By now, you've undoubtedly heard that a 46-year-old man named Craig Hicks has been charged with killing three Muslim students near the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill on Tuesday evening. Although his wife, and the local police, maintain that he did what he did because of an argument over a parking space, it's been assumed by many in the Muslim community and elsewhere that the shooting was a hate crime, and that Hicks, an atheist who had condemned religion, was motivated by his hatred for Muslims. Some, including the New Republic's Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, have even said that the murders "should be a wake-up call for atheists."
For those not well-versed in the various strands of contemporary atheism, this is a weird turn for the discourse surrounding a tragedy to take—do that many atheists hate Muslims? And is there so much Islamophobia being preached by prominent atheists that they deserve to be blamed for Hicks's actions?
For starters, we should define "New Atheism," which Bruenig calls "the contemporary phenomenon of aggressive disbelief coupled with a persistent persecution narrative." Essentially, New Atheists aren't just satisfied in not believing in God or gods, they want everyone to lose their beliefs as well. The four most prominent New Atheists—Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, sometimes called the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"—have written books about how God doesn't exist and debated priests and rabbis on the topic. Hitchens is dead, but the remaining three are extremely combative public intellectuals who have a history of saying nasty things about Islam.
Their critics—who have multiplied in the past few years—say their intellectualism is just a dressed-up excuse to be an asshole. For instance, when Harris argued we should "profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim"—people were like, Yeah, that sounds pretty racist. The next year, when Dawkins called Islam "one of the great evils of the world," people similarly raised eyebrows. It doesn't help that these guys, and most of their fans, are the whitest of white dudes.
Hicks is one of those fans—his Facebook page was full of New Atheist quotes, including some from Dawkins—and in the wake of the shootings people have been throwing shade at Dawkins, or at least asking him to come out and publicly condemn the violence. And after first sending flurries of Tweets that promoted the parking-spot narrative in the headline, he did eventually make a statement—that was yet another shot against Islam:
Of course, #NotAllAtheists are prone to this sort of dickishness, and some are annoyed that some of the New Atheists' hijinks give nonbelief a bad name.
Chris Stedman, the executive director of the Yale Humanists and an interfaith activist, is one of those atheists. When he attended his first atheism conference in 2010, he was shocked when his fellow attendees put on a sketch making fun of burkas.
"I think the idea behind the performance was supposed to be a parody and critique of practices that oppress women, but it just made them the butt of the joke, " Stedman told me. "The jeers, the laughs, the mocking comments... oof."
He thinks that kind of behavior is insidious and that it's ridiculous to deny that there's no connection between the murders and the rhetoric. "Obviously we don't know what [Hicks's] motive was, but if you're not taking seriously that there isn't something going on here, I think you're absolutely in denial about it," Stedman said. "I think this is should be used as an opportunity for atheists to reflect on how what is intended to be criticism of ideas can become attacks on people."
Other atheists disagree, as you might imagine. JT Eberhard is a vocal new atheist who buys the parking-spot motive offered by cops. In the past he's written diatribes on why "Islam is a shitty religion" but finds it inconceivable that someone could peg what happened in North Carolina on New Atheism.
"Not only have the 'New Atheists' never called for violence, we've consistently spoken against it," he told me. "I'm not sure how you can blame us for violence now." He doesn't even think religious animus has anything to do with what happened. He sees his movement as a social good, because it gives people talking points that can be used against extremists who, for example, refuse to take their sick kids to doctors.
But Sadaf Ali, a Muslim turned atheist activist, says that many New Atheists are just grown-up version of the bullies who called her a "terrorist" as a kid.
"I've had to debate people often who make gross generalizations of Muslims and Muslim cultures," she told me. "People hide their bigotry behind their promotion of atheism, and I think it's disturbing." She has a pretty easy solution to changing the movement's alleged-racism rap: Giving people besides Dawkins and Harris a prominent platform.
"When it's just white men talking about Islam," she said, "it's not really helping anybody."
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