Sam Harris: Atheists have no 'blood on their hands' for Chapel Hill murders
Neuroscientist Sam Harris speaking at TED2010 (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

Sam Harris addressed the role atheism may or may not have played in the murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha by Craig Hicks in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last week.


He began by noting that while many have blamed the "militancy" in the atheist community for these murders, "there's absolutely nothing in my work or my mind that is supportive of a crime like this, and I would hope that this would go without saying -- but it probably can't. The deluge of claims of equivalence between this crime, and the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the daily behavior 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."

"The analogy between militant atheism and militant Islam is a terrible one," Harris continued. "It’s an anti-analogy. It is false in every respect. Atheists are simply not out there harming people on the basis of their atheism. Now, 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 only relate to the bad evidence put forward in defense of a belief in God. There’s no argument in atheism to suggest that you should hate or victimize or stigmatize whole groups of people, as there often is in revealed religion."

Part of the reason that Harris believes atheism is being blamed is because people can't fathom that a triple-homicide could be the result of a parking dispute. "This is the most common form of interpersonal violence! It never makes sense on paper!" he says. "You’re talking about people who fail to regulate their emotional states. And they have, in the US, ready access to weaponry that makes it incredibly easy to kill someone impulsively."

"It could be that when Hicks starts talking, he’ll tell us how much he hates Muslims and he just wanted to kill a few; and he might even say 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’s incredibly unlikely that that’s the case. I will be flabbergasted if Hicks says that his atheism drove him to commit these murders."

"Whereas the next jihadist," he added, "will almost certainly say that his religion mandated that he behave the way he did."

Harris then returned to discussing the "anti-analogy" between the "militant" varieties of atheism and Islam, referring to it as a "moral hoax."

"It is 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 -- but the problem, of course, is that there are teachings within Islam that explicitly recommend, in fact demand, violence under certain circumstances, circumstances which we in the 21st century, if we are decent human beings, will recognize as being morally insane."

But, he said, "there is no such link between atheism or secularism, and violence of any kind. In any circumstance. There’s nothing about rejecting the truth claims of religious dogmatists -- there’s nothing about doubting that the universe has a creator -- that suggests that violence in certain circumstances is necessary or even acceptable."

"All the people who are comparing these murders to Charlie Hebdo – or to ISIS, as insane as that sounds – are really trivializing a kind of violence that threatens to destabilize much of the world. And ironically it is violence whose principal victims are Muslim."

"What we’re seeing," Harris continued, "is that people like Glenn Greenwald and Reza Aslan -- the usual suspects [as well as 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 and tendentious and opportunistic and ultimately dangerous thing to do."

"I want to make one thing very clear," he concluded. "In saying or writing or otherwise publishing the opinion that I have blood on my hands, and then backing that up with conscious misrepresentations of my views about Islam, that is a dangerous thing to do. It increases the risk to me and my family."

"There are a number of people among [Greenwald's and Aslan's] readers who are proper lunatics, goons, and madmen -- who are organized entirely around this variable of Islam and its importance to their lives and to the future of humanity."

"And if you tell them, as Greenwald and Aslan repeatedly have, whether 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 Muslims up for torture, or that I’m 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 murders of three beautiful young people in North Carolina, this is dangerous."

Listen to the entire podcast on "The Chapel Hill Murders and 'Militant' Atheism" below.