Atheism, Humanism, and the Chapel Hill murders

Mohammad Abu-Salha was an artist.

Deah Shaddy Barakat worked to raise money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey to have access to dental care.

Yusor Mohammed was a bridge-builder, who sought to bring women in her community together, all while working on advancing her education.

Early today, their lives were taken in a horrific act of violence committed by this man, Craig Stephen Hicks:

Police said “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking” might have been a factor in the shootings Tuesday evening but said they weren’t dismissing the possibility of a hate crime.

The victims — a newlywed couple and the bride’s younger sister — were shot in the head, sources told CNN affiliate WRAL.

Their families have said they believe the shootings were motivated by hate, and the suspect had threatened the three before, said family spokeswoman Linda Sarsour. The nature of the previous threats was unclear.

All three of the victims, Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were Muslim. And given their religion and comments the alleged shooter apparently left on a Facebook page, many social media users wondered what role the victims’ faith may have played.

The 46-year-old suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with murder.

According to Hicks’ Facebook page, he was an atheist. Not only that, he was also an anti-theist. He didn’t just NOT believe in god. He was actively opposed to theism. In addition to that, he was quite likely an anti-Muslim bigot:

The father of two of three students shot to death in Chapel Hill on Tuesday says the shooting was a “hate crime” based on the Muslim identity of the victims.

Chapel Hill police said Wednesday morning that a dispute about parking in the neighborhood of rented condominiums near Meadowmont may have led Craig Stephen Hicks to shoot his neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh.

But the women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who has a psychiatry practice in Clayton, said regardless of the precise trigger Tuesday night, Hicks’ underlying animosity toward Barakat and Abu-Salha was based on their religion and culture. Abu-Salha said police told him Hicks shot the three inside their apartment.

“It was execution style, a bullet in every head,” Abu-Salha said Wednesday morning. “This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”

Abu-Salha said his daughter who lived next door to Hicks wore a Muslim head scarf and told her family a week ago that she had “a hateful neighbor.”

“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” he said.

Barakat’s family held a press conference in Raleigh late Wednesday afternoon, urging people to celebrate the memories of their family members and urging authorities to treat their deaths as a hate crime.

While I accept that anger over parking spots may have played some role in his decision to kill three people, I don’t for a second believe it was the biggest motivating factor (unlike Richard the broken record Dawkins, who seems to think that repeating an assertion over and over makes it true). Absent any evidence that he suffered from a mental disorder, I’m also not going to attribute the murders to any hypothetical mental illness (unlike many people who are quick to label any action outside of normative behavior the result of a mental illness). Armchair internet psychiatric diagnoses help absolutely no one, and do nothing to advance our understanding of this horrible event. I think his anti-Muslim bigotry was the deciding factor here. And that worries me.

It worries me because there is a contingent of atheists in the online atheist/skeptical community who are anti-Muslim bigots. From pseudonymous online atheists to well-known non-believers like the asshole Sam Harris (who thinks you not only can, but should visually profile Muslims at airports; to the best of my knowledge he’s never explained how you can look at someone and determine they are Muslim, unless you’re assuming that Muslims all share certain physical characteristics, like say, skin color) and the repellent Pat Condell, anti-Muslim bigotry exists in the atheist community.


I am saying that the atheist community has a problem with anti-Muslim bigotry (just as it has a problem with homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and ableism). How could it not? The atheist community is made up of people. People who are members of societies across the planet. Within these societies, anti-Muslim messages are propagated and absorbed by people. Some of these people are Christians. Some are Jews. Some are Scientologists. And some of them are atheists. As an atheist, I am appalled at the thought of sharing a community with bigots. I strongly oppose sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Muslim bigotry (often referred to as Islamophobia). I want no part of any of that shit. But I’m not going to abandon the atheist community nor the atheist movement and let the bigoted assholes have their way. The world is becoming more multicultural and more diverse, and these people are clinging to regressive, discriminatory, oppressive ideas and viewpoints. These ideas and views contribute to ongoing pain and suffering of human beings in the world, and I oppose that.

People who know me know that as an atheist, I do not believe in Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, Hermes, Herakles, Ares, Thor, Isis, Osiris, or any of the other thousands of gods humanity has created. I think that religion contributes more to pain and suffering in the world than it alleviates, and I think the world would be better off without religion (I don’t however, think that religion is the root cause of evil in the world).

People who know me also know that I embrace the values of Humanism, a worldview that stresses the value and goodness of human beings, seeks rational, evidence based solutions to alleviating human suffering, and does not rely on authoritarian dictates from human beings masquerading as laws from a deity.

As I said following the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff, I don’t think members of a group are obligated to denounce the horrific actions committed by other members of that group. Muslims are under no obligation to denounce the actions of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists. Nor am I under any obligation to denounce the actions of the Chapel Hill murderer. Just because you and a murderous asshole are part of the same community, it does not therefore follow that you endorse or condone the actions of said murderous asshole.


I do denounce the actions of Craig Hicks and the underlying hate that IMO was a significant factor in his decision to murder three innocent people. I do this in part to refute the idea that atheists live lives free of morality. I’m sure there will be no shortage of theists proclaiming that this is evidence that atheists are without morality. In my case (and in the case of many, many, many people I know) this is not the case. I also do this to establish what I, as an atheist and a Humanist, stand for and believe in. Unlike theists who often claim that a Christian who commits an act of violence isn’t a real Christian (which is the No True Scotsman Fallacy), I will not deny Hicks’ atheism. He is an atheist. I am an atheist. Like Hicks, I am also an anti-theist. I am opposed to religion. Period. But that’s pretty much it for the similarities between the two of us and I think it comes down to worldviews. While we both are atheists and anti-theists, I am also a Humanist. I do not condone, nor do I endorse violence as a solution to anything, and I find violence is only justified in a limited number of circumstances (such as self-defense). Moreover, unlike Craig Hicks, I am not an anti-Muslim bigot. My worldview includes a respect for the lives of other human beings. In addition, because of my worldview, I want to see less violence, less suffering, and less destruction in the world, not more.

I wrote this post knowing that some people think atheists are all like Craig Hicks: immoral deviants who stand for nothing…who believe in nothing…who have no respect for human life and worship only themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. My post, this post by Daz, this post by PZ Myers, this post by Aron Ra, this post by Heina Dadabhoy, this post by Greta Christina, this post by Dana Hunter, this post by Ed Brayton, this post by Ophelia Benson, this post from the bloggers of Atheist Experience, this post by Richard Carrier, this post by Hemant Mehta, and this post by Rebecca Watson put the lie to that. I’m sure in the coming days, more atheists who oppose violence as a means of achieving any end will speak up and condemn the actions of the Chapel Hill murderer.

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Update 1: Another atheist has eloquently spoken out against the actions of Craig Hicks. You ought to go read what Jason Thibeault has to say.

Update 2: T. Kirabo also has something to say about the Chapel Hill murders over at Notes From an Apostate. Sadaf Ali, over at The Burning Bush, shares her thoughts on the horrific murders.

Atheism, Humanism, and the Chapel Hill murders