As atheists, humanists, agnostics, and freethinkers, we have the distinct luxury of lacking an extremist base. As a community (albeit a fractured one) without an established dogma, there is nothing that commands nontheists to commit atrocious acts in the name of our “beliefs.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any extremists in our growing community‑there are certainly those who feel obligated to spread their thoughts on theology and religious institutions in an abrasive manner similar to some Christians and Muslims. But while religious individuals who openly promote their beliefs are often called evangelicals, nontheists who do so are described as “militant” suggesting a penchant for violence and force. This is one of the many ways in which the media and average Americans seek to invalidate the nontheistic community, which is why we are one of the most marginalized and despised groups in the United States.
Make no mistake about it; “militant atheism” is simply something that doesn’t exist in U.S. society. There are no organized calls for atheists to attack houses of worship or forcibly convert believers, and there are certainly no paramilitary groups promoting disbelief on the edge of a sword. Instead, the nontheistic community, just like religious communities, is a big tent comprising many different sub-communities: scientists, lifelong disbelievers, recent arrivals to humanism, nontheists of color, and many more. Unfortunately, this big tent does contain people who feel as though those who hold various religious views are uneducated or inferior and they promote their disbelief in the most public and often obnoxious ways possible. These evangelical atheists tend to alienate people from the nontheistic movement instead of attracting new members, but as they are nonviolent, evangelical advocates of disbelief should not be termed “militant.”
Which brings us to the inhumane killings last week of three innocent Muslim Americans. The motive for the murder still remains to be determined, with police stating it was a long-standing parking dispute that turned violent, while others in the community claim that it was a hate crime committed by a militant atheist.
To some nontheists, the fact that the killer’s atheism is being portrayed as the cause for this murder is discriminatory and misleading. There is nothing about an atheistic worldview that mandates or even slightly encourages the killing of religious people, and to suggest that atheism is the cause of this crime is just another example of society maliciously equating atheism with militancy.
At the same time, advocates are justified in feeling that the murder of three outwardly Muslim Americans is based in prejudice. Muslims are frequent targets of discrimination in America, both by average citizens and by government institutions. Humanists have worked against this discrimination, including opposing an NYPD profiling practice, because we recognize that discrimination against a community based upon their looks or beliefs weakens the fabric of civil society and threatens religious freedom. But this discrimination still persists on a daily basis, leaving many Muslims frightened to wear religious garb in public or practice other aspects of their faith.
How then, can we expect a community so often attacked for its identity to not feel as though the murder of three of its members, some in religious garb, was motivated by religious hate? How can a community receive constant death threats and endure acts of violence without in turn developing a sense of victimhood? Muslims are justified for feeling as though they are being attacked by society for their identity, because they ARE being attacked by society for that identity. Does this mean that their perception of every attack on a Muslim will correspond with the reality of the event? No, but that does not make their concerns about racial and religious discrimination any less valid.
Nontheists are also correct in their anger at society’s constant attempts to turn peaceful theological dissention into a monstrous, immoral ideology sustained by violence. Rather than being accepted for our differing religious viewpoints, atheists and humanists are instead lambasted as unethical bloodsuckers that shouldn’t be trusted, especially with political office.
But if nontheists and Muslims are both justified in their reactions, who is to blame for the poisonous atmosphere surrounding these killings? The answer remains opaque, but we can see that at the very least it involves both the American public and the media.
From right-wing blogs seeking to continue their culture war against atheism, to media conglomerates churning out more clickbait in hopes of raking in advertising dollars, Big Media is once again using a tragedy to pit marginalized communities against one another in the hopes that this conflict will continue to make news and therefore money through advertising revenue. The media doesn’t hold any particular grudge against Muslims or atheists (Fox News aside), but recognizes that conflict can make for compelling news, which is why it works to escalate the situation by printing hyperbolic articles meant to further offend and divide the relevant communities. This cynical approach to journalism certainly isn’t uniform throughout the media, but it is powerful enough to impact the views of countless Americans and cause them to act unkindly to both Muslims and atheists.
It’s worth recognizing that the media wouldn’t be selling these stories if there wasn’t a marketplace for them. We Americans, for all of our talk of multiculturalism and pluralism, still maintain a litany of individual prejudices. We like to ostracize the Other, to come together with those we see as being part of our “group” against those from Elsewhere. Whether these prejudices originated from media narratives or are pre-existing beliefs that are simply exploited by news organizations is unknown, but their impact can be measured in hate crime statistics and harrowing personal stories of discrimination.
If both the media and widespread personal prejudices are to blame for the discrimination experienced by both atheists and Muslims, then how can we expect to fix the situation we find ourselves in? As cheesy as it sounds, what we need now is increased communication between American nontheists and Muslims. Both groups share in the common experience of being hated by many Americans, and both groups are correct to feel victimized. Rather than turning on each other, we should focus our disdain on what actually does us harm: profit-seeking sensationalist journalism. We can counter their negative narrative simply by educating Americans about what we do and don’t believe and by showing people that neither group is the monster the media so often portrays. A public education campaign of this magnitude may take generations to be effective, but through cooperation and a steadfast determination to free the American public of dangerous misinformation, we could see our children treat Muslims and atheists the same way a right-handed person would treat a left-handed person.
I feel no need to apologize on behalf of the nontheistic community for the actions of the atheist shooter, because our lack of a belief in a deity does not translate into a call for violence against those who do believe. I only feel the desire to embrace the families and friends of those who were impacted by this terrible crime and to share in their loss. Three bright, young, promising Americans were killed, and that is something that everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, should feel deep in their hearts.