The Chapel Hill shooting, Craig Hicks’s anti-theism, and The Guardian’s biases

In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?

The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.

We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.

The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.

The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious.

Deah Barakat, with his wife, Yusor.

Deah Barakat, with his wife, Yusor.

I don’t know the reasons for these murders, and I have insufficient information to arrive at a conclusion. I do, though, want to comment on the assumptions exemplified by The Guardian‘s editorial.

The evidence of Hicks’s atheism-inspired “hatred” is supposed to be his Facebook page. The Guardian says that the page “contained violent threats against all organised religion, including Islam …” (added emphasis).

But did it? The Facebook page has now been taken down, but an extensive analysis has been presented by Michael Nugent. Yes, the page presents anti-religious attitudes, but (if we trust Michael Nugent’s summary, which I do) nowhere are there “violent threats”. Indeed the page often stands up for religious freedom. Examples are (all taken from Nugent’s article):

While endorsing the right to build a Mosque near ground zero, Hicks commented: “I respect him [Obama, who supported the Mosque] in this matter. I just wish he’d support the rest of our great Constitution in the same way”.

About a Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard that had been vandalised by Christians, Hicks said: “I don’t believe in Christianity at all, but I would never vandalize anything of theirs”.

About a quote from Elton John saying “From my point of view, I would ban religion completely”, Hicks replied: “I don’t agree with the first part of Elton’s statement, with banning religion. Not that I care for religion, as I most definitely do not, but banning it would be taking away a persons rights and I oppose that”.

Yes he was anti religion, but even when saying that he explicitly supported people’s right to be religious, as, for example, when saying: “Of course I want religion to go away. I don’t deny you your right to believe what you’d like, but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous …”.

Thus much of what was on Hicks’s Facebook page is very out of character with his subsequent murderous violence. With our currently limited information I don’t know how to explain that.

The Guardian‘s claim that Hick’s “Facebook page contained violent threats against all organised religion” is simply wrong. This matters because there is no equivalence between Islamist violence and peaceful opposition to religion, opposition that consists only of speaking and writing.

Razan Abu-Salha with her friend Rana Odeh

Razan Abu-Salha with her friend Rana Odeh

If Hicks has turned to violence from anti-religious motives then that is totally abhorrent and condemnable, but we should not leap to a conclusion about his motive out of a false notion of equivalency between violence and merely speaking out against religion.

The Guardian has done exactly that by noting the anti-religious sentiments and then presuming that such sentiments must have entailed “violent threats” and an opposition to freedom.

The Guardian claims that the “three young Muslim students were gunned down in their Chapel Hill flat, apparently by a neighbour, Craig Hicks, who claimed their faith was an affront to his atheistic principles”, as though Hicks had actually said that (which he hasn’t), as though The Guardian knows for sure what the motive was.

In leaping to that conclusion, on insufficient evidence, The Guardian is revealing its biases. It is presuming that merely speaking out against the role of religion in society is itself sufficiently “extreme” and akin to violence that the one naturally segues into the other.

That is to accept the Islamist narrative that merely speaking or drawing against religion is a form of “violence” that is so reprehensible that it cannot be allowed. To buy into that notion is to abandon free speech. The Guardian — like most of the UK media — has been too hesitant and half-hearted in standing up for free speech that criticises religion. It is revealing how readily it leaps to equating such speech with violence.

We need to defend free speech, especially the right to speak against religion. But while defending the right to promote our views by speaking and drawing we must deplore any promotion of any ideology by violence. The distinction ought to be obvious enough.

12 thoughts on “The Chapel Hill shooting, Craig Hicks’s anti-theism, and The Guardian’s biases

  1. Patrice Ayme

    If you want a status nobody will really check, try thinking! Indeed. Hatred against individuals is hate crime. Criticizing a system of thought, any system of thought, is OK. Any superstition as elaborated as Islam, is a system of thought. One ought to be as free to criticize it as the Aztec, or old Celtic religions.

  2. persedeplume

    Greenwald and that serial plagiarist, Werleman are part of the problem as well as the Guardian. I’m all for honest criticism of atheism where it’s warranted. They, however, seem perfectly content to spin anything of use into the anti- “new atheist” narrative. In actuality, I can only find 4 incidents in the past 2 years of “atheist violence” against the religious. That’s a number that’s dwarfed by regular violent crime/murder across the US. Perspective….. 1st world problems.

  3. Phil

    I was a member of Richard Dawkin’s very active atheist forum a few years back. The community contained a wide variety of people, as you’d expect in any large community.

    A small subset of this atheist community were beyond militant, true peddlers of what can only be called hate.

    Dawkins was content to let these members use his form to spread the virus of hate, until….

    They aimed their hate at Dawkins himself.

    Dawkins then completely freaked out, apparently totally shocked to learn that hate cares not who it’s target is. He closed his “free speech” forum, and reworked his site to more closely control visitor contributions.

    The point here is not that Dawkins is against free speech, because that concept actually has little meaning on private property. I actually agree with his decision to shift to a more edited publishing model, and in any case it’s his forum, his call.

    The point is that as human beings we typically don’t grasp the destructive effects of hate until it is aimed at us. Dawkins mistake was in thinking that hate was really not so bad so long as it was aimed at “them, those people over there”. He wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that hate exists to serve itself. Now perhaps he is. We all live and learn.

    There’s a meaningful difference between a vigorous challenge and hate. One seeks to spread light, whereas the other aims only for heat. Now that everyone on the planet is connected to everybody else, and we all have more power than ever before, we’re going to have to become more clear about the difference between heat and light.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Phil,

      A small subset of this atheist community were beyond militant, true peddlers of what can only be called hate.

      I’m pretty familiar with atheistic forums, but see very little of what could properly be called “hate”. Can you give some actual examples?

    2. PeterJ

      Examples? Dawkins site was a sea of hatred. Looked like a angry youtube comments section.when I was a member. It perfectly reflected the approach of its owner.

    3. Coel Post author

      I think that the term “hatred” is used far too freely these days, and I certainly don’t see any in Dawkins’s writings.

  4. Patrice Ayme

    Atheism is one notion too far: only a god can be sure there is no god. Laicity is more appropriate.

    Now for Islam. Many talk about it, but have not read the sacred texts (Qur’an, Hadith, Suna). Here is an example.
    In the standard interpretation of Islam, anybody viewed as having left Islam is to be killed. The Qur’an says in many places that those who leave Islam shall be “grievously punished”. The Hadith specifies what the penalty is: death.

    “Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.“— Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:83:17

    Similar Hadiths by other authors say the same. Al Bukhari is generally viewed as earliest and most authoritative.

  5. Michael R

    I would start down the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and work upwards, in search of a motive. Hicks apparently made several complaints about noise. Personally, I’d be driven crazy by noisy neighbours far more readily than by anyone wearing a headscarf (and I’m not terribly fond of Islam).

    My guess is noise was the main gripe, and his anger was intensified because it was foreign sounding music or voices. Add in the parking disputes and it’s “three strikes and you’re out”.

    Doing something this extreme is likely due to a cumulative effect of all these factors.
    “There were plenty of run-ins [with Hicks],” he said, “but the run-ins escalated when my sister moved in; she obviously wore the head scarf. I recall her telling me when she first went to visit the condo before she even moved in together, [Hicks] came and knocked on the door and told them they were making too much noise, and he brandished a gun at his waist.”

  6. Phil

    Peter, to quibble just a bit. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Dawkins forum was a sea of hatred. I would say it was a very big community, and within that community, as in all communities, there was a minority who had traveled beyond challenging in to hatred, in their relationship with religion.

    1. PeterJ

      Yeah okay. I suppose a lot depends on which bits of the site we read. But it was certainly a sea of ignorance.

  7. Phil


    You said…
    “I’m pretty familiar with atheistic forums, but see very little of what could properly be called “hate”. Can you give some actual examples?”

    Challenging would be where I say your point is wrong for the following reasons X, Y and Z. I could say this enthusiastically and with passion, but so long as my main focus is on X, Y and Z, and not on you personally, then it’s a challenge and not hatred.

    Most atheist forums are in actual fact overflowing with an endless series of threads filled with inarticulate, lazy, snippy, snipey, sarcastic, quip based little blurby thingies whose only purpose is to fuel the personal identity fantasy that atheists are so obviously so very superior to theists etc etc.

    Black, Jews and gays are now off the table as socially acceptable victim groups so the ancient need to identify a runt of the litter to eject from the nest seeks new targets.

    Most of those engaging in this form of atheist ideology are young and will grow out it, especially if such emotion driven drivel is not further encouraged by those old enough to know better.

    It must now be added that this is not all that one can find on atheist forums. There are indeed intelligent thoughtful commentators as well, but typically the manic mob of atheist fundie mad dogs bores them out of the community, and the average signal to noise ratio continues on a long slow slide towards the lowest common denominator.

    Is it hate? Well, that’s a semantic battle that perhaps is not worth fighting. I’ll settle for the word stupid.

    Ok, so now my Fundamentalist flag is flying proudly over my own little fort, and I am wandering up to edge of becoming that which I, um, find stupid.



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