Atheist Terrorism? You’re Joking…Right?

“I hate Muslims,” said comedian Jim Jefferies in his “Freedumb” performance. “Hang on, I didn’t finish my sentence. I hate Muslims, I hate Christians, I hate the Amish, I hate Buddhists, I hate the snake people, I hate Jews, Sikhs…I hate all. Our fight in this world is not against Islam, it’s against religion. I can tell you this for sure: No one’s head has ever been cut off in the name of atheism. No one has ever cut into human flesh, looked down camera, and gone: ‘In the name of nothing!’”

Of course, that punch line got a hearty laugh. Terror in the name of atheism? Inconceivable! Those who could even imagine such a thing envisioned it only as a joke, like the satirical headline in The Lapine: “Atheist Suicide Bomber Kills 18 Agnostics.”

I was laughing too, at first. When I sat down to write Mind Virus, I had in mind a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the overdone “Islamic terrorist” theme: What if there were an international terror group driven by extremist…atheism? What if a criminal mastermind, with the means and mentality of an Osama bin Laden, took his inspiration from Richard Dawkins – “Faith is one of the world’s great ills, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate” – and decided this smallpox of the mind needed a Jonas Salk?

Of course, the more moderate atheists would react as the mainstream Muslim community does after any incident where Muslims are involved: by denouncing the extremists (“We unequivocally condemn those who hijacked the name of reason to commit this irrational act”) and cautioning one another to avoid anything that could possibly suggest guilt by association (“Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to carry books by Christopher Hitchens through airport security”).

The humor, of course, lay in the obvious fact that in real life, such a scenario would be inconceivable.

Wouldn’t it?

Can atheism be a motive for crime?

Reactions to the news that Devin Patrick Kelley, the Sutherland Springs shooter, followed certain atheist bloggers and groups online, echoed the response to the 2015 murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by Craig Stephen Hicks, a self-professed “militant atheist” of the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris type. In neither case, the authorities emphasized, was there evidence to conclude that the crime was religiously (or anti-religiously) motivated; neither shooter said anything to indicate his actions arose from hatred of Muslims, Christians, or religion in general. (Hicks told the police he killed his victims over a parking dispute, which suggests that his level of rationality was not quite up to atheists’ usual standards.)

But one opinion I often saw expressed in the wake of both incidents was that, even if there were such evidence, even if the shooter had openly declared his intent to kill religious people because he hated religion, even if he had yelled “God is not great!” as he opened fire, it would still be nonsense to label the incident as an “atheist crime”. Because, the logic went, atheism means only the absence of religious belief, so it couldn’t possibly motivate anything or implicate anyone. The fact that a criminal didn’t believe in God is no more significant than, say, the fact that he didn’t like chocolate.

And indeed, if a suspect didn’t like chocolate, of what relevance would that be to the investigation? Unless, of course, the suspect’s profile picture was a chocolate bar circled by a prohibition sign, he had a shelf full of books about the evils of the cacao trade, he made a threatening call to his kids’ school after their teacher read to them from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…and then he shot up a Ghirardelli store. In that case, I don’t know what line of inquiry anyone else would pursue, but if I were looking for known associates, my first stop would be the local chapter of American Antichocolatarians.

You might be an atheoterrorist if…

If you still maintain that terror in the name of atheism is inconceivable, I invite you to take this short quiz and see whether you, or anyone you know, display any of the diagnostic criteria for terrorism laid out by former FBI counterterror specialist Joe Navarro (Hunting Terrorists, 2013):

  1. Uncompromising ideology: Do you believe that your worldview is the only one that can possibly be right, and anyone who disagrees must be stupid, ignorant, brainwashed, deluded, mentally ill, infected with a mind virus, or otherwise somehow inferior? Do you categorically reject the notion that religion might have anything good to offer the world? And if a fellow atheist made such a suggestion, would you immediately label them “accommodationist” or “faitheist” – meaning someone whose ideology was less pure than yours?
  2. Irreconcilable fear: Are you afraid of religious people? Do you live in constant fear that your Muslim neighbor is going to blow you up, the Christian teacher at your children’s school is going to threaten them with hellfire and damnation, or your Mormon boss is going to ban coffee from the office?
  3. Wound collection: When you meet religious people, do you blame them for every wrong ever committed by anyone who shared their faith, throughout all history? Do you, for example, hold every Christian personally responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, slavery, the Holocaust, Catholic pedophilia scandals, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the election of Donald Trump?
  4. Passionate hatred: Is your hatred of religion the foundation stone of your personal philosophy? Do you feel happiest and most “alive” when you’re bashing religion?
  5. Magical thinking: Do you believe that, if only religion could be eradicated, all the world’s problems would be solved?
  6. Mental isolation: Do you crave the company of equally militant atheists, in person or online? If you can’t be among like-minded people, would you rather be alone than anywhere near a member of one of those “Bronze Age death cults”?
  7. Prescribed violence: Do you feel that rational dialogue is useless with irrational people, and more direct action is called for? Do you agree with Sam Harris that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”? If so, would you volunteer for the job of executioner?

If you answered “yes” to all these questions, congratulations: you qualify as a potential atheoterrorist.

Thankfully, Mind Virus remains safely in the fiction section, and “In the name of nothing!” still has audiences rolling in the aisles rather than ducking under their seats. But to those who insist that terror in the name of atheism is absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable, I can only make one reply:

“You keep using that word! I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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