The long-standing parking disputes

That Washington Post article that Glenn Greenwald linked to – it’s by Michelle Boorstein yesterday, on the (cough) tensions between atheism and Islam.

On Wednesday, the father of the two women said one of his daughters had mentioned Hicks’ before and felt he was anti-Muslim. A week ago, he said, she told her family she had  “a hateful neighbor.”

“Honest to God, she said, ‘He hates us for what we are and how we look,’” Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, who has a psychiatry practice near Chapel Hill, told The News Observer.

Later on Wednesday, Hicks’s wife insisted that the shooting was only due to parking arguments and not to any bigotry. “I can say with my absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or victims faith, but in fact was related to the long-standing parking disputes that my husband had with the neighbors. ” Karen Hicks said during a news conference.

Notice a problem with that? It was a fucking parking dispute. Who the hell murders three people over a parking space? Citing “long-standing parking disputes” really doesn’t do anything to fill the yawning void between a parking dispute, however longstanding, and murdering three people.

But reports that an outspoken atheist — most of Hicks’ many Facebook posts railed against religion — had attacked a family who were visibly Muslim (the women wore headscarves) tapped immediately into a conversation that has been going on since Sept. 11 about why several of atheism’s biggest figures have singled out Islam for criticism.

Among them are biologist and writer Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris, who have both triggered controversy with their comments about Islam.

And therein lies a whole different problem, which is that both of those examples of Atheism’s Biggest Figures are annoyingly crude and simplistic in what they say in public about Islam. Dawkins in particular thinks it’s useful to keep cranking out eye-poking tweets about Islam as a way to…whatever: fix it or lure people away from it or startle people into paying more attention to it. He’s wrong to think that’s useful. It’s the opposite of useful. It makes him look like a jerk who likes poking people in the eye, and by extension it makes all atheists look like that. This is one reason out of many I wish we had different, better Atheism’s Biggest Figures.

The tensions have been central enough that umbrella secular and atheist groups Wednesday were quick to release statements condemning the Chapel Hill killings. Ron Lindsay, president of the skeptics’ group Center for Inquiry[,] said atheists have in the past held conferences on the topic of Islam and tried to “reach out for dialogue” but the overtures have been viewed skeptically by Muslims.

Lindsay and other secular groups said Wednesday that the atheists’ particular focus on Islam has been triggered by the comments of big-name celebrities like Harris.

“I don’t think he’s an Islamophobe. But it’s fair to say in his writings that he portrays Islam as inherently more violen[ce]-prone than other religions and that has had an effect on some people, maybe an unintended [e]ffect. A lot of people tend to see Muslims in their mind a[s] more of a threat and tend to lump Muslims together,” Lindsay said. “To try and put things in focus, clearly we’re concerned about Islamic extremism, but we always make this clear, this is a small minority of Muslims.”

I’m tired of having to live with the unintended effects of Harris and Dawkins being provocative. I think they’re both clumsy at it; I think they’re both rude rather than wittily challenging, which I think is what they intend. I think they’re both very full of their own importance and prickly when disputed. I’m tired of having them as putative Leaders.

Meanwhile, a group of atheists is raising money to donate to a cause championed by one of the Muslim victims. Barakat, whose family was from Syria, had started a crowd-sourcing campaign to collect donations for the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation. His “Refugee Smiles,” focuses on providing dental care to refugees of the Syrian War in Turkey.

“There are conflicting reports about what the motivation was,” said Dale McGowan, executive director of the humanist nonprofit, Foundation Beyond Belief, a national organization based in Atlanta. “It doesn’t matter. It’s someone who identified with our community. We need to make a strong statement against the act.”

Quite right. The conflicting reports don’t matter: he was part of the atheist community and we need to repudiate the whole thing – the leader-worship, the male-centrism, the belligerent tweets, the hostility for its own sake. Enough already.


  1. wsierichs says

    First, I agree that whatever else comes out about this crime, it’s atheists who have to speak out.
    From the news accounts, I think the simplest explanation is that this guy was a walking temper tantrum. I’ve had to deal with several people like that over the years and you never know what will set them off. It could be the most trivial of things, at least to you, but to them it’s like the most-incendiary insult and injury possible. So, yes, a parking space dispute really could have been his trigger. I’ve seen more-trivial things set off people with anger problems.
    Of course, if he had not had a gun, he might still have exploded in violence, but at least his victims might have had some chance of survival.
    Still, I suspect that he was one of those atheists who doesn’t just despise religion as nonsense but actively hates it, and in this case might well have targeted Muslims as being the most obvious religious believers around him. I can’t look at most people and identify their religion (if they have one), but Muslims in head scarves do stand out.
    So I expect that in the future, we’re going to get the “See, an atheist committed a massacre, so that proves atheism sets you on the road to be Hitler or Stalin” argument. Nevermind that Hitler and Stalin were Christians (Stalin might have abandoned religion in his adulthood but his ideas about the world were set in church and theology school.) While I don’t agree with some of the self-flagellation some atheists come across as committing, it’s still a case where we need to show that we reject this violence and any hatred his atheism created. It is just sickening, whatever his reason for his action was.
    I will add that I don’t blame any religion per se when someone commits a crime that seems to have a religious motive. People can be violent without religion being involved. But religious beliefs can point a violent person toward a specific target(s), just as atheism might have pointed Hicks toward his targets. On the other hand, I certainly blame religions when whole movements arise that target people based upon religious beliefs. I can’t honestly see atheism being to blame for any group violence (I’m at an age where memory might be failing me here), but there are plenty of examples in which a religious motivation one can be identified, at least in part.
    I hope I never live to see any murderous movement acting specifically from atheism.

  2. Seth says

    Keep in mind that the murderer was a Southern white man. They haven’t exactly ever needed a whole lot of excuses to murder brown people, regardless of religion.

  3. says

    As usual, I’m unhelpfully going with “all of the above” w.r.t. motive. The main theme I’m detecting is Anger Management Problem + Gun, and yes people do shoot other people over stupid disputes involving driving or property. And seriously — who parades around their condo precinct with a visible gun? Even in SC? He’s expecting to get mugged, in daylight, on his front lawn? That’s a red flag right there.

    But I certainly don’t rule out a component of racism/Islamophobia — something about the methodical way the shootings were carried out; Hicks doesn’t just lose it and start popping off rounds on the street. It seems so targeted — a convenient Other.

    Oh, and fuck Sam Harris. (Dawkins I’ve mostly ignored).

  4. says

    Ooh Ooh… can we somehow swing this into yet another Greenwald vs Harris slapfight? Just watching those two massive egos and their legions of enablers battle… its better than ultimate fighting.

  5. felicis says

    To paraphrase Scalzi – ‘the failure mode of ‘witty’ is ‘asshole’.

    Although some engagement is going to be confrontational (how can it not, when pointing out the existence of atheism can cause people to offer death threats in return?), I agree that it is at best counterproductive to be nothing but offensive in regard to religion.

  6. Dan says

    The stuff quoted from social media doesn’t seem extreme, though it is from the angry end of anti-Christian polemic. He wasn’t, from what I’ve seen anyway, making a particular target of Islam – his focus was Christianity. At least, it was at the time he posted about the “ground zero mosque”. But we have to take seriously the testimony of his neighbours and his neighbours family, who have said that they think that anti-Muslim hate was behind this, and had experienced his aggression before. Maybe he didn’t put all his feelings online. We will learn more during the court case. In any event, calmness – even if angry – is always better than splenetic rage, and I commend it to the world.

  7. tecolata says

    From the description of his ex wife, the guy simply sounds like a sociopath. She said he had no empathy or feeling for others. Throw in bigotry and gun-toting and I can actually believe some minor dispute led him to murder.

  8. lorn says

    As I see it there is no need to condemn, or not condemn, the events. Hicks is identified as atheists entirely upon his own estimation.

    IMO the man’s beliefs are irrelevant.

    As far as I can tell, his beliefs didn’t drive or feed his violence and, further, his beliefs were not used as excuse or justification before or after the fact. Atheism does not ordain or sanctify people to the belief. There is no ceremonial transition to join the ‘community’. The translation is entirely self defined and subjective.

    When a drunk kills someone in a drunk driving incident nobody demands drinker, as a community, condemn the error of their fellow drinker.

    I lament the loss of life, but his self-defined atheism has no more relevance than the fact that he had two legs and was wearing pants at the time.

  9. Dan says

    If, for the sake of argument, we think about what it would mean if this does turn out to be an anti-religious hate crime (or if anti-religious hate turns out to be part of the cause), we can do better than just say “the man’s beliefs are irrelevant”. His beliefs would be very relevant indeed, I would have thought. Just “not believing in God” would, it is true, not seem to provide any motivation for shooting people for believing in God. But a belief that theism was not only mistaken but that theists were stupid or subhuman or unworthy of consideration, might start to feed murderous intent, or excuse it. A belief that Islam was a uniquely pernicious Nazi-like ideology, which I think is not an uncommon belief, would certainly provide some motivation or justification.

  10. Tsu Dho Nimh says

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