Today there is a news story about a man who cold bloodedly shot and killed three Muslims students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A possible motive of the killer is that he is an atheist and hates religion. Regardless of the accuracy of this I find it interesting how many atheist blogs are saying that atheism has nothing to do with promoting violence and that this violence cannot be pinned on atheist beliefs as they can with theistic beliefs.
A typical example of this line of reasoning is from a blog by Joshua Kelly titled Atheism Did Not Kill Three Young Muslims in Chapel Hill:
“I’m not entirely convinced that any motive that might be stated could criminalize the idea of atheism or the atheist community’s aims and goals, even if he were to outright comment something as blatant as: “I killed them for atheism.”
This sounds immediately like a hypocritical statement. But, while it is true that faiths like Islam have inked within their primary tenets of morality mandates to slaughter those who leave the religion or those who outright oppose it, as do Christianity and Judaism with equally horrific language, we must absolutely remember that atheism does not have a series of standard social doctrines. We do not have a Bible. We do not have a Koran. The atheist mentality is stemmed from the simple truth that there are no gods, and thus the individual acts on philosophical bases on his own choosing. This contemptible man, whether over a parking spot or because of an innate psychopathy or any other reason, cannot be said to have killed anyone because his non-god told him to do it. “
I have several problems with this sort of reasoning.
First, it seems to me he is arguing that beliefs do not effect behavior, or have consequences in our behavior. Or at least atheistic ones do not.
Yes, not believing in God does not in and of itself create or hinder a disposition to violence. However, neither does a belief in God. What does determine that is what else is attached to this belief or non-belief. And just as with theism, what is attached can be conducive to violence, it can be against violence, or it can be neutral.
And that is the other thing that bothers me about this reasoning. It treats religion and all religious belief as if they were all the same. But they are not. They are varied in their exact beliefs, in how they practice and manifest their beliefs and how they interact with society. And yes, there are violent passages and exhortations within most sacred works that atheism does not have. But then, there is also much inked into their sacred works promoting social justice, equality, love, and charity. Something atheism also lacks. How these contradictory strains within religion become reconciled and acted upon depends on a great many factors beyond just believing in a God.
Although atheism does not have a sacred work, the same process is at work.
To take just one example, as an atheist do you value rationality above all else and feel that irrationality is at the root of all evil? Combine that belief with the belief that religion is the height of irrationality and has done nothing but evil, and then combine that with a belief that all Muslims are terrorists and responsible for acts such as 9/11, and viola …you have the makings of a killer. A killer looking for a trigger. Or possibly a killer just looking for an excuse. But then many of the deaths attributed to religion are really nothing more than killers looking for an excuse.
And least you think this is all theoretical, I would say that something very like this has already played out in the real world, and not just once. The Soviet Union with its promotion of atheism and its discouragement of religion as an evil. Or Albania under the Soviet Union. Or Communist China. All of these regimes have jailed, tortured, and killed believers just because they were believers. For that matter, you can look at the French Revolution as another example of this.
Neither the belief in God or the non-belief in God by themselves promote or hinder anything. It is what is attached to these beliefs as it interacts with the personal situation of the individual that determines that. And to me, to dismiss Christians or Muslims or other theist’s explanations for why violence committed by their practitioners is not really their fault but then to do the same as they when the killer is an atheist is indeed hypocritical.
Which brings me to my final objection to this line of reasoning. It divorces atheism from being human. Humans are capable of both great and good deeds and also terrible and evil ones. This means that human beliefs are brought in to serve in both human capacities. To say that this cannot happen with atheism seems to me to push atheism out of the realm of human belief and into….I know not where. However, wherever it winds up it winds up then not having any relevance to our existence.
Science can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by science. Philosophy can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by philosophy. Medicine can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by philosophy. Religion can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by religion. All of human thought and experience can be used for good and evil and that good and evil thereby justified by those thoughts and experiences. Except for atheism apparently.
Sorry, not buying it. Not believing in God is a human thought, a human belief, and like all of humanity’s creations it can be linked up with other ideas to do both good and evil. To pretend otherwise is to delude and blind ourselves to reality.