Yesteday Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by one Craig Stephen Hicks, who later turned himself in.
Like me, Hicks is a vocal anti-religion atheist. Unlike me, he murdered three people. Unlike me, the victims were good people. At least one worked for a charity dedicated to the dental care of people such care is not ordinarily available to.
So what are we to learn from this horror?
At least one Islamist group is saying the incident shows that terrorist attacks have nothing to do with religion, presumably even if the perps shout “Allahu Akbar” as they pull the trigger. Several prominent atheists are saying that since (they say) it wasn’t Hicks’ atheism that led him to these murders, the fact that he’s atheist is irrelevant.
I hope the first assertion doesn’t need debunking. It’s clear that one attack apparently not motivated by religion doesn’t absolve other attackers from religious intent. The second assertion seems equally wrong to me, but lots of people seem to disagree, so I’ll try to explain.
I’ll begin by saying that I don’t believe Hicks’ atheism was a motivation for his acts of murder. That doesn’t make much sense. He doesn’t seem to have murdered those people in the name of atheism nor to have used his atheism to justify his acts after the fact (as far as we know at this point).
But I can’t, in good conscience, distance myself from Hicks’ acts, as a fellow atheist. I can’t pretend that his atheism is not relevant to this discussion. Here’s why.
We atheists propose that you can be good without god. We tend to say that religious dogma is neither necessary nor sufficient to provide a moral compass. We pride ourselves on fleeing or disregarding religious dogma and trusting our human values of what is right and wrong to guide us. We all tend for the most part – naked and alone - to agree about the broad strokes of human values. Religion rather than atheism so often seems to go against those human values.
I agree with all of this.
But I also disagree with Muslims who say that attacks obviously motivated by Islam are nothing to do with Islam. I disagree with Christians who say that the murder of abortion providers has nothing to do with Christianity. The particular fallacy employed here is called “No True Scotsman”. I don’t think Muslims can argue that those Islamists who do terrible things are not true Muslims. I don’t think that Christians can make the same excuse about their own. And I don’t think we atheists can do that either.
I think we have to admit that Movement Atheism has largely failed in how it has treated the story of these murders . We can’t dismiss Hicks as Not A True Atheist without negating our own criticisms of theological types in similar situations. I think we have to admit that atheism fucking well should respond to the familiar ‘criticism’ of theists:
From where, exactly, do we get our moral compass?
Because my moral compass is sure as absolute motherfucking shit nothing at all like Craig Stephen Hicks’.