The murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by an outspoken atheist has raised the issue of whether they were killed because of their religion by someone who seemed to hate religion.
It is taken for granted that when a member of the majority (whether it be ethnic or race or religion or any other defining characteristic) does something heinous, the perpetrator is not taken as representing the entire community and no one calls upon its members to explicitly denounce the acts. But when such an action is committed by a member of a minority community, then it is expected that all members of the minority, and especially its ‘leaders’ and celebrities, must explicitly denounce the acts or otherwise be suspected of condoning it.
In this case, there is some debate as to whether the trigger for the shooting was a parking dispute or because the victims were Muslims. Given the craziness in the US where easy access to guns results in people being killed for the stupidest of reasons, we should not summarily rule out the possibility that parking was in fact the proximate cause. But it is also likely that the fact that the victims were Muslims may have made the shooter quicker to pull the trigger than he might have done otherwise, given the widespread demonization of Muslims.
Recall that less than a month ago Duke University, located in that area, had planned to issue the Muslim call to prayer from its chapel bell tower as a symbol of inter-faith unity but had to cancel it when evangelist Franklin Graham and other Christians had protested loudly, leading to what the university called “credible and serious” security threat that forced it to withdraw its offer. This is the climate in which the shootings occurred.
Whatever the reasons, is it now incumbent for atheists, especially prominent ones, to publicly denounce this act and dissociate themselves from the killer and say that he does not speak for atheism, the way that Muslims are expected to do whenever a Muslim goes out and kills innocent people?
It should be obvious that in either case such public disavowals by people who have nothing to do with the situation should not be called for nor required. Although it is always a good thing to speak out against evil acts, the fact that one does not do so all the time should not be taken as evidence that one condones it.
It should be equally obvious that atheists are not possessed of any greater moral sense simply by virtue of a lack of belief in any gods.