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Chapel Hill shooting forces uncomfortable conversations among Reddit's atheists

Chapel Hill police investigate the murder of three young Muslims.
Chapel Hill police investigate the murder of three young Muslims.
Al Drago / The News & Observer / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

We still don't know why three students, all Muslim, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Tuesday. But there is unconfirmed speculation that the murders were motivated by the victims' religion, bolstered by a Facebook account that appears to belong to someone with the same name as the man who turned himself into police for the killings, and which identified him as an "anti-theist."

It may yet turn out that the killers' views on religion did not motivate the murders. All the same, this initial speculation has provoked difficult conversations and self-reflection in some atheist circles, some of which are anticipating that they will be blamed for the attack — much in the same way that some members of those atheist communities have, in the past, blamed Islam for the acts of violent Muslim extremists.

In the past, prominent figures on atheism such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris have blamed violent extremism on religions and their followers, with Maher once infamously characterizing Islam as "the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing." Discussion about a link between religion and violence is also fairly popular on r/atheism, a large atheist community on Reddit.

Atheists have already condemned the attacks on three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, though they should not have to. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted, "How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?" The top thread on r/atheism states, "As an anti-theist myself I hope he rots in jail."

Yet there's a very real tension between the community's typical discussions, which often imply or state outright that Islam itself is to blame for the acts of individual Muslim extremists, and its discussion today articulating (correctly) that, even if the Chapel Hill shooter was motivated by an extreme hatred of religion, that does not mean all atheists are culpable.

User Narvster wrote, "I'm expecting to see all the religious folks start shouting how dangerous atheists are now."

Such comments convey the same fears that many Muslims feel after an Islamist terrorist attack — that they will be compelled to apologize and may be vilified, despite having no connection to the attack.

For others, this has prompted questions about whether identifying as anti-theist — as opposed to merely atheist — goes too far.

One Reddit user commented, "Maybe anti-theism is a step too far? Maybe it took seeing something like this to make you realise that perhaps anti-theism is an ideology, and it could in fact be easily mutable into something sinister."

This speaks to some of the tensions between typical atheists and atheists who make overt opposition to religion a core part of their beliefs, sometimes self-identifying as anti-theist.

An irony of anti-theism, and one that was brought out by online reactions today, is that members of this movement will often condemn people simply because they follow a religion such as Islam or Christian — and now fear being targeted by exactly the same sort of reasoning.

A religious Reddit user made this exact point in a thread about militant atheism: "Just as this man does not represent you [atheists], our extremists do not represent us; and I for one would appreciate if you respected that."

Researchers who have studied terrorism disagree widely on what causes it — such as political freedom or strategic means to a political end — but broadly agree that it's not the tenets of Islam or religion itself that principally drives people to such abhorrent acts.

After today, atheists may find themselves making the same points.