Thursday, February 12, 2015

Second Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders

As is usual on the internet, some of the responses I received to my last post seemed to be missing my point, so I’d like to clarify a few things.

Jumping to Conclusions

One of the most dismaying things I saw online was the number of people castigating the media (always inexplicably seen as some monolithic entity,) for not declaring this to be a hate crime before the police had finished (or barely even begun,) their investigation. In my post I said that there seems to be some evidence that it might have been a hate crime, and that whether it was or not it should be an opportunity for atheists to reflect on the possibility that someone who identifies as an atheist did this and what that might mean for the rest of us. But the scorn people poured on news outlets for being careful and saying that they weren’t yet completely sure of the motive was scandalous. Many people seemed to be of the opinion that if a white man who claimed to hate religion kills three Muslims there can only be one conclusion. This is a terrible precedent. If we were to assume that every time a Muslim is attacked by a non-Muslim it’s because of their religion that would be a complete abandonment of fair-mindedness, and just as ridiculous as assuming that every time a Christian is attacked it’s because of their religion or any time a gay person is attacked it’s because they’re gay. It’s perfectly understandable for individuals to have those suspicions, but to demand that our news outlets report on motives they can’t possibly yet be certain of is awful. People also claimed a double-standard, saying that if a Muslim man had killed three atheist students the media wouldn’t have hesitated to call him a terrorist and declare religious hatred to be the motive. That’s just not true. Mainstream news outlets (with some exceptions, of course,) are usually very circumspect about these things because if they jump the gun and end up being wrong they have egg on their face and lose credibility. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings the media did exactly the same thing they’re doing now: they wrote that there was some suspicion that the suspects may be radicalized Muslims but that it was too soon to confirm. Even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks western media was impressively fair-minded, reporting that some at the scene had said that the suspects had shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and that based on previous threats and attacks there was reason to believe the magazine was targeted due to their criticism of Islam, but they didn’t confirm it until more facts were in. In the case of Chapel Hill, most of the media did the same thing: reporting that some people (including the victims' father,) suspect it might be a hate crime based on the victims' religion and some of the suspect's previous writings and that the police are investigating that possibility, but that so far the police say that most of the evidence is pointing toward it being the result of an unhinged person involved in a dispute over a parking space.

It just so happens that I have a perfect example of when this kind of speculation goes wrong: the 2005 massacre of the Armanious family in Jersey City, which I took as the topic of my Journalism School Master’s project. The Armanious family - a husband, wife, and two daughters of 8 and 15 years old - were found brutally stabbed to death in their home. The family were Coptic Christians, members of an Egyptian sect of Christianity and one of the oldest surviving churches in the world. Jersey City has a large population of Egyptian immigrants, about equally divided between Copts and Muslims. That’s not the case in Egypt, however, where the Copts are a long-suffering minority, often the target of persecution and religious violence. Many Copts moved to New Jersey to escape that life. For some, the murder of a peaceful family of four Coptic Christians could only lead to one conclusion: the persecution their people had faced living under a Muslim majority in Egypt had followed them to America. The leaders of some Coptic organizations immediately denounced the murders as the obvious acts of Islamic extremists (the Coptic Pope, Shenouda, urged people not to jump to conclusions, which is good advice in general, but probably pragmatic, too, because he knows that the continued existence and relative safety of the Coptic community in Egypt depends on their being rather meek and deferential to the Muslim majority.) Rumors flew that the father, Hossam Armanious, had been warned and threatened for speaking against Islam in the past, that the family had been slaughtered like Halal livestock, that Christian cross tattoos on the families arms had been stabbed and gouged and cut out. The relatively comfortable co-existence between Copts and Muslims in Jersey City (and America at large,) was in serious jeopardy. At the family’s emotional funeral procession through the streets of Jersey City, an Imam and Muslim delegation who had shown up to offer their condolences was attacked by angry mourners.

As it turns out, the family was found to have been murdered by a drug dealer named Edward McDonald, who had rented an apartment from them and seems to have been under the impression that they had lots of money in their home. He broke in to the house wearing a mask and tied the family up. It is believed that while he was searching for valuables, the youngest daughter broke free and saw him with his mask off. His cover blown, he brutally murdered the whole family. Religion had nothing to do with it.

Atheism had nothing to do with it.

I heard this from several people - the killer’s atheism is entirely irrelevant. After all, atheism is just the lack of a belief in god, it isn’t a positive philosophy or moral system at all. Discovering that someone is an atheist doesn’t tell you anything about what they do believe, only what they don’t believe. I had thought I’d been pretty clear that I agree with this in my last post, but apparently people either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood me. There is a distinction between passive atheism (simply not believing in a god,) and active anti-theism (a dislike or hatred of religion, in which camp I absolutely place myself,) and this distinction is not being made or acknowledged. Religion, and particularly its intrusion in public life, is something that I believe needs to be resisted with argument, debate, and reason. There’s no reason why a thoroughly unbalanced person might not take his own hatred of religion to violent extremes. His lack of belief in god doesn’t technically have anything to do with it, but his proactive hatred of religion might. I was somewhat surprised to see that many of the things he’d written on his Facebook page are things I might have said (albeit more eloquently, I hope,) in my own angrier moments. Nothing on his Facebook page advocated violence against religious people, but there were plenty of frustrated and angry denunciations of faith which were not illogical and with which I can more or less agree.

The point I had been trying to make is that atheists would be unwise to dismiss out of hand the idea of a madman killing “in the name of” atheism. We might know that atheism means nothing but a lack of belief in a deity, but for plenty of other people who don’t know or care about that distinction, atheists might as well be a religious group of their own, or at least some kind of watered-down religious interest group. The fact that atheist and secularist political groups have become more politically active, vocal, and organized in the past several years is bound to fuel those kinds of misapprehensions. The point is that even if this has nothing to do with the victims’ religion or the killer’s hatred of religion, these days an accusation or correlation is enough to convict people in the court of public opinion, including by association. Whatever the result of the investigation, there will be people who remain unswervingly convinced that it was a hate crime committed by a self-identified atheist and therefore it must be because of his atheism, and that is going to make things very tough for the rest of us who hate, mock, ridicule, and insult religion without resorting to violence. And it may well encourage the people who cry “Islamophobia,” and want to make criticism of Islam hate speech. They’ll have an argument at hand, weak and unfounded though it may be, that there are atheist terrorists, too. We’d be stupid to ignore that. Of course even if this one lunatic did commit these acts because of a hatred of Islam specifically or religion in general, it’s nothing compared to the theocratic government-sanctioned violence and intolerance in many Muslim countries, and it’s much harder to imagine American non-religious school children refusing a moment of silence for the victims as many French Muslim students were reported to have done after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. People in the West overwhelmingly condemn these horrific acts. In many parts of the world religious murderers are all too often celebrated as heroes and martyrs. My concern is that if some psychopath with a gun who happens to be an atheist slaughters people and it turns out he did it because he hates their religion, then it’s going to be much more difficult for us atheists to say with indignation (as I often have,) that we find religion just as offensive as any cartoons or novels but you don’t see us attacking random believers.

Atheism is not a religion

It is obviously true that atheism is not a religion and I never said anything even remotely suggesting that it was, and yet people seemed to think that that’s what I was implying when I talked about the possibility of someone killing in the name of atheism. Reference was made to Stalin, as though I’d repeated the canard about atheism being responsible for many atrocities of the 20th century. I never said any such thing. The charge of Hitler’s atheism is easily refuted by reference to his speeches, the slogans and language of the Reich, the teutonic mythology of National Socialism, and international fascism’s mutual sympathy and alliance with the Catholic Church. Stalin is a slightly tougher refutation but only slightly. It’s true that the ex-seminarian extensively persecuted religious people and advocated atheism. But rather than any deep atheist conviction this was almost certainly another all-too-typical extension of Stalin’s paranoid and cruel repression of any ideology which might threaten his power or the state’s official ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin was ultimately a pragmatist, if a misguided and brutal one. Kruschev was the first to suggest after Stalin’s death that Soviet Communism and the cult of personality had simply become a religion of its own, with just as much dogma, unwavering faith, and heresy hunts as any other.

Which brings me to my final question and concern. If Stalin made state communism into something so closely resembling a religion, is there a danger that “organized” atheism as it exists today in the West could be vulnerable to such perversions? There are now atheist, secularist, and humanist meetings, clubs, support groups, lobbies, events, specialty magazines, conventions, and a huge market for books and films on related topics, not to mention a thriving online “community.” I’ve participated in all this to varying degrees at different times and I’ve overall seen it as a positive development in the resistance to theocracy, religious power, and faith-based thinking. But the “organized” part of it has always made me slightly uncomfortable. And while I think that most atheists are probably relatively free-thinking and individualistic and broadly skeptical, I was always sure to meet a few people who were a little too sure of their own convictions, people for whom doubt wasn’t a major factor in their worldview, people who, rather than debate, were content to self-satisfyingly quote Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris as incontrovertible authorities rather than intellectual thinkers to engage and possibly disagree with on some things. In fact, I was even more uncomfortable with those who wanted to saddle atheism with some of the outward trappings of religion - that seemed a distinctly creepy impulse to me. People who wanted cringeworthy “un-baptism ceremonies,” or regular sunday non-belief services, or people who wanted atheists to have a table at Mayor Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast were always missing the point in my eyes. I wanted to avoid everything about religion and I certainly didn’t want atheists to start treating their lack of belief as something doctrinaire or remotely resembling a religion. I didn't want atheism to have the same special status as religious groups, I didn't want religious groups to have special status of any kind.

But I’m beginning to wonder if when any group goes from being merely speculative or philosophical to being actively political it runs the risk of extremism. I think that people of no faith and their religious allies who support secularism absolutely do need to be more political. In fact, I don’t think we should shy away and maybe even encourage more “extreme” and unapologetic ideas in our discourse, and I don’t think we should play nice or water down our own convictions, opinions, or beliefs. But I also think we need to at least consider the troubling possibility that some people who sympathize with our goals may have radically different ideas about methods. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

First Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Murders and "Atheist Extremism."

Three young, attractive, and by all accounts bright, loving, and wonderful students were shot dead last night in Chapel Hill. They were all Muslims. Many online are complaining that that fact isn’t yet mentioned in the headline of the New York Times article on the tragedy. In their defense, the New York Times is probably just doing an ultra-diligent covering-their-ass fact-checking thing where they reserve judgement on the crime’s motive until the police have announced it. If they were to make religion the focus of the article and then for some reason turn out to be wrong they’d be in even more trouble. But for the rest of us, there seems to be compelling evidence that the victims’ religion wasn’t a mere coincidence. My immediate thought was that it was probably a right-wing Christian nut (not very fair-minded of me, perhaps, but I was basing my prejudice on previous cases like that of Anders Breivik.) Then my heart sank when I read that the killer, based on his Facebook postings, appears to be a staunch atheist, even an anti-theist like myself: someone who not only doesn’t believe in god but thinks that religion is overwhelmingly a negative force in the world.

I remember on September 11th my mother said that the first thing that went through her head was “I hope it was a white guy like Timothy McVeigh who did this.” I’ve also heard Muslims say that when news of a violent terrorist act breaks they fervently hope that it doesn’t turn out to have been committed by Muslims. They’re tired of evil people committing acts in the name of their shared faith and afraid of a backlash. Aside from the fact that the backlash (in the United States, at least,) was usually limited to a few redneck idiots shooting at convenience stores or calling people racist names, I’d always found this thinking strange and oddly solipsistic - why would the first thing you think of in the face of horror and atrocity be about you and people like you? I confess, that’s the way I’m feeling right now. And I feel slightly embarrassed that some of my first thoughts were immediately about what this might mean for atheists.

The police are currently saying that the triple murder might have been over a dispute about a parking space. Maybe that’s true. But even if it is, an atheist murdering three Muslims is not going to be dismissed so easily. This will likely be considered in the court of public opinion to have been a hate crime even if it is found to technically not be. Whatever the final case, the very possibility of an atheist killing people over faith is something we need to consider.

The thought of an atheist murdering three innocent people because of their religion sickens me to the core of my being. I’ve always been quick to point out that atheists weren’t blowing up mosques or churches or temples or shrines in the name of atheism - what a laughable idea! - other religionists were committing those crimes in the name of their competing faith claims. But now there’s a chance that one of us has and it’s probably going to be flung in our face and held against us for a long time to come. Many polls show that atheists are already one of the most mistrusted (if not the most mistrusted,) groups in the United States. People are far more likely to vote for a Muslim or a gay person than an atheist. Although we’ve been vocal of late, we’ve usually been on our best behavior and not committed atrocities. Leave it to the Christian fanatic to attack Gurdwaras (betraying his ignorance along the way by conflating Sikhs and Muslims.) Leave it to the lone wolf Islamic radical to behead his elderly Christian co-worker. Atheists use words, reason, and argument to prove their point. Possibly not this time.

Some people have defensively pointed out that atheists can’t be considered ideologically similar in the same way that religionists can - we don’t have codified dogmas, clergy, or creeds. Someone said that collectively blaming atheists for the act of one atheist is like blaming the act of one person who doesn’t like baseball on everyone who doesn’t like baseball. This might on the face of it be logically true, but there are some of us who are committed and active secularists, who push back on the influence of religion in the public sphere - and that’s not a shared ideological commitment to be taken lightly. It appears that the killer may have identified as one of us, and that’s something we need to reckon with.

I’ve received criticism for saying that the people who need to combat Islamic extremism are, first and foremost, Muslims. Radicalization is something which arises all too often within their communities so they need to take some responsibility in stopping it. Some people have ironically asked for all atheists to condemn the atrocity last night, in the same way that people ask Muslim leaders to condemn any act of Islamic terrorism. We atheists should, and we will. Richard Dawkins already has. I think it’s important that those of us who are involved in the fight against theocracy, unreason, and superstition, speak up and say that a killer of innocent people in no way speaks for the rest of us. I happen to be at the less friendly and respectful end of the atheist spectrum. I think religion is wicked, and I think it causes far more harm than it does good in the world. I also think that at this time in history Islam is the most problematic religion on the planet and to pretend otherwise is to be willfully ignorant. I’ll even admit that when I read about the horrors committed by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS I think it would be a rather good (possibly even quite satisfying,) act to kill one of their fighter-rapists. But killing innocent people because of their beliefs is the opposite of secularism. It’s what religions have done throughout their history and its one of the reasons I’ve proudly called myself an atheist: we don’t do that. This time one of us may have. And we need to face that and show that a killer - atheist though he may be - who murders innocents for their beliefs is not the face of unbelief. He would be a perfect example of the unreasoning mind and a traitor to the secular ideals of the enlightenment.

Recently I responded to the fatuous argument from religious apologists who, referring to extremist Muslim groups say, “you wouldn’t claim that the KKK represents all Christians, would you?” Of course not. But just because the KKK wasn’t representative of mainstream or majority Christianity doesn’t mean they weren’t a Christian organization. They “self-identified” as Christians, and they justified their actions with fairly straightforward interpretations of scripture. In the same way, those who say ISIS don’t represent all Muslims are missing the point. Of course they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an Islamic group. They justify their acts with rather uncomplicated interpretations of scripture and doctrine. Who gets to decide that they aren’t true Muslims? I now find myself in an unexpected position. I’ve laughed off charges of atheist “fundamentalism” and atheist “extremism” in the past. Maybe we can’t afford to do that anymore. Even if this does turn out to be a one-off and incredibly rare example of an atheist taking their hatred of religion to a violent extreme, it goes to show that atheists, secularists, and anti-theists like myself have no reason to expect to be immune from extremist tendencies. It’s something we need to accept, confront, and fight just as strongly as we fight the violent excesses of religious radicals.

My sincerest condolences are for the families of the three victims, whatever the killer’s motive. When innocents are hurt, humanity itself suffers. There's no question that #muslimlivesmatter just as much as anybody else's.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wonder Theaters New York Times Feature

In case you missed it, my first New York Times feature was published on the front page of the Metro Section on Sunday, January 15th. The article, about the Loew's Wonder Theaters, involved a lot of research and reporting (75% of which, including my favorite historical episodes, sadly did not make it into the final piece.) The online version includes some beautiful 360-degree hi-definition panoramic photographs of the theater interiors. Read it below:

The Secular Life

Last week David Brooks wrote a breathtakingly condescending op-Ed in the New York Times about the Sisyphean struggle we poor secularists have to face in order to find meaning and morality in the world. The Times published some responses from secularists, but they didn't publish the one I sent them, which you can read below.

When I was involved in secular activism I noticed a split. Those of us raised religion-free didn’t crave the comforts of faith, didn’t hunger for the community of a church, and were perfectly capable of finding meaning and making moral decisions without divine guidance. Those who had left religion, however, occasionally looked like David Brooks’ idea of a secular person – unmoored, seeking the community they’d lost, saddled with “unprecedented moral burdens.” Their lives as believers had stunted them and ill-prepared them to stand unaided by faith. For those of us not lucky enough to be raised fearing a vengeful god, this usually isn’t an issue.

Brooks is right that secularism can’t rest on rationalism alone. Fortunately, it is ably buttressed by humanism, another enlightenment value. We faithless have countless sources of morality and transcendence (most religions only have one.) Our scriptures are the stories humans tell, the ideas and histories we record, the art people make. All of these can inspire, warn, and provoke debate and reflection. The holy books are full of stories, too (written by men as well,) but the only reasons to exalt the questionable moral examples of prophets and patriarchs over the ideas, struggles, and choices of say, Sydney Carton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Huckleberry Finn, or Thomas Jefferson are faith, dogma, and the easy comfort of consensus.