We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

Lauren NelsonIn the Friendly Atheist section of Patheos, Lauren Nelson wrote, Before You Claim the UCC Shooting Was About Christian Persecution, Consider All the Evidence. It’s a relatively deep dive into whether the shooter was an atheist and whether this had anything to do with singling out Christians. And the answer to the first question is clearly no. He certainly had a problem with organized religion, but he doesn’t seem to have been an atheist. We now have some indication that the answer to the second question is also no.

But I think it is a mistake to make such an argument. Implicit in it is the claim that an atheist wouldn’t target random people for execution as an expression of atheism. That might not be the case here, but given the frequency of mass shootings, it may well happen — and soon. And then atheists will be in the same place that Christians now find themselves: committing the no true Scotsman fallacy. We’ll have to listen to people claiming that anyone who really understood the tenets of atheism wouldn’t have committed this horrible act.

I am an atheist, but I know the atheist community far too well to rely on this. There are many atheists who get mad at me for saying this, but there really is a strong connection between atheism and libertarianism. Atheism doesn’t necessarily turn someone into a humanist. Many atheists feel it is perfectly acceptable to let human beings die in the name of their primitive economic theories. In general, they don’t think it is all right to explicitly kill others. But it is hardly far off the beaten path. Ayn Rand was very much enamored with serial killer William Hickman and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. It doesn’t take any effort at all to actually become the serial killer and imagined Übermensch.

But there is a more fundamental point here. Humans are clever. It does not take much to use just about anything to justify something that you did or want to do. True, it would be harder to justify murder using Jainism than Judaism. But I feel certain it can be done. And atheism is a hell of a lot closer to Judaism than it is to Jainism — at least judging from the way that prominent atheists talk. So I think we atheists ought to give our theist brothers and sisters a break. We should just assume that some very prominent horrific act has already been committed by an outspoken and clear atheist.

Does this mean that atheism is bad? Not at all. It is just an acknowledgement that people use all kinds of things to justify their terrible behavior. And that would allow my fellow atheists to better see that the acts terrorists, lone gunmen, and Republican politicians do not necessarily say anything about the religion of those people. If there is one lesson from religion that I wish that atheists would learn, it would be the dangers of hubris taught in the Old Testament. As a group, we atheists are very full of ourselves. I would hate for me and my philosophy to be judged on the basis of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

20 thoughts on “We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

  1. It would be fairly easy to judge the entire atheist community on how much of an ass some atheists can be to theists. But since I also know how awful my fellow theists can be (and in Jesus’s name too! ugh!) towards atheists, I usually keep quiet when being told I am an irrational loony for believing in God. I also rarely bother to give evidence because duh, that is the point behind God, you believe, not prove.

    I also am kind of weird since I may believe in God but it doesn’t bother me if someone else does not. If God wants you to believe in It (or He), then God will make it clear in no uncertain terms that It (or He) exists to you.

    The sole difference I can see between a religious murderer and a non-religious murderer is that one uses a religious prop to justify their action and the other is using a different prop. The end result is the same: a person is dead because of a selfish act.

    • Atheists mostly don’t understand that they avoid the ultimate question: why the universe (or whatever) exists. I get very tired of hearing pat answers like “nothingness is unstable” or even more absurdly, “The big bang!” I would much rather have a conversation with a serious theist than a “serious” atheist (that is: someone like Harris or Dawkins). My thinking on such matters are rather complicated, and I’ve thought serious of not calling myself an atheist just to distance myself from the New Atheists. Just the same, I’m much more in the tradition of atheism than these people. Most of what passes for atheism these days is just anti-theism.

      This is not to put down Lauren Nelson, who is actually a very interesting writer.

      • “Why does the universe exist?” is a fruitless question, like trying to define a mathematical point; you’re arguing about a postulate. The ultimate question is, “What am I doing (or not doing, or what could I be doing) to make the universe a better place?” And it doesn’t take religion to answer that.

        • I don’t accept this. I’m well aware of this line of argument. But the nature of existence is a natural question and it doesn’t help to say we shouldn’t think about it because it can’t be answered. Ultimately, no question can be answered, since questions beget questions. What we are looking for is a deeper understanding, and I certainly do have that after decades of considering this question. What people seem to benefit from is the idea that our personal existence is parochial. Just as we don’t understand relativity theory on an intuitive level the way we understand classical mechanics, we don’t understand the nature of existence. From our perspective, it is a paradox.

          Having said that, I haven’t found theology to be of any use in understanding this question. Negative theology is of some value because we can certainly say some things about how the universe can not exist. But that’s about it. Theism, in its most useless (and common) form tells us literally nothing. My approach is more one of pure math. But what I was getting at in that comment was that serious theologians understand the question. And most atheists are not interested in the question, which is fine. But that doesn’t make the question uninteresting or invalid.

          • Damn code phrases. If I hadn’t read too much New Atheism before, I’d take Lee’s comment on face value — AKA, I care more about helping food banks in my hometown than this philosophical s**t. Which is a terrific perspective.

            Now that I’m been exposed to way too much NA, I’m starting to see the code phrases. I suspect many who use this math/science terminology to attack faith (“postulate”) aren’t debating what this means to them working at the food bank (nothing!) but instead why their time is better spent arguing for New Atheism rather than working at the food bank.

            (Lee, if I’ve got you wrong, I apologize! Evil, evil Frank has made me suspect of argumentative atheists. It’s his fault. I shine blameless like the noonday sun.)

            The bigger question is why we should bother at all. Super-intense theists say we should focus on saving souls and God will fix the planet in appreciation. Super-intense atheists say we should focus on defeating that narrow-minded view, and atheism will fix the planet, presumably through . . . the market or something?

            Lapsed Catholics like me do a little volunteer shit and beat ourselves over the head why we don’t do more.

          • > after decades of considering this question

            Interesting that you keep stressing how much you’ve thought about it. But the caricature an argument you say you’re ‘well’ aware of. To wit:

            > But the nature of existence is a natural question and it doesn’t help to say we shouldn’t think about it because it can’t be answered.


      • “Atheists mostly don’t understand that they avoid the ultimate question: why the universe (or whatever) exists.”
        I’m an atheist and I don’t avoid that question. I’ve just re-read, with enjoyment, Jim Holt’s “Why Does The World Exist?”. But I don’t think religions have the answer:
        Why does the universe exist? Because God.
        Why does God exist? He is a necessary being. His existence is a necessary fact.
        Why can’t the existence of the universe (or the laws of physics which give rise to it) be a necessary fact? Wouldn’t that be a simpler assumption?

        • I fully admit that not all atheists avoid the question. I don’t! I’ve written about Holt’s book a number of times. As I wrote when I first read it:

          “In the end, I think, we are left with a paradox. And so what?! I have no problem with that. We exist and yet we shouldn’t. I think this says a whole lot about how the brain works and a whole nothing about how the universe works. We know via Gödel that even some deductive systems can be shown to be incomplete or inconsistent. Is it such a leap to suggest that the universe is the same way? That we are trapped by our perceptions to see problems where none exist?”

          But the “necessary fact” answer is really no different than the God answer. It is just that religious people give “necessary fact” the name God. Religious people then go on to imbue that necessary fact with a whole bunch of attributes that are mostly silly like “loving,” which is meaningless in this context. As I’ve said: I have no problem with the postulated universe. I just don’t find it that interesting. And as the quote above suggests, I think there is much to learn by asking the question.

    • The one time I visited a mosque with a female friend for a college class, we were instructed that women had to wear head scarves. But when we got there the women in the mosque said it wasn’t necessary — that if God wanted you to practice Muslim ways, He’d let you know. Of course this was a pretty liberal mosque, but I think a lot of theists share this view.

      Just curious, if you don’t mind sharing — what faith are you a member of? (If any organized one, of course many theists aren’t members of congregations.) I was raised by a Catholic mom and evangelical dad, so I’m partial towards liberal Catholicism and very down on right-wing fundamentalism. Although there are conservative Catholics and liberal evangelicals, too.

      The whole pope naming Junipero Serra the first US saint is odd. I suppose he’s reaching out to Hispanic-American Catholics (one of the three religious groups growing in America, alongside evangelicals and “none.”) You’d have thought there were much better candidates. I guess there’s symbolic importance to reminding Hispanic Catholics that they were in California before English-speaking people. And then there’s the whole “saints have to have confirmed miracles” thing, which probably narrows the field a lot (although as I don’t believe in miracles, I think the Church pretty much decides some myths are true for people they want to canonize.)

  2. I suppose anyone could shoot up a mall for any goddamned reason. It’s very unlikely to happen for an atheist, however, because a) there are no specific doctrines to atheism, b) atheism doesn’t have any boogeymen, and c) atheism has no in-group.

    If a whacko did a mass shooting ‘in the name of atheism’, sure I’d admit it, and then note that this is largely without precedent. Also, you won’t get old ladies saying, “Well that was wrong, but I can understand why someone could do that with how badly we’re treated.” The shooter would have no defenders.

    It’s good to be self-critical, not be too serious about ourselves, but come on. Basically, atheism tends to disclaim reasons for person-to-person violence. I’m not talking about a code of nonviolence, but the fact that atheism gives you no reason to aggress against particular people.

    Frank, I think you’re relying on a unrepresentative small sample in asserting that atheists as a group are ‘full of themselves’. When a public atheist demonizes Muslims or the poor, I don’t think ‘heretic’, I think ‘asshole’.

    The statistics and our experiences prove it. Atheist are statistically more likely to be libertarians. They’re also far more likely than average to be leftists and/or humanists and these are much larger trends. Of course I have no time for libertarian persons, atheists or not. That’s the thing; there’s no church of atheism. Thank God.

    When I look at out lifestyles, I see that my life and attitudes actually are very similar to Christian leftists. I think they’re deeply mistaken, but there’s better things to do in life than arguing with you political allies. Just two weeks of campaigning left here in Canada, and when other volunteers talk about the connection between astrology and their love of people, I say nothing.

    I am praying for an NDP/Liberal coalition with the NDP as senior partner. After that: abolish private property. j/k

    • RJ — there were a lot of self-described Anarchists who made violent attacks 100 years ago. I’m guessing most were atheists. (Although they definitely weren’t behind the Haymarket Square bombings, for which several anarchists were murdered by the US government — including people who weren’t even in Illinois, because their writing was considered inflammatory!)

      I haven’t looked at the numbers closely but what you say sounds right — I’m guessing atheists are more likely to be humanists, liberals, libertarians. Those are all avowed positions and atheists are more into declaring for stuff. (Rather than just saying, “um, God? I dunno.” Which in its way is a very sensible position. Versus saying “um, politics? I dunno.” Which is a perfectly understandable position but not very sensible.)

      I liked your line “better things to do than arguing with allies.” I have no idea why some Catholic nuns are super-into organizing Americans against anti-poverty policies, and I sure wouldn’t eat sacred wafers with them, but they’re doing great work and I love it!

      I’m such a dope on Canadian politics. Hope you and others can explain those a little here from time to time.

    • I hear you. And I do know that there are a lot of atheist leftists. I tend to think of us as humanists — a word that I think we ought to promote more. That’s especially true when you look at the most famous atheists, who really do embarrass me most of the time.

      But my point, and I’ve been writing about this a lot recently, is that the whole idea that people do particular things because of the teachings of a religion is ridiculous. If someone kills a bunch of people while shouting “Allahu Akbar,” does that make it caused by Islam? If it does, the signal is swamped by other factors. And when people like Sam Harris brush those other factors aside in their determination to blame Islam or “religion,” a great disservice is being done — most of all to the atheist cause by making us look (1) bigoted and (2) intellectually simplistic.

      The reason that I so link atheism and libertarianism is because the two groups so often make the same kinds of intellectual mistakes. But I will admit: I’m being biased by huge shadow being cast by Harris, Maher, Jillette, and Hirsi Ali — all of them libertarian to one extent or another.

  3. Let’s analyze here a little too. There is no doubt whatever that terrible things have been done by atheists – Lenin and Stalin were atheists. Anyone who tries to say they weren’t ‘true’ atheists obviously doesn’t get the problem with the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy. Also doesn’t get atheism either in my opinion.

    If you really want to get pan-spiritual, look at the Nazi war cabinet, with Christians, atheists, and weirdo neo-pagans working together. United in hatred of certain other groups; a triumph of inter-sectarian cooperation.

    It’s certainly ridiculous to swallow the standard media line that extremist Muslim groups are a gaggle of religious monomaniacs waitin’ for their 40 virgins. But the guy who shot soldiers in Ottawa, the guy that ran down a Canadian soldier in Quebec, those individuals, they said they were motivated by Islam. It is perverse to deny it.

    On the other hand, contemporary Western society seems to be telling our young people that the only choices in life are consumptive excess and religious fanaticism. For some 1st and 2nd generation immigrants, and not only them, extreme Islamicism seems to have a draw not unlike gang membership. Yeah, people are complicated, and that goes regardless of racial origin.

    • Excellent point about the Nazis. I don’t disagree with anything you are saying. My point, however, is that reasons and justifications are different. We humans greatly overestimate how rational we are. The question is not if some nut has decided that Islam requires him go out and murder people; it is whether he would have not done that if Islam didn’t exist. I think he would have. On the other hand, we have groups like ISIS. Are they killing because of Islam? In a simple sense, yes. But did Hitler kill 6 million Jews because of his stated reasons? I don’t think so. I think it is far more basic than that. And I think we can apply that same calculus to ISIS.

  4. I don’t understand people who treat atheism as a philosophy and refer to other atheists as their “brothers and sisters.” I’m sorry, but atheism is not a organized belief system, or a philosophy, or a community of people – it is merely a *lack* of belief in gods. Lumping all atheists together like that is ridiculous. There is a world of difference between an libertarian, a Marxist, and a secular humanist.

    Seriously, asking us to imagine a shooter motivated by atheism is like trying to imagine a shooter motivated by theism. Not Islam, not Christianity, just a general belief in one or more deities of some sort. It’s not something that is gonna happen. I guarantee that if a atheist does go on a shooting spree he or she will also subscribe to an actual specific atheist philosophy. (Probably objectivism. Those people are selfish, narcissistic, entitled, immature assholes.)

    Also I’m not sure it’s fair to say that libertarianism is connected to a atheism. That’s only true in America, for one thing. Libertarianism is not nearly as popular in other countries. And there are also a surprising number of self-proclaimed Christians who identify as libertarian (and even objectivist!) I think conservative political beliefs are more strongly connected to libertarianism than a belief or lack of belief in any god.

    • Well, for me the “sister/brother” terminology is unacceptable for White Americans and I’d never use it — it seems connected to oppressed groups here and doesn’t feel appropriate.

      However I do brighten up a little when I connect to someone and they mention being bored in church as a kid, or loving Python’s religious jokes. It feels like I might have something in common with that person; I want to explore further.

      If they mention how they liked the niceness side of religion but always resented the controlling side, I like them even more! Or if they tried to accept it, never had anything against it, but were always rather confused by it. Perfect! If they insist they knew from Day One How Religion Is Irrational And Therefore All Who Succumb For A Moment To Its Irrationality Are Inferior Beings — well, then, OK, Sherlock, I’m choosing to be Watson instead.

    • Great comment. I entirely agree with you about objectivists. And I think that is the best definition of them yet constructed.

      But I think you’ve missed the point of my article. If someone goes on a shooting spree, having left a manifesto claiming that he hates religious people and he is a follower of “Science!” then people will blame it on his atheism. So I think it is a mistake to split hairs because it ultimately takes us to the True Scotsmen fallacy.

      I also don’t think that atheism is the opposite of theism. I don’t want to get lost in semantics, so let’s leave it at this: there are Christians who are libertarian, Marxist, and humanist. I too have a hard time imagining someone killing because of atheism. But I don’t have any trouble imagining someone killing because of anti-theism.

      You may well be right about the atheism-libertarian connection being an American thing. It seems to me that the anti-theism movement is focused here too. But my point was just that being an atheist doesn’t mean you are a humanist — a point you made in your comment.

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