The tragic shooting of three young university students at UNC Chapel Hill yesterday could have been adopted by the media as yet another indictment of the rampant gun culture in the United States. After all, the alleged killer had previously posted a photograph of his .38-caliber revolver on this Facebook page, and apparently had been harassing the young family in question for some time while wearing a gun on his belt.
Instead however, much more attention has been paid to the fact that on the same Facebook page, Stephen Hicks had expressed support for atheism and the three victims were all Muslims.
It is perhaps natural, in spite of the fact that all evidence currently points to a much more mundane cause of the shootings -- disputes over parking spaces -- for many in Muslim communities around the world, particularly sensitive to back reactions to the terrorist shootings in Paris, to jump to the conclusion that this was a hate crime.
What is more surprising is the connection being suggested, even in various relatively liberal papers and magazines including the Washington Post and the New Republic, between atheism's most vocal advocates and this violence. It may be impossible to ever know what was going through the mind of Mr. Hicks when he committed his crime, although he never appeared in advance to advocate violence against any religious group. But either way, to compare the crime in North Carolina with the crimes against Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists and others in Paris under the general rubric of "hate crime" is to seriously misrepresent both heinous events.
Let's be clear about one thing. Hate speech is directed at people, not ideas. To argue that individuals like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any of the other outspoken atheists, including myself, who criticize the doctrines of Islam, or Christianity, are inciting violence against individuals on the scale of the terrorists who espouse Islamic fundamentalism is akin to suggesting that the Enlightenment was fundamentally no different than the theocracies it eventually undermined.
Consider the words of one writer in the New Republic when labeling Hicks as a potential hate criminal, saying he "expressed his admiration for Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, and condemned "radical" Christianity and Islam alike for their alleged ideological similarities," as if somehow praising reason over ideology is the first step toward violent action.
As Dawkins himself said when he appeared with at the Rally for Reason, held in the Mall in Washington DC several years ago: "I don't despise religious people, I despise what they stand for." Or as another vocal atheist Ricky Gervais said, perhaps more gently, in our film The Unbelievers, which captured Dawkins' remarks as well: "Everyone has a right to believe anything. But I have the right to find that belief ridiculous."
It is true that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, several of the more well-known atheist authors, have spoken out strongly and explicitly against violent Islamic fundamentalism. There is a reason for this. In the current world, amongst all religions, it is Islamic fundamentalism that appears to explicitly incite more violent actions than other forms of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians can also commit random acts of violence, including, for example, advocating violence against abortion clinics or abortion doctors, but these do not approach the scale of ISIS or Boko Haram. To argue that somehow Dawkins or the others promote Islamophobia by simply stating this fact about extremism is misrepresent their writing.
Most importantly, it is the ideas these terrorists espouse that most effectively incite the literary wrath of these gentlemen.
One merely has to explore the ridicule they have streamed against the viler aspects of Judaism and Christianity in order to understand that they find Islam intrinsically no more ridiculous than these other creeds. They merely point out, correctly, that in the current world, Islamic fundamentalism breeds more violence. As they, and I, and others, have pointed out, the fundamental difference between fundamentalist Islam, as it is espoused today, and fundamentalist Judaism or Christianity, is that while the Old Testament in particular endorses violence at least as much if not more than the Qur'an, modern literalists attached to the former have largely renounced such maxims as the recommendation to kill disobedient children, or apostates.
It was not always the case of course, and the history of Judeo-Christianity involves potentially far greater rivers of blood, torture and hate. But most of this occurred in the distant past. As recently as 500 years ago, Christians were burning thousands of women at the stake, and inflicting the most hideous tortures on unbelievers. Perhaps it is not surprising that a religion that began 500 years later is now experiencing similar violence. The difference of course is that in the current world, with instant communication and ready transport, not only can terrorism have a global impact, but with access to modern weapons, the violence its adherents promote may also be more widespread and potentially more devastating.
The murderers who stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris were motivated by an ideology of hate, however perverted a version of Islam it may have represented. Stephen Hicks was undoubtedly also motivated by hate of some sort when he pointed his gun at three innocent students. But to suggest that Thomas Paine, or Christopher Hitchens, or anyone advocating reason over ideology, or rational enlightenment over fundamentalism, could generically incite such violence demeans not only these gentlemen, but also those who claim such a connection.
Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and appears with Richard Dawkins in the recent documentary, 'The Unbelievers.' His most recent book is A Universe from Nothing.