Not All Atheists

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by Matt Sheedy

In the wake of this past Tuesday’s tragic murders of Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, much has been made of Craig Steven Hicks’ (the accused) motivation, particularly his alleged atheism and the Muslim identities of his victims. It has been noted, for example, that he was a member of the Facebook groups “Atheists for Equality” and “United Atheists of America,” while a widely circulated quote from one of his social media posts reads: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I…”

One thing that appears unique in the aftermath of this attack is the attempt by some, mostly on social media, to reverse the familiar narrative that compels Muslims to condemn all violence committed by other Muslims by urging the same from those who identify as atheists. In this post, I will suggest a few reasons why this type of comparison isn’t likely to stick and why, more importantly, it helps to show how such generalizations are problematic to begin with.

In a New Republic article by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, entitled, “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists,” she suggests that some level of blame for these murders should be directed at the “New Atheist movement,” which is described as a “contemporary phenomenon of aggressive disbelief coupled with a persistent persecution narrative.” She concludes her piece with the following admonition:

Perhaps this will be a moment of reflection for the New Atheist movement and its adherents. If nothing else, the takeaway should be that no form of reasoning, however obvious to a particular cohort, has a monopoly on righteousness. And no ideology, supernatural or not, has a monopoly on evil.

Throughout her piece, Stoker Bruenig makes a series of evidentiary claims about Hicks’ atheism, noting, for example, that he was an admirer of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. She also makes a distinction between “pure atheism” and “New Atheism,” and claims that the latter fails to define “reason” and is “blind to its similarities to the religions it derides.” She continues:

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.

Stoker Bruenig further notes, citing a 2013 Pew survey, that American atheists are disproportionately young, white, college educated, and male and tend to adopt a “rational approach to complicated socio-political problems.” While not directly conflating this data set with New Atheism, it is suggested that the latter’s antipathy toward Islam, along with its “thoroughgoing persecution narrative” has contributed to a toxic environment of anti-religious sentiment in general and Islamophobia in particular.

A few of Stoker Bruenig’s points strike me as accurate, at least when it comes to the writings and public statements of the figures like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, (whom she also mentions) including their tendency to essentialize religion to “particular texts, creeds, and dogmas,” their lack of critical introspection, and their consistent and disproportionate anti-Islamic rhetoric. Although the demographic data on American atheists as largely young, white, college educated, and male strikes me as an interesting and important variable to consider in terms of how ideology aligns with such things as race, gender/sex, and social class, it remains problematic, to say that least, to exclude the many other atheist identities that don’t map onto this statistical grid. Moreover, to suggest that the writings and charismatic appeal of a few leading figures in a loosely defined “movement” are somehow determinative of the beliefs and practices of all who may fall under the broad category “atheist” is nothing short of absurd. I suspect that many would agree with my supposition here, though the reasons for this, I wager, are hardly self-evident. Here a comparison with representations of Islam and Muslims is instructive.

Unlike “Islam,” there is currently no nation-state or significant militant political movement that is strongly identified as “atheist.” This was not always so, as many will recall the “red scare” during the Cold War, where the “foreign” Sino-Soviet threat contributed to a backlash in the US for those who identified as atheist, which was at the time homologous with communism, (or “godless communism”) much like “Islam” elides with the appellation “terrorist” today. Whereas an atheist’s national allegiance was once called into question, especially in the wake of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg affair (c. 1953)–not unlike John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential bid in light of his Catholicism, or Keith Ellison when he was elected as the first Muslim congress person in 2007–today such perceived external threats have lost their rhetorical force altogether.

A further point to bear in mind was made by religions scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, who was quoted in the Washington Post as follows:

Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University sociologist and atheist who writes on secularism, said he was appalled by the Chapel Hill attacks and that they remind him of those against Jews in Paris recently — “the picking out of someone based on their physical attributes, their clothes, their religious markers and murdering them.”

To be sure, the social production of identities has very real consequences for social relations, particularly for those on the margins, such as Jews and Muslims in the West, who constitute the first and second most targeted groups for hate crimes in the US. Moreover, I would suggest that the public narratives of popular figures of any group formation constitute important sites of affinity for those who consider themselves adherents and estrangement for those who do not, especially in times of social unrest where the tendency to look for an easy scapegoat abounds.

Stoker Bruenig also observers in her piece that atheists and Muslims are among the most maligned “religious cohorts” according to a 2014 Pew Survey, while Hindus and Buddhists enjoy a comparatively warmer reception on account of their having the “least political presence in the United States.” While the observation of “political presence” is a useful one to consider, I would claim that this tells us more about the dynamics of marked and unmarked public identities than it describes perceptions about religious beliefs.

To the extent that American atheists are largely young, white, college educated, and male, (and this appears to be the dominant public perception, in any case, despite what more rigorous data may tell us) their atheism goes largely unmarked outside of explicit public confrontations thereby rendering it largely invisible as “Other” in many social contexts.

Muslim identities, by contrast, are almost always marked as “Other” within the Euro-West, based on such variables as ethnicity, name, (sometimes) accent, custom (e.g., food practices), and so forth, along with certain public forms of piety, such as veiling practices or the wearing of a beard by devout men. As Mayanthi Fernado writes in her book The Republic Unsettled (2014) on Muslim identities in France:

The term Muslims has come to identify, pejoratively, a population of North and West African descent, whose members a few decades earlier were referred to either as immigrants and foreigners, or with terms that marked their ethnicity or national origin. The recent invocation in mainstream public and political discourse of the signifier Muslim signals, then, less the increasing religiosity of this population than a fusion of racial, religious, and cultural bases for alterity. (17-18)

By contrast, even when atheist identities are marked in public, they are (today) largely safe from the charge of any (real or perceived) international alliances that could be considered threatening (including homegrown radicalism) and, moreover, tend to reflect not only privileged gender and racial norms, (as opposed to immigrant or “foreign” identities) but also align with commonly accepted conceptions of self, autonomy, authority, secularism, citizenship, and so forth. Popular atheism, then, may be maligned when it seeks to challenge dominant religious norms in public, but is usually able to hide in plain site by virtue of its various unmarked characteristics.

For these (and many other) reasons, I would suggest that we will not see any mass public condemnation of atheists in the aftermath of this tragedy, nor anything like it in the near future. One thing that the discourse about this attack may help to shed light on, however, is the false equation of “religion” with belief as the primary marker of public identity, suggesting that many other variables (e.g., ethnicity/race, social class, gender, habitus, etc.) are equally if not more important in shaping the way we imagine religious identities to be.

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7 Responses to Not All Atheists

  1. Carl says:

    Excellent write-up. Allow me to go in a direction completely other than what you’ve written. 😉

    Something else that struck me about Breunig’s article was how quickly she assumed this was, shall we say, ‘religiously-motivated violence’ when, so far as I know, Hicks has not assented to this. If so, it seems Bruenig has fallen into the very trap she would denounce were it applied to Muslims: being too quick to assume a particular motivation. So far as I can tell, the media has gotten quite good at refraining from painting this or that terrorist attack as “Muslim violence” until the perpetrators themselves make such claims. It may be an “Allah Akbar” while engaged in the act or a clearer statement of intent when under questioning, but in the absence of such pointers, the media (well, maybe not FOX) tend to be good about basing their descriptions on what is known rather than what is assumed. Bruenig seems to be under no such restrictions.

    Secondly, I assume Brunei would not write an article entitled “The Charlie Hebdot Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Muslims” (interesting aside: “CH” for both!). That is to say, she would (perhaps rightly) push back against narratives that look for this or that percentage of Muslims to speak out before accepting that there are Muslims who deplore such violence.

    If I’m right about both of these, and not just engaging in sweeping assumption for which there is no support, the implication is clear: Bruenig’s larger position is hypocritical.* If it is not incumbent upon all Muslims to denounce terrorism, as is so often suggested, it is not incumbent upon all atheists to denounce Hicks’s actions. If it is malpractice to assume religiosly-motivated violence simply because the perpetrator was Muslim, it is malpractice to assume religiosly-motivated violence simply because the perpetrator was atheist.

    I know this isn’t what your article was about, and my conclusion may be overly reductive, but it seemed worth mentioning.

    *Or, if she is not being hypocritical, we may need to revisit whether we should write articles to the effect that “The Charlie Hebdot Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Muslims.”

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Carl: Thanks for your thoughts on this. If I may pick up on one of your points:

      “So far as I can tell, the media has gotten quite good at refraining from painting this or that terrorist attack as “Muslim violence” … Bruenig seems to be under no such restrictions.”

      For me, part of the problem as someone who is interested in tracing the discursive logic of these debates, is how the first-order claims of certain individuals, such as those who profess a particular religious motivation, come to over-determine our analysis of causation and, in turn, perpetuate narratives that are (often) radicalized and, moreover, tend to essentialize “religion.” One of our tasks as scholars, I would claim, is to place the first order claims of social actors within theoretical frameworks in order to problematize and grapple with their production, logic, effects, etc.

      Personally, I view religious ideology as an interpretive framework that functions to mediate relations in the social world. Examining how the latter shapes the former is, in my opinion, a more fruitful line of analysis since the former is a product of social life and human imagination.

      And I would agree that Stoker Breunig’s argument is hypocritical, though I suspect that it is also intended to point out a double-standard when it comes to what is expected of Muslims and thus serves (at least partly) as a polemic attempting to destabilize conventional narratives in the public sphere (i.e., it likely has a practical aim rather than a strictly analytic one). To me the deeper theoretical problem is one of showing how purported religious identities are filtered or mediated within popular discourse–variously overdetermined by common assumptions about belief and often radicalized, (in the case of Islam) while, it would seem, underdetermined in the case of Hick’s, who is not, despite Stoker Breunig’s polemic, being subject to a widespread condemnation on the basis of his alleged atheism.

      In cases where he is accused based on his atheism, one task for scholars, I submit, is to dig deeper and analyze how and why such positions are produced in the first place rather than assume some one-to-one causal link between alleged or professed intentions and subsequent actions. Here questions of “religion” are always caught up in matter so race, gender, class, nationalism, etc.

      • Carl says:

        Matt, my response to your response. I’ll leave you the last word. I’ve enjoyed the exchange, as usual. :)

        “One of our tasks as scholars, I would claim, is to place the first order claims of social actors within theoretical frameworks in order to problematize and grapple with their production, logic, effects, etc.”
        Certainly. That said, there seems to me a tendency within Religious Studies to too-quickly frame the first-order claim as something other. If the Muslim actor says “I did this because it is Allah’s will,” is a theological position taken by those who respond, in effect, “What is *really* at work here?” We could perhaps flesh this out more, but insofar as religion scholars are (presumably) keen to avoid theological claims—to “taint” the data, if you will—the first-order claims must necessarily be part of the equation.

        “I view religious ideology as an interpretive framework that functions to mediate relations in the social world. Examining how the latter shapes the former is, in my opinion, a more fruitful line of analysis since the former is a product of social life and human imagination.”
        Following my previous comment, is this effectively a theological position? That is to say, might the former actually be a product of an encounter with the divine? (Not saying it is, mind you, but it’s a question we don’t tend to ask much. Not asking that question may well blind us to a set of theological presuppositions that undergird our work.)

        “…I suspect that it is also intended to point out a double-standard when it comes to what is expected of Muslims and thus serves (at least partly) as a polemic attempting to destabilize conventional narratives in the public sphere (i.e., it likely has a practical aim rather than a strictly analytic one).”
        I think the illustration of the double-standard is accidental, though I imagine we’ll have to just disagree on this point. :)

        “To me the deeper theoretical problem is one of showing how purported religious identities are filtered or mediated within popular discourse–variously overdetermined by common assumptions about belief and often radicalized, (in the case of Islam) while, it would seem, underdetermined in the case of Hick’s, who is not, despite Stoker Breunig’s polemic, being subject to a widespread condemnation on the basis of his alleged atheism.”
        Hicks is definitely being subject to widespread condemnation by the Left. Accusations of “Islamophobia” are as common as, um … things that are common. Where Brunei (and others) miss the boat and, by extension undermine their own arguments concerning Muslims and terrorism, is in how quick they have been to attribute Hicks’s actions to a fear of Islam, despite evidence to the contrary (he defended the “Ground Zero” Mosque on the grounds of religious freedom). Hicks is currently undetermined because there is little evidence to make a determination. That has not, however, stopped Brunei, et al from “overdetermin[ing] by common assumptions about belief” and “radicalizing” Hicks.

        “In cases where he is accused based on his atheism, one task for scholars, I submit, is to dig deeper and analyze how and why such positions are produced in the first place rather than assume some one-to-one causal link between alleged or professed intentions and subsequent actions.”
        Agreed.

        “Here questions of ‘religion’ are always caught up in matter so race, gender, class, nationalism, etc.”
        “Always?” Theological position?

        • Matt Sheedy says:

          Thanks for your thoughts Carl.

          On your first point, I am in full agreement, and I think that some scholars would parse this as merging the description of first order claims (i.e., those of adherents) with theoretical analysis. The point for me is to not let first-order claims stand as an explanation for behaviour/action in the world but as an important piece of data to be analyzed. For me, they are a conceptual filter through which things are interpreted. That filter, whether minimally or maximally “religious,” will necessarily be informed by the social context that produces those theologies–for groups as well as for individuals.

          Regarding the second point, I’m not entirely sure if I follow. My point, quite simply, is that the ideas of actors are produced through social relations and not causal mechanisms in and of themselves. They are, rather, linguistic justifications for things going on in the world. If I understand you correctly, the perception of an “encounter with the divine” is a particular way that some may interpret their worlds, though this, I would claim, is nonetheless mediated within the social world and thus cannot be separated from it in our analysis.

          And yes, the double-standard may very well be accidental as this is speculative on my part. That said, her aim is clearly one of moral critique rather than analytic per se.

          While I agree that the facts of Hicks’ motivation remains fuzzy and that Stoker Breunig is overdetermining his character, there certainly is some evidence to suggest such a motivation. In another sense, Hicks’ precise motivations don’t matter, since this has become a flash point event that has stirred already existing tensions between atheists (along with Christians, secularist, and those who identify strongly with the West) and Muslims. It’s touched a nerve that was already pulsing.

          And yes, I take categories such as race, gender, class, and nationalism, etc., as inescapable conceptual grids through which identities and ideologies are produced and mediated. Following this logic, conceptions of religion are caught up in such grids, more and less, which suggests that they must also be interrogated. All of these categories are not always evident in individual cases, I submit, as may be the case with Hicks, but they do become part of the analysis when a larger narrative emerges (as in this case) as others weigh in and re-ignite old battles that implicate these various grids.

  2. Danie de Waal says:

    Well said.

    As a non- academic, the difference between the acts of Hicks, and that of any other believer lies in the fact that we Atheists take responsibility for our own action and do not claim it was mandated by a god or his rules/wants. Whatever I do is also not an Act of a representative of any Atheist but myself.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this Danie. I would, however, like to challenge you on the following point:

      “… the difference between the acts of Hicks, and that of any other believer lies in the fact that we Atheists take responsibility for our own action and do not claim it was mandated by a god or his rules/wants.”

      For me, this statement seems to imply that there is some normative centre or core to atheism or atheist identity, rather than viewing it as a highly contested and always shifting ground of values, ideals, and so forth. I don’t mean to suggest that there are no stable values or ideals that are common with many types of atheism, but rather that there is no consensus or widespread agreement as to what they are. To claim that there is strikes me as a normative assertion of authority, rather than a descriptive one of actually existing realities on the ground.

      Moreover, I would argue that “rules” still exist for those who identify as atheists. The centre of authority may be more diffuse and harder to trace than it is with, say, those who adopt a strict Christian identity, but “atheism” is no less conditioned by the logic of various dominant ideologies (e.g., secularism, liberalism, capitalism, etc.) that structure its “rules” in equally complex ways. One need only look at the differences between, say, 18th century British atheists, vs. atheism in China or Iran today to see these processes at work.

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