Episode 6

The Chapel Hill Murders and ‘Militant’ Atheism

February 17, 2015

Sam Harris responds to the charge that “militant” atheism is responsible for the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina.

Note 2/18/15: Here was Reza Aslan’s response to this podcast:



Very interesting. Aslan writes articles about me, hires people to write even longer ones (Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of Aslan Media), continually mentions me and distorts my views in his press appearances, and tweets about me with abandon—and he believes that I’m obsessed with him. It is safe to say that I would never mention Aslan again if he stopped spreading lies about me.—SH

Audio Transcript:

As many of you know, there was recently a triple-murder in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, committed by a person named Craig Stephen Hicks. He is still alive—this was not a suicide-murder—so, undoubtedly, we’ll one day hear what his conscious motives were. He killed three young people, apparently over a parking space. That was the subject of their dispute. But he also happens to be a person who identifies as an atheist on his Facebook page, and he has expressed admiration for people like Richard Dawkins. He might have said something about me, I’m actually not sure—but he was identified as an atheist and appear to be critical of all religion, according to his Facebook page.

And because his victims were Muslim, this is now being widely described as a “hate crime” and as a symptom of a problem we have in the Atheist community—a problem of “militancy” and of anti-Muslim “bigotry.” And many people are saying that I am somehow responsible for this—both for the background problem and for the murders themselves, which is quite an amazing thing to be accused of.

It seems to me that there’s a fair amount of moral confusion here—and also just factual confusion about the reality of violence in the U.S. and elsewhere. But the first thing to say is that I feel nothing but horror over this crime. These people were killed in the very prime of their lives—at the beginning of their adult lives—and they were, by all accounts, marvelous people. I can only imagine—in fact, I can’t imagine—the grief of their parents and loved ones.

So there’s absolutely nothing in my work—or in my mind—that is supportive of a crime like this. And I would have hoped that could go without saying—but I think in this context, it probably can’t. Nevertheless, the deluge of claims of equivalence between this crime and the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, or the daily savagery of a group like ISIS, has been astonishing to witness. You can sense that people have just been waiting for a crime like this that could conceivably be pinned on atheism. Of course, the analogy between “militant” atheism and militant Islam is a terrible one—it is an anti-analogy, being false in every respect. Atheists simply are not out there harming people on the basis of their atheism. There may be atheists who do terrible things, but there is no atheist doctrine or scripture, and insofar as any of us have written books or created arguments that have persuaded people, these books and arguments—insofar as they’re atheistic—only relate to the bad evidence put forward in defense of a belief in God. There’s no argument in atheism that suggests that you should hate, or victimize, or stigmatize whole groups of people, as there often is in revealed religion. And yet people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan, the usual suspects—the bevy of apologists for theocracy in the Muslim world—are using this very real tragedy in Chapel Hill to try to stoke a kind of mob mentality around an imagined atheist campaign of bigotry against Muslims. It’s an incredibly cynical, tendentious, and ultimately dangerous thing to do.

Of course, people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan are alleging that there’s some sort of double-standard here: atheists are quick to detect a religious motivation in the misbehavior of Muslims worldwide, but when it comes to their own, they discount the role played by atheism. But this is just a total misrepresentation of how an atheist like myself thinks about human violence. It is simply obvious that some instances of Muslim violence have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam—and I would never dream of assigning blame to the religion of Islam for that behavior. And, to my knowledge, I never have. Insofar as I’m confused as to the source of Muslim violence—well, then, I apologize in advance for that confusion.

But the problem, of course, is that there are teachings within Islam that explicitly recommend, in fact, demand violence in certain circumstances—circumstances that we in the 21st century, if we’re decent human beings, will recognize as being morally insane. Blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, merely holding hands with a man who is not your blood relative or husband if you are a woman unlucky enough to be born in a country like Afghanistan—these are often killing offenses. And the link between the doctrine—as it is understood by Islamists and jihadists—and the behavior is explicit, logical, and absolutely unambiguous. And yet this doesn’t prevent people from denying it at every turn.

There is no such link between atheism and violence of any kind, in any circumstance. There is nothing about rejecting the truth claims of religious dogmatists, or about doubting that the universe has a creator, that suggests that violence in certain circumstance is necessary or even acceptable. And all the people who are comparing these murders to Charlie Hebdo or to those committed by ISIS, as insane as that sounds, are trivializing a form of violence that threatens to destabilize much of the world. And, ironically, it is violence whose principal victims are Muslim.

I should also point out that the notion that there is some kind of epidemic of intolerance against Muslims in the United States is totally at odds with the facts. You need only check the FBI website and you’ll see that there is no such wave of religious bigotry directed against Muslims, or against anyone at all. Hate crime is a very rare offense—five people were murdered due to hate crime in 2013. And when you look at the hate crimes directed at people based on religion, the crimes against Jews based on anti-Semitism outnumber the crimes against Muslims five-to-one—and this is every year, even in 2002 in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. So, if we’re going to be concerned about hate crimes in the U.S., we should worry about anti-Semitism before we worry about anti-Muslim hate crime—and yet anti-Semitism is a miniscule source of violence here. I wouldn’t necessarily say the same thing of France, but in the U.S. it is virtually a non-problem—especially when you compare it to the tens of thousands of ordinary murders and rapes and aggravated assaults that are not ideologically motivated.

Many people are saying that these murders in Chapel Hill could not have possibly have been inspired by a dispute over something so trivial as a parking space. But this is the most common form of interpersonal violence—it never makes sense “on paper.” We’re talking about people who fail to regulate their emotions and who have, in the U.S., ready access to weapons that makes it incredibly easy to kill other people impulsively.

Hate crime per se is simply not a major problem, and those who are trying to whip-up a frenzy of concern over the ambient level of bigotry and violence against Muslims in the U.S. are trying to engineer a kind of moral panic, designed to distract people from the real problem that Muslims face—and that we all face, frankly—which is this basic incompatibility between 7th century theocracy and our collective aspiration to build a truly pluralistic and global civil society.

You can view all of this through the lens of free speech. All you need to consider is a phenomenon like Charlie Hebdo or The Satanic Verses. And, for some reason, people on the left have aligned themselves with theocrats and those who are truly intolerant of the very liberal values that apologists for Islam think they are enunciating. As I’ve said before, tolerance of intolerance is just cowardice. And it’s a form of cowardice that is increasingly consequential.

So the analogy between so called “militant” atheism and militant Islam is nothing more than a moral hoax. The thing that very few people seem able to distinguish, and the distinction that Greenwald and Aslan obfuscate at every opportunity, is the difference between criticizing ideas and their results in the world, and hating people as people because they belong to a certain group, or because they have a certain skin color, or because they have come from a certain country. There is no connection between those two orientations—the latter, of course, is bigotry, and I condemn it as much as anyone could hope. But criticizing ideas and their consequences is absolutely essential, and that is the spirit in which I have criticized Islam (in its various flavors), and Christianity, and Judaism, and Buddhism—and all of these criticisms are different because these belief systems are different.

That’s the distinction one has to recognize, and the clarity of that distinction leads to an experience in the world that our critics seem to not imagine possible. For instance, after I had that collision with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show Real Time, where I uttered this now infamous line “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas”—as I’ve said before, I slightly misspoke there; I should have said it is a motherlode of bad ideas; it’s not the only motherlode of bad ideas, but it’s the one that concerns me most at this moment in history—afterwards, I was in a restaurant and the maitre d’ came over and introduced himself, saying that he recognized me from the show and that he was Muslim. Our resulting conversation was a purely positive encounter between two people who simply had very different views about Islam. It was no surprise to me, and there was no difficulty in acknowledging, that my blanket condemnation of the doctrine of Islam didn’t capture his experience as a devout and peaceful Muslim. I understand that, and he understood where I was coming from. He understood that I wasn’t talking about him when I criticized ideas like jihad, and martyrdom, and apostasy. We had this conversation in a spirit of absolute mutual respect and tolerance. There was not a scintilla of bigotry in my mind. This guy was the nicest guy in the world. I’ve been back to the restaurant since. I hugged him—there’s absolutely nothing hostile about my orientation toward individual people who happen to be Muslim.

Of course, given the requisite beliefs on their part, hostility might be inevitable. If I find myself in the presence of a Muslim who thinks that infidels are the scum of the earth, we’re probably not going to be hugging each other. But the idea that my criticism of concepts leads me to hate people—there’s simply no point of contact between that and my actual psychology. And I’m sure this true of Richard Dawkins. And it was true of Hitch, And it’s true of Lawrence Krauss, and every other prominent atheist who unfortunately has to waste a fair amount of his or her life criticizing the terrible doctrines of religion.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the psychological reality of being a so-called “militant atheist” seems to be so difficult for our critics to imagine that I feel like I need to give another example:

I’m writing this book with Maajid Nawaz—no doubt many of you are familiar with who he is. He’s a former Islamist and now a Muslim-reformer—brilliant, interesting, indispensable—who I now consider to be a friend. He wasn’t a friend before this collaboration because we didn’t know each other, but now I consider him a friend, and actually a personal hero. He is just an immensely courageous man. So he and I are collaborating on this book, the title of which is Islam and the Future of Tolerance. And, as you’ll see, much of it has the character of a debate, where I push somewhat hard on specific ideas within Islam, and he tells me how these ideas are susceptible to more benign interpretations so as to move Islam forward into the 21st century.

But the crucial point is that I do not have to censor myself on the topic of Islam to have this conversation. Maajid knows exactly what I think about Islam and concepts like jihad, martyrdom, and apostasy. He knows exactly how I feel about the treatment of women throughout the Muslim world. There is no contradiction between having a civil, but nonetheless hard-hitting and searching conversation about a very important, even inflammatory, topic, and having a positive ethical orientation toward the person you are arguing with. I actually said something to this effect in a recent Washington Post interview, and Glenn Greenwald linked to this article saying, “Sam Harris wants us to know that he has a Muslim friend.” He was accusing me of using the “some of my best friends are black” defense. And he also labeled Maajid “a critic of Islam” by way of dismissing him. Of course, he’s the kind of Muslim Sam Harris would associate with. So, he dismissed Maajid as an Uncle Tom—and please remember that this coming from a gay Jew living safely outside of the Muslim world who would be hurled from a rooftop anyplace within it.

Perhaps the most charitable interpretation I can give to this behavior is that people like Greenwald and Aslan think that my criticism of Islam—and the work of the “New Atheists” generally—is so easily misunderstood by mentally unbalanced, racist, or xenophobic people that it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to focus on Islam because bad people will misinterpret the significance of this focus and commit murders of the sort we just witnessed in North Carolina.

Let me concede that it’s certainly possible that the murders in North Carolina were a hate crime. It could be that when Hicks starts talking, he’ll tell us how much he hated Muslims and he just wanted to kill a few. And he might even say that he read The God Delusion and The End of Faith and God is not Great and took from these books some kind of rationale to victimize Muslims at random. I think it is incredibly unlikely that this is the case. I will be flabbergasted if Hicks says that his atheism drove him to commit these murders. And yet the next jihadist will almost certainly say that his religion mandated his behavior.

So perhaps people like Greenwald and Aslan think that criticizing Islam is dangerous because it can be misunderstood by bad people. Well, by that standard, we couldn’t criticize anything. As Ali Rizvi pointed out, we shouldn’t criticize U.S. foreign policy because some number of people overseas could become so agitated by reading Noam Chomsky or Glenn Greenwald that they might then kill U.S. tourists at random. Is that possible? Sure, it’s possible. But we have to be able to criticize U.S. foreign policy—and some of what people like Chomsky and Greenwald say about U.S. foreign policy is correct. Should they be held responsible if some deranged person takes their writing and uses it as a basis for intolerance or even murder? Of course not. And the same can be said for any criticism of the doctrine of Islam.

I want to make one thing very clear, however: Publishing the opinion that I have blood on my hands and then backing this claim up with conscious misrepresentations of my views about Islam is a dangerous thing to do. It’s dangerous for me. It’s not dangerous for Greenwald and Aslan, and they know it. But it increases the risk to me and my family from religious lunatics in the Muslim community. Both Aslan and Greenwald know that some number of people among their readers are proper lunatics—goons and madmen who are organized entirely around the sanctity of Islam and its importance to the future of humanity—and if you tell them, as Aslan and Greenwald repeatedly have, either in their own words or by circulating the lies of others, that I want to “nuke the Muslim world,” or that I want to “round the Muslims up for torture,” or that I am a “genocidal fascist maniac,” or that I want to profile dark-skinned people at airports, or that I want to kill people for “thought crimes,” or that I have “blood on my hands” for the murder of three beautiful people in North Carolina—this is dangerous. I’ve asked them to stop it, and I’m asking them to stop it again now.

I’m about to release a book with Maajid Nawaz—and Maajid has serious security concerns. He is my co-author. Telling millions of people that I have incited hatred against Muslims that led to the deaths of these poor people in North Carolina is a totally unethical thing to do. Greenwald and Aslan are mendacious bullies who are making it unsafe to criticize bad ideas that must be criticized.

There is no view that I have ever published that I am hiding from. I’ve written about torture and profiling, but none of my ideas reduce to anything that could be the basis for hatred against whole groups of people. And it’s very difficult—it just may be impossible—to counter these lies once they are in circulation.

As I was recording this podcast, in the last few hours, there was an incident in Denmark where a meeting about these issues—about free speech and blasphemy and the drawing of cartoons—was attacked by a terrorist. One person died and several were injured, and then this terrorist went on to kill someone in a synagogue. You can hear the audio from this attack on the BBC website. In fact, I’ll play it for you. This is what it’s like for peaceful people to gather in a café and attempt to have a conversation on these issues in an open society:


You have to ask yourself, what kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want your kids to live in? This is the world you are living in now. As someone who is spending a fair amount of time dealing with these issues, I can tell you that I no longer feel safe doing so. And apart from jihadists, themselves, there is no one I know of who is making this job less safe that people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan. And not just for me, obviously. I’m also talking about those people in Copenhagen, I’m taking about people in open societies everywhere who have to deal with this growing menace of jihadism. Unless we can speak honestly about this, unless we can resist the theocratic demands being placed on us, we will lose our way of life—in fact, we have already lost it in many respects. We have to reclaim our freedom of speech.

So, if you care about living in an open society that doesn’t more and more resemble Jerusalem or Beirut, if you care about free speech—real freedom of speech, not merely its political guarantee, but the reality of being able to speak about what you need to speak about in public without being murdered by some maniac or without having to spend the rest of your life being hunted by a religious mob—if you care about my work or the work of other secularists or atheists, if you care about the work of Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz, or apostates like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, if you care about our ability to notice, and criticize, and correct for bad ideas, then you must condemn this behavior. You have to condemn the deliberate manufacture of lies designed to make it unsafe to have honest conversations.

So please push back against this. Please lose your patience for shocking displays of intellectual dishonesty on the part of people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan and all the other commentators who obfuscate the plain reality of religious extremism. Your response to this really matters. The things that you do on your own blogs, and on social media, and on comment threads really make a difference. Thanks for your help.