Atheist Terrorism! Hit the Deck!

By now, everyone has probably heard about the tragic events in Chapel Hill that unfolded just two days ago.  It should go without saying that these killings were an act of pure barbarism, and my empathy is with the family and friends of the three people gunned down in cold blood.  Of course, given today’s highly polarized climate, I feel compelled to make that clear.

Now.

I’ve been fascinated by the transformation of this story over the past day.  As of yesterday morning, this was a tragic murder, but nothing more.  As of last night, it’s become a potential hate crime, with media outlets competing with one another to leap on what is apparently the first atheist hate crime ever committed.  What fascinates me is how easily this conclusion was drawn by a media that is often reticent to claim a suicide bomber who screams, “Allahu Akbar,” before killing themselves and 30 others as a religiously-motivated killer.  Apparently, the mere fact that the victims were Muslim and the killer was atheist is enough to support the claim of a hate crime here, despite the complete dearth of evidence to suggest that.  But let’s go in order by addressing the claims being made, then we’ll wrap it up by discussing why everyone’s so eager to get on this bandwagon.

The Western media is refusing to cover this as a hate crime because of their bias

This is an easy one to start with, because it’s morbidly hilarious.  Almost every mainstream media outlet in the West is wagging their fingers at the mainstream media (as though they aren’t part of it) and claiming that no one is talking about the potential hate crime.  So far, Al Jazeera America, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and pretty much every other outlet is covering this as a potential hate crime.  Even Fox News is covering it as a potential hate crime (though I’ll grant that they’re definitely not running this as a top story).  At this point, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been confused about the definition of “mainstream media” my whole life.

This was clearly a hate crime

Well, not really.  If it was, it is all the more abhorrent.  But currently, everyone who’s actually involved with the case has said that it appears to be the result of a long-running dispute over parking spaces and other bad-neighbor behavior.  There’s nothing to suggest a hate crime, aside from the fact that the victims were Muslims and the killer an outspoken atheist.  Speaking of the latter…

This was clearly motivated by atheism

Again, not really.  More evidence may turn up in the coming days, but nothing that’s being reported actually points to this killing having anything to do with atheism.  The strongest correlation any media outlet has drawn was a statement from Hicks’ Facebook page:

Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.

Is his statement harsh?  Of course.  Is it an unpopular opinion?  Very.  Does it in any way point to a desire to harm others, never mind a specific desire to harm Muslims?  Not even a little bit.

In fact, there’s nothing in Hicks’ atheist rhetoric to suggest that he was specifically anti-Islam.  Most of his posts are about Abrahamic religions in general.  And none of those posts incite violence.  When combined with the constant pictures and rhetoric about guns, it certainly paints the portrait of an extremely angry, potentially violent man.  But it doesn’t show an anti-Arab bigot.

Again, evidence may be uncovered in the coming days that more clearly points to Hicks’ atheism being the primary motivation in this case.  If that happens, I will be extremely saddened and absolutely will want atheists (insofar as we have an atheist community) to examine our rhetoric and see what kind of changes are needed.  But at present, there’s nothing to suggest that this crime was motivated by atheism.

Terrorism?

This is not a claim being circulated by most major outlets, but multiple opinion pieces are demanding to know why this isn’t being labeled as atheist terrorism.  After all, we were labeling the Charlie Hebdo attacks as terrorism within minutes of their being reported.  Doesn’t that show bias?

Actually, no.  It shows that most people understand the definition of terrorism.  Terrorism is the use of violence (or the threat of violence) in order to incite fear in a group of people, generally in order to achieve a larger goal.

The Charlie Hebdo killings were quite clearly an act of terrorism.  An organized group of Muslims killed people who drew cartoons about Mohammed, in order to make others afraid of doing the same thing and stop people from drawing those cartoons.  There’s a reason I italicized that last part.  If the people in that case had simply killed those cartoonists because they offended someone’s religious beliefs, then it would not be classified as terrorism.  But the act itself was not the end goal; the terror it inspired was.

Now, let’s look at the killings in Chapel Hill.  Unless we uncover a manifesto from Craig Hicks that tells us he was trying to make all Muslims afraid of taking his parking space, then there’s nothing to support this as a terrorist act.  At this point, Hicks’ ultimate goal appears to have been killing three people he didn’t like.  As pointed out, there’s little evidence to suggest that he was motivated by anything other than a personal vendetta, and there’s absolutely nothing to indicate that he intended this action to send a message to any larger community of people.

So why is this narrative so exciting?

It seems fairly clear that the media (and a good chunk of the public) are perversely thrilled at the idea of a hate crime inspired by atheism.  And it’s fairly easy to understand why. It’s a great narrative that finally gets to spit in the face of all those arrogant atheists who keep claiming that no one ever killed in the name of atheism.

Finally, we can point to this and tell atheists how wrong they were for saying that a lack of belief in a god has never been the prime motivator for atrocity.  At last, they’ll be silenced, because now, one of their own has committed a hate crime.  Suck on that, Dawkins.

The fact remains that atheists are the least-trusted group in America.  Anyone confused on this point can feel free to look up the multiple studies that have been done on the subject.  Or you can just look to the fact that Obama is the first president to acknowledge atheism as a valid belief system during this year’s Prayer Breakfast.  Or that far fewer people would vote for an atheist to be president than would vote for a female, gay, or Muslim one.  And one of the most hated atheist talking points is that there’s never been a killing in the name of atheism, because it’s never really been a point that could be refuted well.

So it’s perfectly understandable that the hate crime narrative is popular.  It grabs hold of the religious fervor surrounding this issue and pulls down a group of people who are often viewed as smug or arrogant.  But the problem is that the hate crime narrative, at this point in time, isn’t supported by any of the evidence.