Stuart Whatley,  February 13, 2015

The Nuances of Nonbelief

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The fact that alleged Chapel Hill shooter Craig Hicks is a professed atheist, according to mostly unrequited and pathetic overtures on his Facebook page, has overwhelmed media outlets with giddy fascination. It has also exposed troubling contradictions in how the media often covers religion—or, in this case, the lack thereof.

The Washington Post sees the incident as “shining a light on particular, deep tensions between two tiny American faith groups.” (The story was later edited to remove the word “faith,” a welcome revision.) Elsewhere, a headline tells us Hicks “Reportedly Shared Atheist Beliefs On Facebook.” Others have sardonically asked when the “atheist community” will “condemn this awful hate crime.” The New Republic, for its part, has already ruled the slayings “murders” that “should be a wake-up call for atheists.”

In all of this coverage, from liberal-minded outlets who usually militate against the impulse to blame the group rather than the individual after a tragedy, it doesn’t seem to matter that atheism isn’t a “faith,” encapsulates no “beliefs,” and, for all intents and purposes, comprises no institutional or denominational “community.” (Standard journalistic practice also dictates that the press not serve as trial jury; these were killings, homicides, or slayings, not “murders.”)

These examples reveal a clear misunderstanding of what religious nonbelief entails. They sloppily arrogate all meaning from the words used, in a frisson of determinism that should concern any demographic group that has been summarily implicated in past crimes committed in its name, but without its imprimatur, and against its individual members’ values.

These liberal-minded reporters will likely dismiss these distinctions, just as commentators so often elide the ecumenical complexity of Islam following an attack committed under its name, when the precise views of a few are presumed to be shared by all. But this willful misunderstanding, in all directions, is a problem that demands a higher standard of professionalism, not a narratively pat equation between Islam and atheism, religion and nonbelief. These labels, applied to perpetrators of violent acts, attempt to explain everything, but so often explain nothing at all.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that will not be easily overcome. Nuance of this kind frustrates the media’s desire to furnish clarity to a complicated and troubling event, to simplify and sensationalize its coverage for ephemeral audiences.

With regards to the Chapel Hill attacks, much of the coverage so far has taken Hicks’s motives for granted. But let’s run with that, and assume, for now, that the killings will be deemed a hate crime—that he attacked and killed three innocent people—Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha—simply because they were Muslim (for a good breakdown of the legal threshold involved, see here).

What does this say about atheism? That’s the main question the coverage so far seems to be asking, but it’s the wrong one. It is, at best, a cynical canard. Hicks’s atheism may or may not have had some propinquity to his acts in his own mind, but if they are deemed hate crimes by the available facts, then by definition they had to have been animated by Islamophobia, xenophobia, or some other form of bias. By conflating the alleged assailant’s individual atheism with generalized bigotry, this media coverage reprises the same unproductive tropes that have obtained in similar past tragedies, where some pointed to Christianity in the Sikh temple shooting in 2012, or Islam in Paris in 2015.

The common denominator in all these attacks (if with Hicks it also turns out to be the case) is an age-old volition we know well and can expansively refer to as hate. As for the respective worldviews themselves, they are variable, and largely incidental to the point of meaninglessness. Atheism, for its part, is simply a lack of belief. In a world dominated by religion, it is, for most who profess it, an intellectual refuge. It has no doctrine, scripture or eschatology to speak of. Deigning to categorize it as a religion or belief system in the context of the Chapel Hill tragedy implicates all other belief systems in past crimes they have readily disavowed.

The more media outlets try to limn some kind of atheist doctrine to explain this shooting, the less they’ll be talking about the real, larger problem of Islamophobia and other forms of bias, which, by sheer numbers, affects far more Christians, who make up 78.4 percent of the American public, than professed atheists, who make up a mere 1.6 percent, according to Pew. This is not to confer Islamophobia upon Christianity, but rather to say that bias of any kind is an equal opportunity offender.

The media has a chance to quit this downward cycle with each tragedy. But the flair of anything new, such as atheism in Hicks’s case, seems to quickly put the train of simple-minded factionalization back on track. When will we finally look beyond the categories and imprimaturs that terrorists (if that’s what Hicks ends up being) assume for themselves, and look to the far more edifying exploration of its root causes instead? For now, so goes the new culture war.

Stuart Whatley is an Associate Editor at Project Syndicate.

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