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.