Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

Reflections on Yet Another Senseless Tragedy

I see that many others on Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress,  and other social media are discussing the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. There is not much I can add that hasn’t already been expressed. No one, especially a child, wakes up in the morning expecting that day to be their last. This sort of thing may explain why fear and mistrust are so high in this country. For many people, it only takes a few incidents like these over the years to really chip away at one’s trust towards humanity.

I grow weary of this horrific cycle: innocent people are senselessly killed, we become saddened and outraged for days as the media focuses almost exclusively on the tragedy, and then things return to normal until the pattern repeats again. I understand horrific events like this will always happen, and that gun massacres are hardly unique to the US. But this horror still seems far too frequent for such a developed country. I’m starting to wonder if it has anything to do with the high level of social dysfunction in our society, combined with one of the lowest rates of mental health services in the industrialized world. Whatever the case may be, I wish there was clear solution.

I am now hearing arguments that teachers should be allowed to carry firearms while in school. A similar case was made with regard to college students and professors following the Virginia Tech massacre. I understand the temptation of this argument, but it raises significant problems.

First of all, I can’t imagine that many instructors (or parents and students) would feel comfortable with a firearm present while teaching children. Even with safety measures in place, it is still risky, and a sense of uneasiness would likely remain. Moreover, many teachers may not be qualified or inclined to learn how to use a gun.

But even if we assign armed guards or police officers instead (which would likely be expensive), I have to wonder: what effect would such a pervasive siege mentality have on our society? Do we really want to live in a world where everyone sees the need to be armed all the time, everywhere they go, in order to feel safe? What impact does that have on one’s psyche or sense of trust? No other developed society in the world has a comparable problem.

In any case, the data reveal that the picture is rather mixed. For example, in most cases, the killer did in fact obtain the gun legally. Yet at the same time, strict gun laws haven’t always translated into fewer gun crimes, even though more guns in general tend to correlate with more gun crime. It’s also clear that unequal societies – those with high rates of poverty and social dysfunction – tend to be more violent overall as well. The complexity of the issue means it’ll take a multidimensional and systemic approach to resolve – which is probably why we’ve yet to even seriously discuss this problem.

I’ll end this with a prescient quote attributed to Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers), which has been making the rounds since yesterday’s school shooting.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

While it may be apocryphal, the point of this statement still applies: almost every tragedy, including this one, has had its heroes. It may not seem like much consolation, but we must grasp onto whatever good we could find in the world. That’s something I’ve had to keep in mind time and again, given the years I’ve spent studying war, current events, genocide, and the like.

If there can be any consolation in this horrific tragedy, it is in the tremendous outpouring of love, solidarity, and empathy being expressed by millions of people around the country (and the world). Just about everyone I know has shared their sadness and condolences for the victims. It is reassuring that many of us haven’t become so hard-hearted after all that we’ve seen over the years. While this massacre – among other things – represents the worst of human nature, the sincere heartfelt responses reflect the best. It doesn’t make up for the suffering, but it helps keep my bouts of cynicism and misanthropy at bay. Let’s not lose our love and concern for each other as a species. That’s partly what makes things like this more common.