Perhaps Mere Atheism Really is Sufficient For Some People

Anatomy of a Murder 2
By D. Wiberg at en.wikipedia

Following the murders of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, NC, and the arrest of a suspect who appears to be an atheist, Neil Carter (Godless in Dixie) wrote a post in which he made a couple of interesting points which are sure to be controversial in some circles. First, Neil suggests that religious ideology should not be blamed for murders committed by religious zealots. Second, he says that atheists should "have an ongoing discussion about prejudice and bigotry within our ranks..." and should be part of groups that reinforce humanist values.

I think these points are worth some discussion. I recognize that people will hold different opinions on both of them. I think it would be great if we could acknowledge that differences of opinions - even of such important subjects - can be held without needing to condemn those who might hold different ones from our own.

Religious Ideology and Murder

Should religious ideology be blamed for murders committed by religious extremists, and if so, how much blame seems appropriate? Referring to the 1994 murder of a physician by Christian extremist Paul Hill, Neil writes:

You can argue that his ideology didn’t provide sufficient condemnation for retributive murder, and perhaps there’s some room for that discussion. But it’s simply not fair to lay the blame for his actions at the feet of his theology. Anyone who understands that ideology well knows that even for theonomists Jesus’s censure of retributive violence in the New Testament trumps that element within the Mosaic law. Hill should have understood that, but he didn’t. Was that the fault of his theological system? No, it was the result of a dysfunctional personality.

As tempting as it is to blame all murders on the result of a "dysfunctional personality" or other psychological problems, I am not sure that such a conclusion is warranted. As much as we'd like to conclude that murder is so abhorrent that anyone who does it must be seriously disturbed, some who murder appear to be relatively free from psychopathology. Some murderers certainly do have psychological problems, but murder sometimes happens when relatively normal people find themselves in extreme situations too. If we could dismiss murder as being driven by psychological dysfunction, we wouldn't have to face the reality that it is something of which most of us are capable in certain circumstances. We might even be able to deny our own murderous impulses.

But while I think it is a mistake to suggest that people who murder are necessarily afflicted with dysfunctional personalities or mental illness (and this is admittedly a pet peeve of mine), that is peripheral to the question here. What role - if any - does the religious ideology of the murderer play? It seems to me that it goes to motive. When a murderer tells us that he or she killed because of his or her religious beliefs, I'm at least somewhat inclined to believe it. That does not mean that the religious ideology should receive 100% of the blame, but it suggests to me that it would be a mistake to disregard it altogether. Would Paul Hill have killed if he was not a Christian extremist? I have no idea. Maybe he would have. But I suspect that the circumstances surrounding his murder (like the victim) might have been very different.

If Neil is suggesting that it is unfair to place 100% of the blame for murders committed by religious extremists on religious ideology, then I must agree. If he's suggesting that religious ideology, including that which often seems to condone or even promote murder, is blameless, I cannot agree. Hill's beliefs deserve critical examination. At minimum, they seem relevant to motive.

Atheism and Humanism

On his second point, Neil writes:

The atheist community needs to have an ongoing discussion about prejudice and bigotry within our own ranks just as any other community does. Unfortunately xenophobia, racism, and intolerance are present in our community just as much as they are in anyone else’s.

While I have finally come to terms with the fact that there is no atheist community, doing so has not been easy and has taken me quite a while. I bring this up because I believe there is a crucial difference between Hill - a man who was a member of a group with a recognizable shared theology - and atheists who lack any sort of shared ideology. Still, if I substitute "the atheist community" with "atheists," I can agree with Neil's point. It does make sense for atheists who are interested in prejudice and bigotry to talk about these things. At the same time, I have a hard time accepting the notion that all atheists should necessarily spend time talking about these things (or anything else for that matter). I think it is okay that not all atheists are humanists.

Neil wants us to talk about things like bigotry, xenophobia, intolerance, racism, and sexism. He has every right to attempt to persuade us to do so, and he should be encouraged that many of us have been trying to talk openly about these things. Neil seems to assume that we all share his values (e.g., tolerance, opposition to discrimination, a preference for constructive communication, a rejection of tribalism), but it is clear that some atheists do not share these values. Some of those talking about such topics have reached very different conclusions from those Neil has reached. And so when he suggests that we should "be connected to groups that deliberately reinforce those values in order to make them stick," he is referring to his values, values which are not shared by all atheists.

I can relate to the desire Neil is expressing here. Most of us believe that our values are preferable to the alternatives. But I think we need to be careful about assuming that all - or even most - atheists share them. Again, not all atheists are humanists. Not all atheists are interested in joining groups that promote humanist values. Where does that leave us? I'm not sure. I'd suggest that the decision as to whether "mere atheism" is enough is one that we each need to make for ourselves, and I'm inclined to grant others the freedom to make it in different ways than I might. Thus, I am not prepared to argue that all atheists should be humanists.