Tribalism, empathy, atheism, and Chapel Hill

In the rush most Big Name Atheists are making to disavow or diminish the role Craig Hicks’ atheism played in his murdering three Muslim students earlier today, I am not shocked at all that some — most, even — of these Names are the same people who demanded that every Muslim disavow the actions of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre or else be judged complicit. Nuance goes right out the window when viscerally reacting to a traumatic event, and doubly so when your instincts incline you toward protecting The Tribe. Nor am I shocked at the need by some to attempt to perform contrafactual judo in order to attack the intersection of identities that they most easily consider The Enemy Tribe, pinning it on Them, Not Us. Even when the “Them” doing this are more proximate to the problem, insofar as they are the ones advocating against the pluralists and the tolerant liberals and the “Social Justice Warriors” who want people to stop being assholes to one another. All in service of defending The Tribe of Atheism against the heathen Religious who are trying to sully our good name by holding us to account for an antitheist murdering some religious folks.

I’ve said innumerable times that knowing only that someone is an atheist is insufficient information to make the determination as to whether or not they’re a good person. Dictionary atheists — those who staunchly defend the idea that Movement Atheism should be solely about antitheism and must not let our mission creep — reacted quite astonishingly antipathetic to the idea of Atheism Plus. They were evidently quite put out by the idea that one should be more than just atheist, that people who also cared about humanism and feminism and anti-racism anti-ableism and LGBTQ rights might want to find one another, befriend one another, and provide one another with support.

These people have decided that “The Movement” should only be about atheism, and that we should be a granfalloon Big Tent and we should all overlook the nasty behaviour of certain quarters of atheism. Given that said behaviour makes the environment generally toxic to various underclasses and makes the movement inaccessible to all but the whitest, dudeliest, most “un-PC” jackasses whose idea of “edgy” is telling racist or rape jokes as though nobody’s ever said shitty things about women before, this functions as entitlement over an environment.

So we pluralist folks, who think it’s not okay to be unnecessarily cruel to underclasses, who think it’s actually more complicated than simply attacking someone’s religion when they are the smallest minority in a geographical location, who realize that one should take care not to fan the flames of racist anti-Islamic sentiment that are already burning all too bright here, we are The Enemy Tribe to the people who believe themselves to “own” Movement Atheism. And the pluralists are functionally ceding that space, ceding The Movement with its power cores to the entitled and reactionary and libertarian factions, fracturing The Movement into several (and thus why I try to refer to the umbrella as Movement Atheism rather than The Movement). The lion’s share of celebrity power and recognition goes, as it always has, to the entitled old white men, and scraps go to those minorities and underclasses who agree with their functionally conservative and often insular views. And they get to wear their anti-Islamic sentiments with pride, without any care for what they’re actually doing to this functional underclass within our society.

An environment arises where actual Militant Atheists — as in that one comic we’ve all seen — might actually carry around a gun instead of a latte. They might, in their zeal against religion, get caught up in the anti-islamic rhetoric spouted by any of their Thinky King Leaders. They might, as Craig Hicks did, become steeped in this anti-islamic sentiment and take it that dangerous step beyond believing that someone’s BELIEFS are wrong, to letting that belief become a contributing factor in whatever calculus is necessary to go to someone’s apartment and line three twenty-year-olds up and shoot them each in the head, ostensibly over parking. As though a parking dispute is ever a killing offense.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: judging only by the facts that we know about this case, and those asserted by friends and family, including repeated confrontations of the three Muslim students over effectively nothing, Hicks clearly had more bones to pick than mere parking with Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. According to their friend, Hicks, armed with a rifle, confronted them over being too loud while they were playing Risk. This was not an isolated incident where he shot them in the heat of the moment over parking. This was him going to their apartment and executing them all. He had a speed loader with him, and at least one reload, and he put bullets in all their heads execution-style. It was premeditated. He was angry over yet another trivial thing that those Muslim kids had inconvenienced him with, and so he murdered them.

We have a real problem of islamophobia in this country (and anyone who says “Islam is not a race” is both technically correct and an extraordinarily terribly shallow thinker). This is separate and distinct from the actual harms Islam as a religion has contributed to, especially considering Christianity has contributed to many of those same harms in many of the same ways. We have real problems of racism here, which absolutely contribute to the prevalence of “let’s profile all the brown people” advocates, like Horseguy-slash-Thinky-King Sam Harris. We have a real problem within our “communities” with facile, shallow thinking with regard to the nexus of fear-of-other, and hatred of people who are religious, when we should be talking about the ideas.

Dictionary atheism absolutely contributed to this inability of our community to present a good defense against this sort of bad image we get when someone in our flock turns out to be a wolf. Dictionary atheism divorced from humanist pluralism provided the environment in which this antitheist stewed and became willing to murder those Muslims. Yes, dictionary atheism entails only the disbelief in gods. Building a movement around that, building a philosophy around that, absolutely requires some measure of humanism, as a natural consequence of the fact that there are no gods and thus no justice except what we humans make. We have only ourselves to rely on, so how we treat one another is paramount.

The attacks on any effort to bring into Movement Atheism any sense of empathy, any attempt at pluralism, damning all of that as “just like religion”, does nothing to endear dictionary atheism to me, and inclines myself, and many others like me, to be more willing to team up with religious folks to right injustices caused by society than to join the granfalloon of “people who got the God question right”. Now, I’m not going to suddenly convert to any religion — trust me, that is strictly out of the question. But I AM going to advocate that maybe we irreligious folks need something more than mere atheism to bind us and provide us a moral compass.

Humanism is the obvious way to go here, but I’m more or less happy with any moral compass that considers murder, rape, violence, bigotry, and inequality generally wrong. And there’s zero guarantee — as Hicks’ actions prove — that being a dictionary atheist gives you any sort of moral compass whatsoever. Sure, we can rightly say that atheism qua atheism didn’t contribute to their deaths — the mere fact that he was an atheist means there was no god that Hicks was killing in the name of. But that doesn’t mean that the culture he was steeped in contributed nothing, obviously.

But what are we doing instead of damning the actions of this man as against our beliefs, since we don’t have beliefs generally? Well, we’re disowning him as an atheist, inventing improbable conspiracy theories in order to call him a false flag [EDIT: link to someone’s Facebook wall removed on request]. Or, eliding all the context of an ongoing escalation of bullying by someone who clearly disdains Islam in a country that’s doing nothing less than whipping up furore against The Muslim Terrorists at every opportunity as part of a grander strategy against terrorism. Or, once again going with the mental instability escape hatch that lets us damn people with mental illness and keeps us from having to think any deeper about the actual influences on this man’s philosophy.

What’s more, there’s no evidence of mental illness here; this “fact” about Hicks was almost certainly invented by people who either think one has to be mentally ill to shoot people, per the narrative invented to defend all privileged folks who commit heinous and obscene acts of violence against underprivileged classes, or who simply need some, ANY, excuse to absolve themselves of shared responsibility for an environment in which a white male vocal antitheist might actually be racist enough to attack Muslims for being Muslim (and thus being both a visible minority, and visibly religious in a particularly widely vilified religion). There’s certainly far less evidence of mental illness here than for every single other radicalized element of a fringe group that feels entitled to something and feels like they’re not getting what they deserve. This is just another part of the media narrative where if you’re brown and kill someone, you’re a terrorist; if you’re black, you’re a thug; and if you’re white, you’re a misunderstood mentally ill lone wolf.

The reality is, in the current cultural zeitgeist, with the entitlement narrative and the “American Dream” and the reality of being a white man promised everything but actually still being inconvenienced day-to-day by all these alien encroachers on his space, there has emerged an actual trend that should be examined, wherein 97% of mass-shooters are male, and 79% are white.

We see this all over the place. We see this sort of base tribalism and can recognize it when we see MRAs simultaneously praise Elliot Rodger as a hero for going on an antifeminist rampage, and do whatever they can to minimize that his antifeminism might have played any sort of factor in his attempting to murder a lot of women (but failing to get a high dead-woman count thanks to failing to gain access to a women’s student dormitory). We see this when Christians deny the Christianity of anyone who kills in the name of Christ over ostensibly Christian values like being anti-homosexuality or anti-abortion. And we see the inverse happening in our own ranks, when our Thinky Kings attack all Muslims, demanding that they repudiate the Charlie Hebdo attacks individually and if they aren’t on record as doing so, they are therefore complicit. And these same people balk at the idea that atheism might have contributed to the antitheist’s latent racism and are asked to condemn this act of violence.

Why can we see these patterns outside our tribe, but can’t see the exact same patterns within? We are generating honest-to-goodness radicalized “militant atheists” to the point where we now have to revise that old meme cartoon. That’s a problem, and it’s one we and only we can address.

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Tribalism, empathy, atheism, and Chapel Hill
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8 thoughts on “Tribalism, empathy, atheism, and Chapel Hill

  1. 1

    the same people who demanded that every Muslim disavow the actions of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre

    I’ve been overwhelmed by the flood of moderate NRA members rushing to repudiate his actions.

    Well, not really.

  2. 4

    I am in complete agreement with everything you say here; I think the connection between disappointed entitlement of members of the most privileged classes and violence (especially mass violence) is spot-on (indeed, this has been the case for much of human history, for one very simple reason: the marginalized, by definition, generally lack the power to seriously harm the privileged). The self-unaware, hypocritical tribalism on display would be hilarious if the consequences weren’t so serious. It really is disturbing me that so many people seem incapable of setting their group affiliations or identity categories to the side for one minute to acknowledge, without hedging or defensiveness, that the murder of three people who were harming no one is simply unacceptable. When the priority is defending the label “atheist”, taking precedence over even repudiating unjustifiable violence, something is very, very wrong.

  3. 7

    What’s more, there’s no evidence of mental illness here…

    Exactly, this is just rampant speculation based on no real evidence and that kind of rumor mongering is not helping. Also, blithely blaming this on mental illness just furthers the stigma against the neuroatypical.

    And these same people balk at the idea that atheism might have contributed to the antitheist’s latent racism and are asked to condemn this act of violence.

    There are some who are unwilling or unable to allow themselves to seriously consider things that run contrary to their closely held beliefs and values, and some who have great difficulty seeing their own hypocrisy even when it’s apparent to others. And sometimes those categories overlap too.

    We are generating honest-to-goodness radicalized “militant atheists” to the point where we now have to revise that old meme cartoon. That’s a problem, and it’s one we and only we can address.

    This is a frightening observation. The tough question is how to fix this mess? Is there a way to marginalize such instigators even when they enjoy the benefits of so much privilege, or is there a way to start holding them accountable for their pernicious influence?

  4. 8

    And there’s zero guarantee — as Hicks’ actions prove — that being a dictionary atheist gives you any sort of moral compass whatsoever.

    Multiple citations of Hicks’s Facebook postings indicate he does have a moral compass, or at least professed a (mostly) reasonable set of ideals. He then turned around and violated those ideals – particularly those against killing people.

    Reports have it that in person Hicks often acted with belligerence and rage, contradicting his online persona in many ways. Still, we can’t claim he had no awareness of a better mentality, just that he failed to maintain it in his own behavior.

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