Michael DeDora has an excellent post on what Craig Hicks does or doesn’t have to do with vocal atheism and what vocal atheism has to do with being a decent human.
…as merely a position on whether god/s exist, atheism is no guarantor of moral behavior, and no guarantee should that be expected from it. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and many others — apparently now including Craig Hicks — are atheists who have killed. A person’s atheism only tells you that they reject the idea of a god. It does not tell you about the rest of their character, which, as with all people, can include a very human but very misguided hatred. I guarantee some atheists will continue to do violence in the world so long as both atheists and the world exist. Why atheists continue to defend atheism at the expense of a broader moral and philosophical framework remains a mystery to me. This event should remind us that mere atheism is not enough — that for humans to find decency and sustain it, we must construct and nourish moral frameworks that engender complete respect for our fellow humans regardless of their beliefs on religion or gods. Hicks was an atheist, but he was apparently not also humanist. Humanism provides no shelter for such hatred and murder.
Quite. For a good long while I was focused on being a vocal atheist, partly just because I was fed up with the taboo on being that very thing. I’m over it. The accumulated nastiness and brutalism of a huge swath of The Atheist Movement put me off it. I still am a vocal atheist, for sure, but also a vocal feminist and internationalist and advocate of universal rights and similar things.
Which brings us back to the issue of causation. It is very easy to point at reports of a parking dispute, or quotes from a Sam Harris book. But, as when examining terrorism and violence carried out in the name of religion, it is much more difficult to address complex reality, which in this case is that Hicks was most likely driven by a multitude of factors, which hopefully the police investigation will reveal. But, whatever his inspiration, Hicks is responsible for his actions. Yes, he might have found intellectual and emotional comfort in anti-religious writings. But not a single report has shown that the writings he consumed, or that he shared on his social media accounts, condoned violence against any innocent persons, including religious believers. One can think that religion is a burden on society, and that we would be better off without it, while also respecting the dignity and autonomy of individuals to believe in a religion and lead their lives peacefully. For all their stridency, I see no evidence that Dawkins or Harris believe otherwise, or that Hicks found otherwise in their writings.
No, neither do I. On the other hand there are a lot of intermediate steps, and there I’m not so confident. I think Dawkins encourages some contemptuous attitudes by modeling them so often and enthusiastically on Twitter. It’s a big leap from contemptuous attitudes to murder…but it’s a big leap, not an infinite gap. Contemptuous attitudes can and do lead to bullying, to violence, and even to murder. That can happen. It’s playing with fire, that kind of thing.
Of course, some anti-religious rhetoric is charged, and could provide cover for, or amplify, stereotypes of believers. Atheists must have a serious conversation about what counts as this kind of unfair rhetoric, what rhetoric should be welcomed and promoted, and what rhetoric should be rejected outright. But even when we decide on what counts as “too far” in intellectual criticism and argument, are we willing to blame the peaceful anti-religious people around us for inexcusable physical acts like cold-blooded murder?
No, of course not. But what about blaming the verbally belligerent people around us for creating an atmosphere of callous contempt? That I’m willing to blame those people for. To the extent that I’ve contributed to it I’m willing to blame myself.