Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Violence Without Religion

In my Charlie Hebdo response entry, I posed the rhetorical question about the relative rate of violent retribution by people of a religious stripe and people for whom the axe on the grindstone is devoid of religion. Although that piece was mainly pointed at the standard arguments about Muslims who commit violence -- as the context was one involving Islamic terrorism -- the point itself is easily universalized to all religions that have a history of atrocities... Which is pretty much all of them that have been around for any considerable length of time.  Sure, the Raelians and the Baha'i have no such history to speak of, but they also haven't been around that long compared to the likes of the Abrahamic faiths.

In any case, almost like clockwork, the attack at UNC in which 3 Muslims were killed by an atheist. The official statement indicates that this act of violence was over a matter of a parking dispute.  Of course, while it is true that murders in this country have happened over even more trivial things, I find it far more likely that the parking dispute was little more than the last straw.  I and the whole of the atheist community can condemn this all we want -- and of course, we do -- but I also feel like it provides little value to do so.  No more than it is meaningful for Muslims to come out and condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  It's a perfectly nice thing to hear, and I'm sure we all care about this sort of thing in the sense of assurance that not every Muslim is Anjem Choudary nor every Christian is Fred Phelps, but anyone can say words.  It doesn't really change what happened.  Rather, what I would like to address is the cultural backdrop behind these sorts of events, as I feel this sort of discussion is more meaningful in exploring what could prevent future occurrences of such an outcome.

I'm sure that as if to throw my retort back in my face, religious people will capitalize on this attack as if it proves that atheists are just as violent as religious people are.  Unsurprisingly, the likes of Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have leaped at the opportunity to apply mob mentality in their counterattack against rationality.  Again, I'd have to say that my original statement stands.  Count for me the number of times atheists have committed acts of terror against the religious for the crime of their faith as opposed to how many times religious people have killed motivated by their beliefs.  Even if I grant that this attack was motivated by Craig Hicks' anti-theism fueling a disdain and distrust of Muslims, that still brings the tally to one or two rather than zero.  Still a very tiny number compared to all the killing in the name of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, et al.  "Just as violent" implies a certain level of similarity in quantity and scope.  Sure, theists love to point fingers at the likes of Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung and so on, but in order to validate any part of that as being related to atheism, you must also normalize against all other factors...  such as the propensity towards evil in relation to ones status as a tyrannical dictator...  not that they ever will.

So among the things that are a little different here is that it's a lot harder to make the association between atheism and...  well... anything, really.  When we say things like saying that Scott Roeder killed because of Christianity, the motivation was explicitly religious, even according to the man's own personal testimony in court.  The notion that abortion is somehow "demonic" is inescapably borne out of religion, and is couched exclusively in religious terms.  The idea that insulting a prophet merits death cannot even theoretically exist outside of religion.  It isn't really in doubt that the Charlie Hebdo attackers shouted that their god is great and that their prophet has been avenged, so in turn, it isn't open to debate that religion was a motivating factor.  When religious people speak of gays being abominations and affronts to their god, that is strictly a religiously motivated sentiment.  Such things aren't so clear in this case.  Unlike religion, there is no such thing as a systematic collections of tenets and principles of atheism.  There never even could be.  Many of us who are atheists are atheists for different reasons.  As such, the subscription to atheism and/or anti-theism is an effect rather than a cause.

Based on what is public knowledge about Craig Stephen Hicks at the moment, his atheism appears to have been borne out of a strong disdain for religion in general, and this is echoed in his official statements after he turned himself in.  As far as much of the stuff on his Facebook page goes, it's a lot about religions being bad.  Most of it, I can say I'd agree with.  Though his quip about how people of different religions should wipe each other out in violent conflict with one another is not quite where I'd go; my stance is one that people should realize for themselves that religion is idiotic, and that the most powerful and permanent weapon against religion is knowledge.  But then, that sort of disagreement among atheists is to be expected.  There is one and only one unifying factor among atheists -- we all lack belief in the existence of a god.  There is one and only one unifying factor among all anti-theists -- we all believe that theistic belief systems are a bad thing.  Every other belief, every other stance, every other position on every other question in life is completely unrelated.  You can't make much of an association between atheism/anti-theism and well...  anything, really.  There's just too little content from which to extrapolate.

That said, I can't really claim that it is impossible for Hicks' anti-theism to have played a role here.  It is entirely conceivable that having an extreme dislike for religion in a post-9/11 America could set the stage for an implicit distrust and disdain for Muslims.  Something like that probably makes for one of the few examples where the term 'Islamophobia' is actually applicable.  When brought into the light of Hicks' apparent gun fanaticism, violence isn't too far away.  However, I don't intend to swing the topic towards gun control.  Still, there's a gap between saying that some act of violence is potentially exacerbated by some anti-religious animus and saying that it was inspired by or even done in the name of atheism.  There's a lot more to the story here.  All things said, though, there is little evidence to suggest that Hicks was some unhinged, mentally unstable lunatic.  These murders were carried out execution-style, apparently premeditated, and Hicks subsequently turned himself in -- all indicative of someone acting quite purposefully with a calm hand.  It is a reminder that as much as we all like to say that you can be good without god, you can be be bad without god, too.  We all know the quote from Steven Weinberg -- "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion."

It is a little uncertain to me the extent to which this man's actions are the result of him being one of Weinberg's "bad people."  The evidence indicates that this person was pretty even-handed as far as his hatred of religion and apparently, religious people as well, goes.  There is no particular indication that he singled out Muslims in any way, and rather a lot that he felt every bit as ill will towards other religions.  That, too, it wasn't an unfocused generic hatred, either, because there are examples where he drew from actual verses in the Qur'an, the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Torah to point out why he hates those religions.  Now, I'm no stranger to having a sea of problems with religions, but we do have to differentiate between the religions and the religious.  Honestly, this is something that religious people themselves seem to have a lot of difficulty doing, as they are all but universally prone to take an affront to their cherished principles as an insult to people of that faith.  It makes it very hard to engage in any sort of honest discussion of religion with a person of any faith, really...  and things could get seriously problematic if atheists were to make the same mistake from the other direction.

In a sort of way, it would require that a person be an anti-theist first and an atheist second.  This is not all that common from what I've witnessed, and I get no indication that this was at all true of Craig Stephen Hicks save for one or two quoted sentences -- not much to go on.  An example of what it would take to get truly atheism-inspired violence is for an atheist to take the vile screeds in "holy" texts and bring that to the impression that believers are just as vile.  That is not entirely inconceivable because there is no rule that atheism necessitates not being an idiot or not being emotionally charged in their disdain for religion.  Statistically, though, all indications are that there is no cause for concern.  Again, the solution for this, in my mind, is the same as for the problem of religion itself -- more knowledge, more robust education, more critical thinking.  This is the sort of thing that the atheist community by and large ought to really dedicate their time towards in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

When I think of the common excoriating imperative that the XXXX community should come out against [violent act Y], the real message, in my mind, is that said community should renounce those principles.  When Christians torture, beat, and leave for dead a homosexual for the crime of existing, it isn't just that other Christians should come out and speak against it...  they should strip away or at least amend the principles that birthed that sort of atrocity.  In a lot of ways, this should be easier for Muslims and Hindus, for example, than it is for Christians and Jews.  The former have far less monolithic belief systems than it may seem at the outset.  Many of the ideas we find so deplorable in Sharia are not from the Qur'an, but from other Hadiths and works by other scholars to which not all Muslims subscribe.  Many of the atrocious behaviors within Hindu communities come not from the Vedanta, but from standing traditions that have no documented source or origin and, to some extent, the interpretations of community leaders and scholars of generations past.  The point here is that the reasons to hold onto them is considerably weaker than for the Judeo-Christian faiths which depend so adamantly on a single source.

In theory, atheists should have it yet easier to adapt and adopt new ideas because they are inherently not wedded to any particular set of principles.  In practice, this makes it harder to embrace change as a community because you just can't unite all atheists under a single umbrella.  Atheism, by its definition alone, is inclusive of Buddhists, Raelians, Scientology, New Age spiritualists, and other such nonsense.  Culturally, though, nobody is worried about violence from psychobabbling hipsters caterwauling under the pretenses of spiritual cleanses...  though their idiocy becoming a dangerously Trying to add values to the atheism label, though, is a bit of a divisive venture, as we've learned from PZ Myers' outcries against "dictionary atheism" and the whole Atheism+ movement.  It is worth mentioning, though, that those who self-identify as "atheists" are typically going to be those who don't self-identify within any of those other groups, meaning that they are at least irreligious.  Rather than say that atheism should be redefined to include a host of other secular values, it should be a matter of the overall goals of the atheist community at large.

If we think about the fact that different atheists have different reasons for rejecting religion, we shouldn't see that as dividing differences, but rather as a collective of all the various things that are wrong with religious belief systems.  If we think about all the different ways in which anti-theists see problems with the pervasive nature of religious belief across society, it should be seen as the set of all things that are bad about believing on faith.  So many of us have our own widely different arguments to bring forth against theism and to tear down the faulty apologetics thereof.  One important takeaway in all of this is that it all comes down to words.  That has traditionally been the mode of battle from us "militant" atheists.  Our ideal weapon of choice has always been a pen -- or a keyboard in this day and age.  So here's my approach to being good without god : be as destructive as you want against all religion has to offer, so long as you do it with that particular weapon.  Share all you have to share on the subject, and let the ink fly.

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