As soon as the news broke that Craig Stephen Hicks, the man charged in last week's fatal shooting of three young people -- all Muslims -- in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was an ardent atheist, many concluded that this was a religion-based hate crime.
The Internet was quick to react, with the right playing up the "atheist killer" angle and the left stressing anti-Muslim bigotry. In fact, the story is still developing, and the motive apparently included a parking dispute (which does not exclude religious bias as a factor). But whatever we eventually learn, one lesson of this tragedy is clear: Beware of generalizations and easy answers, especially if they support your ideological biases.
The Chapel Hill killings had a strong resonance for those who believe that terrorist acts by Islamic extremists are unjustly used to tarnish Islam and all Muslims -- and that prominent atheists who single out Islam for criticism, such as British biologist Richard Dawkins, contribute to this unfair blame.
Dawkins, whom Hicks listed as a favorite author, tweeted to express his dismay at the shootings; Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan sarcastically responded that no matter how many times Dawkins condemned it, "We're just going to keep assuming you haven't and don't." It was his way of making the point that Muslims' condemnations of terrorism are routinely ignored.
University of Minnesota biologist and atheist blogger P.Z. Myers, who has often accused atheist critics of Islam of aiding anti-Muslim bigotry, also seized on the connection.
"The killer was one of us," Myers wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. "He had received the message that murdering Muslims does not expel one from the community of atheists." (Myers did not give any examples of such a message.)
And yet a more comprehensive look at the content of Hicks' Facebook page may not support the view that he had a particular animus against Muslims, as opposed to religion in general. In fact, he mocked conservative Christians who deplore radical Islam while, in his opinion, sharing a similar social agenda. He explicitly opposed what he saw as right-wing efforts to curb Muslims' religious freedom and defended the right to build a controversial mosque near Ground Zero a few years ago. There is no evidence to suggest that he was especially interested in atheist critiques of Islam.
That said, Myers may have a point when he calls for some atheist soul-searching. Too many holier-than-thou (and smarter-than-thou) atheists claim their belief system is morally superior to religion because it does not lead to murderous fanaticism. Yet in the 20th century, millions were slaughtered by communist regimes that embraced militant atheism as part of their creed.
Today, of course, there is no radical atheist terror network. But this does not make atheists immune to fanaticism or hatred toward those who believe differently than they do. Ironically, that includes Myers himself: In a blog last year discussing a Christian movie in which a fatally injured atheist professor is persuaded by two missionaries to embrace Jesus, he wrote, "Just so all you Christians know, if I'm in a fatal accident . . . you try to pull that prayer-and-conversion [expletive] on me, I'm going to stab you."
There is a lot of deplorable prejudice against nonreligious people in large segments of American culture. But atheist intolerance exists as well, and (speaking as an agnostic) it can be toxic even if it does not lead to violence.
So, by all means, let's treat the Chapel Hill shootings as a lesson in humility. But let them also be a lesson in not using tragedies to score political points.