The fatal shooting Tuesday of three members of a Muslim family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has prompted condemnation and calls for introspection and compassion from prominent atheists and atheist groups after reports surfaced Wednesday associating the shooter with such beliefs.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged Wednesday in the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; Barakat's wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. An initial police investigation into the deaths suggests that the incident was result of a parking dispute.
The father of the two women, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, was adamant that the killings should be considered a hate crime, and said his daughter had previously described Hicks as "a hateful neighbor," according to the Raleigh News and Observer.
Hicks' wife, Karen Hicks, reiterated at a press conference Wednesday that the shooting had nothing to do with race or religion.
"This incident had nothing to do with religion or victims' faith but instead had to do with the longstanding parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors," she said. "He often champions on his Facebook page for the rights of many individuals. Same sex marriages, abortion, race, he just believes that everyone is equal. Doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are or what you believe."
A Facebook page reportedly belonging to Craig Hicks portrays him as a vocal anti-theist. That association has prompted many atheist groups to speak out in response to the killings.
Yale Humanists director Chris Stedman said that the incident provides atheists with an opportunity to assess critically how their community engages with Islam.
"We often hear atheists demand that all Muslims speak out against violence done in the name in Islam," Stedman told The Huffington Post. "Regardless of the motives, one thing that atheists should be thinking about is the way the vocal representatives of atheism talk about Islam and Muslims [and] how that contributes to a culture of fear, suspicions and hostility towards Muslims."
Stedman said that in the wake of the shooting, the atheist community has an important opportunity to "stand with our Muslim neighbors" and "reach out to Muslim friends."
The Chapel Hill Secular Student Alliance posted on its website, "Nothing about the lack of a belief in a god supports the murder of innocent people, and we absolutely condemn what has happened. We hope that dialogues can happen, and bridges are built, not burned, in the wake of this."
The shooting also prompted discussion on the r/atheism Reddit thread, with some worrying the incident would unintentionally conflate non-theism with violence.
Noted atheist Richard Dawkins was also quick to condemn the shooting on Twitter, saying, "How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?"
The Freedom From Religion Foundation released a statement about the triple-murder on its website, saying it was "horrified" but that the shooting should not be depicted as religiously motivated.
We are very sorry to see someone identified as nonreligious in the news for a violent crime. Such an action is almost unheard of in the freethought world. Mental instability is no respecter of persons, and happens in all walks of life.
FFRF has already taken press calls on this, and must point out that in a world roiled daily by violence in the name of religion, including commonplace personal tragedies as well as terrorism and theopolitical warfare, it would be almost unheard of for media to place religious leaders on the spot. When a crazed dad kills his children "to send them to heaven," media don't contact local or national denominational heads seeking a statement on their religion's role in this violence. On the contrary, Pope Francis blamed the Charlie Hebdo victims of Islamist terrorism, saying such violence was the result of "making fun of the faith of others."
American Atheists president David Silverman also released a statement on the shooting saying his organization "condemns violence in any form, including violence against people of faith." He continued:
No person should be a victim of violence because of their religion. Anyone who would attack a person because of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, attacks the very foundation of freedom. We must work to understand one another as people and recognize that our differences are an important part of our shared humanity.
The American Humanists Association posted a message on Facebook, saying, "We're deeply disturbed that this person identified as an atheist, and he must be brought to justice."
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