Jeffrey Tayler, the Russian-based contributing editor to The Atlantic, continues his series of anti-theistic and pro-atheist articles in Salon, with the latest an analysis of atheism and Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who gunned down three young Muslims in Chapel Hill—for reasons that are completely opaque. Immediately after the shooting, not only theists but also some “social justice” atheists declared that, since Hicks was an atheist, the killing was clearly the product of New Atheism, with at least one person—the noxious C. J. Werleman—declaring that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins had blood on their hands: that this murder was the harvest of their anti-Muslim animus.
I can understand theists making this argument, for, after all, they hate atheists and would pin on us anything they could; but I was a bit surprised at the atheists’ rush to judgment. After all, the motive for the killing wasn’t at all obvious. Hicks didn’t say anything, and still hasn’t, his wife claimed it was a dispute over a parking space (who knows if that’s true?), and Hicks’s own Facebook page, though providing much evidence of his unbelief, gave no clue that he had any rancor against Muslims in particular. The subgroup of atheists eager to pin the crime on New Atheism could be explained only as their way to get back at those people, like Harris and Dawkins, whose ideologies (or age, or gender, or race) they found repugnant or oppressive.
Tayler’s piece from March 1, “Religion’s new atheist scapegoat: Why the Chapel Hill murders weren’t about Islamophobia,” emphasizes the lack of obvious motivation for the murders, but also excoriates those atheists who blamed them on other atheists. He concentrates largely on Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a Ph.D. candidate at the notoriously p.c. Brown University, who wrote a wrongheaded attack on atheists in The New Republic called “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists. ” Her piece not only blames the murders on New Atheism, but indicted the “movement” (whatever it is) for a host of other sins: racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and “modes of thought and expression that privilege educated white men.”
Tayler sticks to the blood-on-the-hands trope, and simply takes Bruenig apart. A good takedown of a bad argument is delicious, and I’ll let you savor it. Here’s just one bit, when Bruenig reproduced a sympathetic tw**t from Dawkins:
She then made this confused argument:
Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted; he doesn’t feel the need to offer an earnest denouncement of these murders because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of. But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason. Yet in doing so, New Atheism tends to simply baptize the opinions of young, educated white men as the obviously rational approach to complicated socio-political problems. Thus prejudice in its own ranks goes unnoticed.
What Dawkins’s tw**t had to do with a lack of earnestness or sincere morality, or “young educated white men,” eludes me. But Tayler has a few pungent words:
Stoker Bruenig then presses Dawkins’ (above-instanced) tweet into service to show New Atheism’s culpability in the shootings, “because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of.” This is textbook begging the question. She has provided no proof – nor has Hicks, nor have investigators – that New Atheism or anti-theism had anything to do with motivating the crime.
Stoker Bruenig then flashes her credentials as a postmodernist and highlights the gender of the atheists (mostly male), their average ages, their high level of education (which Hicks did not share), and conflates all these factors to assert that “the id of New Atheism tends toward ordaining modes of thought and expression that privilege educated white men.”
This statement is, to borrow a phrase from the Honorable “slayer of intelligent design”Judge John E. Jones, a “breathtaking inanity.” None of these factors in any way bear on the veracity of atheism, its merits or demerits, or the “id” presumably impelling its advocates. People of all genders, ages and races would benefit by abandoning stone-age myths and morals – and especially women, who suffer the most from them, with their rights to do as they please with their bodies under threat from Neanderthals with high pulpits and deep pockets, and, in certain well-known parts of the world, their very genitalia threatened by razor-mad butchers. To ignore these realities is to miss the genesis of said “id.”
It goes on in that Hitchensian vein, and Bruening comes out no better. In end, we simply know nothing about Hicks’s motivations, and perhaps we never will. But one thing is for certain: pinning the blame for the murders on the New Atheists is simply dumb, since none of them have ever sanctioned, encouraged, or approved of violence against anyone. They have criticized the tenets of faith and the bad actions they inspire—period. It’s time to stop using this tragedy, and the death of three young people whose lives were all ahead of them, as an excuse to bash your favorite atheist. As Tayler says at the end (and I love his last sentence):
The Chapel Hill murders are a tragedy, and must be investigated carefully. Perhaps Hicks will, after all, unbosom his motive as hatred of Muslims. By doing so, he would not, after all, enhance the severity of his punishment, given that North Carolina’s statutes do not provide for this. Moreover, he could not believably or demonstratively justify his homicidal actions by citing works by atheists or anti-theists. But whatever his motive, one fact remains: the answers, ultimately, to the growing problem of violence perpetrated with religious sanction lies not in more religion (that is, in more superstition and irrationality), but in a collective determination to resolve our problems through reason, discussion, and secularism.
If the promise of youth for the Chapel Hill victims has been tragically shattered, the promise rationalism and the renunciation of dangerous myths, void of prescriptive value ab initio, but openly called into question by atheists over the past decade or so, remains ours to realize.
Reason, consensus, and secularism – I defy anyone to exploit these lofty, laudable concepts to arrive at anything but progress.