When I read the news of the killing of Marcus Turnage by a friend who couldn’t take the fact that Turnage didn’t believe in God, I recalled that there had been similar episodes. In fact, I wrote about one in April, after a Christian man in Georgia stabbed an old friend twelve times over a matter of Bible interpretation (the victim survived).
There’s also the 2004 murder of Larry Hooper, an atheist, by his Christian (and mentally unstable) roommate, fueled by the former’s unbelief; and the booze-and-drugs-influenced 2013 murder of agnostic Dzuy Duhn Phan in an argument over God’s existence.
So occasionally, right here in the U.S.A., atheists or “slipping” Christians are injured and sometimes killed by Jesus lovers.
Does the violence sometimes go the other way, too? The only case that readily comes to mind is the horrific 2015 Chapel Hill killing of three young Muslims — Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha — by Craig Hicks, an atheist. But hold on.
Even smart writers and commenters, including non-believers like Ali A. Rizvi, just assumed without evidence that there was a causal connection between Hick’s anti-theism and the fact that his victims were religious — even though Hicks and the police said that the killings were over a parking dispute. At the time, I didn’t know why Hicks pulled the trigger (and neither did anyone else except for the murderer). So I proposed that we all take a couple of deep breaths while we waited for the facts to come in.
Of course that stopped no one in the press from jumping to the same conclusion Rizvi did. Even the normally even-keeled Associated Press tried to make the case with a shabby, unconvincing piece. Two months later, the Los Angeles Times was still working the atheist-kills-believers angle; but the newspaper’s on-the-scene reporter, David Zucchino, discovered nothing compelling to prove Hicks’ motive one way or the other. Margaret Talbot, a New Yorker reporter, wrote that the religious identity of the three victims perhaps “enabled” the crime, but couldn’t offer certainty either. All anyone could do was speculate.
In the end, investigators and prosecutors never did find that Hicks killed because of anti-religious animus, much less Islamophobia. He received three life sentences, without hate-crime charges having been brought.
I do not mean to say that none of today’s atheists are theoretically capable of killing someone because of that person’s faith. There are aggressive, pathological people in any group. I just think the double standard is interesting.
Consider: After Hicks killed, atheist culture was under the media’s magnifying glass for weeks. Reporters and pundits put much work into painting a picture of Hicks, the angry atheist. I personally felt the sting when a religious friend asked quasi-casually if I’d heard about the atheist who hated people of faith so much that he’d killed three of them. That wasn’t true, and I told him so, but I’m not sure he believed me. The die had been cast, the narrative set. All atheists, as a group, were probably diminished in the public view for a while.
Given the number of victims, Hicks’ crime was exactly three times as shocking as the individual murders of Marcus Turnage, Larry Hooper, and Dzuy Dunh Phan. I get that. But Hicks is just one guy, and it turned out he didn’t kill because of his anti-theism. On the Christian side, we have at least three killers… who actually did murder because they couldn’t handle their victims’ differing worldview.
The news articles about the killings of atheists were never connected to some larger storyline about the violence lurking in the heart of Christianity, and that’s correct, I think; going there would be quite a stretch. I just wish atheists had been shown the same caution and courtesy in the weeks after Craig Hicks blew away the three victims of his senseless rage.
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