February 12, 2015

A Punch in the Gut: Or, what it feels like when your minority worldview is all over the news for violence

In my more conservative days--my very conservative days, if I'm being honest--I was one of Those People™.

I looked at a terrible terrorist act committed by religious fanatics, usually Islamic, and I said, "Why don't all of those Muslims around the world cry out? Why don't they protest?"

I can remember the first time I heard this argument. I was sitting in church. It was shortly after the incident at the USS Cole, which had left seventeen sailors dead. That was in the year 2000. I was in eighth grade. Just three years earlier, my dad had come home from Bosnia--the thought of dead service members wracked my soul. It made me think, "What kind of people could do this?"

The following year, I asked the same question when the World Trade Center twin towers came crashing down. "What kind of people could do this?"

"Why don't they speak out?"

"Why don't they condemn this violence?"

Of course, the obvious *practical* answer here is that "they" were. Muslim communities the world over were condemning the violence and killing.

The not practical answer, and one that has hit me especially hard over the past day or so, is that they shouldn't have to.

Usually, we can claim that atheists don't commit violence in the name of atheism, but two days ago, three young Muslim citizens, Deah Shaddy Bakarat at just 23, Yusfor Mohammed at just 21, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha at just 19, lost their lives in a horrific murder by a man who claimed to be an anti-theist.

Whenever I hear the "no true Muslim/Christian" argument, I always shake my head, so I won't resort to it myself: this man claimed to be an atheist, and an anti-theist. Yes, he was one of us.

There will be those that emphasize that he was having a dispute with the lost over parking. That's valid, but we have to ask ourselves, "Why did he think this was okay? What tripped the switch and made him believe that it was okay to do this?"

I don't necessarily think it was atheism, in and of itself, that helped him dehumanize these individuals--but it probably helped. Not through any feature of atheism itself, not through any dogma--because we don't have it, as noted again and again--but because we do tend to look at religious people and think, "What a bunch of dumbasses."

I know. I've thought it myself.

And once you lose the characteristics of the individuals involved, it's easy to write them off as a bunch of sheep. And I think this man, Craig whatever, I think he was able to do that.

It's not easy to reflect that kind of criticism on one's movement, on one's personal ideology. At first, I didn't want to do it. I recoiled from the consistent mention of the murderer's ideology--and I do think that is a valid criticism of media coverage. As Terry Firma, writing for the Friendly Atheist, pointed out a ton of parking disputes that ended in violence with no mention of the religions of either the accused or the victims. Without all of the details, the media has constructed a narrative and run with it, when in reality, this man's comments regarding atheism don't appear to have been violent or indicated that he wanted to do violence on behalf of atheism or against the religious, whatsoever.

I have to be honest, it gives me pause, to see that given these comments, and his self-identification as a nonbeliever, the media will take the story and run with it in the direction of a hate crime, without taking the time to find any further proof. It's shocking, especially given that just weeks ago, they were fighting the notion that the Paris Charlie Hebdo massacre had anything to do with Islam, even as the murderers there had been screaming that they were avenging their prophet. It's shocking to me, that the same grace isn't granted to atheism. The cultural bias is strong, and it shocks me to see it so clearly. Those murderers self-identified as Muslims; this man self-identifies as an anti-theist. What's the difference? Why are the self-identifications of one open to criticism and the other not?

But there comes a point in processing it where you have to move past those thoughts, because there's nothing you can do about them. It's true, at least in the moment.

We can lay the groundwork for further acceptance of secularism, so that when these things happen--because atheists are flawed humans, and some will hurt, kill, cheat and steal just like Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Shintos and Scientologists and everyone else on the face of the planet--we do have people in our corner, people that will say, "#NotAllAtheists."

But that's not the time right now.

The time right now is to do what's expected of us. To disavow the violence, to send our thoughts to the families, and to admit that this man was, in fact, an atheist, because he said so, and we would expect that acceptance of any other group.

There's no ideology to fix. There's no passage of some holy book to point to and say, "This isn't what being an atheist means." There's just the sincere disgust at the thought of any being losing its life because of religion, whether that be because of religion or nonbelief.

And that's what you do, after you recover from the punch to the gut that is the media coverage of your minority worldview. You say something like this, my true and honest thoughts on the matter:

It is a terrible tragedy to see three young lives, with so much potential, lost in an act of absolutely senseless and unspeakable violence. The right to think for one's self, to believe or not to believe, is a basic, fundamental human right, one we should all commit to defending at any cost, and to think that someone from the secular community may have violated that cuts me to the quick. My thoughts are with the families, friends, and communities as they mourn and grieve. I cannot imagine what these three would have accomplished, given their natures and passions as reported the past few days, but I know that the world is a little darker for having lost three humans who were capable of amazing things.

And after you say something like that, you move on. Because in the end, it's not about you, and you don't know how you fit into this entirely. But you know, above all, it's not about you (and that repetition is intentional). It's about a tragedy. A senseless, needless tragedy.

And perhaps, just perhaps, you go and donate to them. The Foundation Beyond Belief is holding a drive to support the work that Barakat was passionate about--working in Syrian refugee camps to provide basic dental care.

You can donate here.

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