It’s been about a week now since news first broke about the murder of Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These three, brilliant, intelligent, young people, with promising futures ahead of them were gunned down in their own home, by a neighbour, over what seemed to have been an ongoing dispute over a parking spot. At first glance the story sounded like another terrible casualty of the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, giving citizens the right to bear arms; which, all things considered, it still is. But as more details about both the victims and the perpetrator began to make the news, a much darker motive for a seemingly senseless crime started to emerge.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46 was an atheist. His victims? All Muslim.
Within moments of this information being made public, the predictable uproar blew up on Twitter with hundreds of people calling for the same kind of of outrage and public outcry, as had been witnessed after the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris last month. Because with the mere mention of this crime having taken place between a non-Muslim perpetrator and three Muslim victims, for some it seemed as though obvious parallels were to be drawn. In those first hours after the story had broken and as people all over the world began waking up to the news, it seemed as though the majority of public opinion was firmly rooted in one of two camps: those who seemed convinced that this was in fact a hate crime, somewhat on par with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, or those who understood that there was a very real difference between the incidents and that atheism at it’s core is not something that can ever be tied in with hate crimes and violence.
But the internet is a place of reactionary statements, where emotional outbursts often take the place of rational thoughts and opinions. There were calls for the more prominent atheists among us, such as Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss to apologise and be held accountable for the actions of this one, lone gunman’s actions. Dawkins responded immediately to these claims via Twitter:
Lawrence Krauss in turn responded to the brimming tensions among those who wanted to connect outspoken atheist voices such as his, with this heinous killing, in an article published on the Huffington Post:
“Let’s be clear about one thing. Hate speech is directed at people, not ideas. To argue that individuals like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any of the other outspoken atheists, including myself, who criticize the doctrines of Islam, or Christianity, are inciting violence against individuals on the scale of the terrorists who espouse Islamic fundamentalism is akin to suggesting that the Enlightenment was fundamentally no different than the theocracies it eventually undermined.”
And whilst I understand why both they and scores of other prominent atheists/skeptics, felt that speaking out against this incident was the right thing to do, I’m absolutely fucking fuming that they were made to feel that way in the first place. Twitter poured forth with similar statements from other members wanting to apologise “as an atheist” for the actions of Craig Hicks. Making matters worse were tweets like the one from a user @lina_serene (whose account has now been deactivated) demanding that all atheists apologise for the shootings at Chapel HIll.
Excuse me? You DEMAND an apology? I don’t fucking think so. I don’t care how horrendous this man’s actions were. I will condemn the actions of anyone who takes it upon themselves to attack, injure or kill another person REGARDLESS of their age / gender / sexuality / race / nationality / religion / whatever; but I will NOT kow-tow to pressures from other people on social media sites, expecting me to somehow shoulder the blame and responsibility of one man’s actions PURELY BECAUSE BOTH HE AND I HAPPEN TO HAVE NO BELIEF IN A DEITY.
Wow, you know, when I type it out like that, plain for all to see, it seems so ridiculous, one can hardly imagine that anyone would even consider suggesting such a thing. Because in being an atheist, all I can really say that I have in common with the Chapel Hill shooter, is the fact that neither of us believe in a god. That’s it. And that’s because that is really all anyone can truly deduce from discovering that a person is an atheist. I know that there are certain other groups of people who would love to associate the term with a whole host of other things, but the reality is, it means just one thing: a lack of a belief in a deity.
And I get pissed off enough as it is, having to explain to people over and over again, that atheism is not a religion, that we don’t have a set of rules to live by, that there is no Grand Poobah who we follow/worship/give praise to or that speaks for us all as a collective. But it’s as if a general consensus of willful ignorance has been adopted by the majority who want to believe that we operate like a religion, so that we too can be held accountable in the same way that we expect of their belief systems. Sorry, but you don’t get to determine what it is we/I stand for or believe in. It just doesn’t work like that.
Now a lot is being bandied about as to whether or not the actions of Craig Hicks on that day can be considered as a hate crime, with a huge amount of attention being paid to his Facebook page, where he posted and shared a lot of atheist memes. At first I was quite interested to see for myself, just what exactly his Facebook page did say, so I spent a good hour or so, trawling back through everything he’d posted over the past three years. What did I find? Well… nothing particularly out of the ordinary as far as the atheist content goes. A lot of the memes he had on there were exactly the kind of thing you’d find on my Facebook or Twitter pages. As has been pointed out time and again, yes there was a post regarding a handheld gun & holster, but lets be honest, if you’re going to make owning guns legal in your country, you’d better be ready to see a bunch of people posting pics of their favourite piece, here every so often.
But in response to the allegation that this guy was some kind of bigot who had killed his neighbours because of their religious inclinations, I found more posts suggesting the exact opposite. Posts about equality for same-sex marriage, for women’s rights, posts about seeing an end to racist attitudes and even a post which fully supported the rights of the Muslim community of New York, in their bid to build a mosque two blocks away from the Ground Zero site. The only thing setting this guy’s Facebook postings apart from mine, were the couple where he posted about his guns. I’m completely anti-gun and not just because I live in Britain. And so i thought about taking to time to copy and paste a few of his posts here to show how I really didn’t think that this guy’s actions could be considered a hate-crime. Because if half the world is trying to use the fact that he posted a lot of atheist memes, to denigrate and tar all atheists with the same brush, well, surely it made sense to look at whatever else he was fond of posting to get a better idea of how the guy thought.
But then I realised: It doesn’t actually matter if Craig Hicks was motivated to commit a hate crime because of the way he may or may not have felt about his neighbours. I mean, sure it matters to the victims’ families, the police and the authorities who are responsible for trying to figure out motive and motivation; but it really doesn’t matter one iota to me.
Because I have no reason to care about this man at all. He is nothing to do with me. We’re not related, we don’t live on the same street, he didn’t harm anyone directly connected to me. What he did was heinous enough without me needing to clarify his motivation for having done it. If I start to try and defend the guy and pick apart his online life as a way of somehow mitigating the actions of someone who just happens to have the same lack of a belief in god as me, then I’m falling into that same trap that everyone else in the mainstream and social media. Craig Hicks does not represent me. Nor does he represent ANY other atheist. In the same way that I don’t represent any other people who don’t believe in ghosts, or who happen to really love fountain pens.
There is NO atheist ideology that we all adhere to. There is no creed that Craig Hicks has disobeyed or dishonored. By committing such an atrocity, he has destroyed the lives of three innocent, young people and in doing so, set himself apart from the majority of the rest of the human race. But he isn’t about to be thrown out of any club for his actions. Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Grayling, Krauss, Boghossian & Degrasse Tyson, aren’t all going to get together and vote for him to be ejected from some imaginary atheist fraternity. It just doesn’t work that way. Craig Hicks happened to be someone with no belief in any gods prior to him committing his crime and now as he sits in his prison cell, awaiting sentencing for said crimes, he remains an individual with no belief in any gods.
I think that all good intentions aside, fellow atheists in the public eye and on the internet, were too quick to jump to apologise for this man’s actions, in the wake of the burgeoning media attention around his alleged lack of beliefs. This was not Charlie Hebdo in reverse. This was not something that required a group of people united in belief, to come together and defend their position, because Craig Hicks’ actions didn’t actually contradict or contravene any code, creed or belief system.
It’s hard for a lot of people to be an atheist in many countries across the world, so when stories like this hit the news, it can feel like any progress we’ve made towards being viewed with less hostility, just evaporates in the wake of sensationalist headlines. But whilst getting to know other atheists online via Twitter, Facebook, You Tube or an online forum might help to bring like minded people together for support (especially for those living in the US Bible Belt, Middle East or other heavily religious countries) what we refer to sometimes as an ‘atheist community’ isn’t actually a congregation made up of people all following the same rules or expressing the same views, by any stretch of the imagination. The only thing we have in common really, is that we all have no belief in any gods. Yes, there seems to be a greater number of people in the ‘atheist community’ who would consider themselves skeptics, rational and scientifically minded, but that generally just happens to be the kind of people who are more likely to question something as absurd and fantastical as some divine creator and the subsequent holy books ascribed to his word.
But having an interest in science, philosophy, theology or the historicity of any religion is not a requirement for being an atheist. You either believe in a god, or you don’t. Everything else is just down to personal preference. We’re not trying to be the perfect cookie-cutter example of any particular ideal. We may share some similar views, but they’re by no means a requirement. We atheists come from every walk of life. From every part of the world, every social class, every race, gender, age, sexuality, political leaning and any other demographic you can think of. We may identify strongly as being atheists, but being an atheist does not determine who we are or what we stand for. So for anyone to dare suggest, to me or any other atheist, that we should associate with, stand for or apologise for the actions of Craig Hicks, a week ago today, pisses me off more than you can probably imagine.
I am sorry that three beautiful, brilliant, intelligent young people had their lives cut short by this devastating crime and my heart goes out to their parents who I feel have shown great dignity and strength in what must be the most difficult time of their lives. My opinion here is in no way intended as any form of disrespect towards them in their time of grief. I feel sorry for them, but I cannot say sorry on behalf of the perpetrator, or some imagined group people believe he belonged to. I did not pull the trigger that day. i did not know Craig Hicks before he murdered his victims and I have absolutely nothing to do with that man and whatever it is that may have motivated him. I am not Craig Hicks. I am not a murderer and I have nothing to apologise for. So as contentious as it may seem, I’m afraid that this atheist, for one, will not be apologising.