Atheists Do Not Need to Wake Up After Chapel Hill Killings

Craig Stephen Hicks violated a basic code of human decency that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years with or without gods.


Where to begin with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists,” published two days ago on The New Republic website. We might start with the headline, sensational as it is. Bruenig, a self-described Christian ethicist, certainly brought the readers in with that one.

For the unfamiliar, “vehement atheist” and “angry man” Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, presenting Bruenig an ideal opportunity to flog the atheism of militant and “aggressive disbelief” championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the deceased polemicist Christopher Hitchens.

The time Bruenig spends articulating why this New Atheism — the term is obnoxious — has a problem would have been well spent if atheism, like religion, were actually a belief system or preoccupied with dogma. But, it’s not, so Bruenig’s effort is a bit like pissing in the wind. One wishes Hitchens were alive to respond to her piece point by point. Man would Hitchens have had a go at this epic bullshit; he lived to confront bullshit of this deep brown hue.

Rational people can look out at the world and understand what is decent and what is not... Humans do this every day without a thought of whether a god may be watching. And if they were unable to do this, civilization would have collapsed long ago.

“New Atheism takes as its core creed a species of Enlightenment liberalism that exalts reason and free inquiry, without bothering to define reason or to explain what is worthy of inquiry, and why,” Bruenig writes. “For a school of thought that presents itself as intellectually robust, it is philosophically bankrupt and evidently blind to its similarities to the religions it derides.”

Reason, Bruenig seems to forget, is not dogmatic. Evolving over several millennia, philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault have defined it differently, and even identified several types. Is it really the responsibility of Harris and Dawkins, or this New Atheism, to define reason, achieving what some of the world’s greatest philosophers could not agree upon? Are they to do this so that another Hicks — whose true motivations are unknown — doesn’t commit such violence?

The same applies to free inquiry or free thought. Are Harris and Dawkins required to locate for all atheists what is worthy of inquiry? It sounds awfully like Bruenig, who curiously calls atheists “adherents”, is demanding that an atheist dogma be established; and, in doing so, create a hierarchy with the most visible atheists influencing how the rest should think. This is contrary to the very idea of reason and free thought. That this must be explained at all is mind-boggling.

Bruenig also has a problem with the following Dawkins tweet, which he sent out on February 11th.

“Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted…” Bruenig writes. “But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: 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.”

Again, in the midst of making assumptions about atheists’ ethical and moral reflection, Bruenig seems to think that atheism is a system. It seems fairly clear that Dawkins’ “any decent person” phrase isn’t just limited to atheists, but applies to all decent people. And that’s the point: rational people can look out at the world and understand what is decent and what is not, and do so without a religious system enforcing morality. Humans do this every day without a thought of whether a god may be watching. And if they were unable to do this, civilization would have collapsed long ago.

Can anyone really dispute that Hicks was irrational, not some New Atheist putting an imagined system or dogma, highly organized and militant, into violent action? Some, like Bruenig, will say that violent Muslims and Christians are also irrational and unrepresentative of their religions. Maybe so. But, these zealots find justification for violence within their holy books, dictated by a god that is often psychotic, murderous, genocidal and intolerant of free thought.

Atheists have no such single book or belief system. They do not need to answer for Hicks, a man who violated the basic code of human decency that has allowed humanity to flourish and evolve over hundreds of thousands of years.

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