I had not been quick to want to know about the murder of the three Muslims in Chapel Hill, figuring the killer must be some kind of Christian loon. It turns out that the man arrested and charged with the triple murder is a militant atheist who hated all religion. His wife told reporters that he supported gay rights and abortion. From the sound of things, he was a hotheaded left-wing gun nut.
Zeba Khan, a Muslim activist, notes that Craig Stephen Hicks, the man charged in the triple homicide, often went online to proclaim his contempt for religion, and frequently quoted Richard Dawkins to support his spiteful views. Khan writes that American Muslims know all too well that when one of their own commits an atrocity connected to their religious belief, the entire Muslim community is expected to apologize for it. This is unfair, says Khan; individuals commit crimes, not communities. Nevertheless, she writes, we must all reflect on the fact that killers can draw inspiration from any religion, or from the hatred of religion.
She’s right about this. Christians point out all the time that in terms of sheer body counts, more people have died at the hands of militant atheism in its communist forms (Soviet, Maoist, Khmer Rouge, etc.) than at the hands of religious killers. Robespierre, the unholy terror of the French Revolution, began as a righteous, incorruptible man who stood against the injustice of the ancien régime, which included the Church he despised so bitterly. Because he placed the abstract ideal of Justice ahead of basic humanity, he ended as a mass murderer who became the victim of the terror he helped launch.
The core of the problem is our nature. We hate. Or rather, as Dante would put it, we desire, and we desire passionately. We desire the wrong things. We desire the right things too much or too little. We are broken. We are sinners. You do not have to believe in God at all to recognize an obvious truth: that there is something wrong with us.
It is also in our nature to disguise our own tendency to sin, individually and collectively, from ourselves. There is more within Islamic teaching and practice that demonizes the Other than many Muslims are comfortable admitting. “That’s not real Islam,” they say, but it’s hard to convince outsiders. The other day we talked in this space about lynching. Northerners say it was a Southern thing, and mostly they’re right … but it happened in the North too. It wasn’t just the Other. Christians point out that the lynch mobs may have been composed of Christians, but that wasn’t Christianity; they did what they did in spite of Christianity. Technically that’s true, but who can possibly blame outsiders for seeing that as a dodge, in the same way many of us roll our eyes at Muslims who say people like the Charlie Hebdo killers aren’t “real” Muslims?
It is insufficient — indeed, it is morally irresponsible — to say that Christianity had nothing to do with lynching, and with maintaining white supremacy in the South. Let us remember that the Northern abolitionists were also Christians, and they carried their anti-slavery fight on in the name of Christ. But growing up in the Deep South, I heard too many people of an older generation cite the Bible to justify white supremacy and racism. When I was young and foolish and believed that the problem was an intellectual one, and that perhaps these people simply didn’t know the Bible well enough, I once got into an argument with an old white man in which I demolished his argument by quoting Scripture. It mattered not one bit. This was not a matter of an honest misunderstanding of Scripture. This was the case of a man who was determined to hold on to hate, and used a highly ideologized form of Christianity as a justification for his views, which were plainly and demonstrably unchristian.
Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure that fellow wasn’t much of a churchgoer, but he clearly thought of himself as good Christian. I thought about him not long ago while doing some research for a Walker Percy Weekend panel I was thinking of putting together, and reading something (from Percy, most likely) about how until fairly recently, Southerners conflated Christianity with “the Southern way of life.” Sound familiar? How many contemporary Americans see Christianity and “the American way of life” as pretty much the same thing? In France, the opposite is true: laïcité is the French Way of Life, and those who do not defend it — Christians and Muslims both — are suspect in the eyes of many Frenchmen. The point is that religious belief, and anti-religious belief, can easily become an ideology that absolves those who hold it, and scapegoats those who do not.
No faith, no system of ideas, nothing is immune from this dynamic. If you think you and yours are, then that is a sign to you that you are vulnerable to it. We are not all guilty of the evils that members of our community — religious, political, intellectual, and so forth — do in the name of defending that community and its ideals, but we are all in some sense implicated, or responsible. Back in the days of lynching, I imagine that few Christian pastors exhorted the white mobs to murder blacks. But I imagine very, very few Christian pastors spoke out against them, or against white supremacy. Those men are not guilty of lynching, but they are, in a real sense, implicated in the crime by not speaking out when it might have done some good.
There is a distinction to be made between atheism in its pure sense, which describes anyone who does not believe in a god or gods, and New Atheism, the contemporary phenomenon of aggressive disbelief coupled with a persistent persecution narrative. Led by luminaries such as the late Christopher Hitchens and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, New Atheism takes as its core creed a species of Enlightenment liberalism that exalts reason and free inquiry, without bothering to define reason or to explain what is worthy of inquiry, and why. For a school of thought that presents itself as intellectually robust, it is philosophically bankrupt and evidently blind to its similarities to the religions it derides. Consider Richard Dawkins’s response to the Chapel Hill murders:
How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill? https://t.co/pdtwnKqYG3
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 11, 2015
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.
Surveys show that in America, the New Atheists are dramatically overrepresented among young white educated males. What New Atheists consider to be the obvious truth are actually the presuppositions of a particular group of people, many of whom are unwilling to examine their own assumptions. More:
Like any number of global faiths, New Atheism presumes its framework and considers its truth-claims to be either self-evident or demonstrable by whatever means it already assumes legitimate. Its id is a product of the cultural and political landscape in which the majority of its congregants find themselves, which is again true of the religions it nonetheless essentializes to particular texts, creeds, and dogmas. And, like any other religion, its adherents can take its reasoning too far, and cross the line into violence. New Atheists like Dawkins will point out that nothing in New Atheism necessitates violence, and that many principles of the movement directly oppose it; they should be used to this kind of statement by now, as it’s precisely the argument they encounter and dismiss time and time again when it issues from religious faiths.
Read the whole thing. It’s very good.
New Atheism has blood on its hands, just like Islam. Just like Christianity. Just like Judaism. Just like liberal democracy. Just like socialism. Just like nearly every other creed professed by humans, because they — because we — are human. The point is not to draw moral equivalence among these creeds, secular and religious. The point is simply to say that the capacity to inflict suffering, even death, on others is within all of us. I am mesmerized by the postcard photos of the white crowds of the early 20th century enjoying themselves at lynchings. These aren’t stinking, snaggle-toothed mobs of the distant past, but rather people that look a lot like ourselves. They are our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. For that matter, the Germans were at the cultural apogee of one of the greatest civilizations in the world, yet they reverted to barbarism virtually overnight. The examples are endless.
I think of this every year during Lent, when the priest reads the Gospel narrative in which the crowd in Jerusalem yells, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Yep, that would have been me. That would have been you, too, most likely. The Islamist I had lunch with in Dallas a few years ago who told me that wife-beating and murdering gays was justified for the sake of “defending the family” — he was no different from the crowd of men who wanted to stone the adulteress Jesus defended, for violating the moral code. He was no different than the Jews who demanded Jesus’s death, to defend their religion from blasphemers. He was no different than the Germans who cheered for Kristallnacht, because it was cleansing their society of the Jewish bacillus. He was no different than the lynch mob that murdered a black man in my town, in the 1940s, for having sex with a white woman, thus subverting the social order unacceptably.
If you can’t see yourself in any of these crowds, you are not looking hard enough. Religious or atheist, left wing or right wing, gay, straight, American or non-American — you can’t escape it except through grace, and the constant work of standing up to the hater within. Civilization is a thin veneer over barbarism. Beneath our skin lay our skulls. We forget that at our peril. You too, New Atheists. You are no different from those you hate. We are one in the bond of humanity. That is our glory, and that is our shame.
The important question to ask is how, and under what circumstances, do genuine grievances combine with religious beliefs and encouragements to find expression in calculated acts of murderous violence?
The claim that Islamic religious beliefs have no connection with the violent acts carried out in their name and on their behalf is reminiscent of past disputes about the relationship between Marxist -theory and Soviet (and other Communist) practices.
Human beings rarely commit carefully devised acts of terror or mass murder merely to pursue their material interest or express some personal frustration or find sadistic enjoyment—although all such motives might combine with other, more respectable justifications. The Nazis undertook the Holocaust because they—at any rate those who planned and organized it—were deeply convinced that it was the right thing to do in order to purify the world of Jews, whom they considered the most diabolical threat to human decency and social justice. Obedience to authority and division of labor and responsibility played a part at the lower echelons, but people like Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, and others who inspired, designed, and ordered the mass murders were confident that this was the correct and historically justified course to follow. Their beliefs authenticated their behavior.
Likewise the decision-makers in Communist states were convinced that their idealistic goals justified morally tainted means, that building the historically most advanced social system could not be accomplished without eliminating their variously defined and designated enemies who opposed this lofty project. They did not agonize about the relationship between ends and means. Their beliefs were rooted in Marxism-Leninism and its indigenous modifications. At the same time, many Western intellectuals argued that—not unlike the young criminals of poverty-stricken slums—these leaders and policymakers had little choice given the backwardness, isolation, and other dire circumstances prevalent in their societies. In any event, they had good intentions.
Throughout the entire existence of the Soviet Union the dispute about the relationship between theory and practice, or the influence of ideology on policy, persisted. Those dismissing the part played by theory, or ideology, were intent on saving Marxism from disrepute by divorcing its propositions and spirit from Soviet policies and social-political realities. While we cannot blame Marx for the Gulag or the collectivization of agriculture, for one-party “elections” or the personality cults, the proposition that his ideas and ideals had nothing to do with Soviet (and other Communist) systems is quite implausible. Communist states intended to, and did, realize some of his ideas, but this did not lead to the anticipated outcomes. Nationalizing the means of production neither increased productivity nor created a more communitarian and equitable society; the suppression of religion did not make human beings more rational or reasonable. On the other hand, the doctrine of class struggle greatly helped legitimate political violence. Especially consequential was the belief and vision, integral to Marxism, that it was possible to create a morally, materially, and historically superior social system. It motivated the power holders and provided them with justification to purify their society of those perceived as obstacles to the realization of these lofty aspirations.
Similar considerations apply to the relationship between violence in the name of Islam and Islamic religious beliefs. While we cannot blame Muhammad for suicide bombers or specific incitements to acts of terror, the claim that Islamic religious beliefs have nothing to do with the violence they clearly help to inspire and justify is equally implausible. For one thing, the perpetrators loudly, clearly, and proudly insist on being motivated by these beliefs, and we cannot lightly dismiss their pronouncements as nothing but delusions, fantasies, aberrations, and false consciousness. The Koran, after all, like the works of Marx, is a large enough body of writing to allow people of various political or religious dispositions to find in it ideas that will, or seem to, legitimate their impulses and inclinations. Is jihad merely “a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community,” as John Brennan, then antiterrorism adviser of President Obama, now director of the CIA, among others, has argued?
Or does jihad “consist of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam . . . stem[ming] from the . . . fundamental principle of the universality of Islam: this religion, along with the temporal power it implies, ought to embrace the whole universe, if necessary by force,” as stated in the Encyclopedia of Islam?
Does the profound, religiously inspired contempt for, or hatred of, “infidels” influence behavior? And if segments or fragments of the Koran conflict with its peaceful and tolerant teachings, there are plenty of imams in many mosques who emphasize the aggressive and conflict-oriented themes of the sacred text. It remains to be determined who is entitled to interpret the Koran, who are the most authoritative and influential interpreters, extremists or moderates.
In any event, Islamic radicals are able to find in their religious beliefs a point of departure for the rejection and denigration of secular Western societies, of their alleged immorality and decadence. These religious convictions give rise to a sense of moral superiority that helps justify the violent expression of the hatred of the societies they blame for their rootlessness (if living in the West) or their political and economic inferiority (if citizens of Arab nations). Hence the desire to create a “caliphate,” a large theocracy that would replace insufficiently devout Arab societies and possibly some Western ones as well.