Note: I wanted to post this earlier but it took a bit of time to shape it correctly. This is an important topic, one that will undoubtedly reappear in future posts.
The world is now familiar with the events that unfolded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The tragic loss of life cannot be undone and attempts to rectify the causes of the shooting cannot resurrect, only prevent. The event raises important questions on the coverage of violence against minorities as well as the portrayal of Muslims as perpetrators of crime instead of victims. The aftermath of the shooting is also an opportunity for atheists to look at our own community. While as skeptics and atheists we often pride ourselves on intellectual rigor, we should acknowledge one fact: when it comes to Islam, the discussion takes on a tone far different than when discussing other religions. Of course, this in no way endorses the idea that somehow atheism contributed to the crimes that occurred in Chapel Hill. Atheism is simply a lack of belief and this lack of belief cannot compel someone to commit a crime. However, a stereotyping of a minority is beneath the atheist and skeptic community.
Debate and discussion of the drawbacks and fallacious claims of religion are the hallmarks of the growing atheist and skeptic community. Such debates strengthen the intellectual and ideological bedrock of the community while helping otherwise closeted atheists to feel less isolated. While there is much diversity within the community, many atheists tend to feel that religion exerts a palpable and often negative influence on a number of facets of American life. It is for this reason that many respected atheists, including Brian Dalton, Daniel Dennett, and Matt Dillahunty, have laid out respectful and nuanced criticisms of religion. At their best, these criticisms rely on an extensive understanding of the faith in question or the nature of faith itself. These conversations tend to go beyond simple diatribes – save for the firebrands who often dominate headlines – and critique not only the ways in which science, culture, and politics are harmed by the ongoing influence of religion in the modern world, but also the deeper elements of the faith that influence such beliefs.
The level of understanding among atheists, so evident when discussing the shortcomings and falsehoods of Christianity, decreases markedly when discussing Islam. Atheists remain the most knowledgeable group when it comes to world religions, but the discussion moves quickly to the most sensational aspects of Islam and the Middle East: terrorism and sharia law. Whereas Christianity is often discussed by former believers (now atheists) with a sound understanding of the text, few atheists have substantive knowledge of the Quran beyond a few select quotes dealing with violence or women’s rights. Even fewer prominent atheists have a functional knowledge of Arabic or the Middle East or significant scholarship in the field. A deep understanding rooted in text gives way to a kind of fearful exceptionalism, regarding the problems facing the Muslim world as stemming almost exclusively from Islam. Such rhetoric stains the reputation of a group that often prides itself on the quality of its intellectual discourse.
Many American atheists come from Christian backgrounds very few from Muslim backgrounds. In this sense, the difference between how atheists deal with Islam and Christianity is not surprising. Atheists often seem to parallel the criticisms of Islam that come from American society as a whole. While in theory atheists disbelieve all religious claims equally, criticism regarding Islam tends to focus far less on the logical impossibilities found in the faith and far more on the sensational topics that dominate the discussion of Islam for believers and non-believers alike.
This has to change. The atheist community needs to make inroads with former Muslims who go beyond the Ayan Hirsi Ali model, who use their position as former Muslims to pillory Islam while confirming every stereotype surrounding Muslims. In doing so, the atheist community can maintain its ideological commitment to the truth while also cementing its position as an equal opportunity critic.