On Tuesday night, gunshots rang through a neighbourhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, leading a neighbour to call police. When they arrived, they found three people dead: 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife Yusor Mohammad, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad. Within hours, it had become apparent that the close-knit family had been shot by a neighbour, Craig Stephen Hicks, but by then, the narrative surrounding the shooting had already been built up in the minds of the public. Three people lay dead, but there was no going back.
Officials and Hicks’ defenders — for apparently the mere whiff of a hate crime accusation is enough to bring people out in droves to defend a murderer — insist that the shooting was related to ‘ongoing parking disputes,’ and those who shared the apartment complex and lived in the community noted that his aggressive, sometimes abusive behaviour had been such cause for concern that they’d once held a community meeting over it. The fact that three Muslim students happened to be the victims of his rage, the media suggested, was pure coincidence — for how could the crime be racially motivated when he was an ‘equal opportunity hater.’
A glance at his Facebook and personal history suggests otherwise. Hicks proudly identified with what has become known as the New Atheist movement, sometimes actively describing himself as an ‘anti-theist.’ He’s not just a man who doesn’t believe in God, but a man who actually believes that people who do are lesser; a view shared by growing numbers of New Atheists, who think that people of faith are stupid, brainwashed sheep who mindlessly repeat outdated cultural rituals by praying to deities in the sky and making burnt offerings.
A man who feels this way doesn’t shoot three Muslims to death by coincidence. He might have been a man with anger management problems who frightened his neighbours and his community, but when and where he took out his gun matters. His actions were fueled by the culture of hate and violence in the United States, but more specifically, they were fueled by New Atheism itself.
New Atheism is a radical departure from the atheism of yesteryear, in which people simply didn’t believe in God or follow religious traditions, and also weren’t organised into a collective with people claiming to act as spokespeople for the whole. While some individual atheists were hostile and unpleasant to people of faith, it took the Gods of New Atheism, people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, to create an organised and actively hateful movement.
Instead of living peacefully with those of faith, New Atheists seem bent on two things, both of which are outstanding hypocritical.
In the advancement of their ideas, they frequently make appeals to reason and logic, arguing that the only scientifically sensible approach to the world is one that precludes the existence of God. In so doing, they also suggest that religious people are stupid; because how could anyone intelligent have religious faith, attend religious ceremonies, and make religious observances? Traditions from Ghost Month to Shabbat to Christmas to Holi are anathema to New Atheists, so much performative spectacle for easily-amused masses. Setting aside the obvious grave offense to people of faith today, such arguments fly nakedly in the face of centuries of religious philosophers, commentators, and other great minds — religion and intelligence are not incompatible by any means, and neither are religion and science, for those who bother to seriously engage with science, religion, and philosophy on any level.
There’s also a sense that New Atheists want to project themselves as a One True God of rational thought and being, which is a bitter irony, given the way they trash some religious sects for their insistence on aggressive conversion tactics and their ardent belief that their religious beliefs are the only true ones. On the one hand, New Atheists condemn Christian sects for claiming that people will go to Hell if they don’t convert and abide by the faith, and on the other, it stridently maintains the claim that all people should convert to big-A Atheism, because it’s the only logical thing to do.
New Atheists want to prove everybody wrong, seemingly convinced that they must do so in order to win some kind of fictional contest that no one else is really playing, or paying attention to. But their actions have significant costs, and the Chapel Hill shooting was one of them.
As a small-a atheist, I’ve spent most of my life in a position of neutrality with reference to religion; I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God, but I don’t particularly see the need to belittle, hurt, and degrade people who are and do. I enjoy talking about matters of faith, religion, and philosophy with people of faith, in fact, and I particularly enjoy diverse conversations with people representing a variety of sects, as long as it remains friendly and respectful to all parties — and I, too, am responsible for ensuring that the environment is safe and pleasant for everyone. Mutual exchange of ideas in a respectful environment can yield incredibly fascinating and amazing insights as well as experiential learning for all involved — and there’s a great deal to learn from religious communities for those who want to listen instead of heap verbal abuse and scorn.
I may not identify with New Atheism, but I am inevitably swept up in it — I don’t read, support, and endorse those who are attempting to write its gospels, nor do I represent it, but I am still an atheist, and that means that I, along with my fellow atheists, need to hold the movement accountable. Because for too long, it’s flown under the radar, and people have resisted conversations about how it contributes to hateful conversations not just in the US, but around the world. New Atheism is one of the driving forces behind Islamophobia in particular, contributing to untold numbers of crimes against not just Muslims, but people mistaken as Muslims — like Sikhs attacked after the 11 September attacks, and Hindu women harassed for wearing headscarves.
New Atheism refuses to look in on itself to hold itself accountable as a social movement, which leaves it to the rest of us to challenge the movement and demand that it rethink its philosophy and functioning. Having a robust discussion about the nature of faith is one thing — mocking religious people is another. Declaring that you don’t believe in God is one thing — actively inciting hatred against people who do is another. New Atheism isn’t about philosophical conversations and engaged discussions with religious and social issues. It is, very specifically, about disseminating hate while hiding behind a veneer of science and ‘rationality.’
Such movements should be dismantled as the hate groups they are. Just as people condemn the Westboro Baptist Church for spewing abuse, they should be attacking New Atheism — indeed, of the two, Westboro is less harmful. One may make people roll their eyes and traumatise people at the families of their loved ones, but the other is an insidious and pernicious ‘philosophy’ that worms itself in the core of the social apple before appearing on the other side, spewing social, psychological, and physical attacks on religious people all over the world along with it.
I stand with people of faith on this one, and any time they are attacked on the basis of their religion; this is not the atheism I want, and it is not the atheism we need.
Those who proudly identify with the movement are aligning themselves with the hateful ideas it propagates, and nothing more. Those who claim that they’re interested in having an actual conversation are lying to themselves, and certainly to others. Dawkins once famously referred to God as a ‘delusion,’ but it’s New Atheism and those who adhere to it that’s a delusion.