When Greg Epstein, prominent atheist and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, first heard about the tragic murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina Wednesday morning, he was shocked for the victims, but otherwise felt distant from the situation.
“It kind of went in one ear and out the other, unfortunately,” Epstein told ThinkProgress.
But as the day wore on and it was revealed that the suspected killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, was almost surely an atheist like himself, Epstein rushed to his computer to learn more.
“I went on Facebook and I looked up the name of the alleged shooter, and I had 27 mutual Facebook friends with him,” he said. “That knocked me over.”
Epstein, who is also chaplain of Harvard University’s Humanist community (a group of mostly atheists, agnostics, and skeptics), explained that most of the friends were people he had met while touring the country to promote his book — people he said were, like Hicks, “actively following the atheist and secular movement.” Hicks’ atheism and anti-faith views, evidenced by multiple posts on his Facebook wall praising unbelief and criticizing religion, have become a fixture of news coverage surrounding the killings, with the victims’ families and over 100 Muslim groups demanding that the murders be investigated as a hate crime.
The shooter’s exact motives remain unclear — police are initially investigating it as a dispute over parking, although they’re not ruling out the possibility that it was also a hate crime and the FBI has now opened its own inquiry into the incident. But as the case moves to court and scrutiny of Hicks’ beliefs intensifies, a debate has emerged within America’s growing atheist community over how to grapple with the idea that one of their own may have killed in the name of non-belief.
Many atheist groups, of course, were quick to decry the killings on Wednesday, with American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, and other organizations tweeting or releasing statements expressing solidarity with the slain students. The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix in Arizona even held a press conference to offer condolences for the victims, with atheist State Rep. Juan Mendez saying “There’s never an excuse for this ignorant kind of murder. As a humanist, we value all lives.”
Others, however, were more defensive about the media’s focus on Hicks’ atheism. The Freedom From Religion Foundation lamented the student deaths in their statement, but also distanced themselves from Hicks, saying “he is not in our database.” Similarly, Richard Dawkins — prominent British atheist and author of The God Delusion, which Hicks “liked” on Facebook — swiftly condemned the deaths on Twitter, but also criticized those who tried to blame atheism.
The Chapel Hill murderer was an atheist. People are DESPERATE to blame his atheism. But the police now say his motive was parking dispute.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 11, 2015
Hemant Mehta, creator of the popular blog “The Friendly Atheist,” was also skeptical about whether Hicks’ unbelief should trigger widespread self-examination within atheist community. He noted that while he felt “devastation for the victims” after learning about the shootings, he wanted more information about whether or not the alleged shooter was motivated by “anti-theism,” a particular subset of atheism that is antagonistic towards religion.
“I think it would be silly to claim ‘Well, he wasn’t really an atheist,’” Mehta told ThinkProgress. “But did that have any bearing on what happened? I don’t know what the answer to that is. That’s not to excuse what he did, but I want to know what the facts are.”
Atheists such as Epstein, however, feel that the argument over Hicks’ reasoning dodges broader issues.
“I don’t think [atheists] can afford, intellectually or morally, to sit around and speculate about the motive,” Epstein said. “Because the point is we will probably never know what he was thinking in that moment, but we do know, at the minimum, that this is a man who seemed deeply committed to anti-theism, which [according to Hicks] is the pursuit of the elimination of religions from the world.”
Epstein insisted that anti-theists are not “bad people” and that many are “humanitarians,” but noted that some of their statements could be misconstrued or taken out of context. Hicks’ Facebook page boldly claims affiliation with this position, with a header image showcasing the word “anti-theism” written in red letters underneath a quote that reads “Of course I want religion to go away.”
“If I identify with religion, and someone says, ‘all religions should be wiped out,’ then I’m not going to assume that that person has violent intentions towards me necessarily,” Epstein said. “But I am going to assume that that person, in some way or another, looks at me as less than a good neighbor.”
“It doesn’t feel like a peaceful statement to me,” he added.
.@RichardDawkins we may never know Hicks' full intent but atheists must avoid collective blame of religious people if we want same benefit.
— Greg Epstein (@gregmepstein) February 12, 2015
Mehta, on the other hand, wanted more evidence before blaming anti-theist rhetoric, and likened the situation currently facing atheists to instances when moderate Muslims are asked to collectively condemn or apologize for the actions of radical jihadists.
“I know there are so many people, atheists included, who are saying, ‘This is because of the rhetoric of certain vocal atheists and the way they talk about Islam,’” Mehta said. “But we don’t know that … I know Muslims go through something very similar, [such as] when Charlie Hebdo happened. And they’re like, ‘Dude, they’re not following the faith I follow.’”
Still, Mehta acknowledged that it all felt a little too close to home: he noted that the alleged shooter had “liked” his blog on Facebook. Also, he and Epstein agreed that the best possible public response of the atheist community, regardless of the shooter’s motive, was one of compassion: just hours after the shooting occurred, the Foundation Beyond Belief launched a fundraising website to support the campaign of Deah Barakat, one of the victims of the shooting, who was raising money to offer dental care to Syrian refugees before he was killed. Mehta is on the board of the Foundation Beyond Belief, and Epstein is asking the Harvard community to donate to the fund. At present, the website has already raised almost $16,000 for the cause.
“If Humanists and atheists want to be known for reason, I think we also want to be known for compassion,” Epstein said. “And it is our responsibility to demonstrate compassion.”