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The Chapel Hill Murders: “New Atheism” or American Gun Culture?

craig hicks

The online Atheist community around the world were in a state of shock and disbelief this week at the news coverage of a treble homicide coming from Chapel Hill North Carolina. The 46 year old gunman was identified as Craig Stephen Hicks. The victims, who were all members of the Muslim community were identified as Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. The killer immediately turned himself into police custody and was subsequently charged with three counts of first degree murder.  All three victims had received fatal gunshot wounds to the head.

Initial police reports suggested that the incident was due to a long standing parking dispute that got progressively out of hand following a number of altercations between Hicks and his neighbours. However controversy arose when the father of the two slain girls, Dr Mohammed Abu-Salha, who runs a psychiatry practice in Clayton, told the police that he believed the killings amounted to a hate crime.  Public revulsion toward the murders was exacerbated due to the fact that Deah Shaddy Barakat was heavily involved in charity work with refugees. By all accounts he was a peace loving Muslim who had recently posted on twitter about his frustration at all violence in the name of religion.

The killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, was an outspoken Atheist who regularly posted on facebook about his dislike of religion. While his posts often referred to Islam, he nonetheless on numerous occasions stated that he believed that the Christian right-wing agenda was very similar to that of Islamism. While his posts were very direct, he argued for the separation of Church and State and was an outspoken supporter of gay rights and reproductive rights for women.  His online persona was in many ways no different to that of the countless other American Atheists who I myself have befriended on facebook. Occasionally there are some nasty comments about religious people but more often than not, the issues raised by American Atheists are commendable. As a group they are largely universally supportive of the separation of Church and State and the protection of the US first amendment that guarantees religious freedom and equality for all.  The 1st amendment prevents the State from promoting any one religion. This amendment has been used by organisations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation to successfully litigate against religious institutions and theocrats that use the State as a vehicle for the promotion of religion. While unapologetically enforcing Church/State separation through legal means, American Atheists have often stood up for religious minorities who they perceived were discriminated against.

American Atheists have been at the forefront in the promotion of marriage equality. Throughout the last few years American Atheists have become active in LGBT rights and have punched well above their weight in tackling problems associated with homophobia. They have challenged damaging attitudes about rape and sexual violence towards women that seem all too common among the Christian right dominated Republican party. They are pro-science and technology. This group includes such progressive academics as cosmologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss and comedian and educator Bill Nye and anthropologist Eugenie Scott.  These people and many more Atheist scientists have been the public face in the American war against religiously inspired scientific illiteracy. The latter was a former director of the organisation the National Center for Science Education. This has been the main organisation in the US that has prevented the teaching of so called creationism alongside evolution in American high school biology class through successive ongoing court battles against a heavily funded opponent. Neil Degrasse Tyson has continually expressed concerns about scientific literacy in American schools. American Atheists have been persistent campaigners against the widening social divide within American society as a result of a creed that is all too commonly advanced by US conservatives under the misnomer of wealth redistribution concerns aka socialism. American Atheists have long campaigned against the inherent racial injustice within the American prison system which sees much higher conviction rates and longer sentences for Afro-Americans who are tried for the same crimes as white people. American Atheists are more likely to be better educated, have less teen pregnancies, less likely to serve time in prison and up to five times more likely to be members of the prestigious National Academy of Science than religious believers.  Yet this group of people is seen as the most mistrusted group within American society as illustrated in the article from Scientific American below.


American gun culture is yet again behind more senseless killings.

craig hicks gun

If Craig Stephen Hicks’ facebook posts were so progressive then what could motivate him to commit such a horrific crime? Could his Atheism have been a factor in becoming so enwrapped in religious and cultural bigotry as to have driven him to commit such an unthinkable hate crime? It is certainly a possibility that Hicks completely misinterpreted legitimate arguments from public Atheist figures such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on the subject of Islam. However if this is the case it is a product of a moral failing on the part of the killer and not on either two celebrity Atheists.  The societal problems posed by religion should rightfully be scrutinised and it is right to acknowledge that in the 21st century Islam appears to be causing the most problems globally. It has long been acknowledged by both Dawkins and Harris that this was not always the case and that Islam was a beacon of light during the Christian dark ages. Dawkins or Harris never argued for discrimination against Muslims let alone advocating violence toward them. It was reasonable to believe that both authors would react with disgust and outrage that their writings should be used in any way to advocate violence. Their reactions to this effect were entirely predictable to all sane right minded people. There is nothing in Richard Dawkins best seller “The God Delusion” or Sam Harris “End of Faith” that could be used as a justification for violence against religious people. This is in stark contrast to the content of the Torah, Bible and Koran whose pages implore violence and hatred as well as god’s wrath not only upon Atheists but those who worship a different god.

There is one glaringly disturbing feature of Hicks philosophy that sets him apart from the vast majority of American Atheists; it was his obsession with guns as illustrated by the picture above that was taken from his facebook page. While most American Atheists are champions of the 1st amendment of the US constitution, Hicks had an unhealthy obsession with the 2nd amendment which grants American citizens the right to bear arms. Neighbours described Hicks as a man who was likely to “fly off the handle” at any given moment.  His former wife described how he continually watched the 1993 movie “Falling down”, a violent movie starring Michael Douglas. Both tragically and ironically in one of his facebook posts he argued that guns don’t do harm people do. Whether it was anti-Muslim bigotry or pent up aggression over what should have been a trivial car parking dispute that was responsible for his fatal outburst may never be known. What is without doubt is that Hicks was a psychologically imbalanced man with a heavy chip on his shoulder. He had threatened violence on his neighbours before and the residents of the gated community in which he lived in reported being scared of him. Today the investigating police stated they had no evidence to suggest that the crime was other than a parking dispute. However if his Atheism were to have played a part, the resulting deaths could more appropriately be blamed on a shamelessly unregulated gun culture and lack of police oversight. Atheist activists are no different to other activists in many other humanitarian roles. We often feel pent up anger when dealing with some intellectually hopeless situations in which we feel we have no power to change. However for the most part we manage that frustration and put it to good use. However what are normal emotions in a healthy individual may potentially have a fatal and tragic outcome when psychologically troubled individuals have access to lethal weapons or if they harbour prejudices not based on the very evidence that Atheists seek to promote respect for. Most American Atheists take the opposite position to Hicks in the gun control debate arguing for tighter regulation on gun sales thus yet again showing their moral and intellectual superiority over pro-gun lobbyists that more often have a conservative and religious leaning.

Atheists need to continue their work despite the inevitable consequences arising from this tragedy


Sam Harris once said that he could see no society that experienced harm from having a healthy regard for empirical evidence. The corollary of this is that societies that are based on non-evidence based propaganda or on superstition (be it religious or secular) always end up paying a heavy price. Some have argued that the so called “New Atheists” focus too much on Islam. Again this is turning a blind eye to the fact that if Atheists don’t have what amounts to a healthy conversation about Islamism, that conversation will be had by the far right and other racist groups. Atheist intellectuals, unlike the far right, are able to distinguish between Islamism as a political idea and the right of law abiding Muslims who respect western norms to be afforded equality under the law. Religious ideas of all persuasions that are not based on evidence need to be challenged and when they are forced upon non-believers by political theocrats then good people who value evidence need to stand up and be counted. While undoubtedly some will use a tragedy like this as a reason to mistrust Atheists all the more; I firmly believe that with the passage of time, history will judge the Atheist movement as a collective force for good.

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