Religion by Elisabeth Arweck

  10. Troy Alexander said:

    I think you’ll find that most rational people do consider it a lone wolf act.

    Fantastic article btw, Ash.
    It’s frustrating to see some people conflate atheism with Islamophobia (which itself is just thinly veiled racism for the most part). The man’s lack of belief had no bearing on his actions, his prejudice did. Atheism is all about rationality and logic, which is something the murderer obviously lacked, because apparently it was over a fucking parking space.

  11. Jen said:

    It almost seems like a way to use atheism as an excuse to justify a tragic act as a way to deflect on the fact that a majority of attacks are carried out by ISLAMIC fundamentalists. Why aren’t we calling THIS a lone wolf act?

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