An "Atheist Terrorist"?

September 1st, 2010 | Posted by:

leeToday James J. Lee, a self-declared atheist (per his MySpace page), took a number of people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters building in Silver Spring, Maryland. After hours of police standoff that had the nation on the edge of its seat, he was declared dead and the hostages were rescued safely.

He had a lengthy list of demands that mostly pertained to population control, immigration and environmentalism. But one in particular jumped out at me; among his demands was that the Discovery Channel expose “civilization’s… disgusting religious-cultural roots.”

Will the Discovery Channel hostage taker, an atheist who despised religion, be dubbed an “Atheist terrorist”? Let us hope not. We must move beyond such labels, just as we must stop calling the hijackers of 9/11 “Muslim extremists.” They were extremists, nothing more. Awful incidents like these just go to show that extremists come in all stripes.

Oversimplifications are not helpful, and they only serve to make people guilty by association. James J. Lee and the men responsible for 9/11 were extremists and terrorists; let us not pretend any different by assigning them additional labels.

Today, we must be bigger than them. Let’s join together in condemning the acts of those who wish violence on others, whatever their creed may be.

Update: Many in the blogosphere have taken to discussing the role his atheism might have played in his actions, pointing to his active role in atheist communities (someone who knew him reflects here). But those wishing to make a case against atheists are citing anti-religious images he posted to his facebook and digging up some videos of him saying things such as, “No, I don’t tolerate other people’s religion.” Again, I will reiterate: we must resist any attempts to make all atheists guilty by association. And we should recognize how such generalizations are often counterproductive when it comes to religion, too.

Atheist Ethicist offers a great reflection that echoes my initial claim. I also think Common Sense Atheism says it well here:

If it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of Darwinism because someone does something evil while citing Darwinian reasons, then it is bigoted to generalize about the evils of religion because someone does something evil while citing religious reasons.

Also: See the comments for a further discussion on this and some clarifying comments from me.

  • Nick

    Absolutely brilliant.

  • http://saladin128.wordpress.com Saladin

    I heartily concur.

  • Cori

    exactly

  • Hitch

    Not really news. Murders by atheists happen routinely. It’s likely that a lot of left terror in Europe had atheists among them. Lots of violence as part of communism.

    I condemn all of it. Every single murder, every single act of violence and intimidation, no matter the creed. But I also condemn ideologies that explicitly encourage such. Hence I reject communism, because the communist manifesto gives the proletariate the claimed right to use force.

    And I reject all passages of religious texts that call for violence against people.

    And I call on any literalist to distance themselves from aspects of texts that they hold holy and literal that call for violence of any kind.

    But some calls for condemnations are easier than others, I fully realize.

    There is no atheist holy text with violent passages, and I hence cannot even hold that the text is literal. In this very sense the analogy does break down, because I certainly will never support any text or consider texts unalterable and true that call for the inhumane.

    Regarding the dubbing, you realize that anybody who will google for “atheist terrorist” will now find this, right?

  • http://www.eatthedamncake.com Kate

    Well said. A lot of people identify as atheists, just like a lot of people identify as Muslims. Atheism and Islam alone don’t determine a person’s actions. It is reductionistic and tragically simplistic to imagine that they might.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Hey Chris. Good article, terrible title. In fact, by calling it, “An “Atheist Terrorist”?” you seriously undermine your own good point, which is that we shouldn’t reduce people to their faith community…

  • Hitch

    Sadly Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute (an anti-scientific think tank that tries to push creationism into schools and undermine science that they see as inconflict with the bible) is already exploiting the story:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/09/james_j_lee_hostage-taker_and_037811.html

    He seeks to blame Darwin. This isn’t new. He has already tried to blame Darwin for the Holocaust earlier.

    At the same time he has written a book in which he minimizes and apologizes Martin Luther’s raging anti-semitism.

    Basically political misuse of false narratives to do harsh and false political opinion making for religious ends.

    I would love to see a blog post on this, because it’s needed. Nothing is more toxic to interfaith dialogue than those who actively misuse things to spread political misinformation to divide and conquer.

    • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

      The Discovery Institute has nothing to do with interfaith dialogue.

      I demand that you denounce the Allied Atheist Alliance.

      • Hitch

        Oh man, I get the denounce the future of cartoon humor? A3 consider yourself denounced by demand. Done! What a relief. That was a pressing issue indeed.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        Thank you. Now I’ll join you in asking Chris to address the equally pressing issue of the Discovery Institute’s participation in interfaith dialogue.

      • Hitch

        Well except that this wasn’t what I said, but don’t let that stop you twisting my words.

        If you think it’s not a pressing concern how people try to undermine science and spread misinformation, then I don’t know. We have active court cases and constitutional challenges and Liberty University graduates staffing school boards having real and direct impact on the US educational system, legal costs etc etc. If you think that the interfaith community should have no voice in whether our society is exposed to education or miseducation, well be my guest giving it that priority. Don’t expect me to take it seriously.

        If you do not think that it’s a concern how atrocities get misused to spread misinformation, well go mock on. I don’t take that as a serious position either.

        It certainly is not on par with denouncing a fictional movement in South Park. A humorous comment exchange has some merit, but there are limits to false equivalences.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        Oh, they’re serious problems, Hitch. And they’re worth raising to the attention of interfaith activists.

        What I take issue with is any commenter who comes along and says, blog about what I want you to blog about. People are busy. Individuals have limited time and necessarily differing priorities. If you want to raise awareness about this particular issue, I’ll make you a deal.

        Go write your own blog post. Post it as a comment on my blog. If you keep the scope on politically-active creationism, I’ll repost it as a separate guest post, and I’ll promote it on my Twitter feed. I can’t guarantee that anyone will take notice, but I will do my best.

  • Hitch

    I think your own “demand” rhetoric has gotten out of hand. Since when does “I would love to see a blog post on this” more than a recommendation? Chris or anybody is fine to not take it.

    But yes, I have been critical of Chris not carrying stories in defense of atheists as much as he has defended religion and faith and that he has been mostly negative or shaming in covering the emerging secular movement.

    Chris is happy to “denounce” Greta Christina over 9/11, projecting a whole attitude on here that she didn’t deserve. There is much worse out there. What do people have “time” for and what are their priorities? That is a really good question indeed.

    Frankly this knee-jerk denouncing is asinine. We should stop constantly ask people to denounce things to which they were not part or party, or approver. But that’s how this guilt-tripping works. Who are we when we refuse to denounce those who others associate with us. Muslims should NOT have to denounce Bin Laden. It should be assumed. And atheists should NOT have to denounce criminals who happen to be atheists.

    Rather than get rid of this nasty group guilt thing, we perpetrate it.

    I have plenty of opportunity and in fact have critiqued what the Discovery Institute does in other places. I am not particularly missing platform to do so.

    And I have plenty opportunity to discuss my views without preconditions on what I can speak about. We have uneasy exchanges at best, so frankly there is hardly enough interest or trust to take up such an invitation. I think it’d be nice to first be friend and peer before being a guest. And that’s how I look at your invitation, kind but labored, in a difficult twilight that most things you have to say to my perspective is contrarian and uneasy.

    I’m happy to guest blog with you, but I won’t be taking up that offer until we are on better terms than we clearly are and I hope you take that as how it is meant, both appreciation, and hope for a better way of exchanging. One where we do no longer look at pre-conditions and assumptions before embracing the other.

    • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

      That’s fine. I’m not offended that you don’t want to take up the offer. And I guess I over-analyzed your comment. So many of your comments are these laundry lists of problems with Chris and Eboo. Perhaps I have let myself become primed to read you “I would love to see a blog post on X” as “why the hell aren’t you blogging about X.”

      That’s my fault. I apologize.

      • Hitch

        We’re cool.

  • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

    I can’t go with you on this one, Chris. It seems to me that the problem with describing someone as an “atheist extremist” is that you would be committing a category error, treating atheism as if it were a system of beliefs which might motivate certain actions. Rather, atheism is simply the lack of adherence to theistic belief systems – it is impossible to take this to an “extreme”. By contrast, Islam is a system of beliefs with certain moral propositions and guidelines. If one adheres to them to such an extent that your beliefs bring you way out of line with other members of your faith and with acceptable moral standards in general then it is not unreasonable to call one an extremist. Adding “Muslim” to the description simply designates which set of beliefs or practices are being taken to an extreme.

    If we, for fear of giving offence, refuse to accurately designate precisely which beliefs and systems of belief we find objectionable, we cannot conduct discourse around values – we simply forfeit the field. We must certainly be sensitive not to suggest that all adherents of a belief system are extremist, but it is irresponsible to pretend that what people actually believe has no relation to their actions.

    • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

      This fails to take into account the various ways in which atheism is actually practiced. There are atheists who take atheism as normative, who promote atheism and want other people to become atheists. This obviously can be taken to an extreme.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        You fail to make an important distinction: the belief that “everyone should be an atheist” is not coterminous with “atheism”. In other words in taking the normative position that atheism is preferable over theism one is not practising atheism, one is practising some other belief system (which can, indeed, be taken to an extreme). Still the idea of an “atheist extremist” in the term clearly meant by the original post (analogous to a Muslin extremist) makes no good sense.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        Is this just linguistic prescriptivism vs descriptivism? There are atheists who actively practice their atheism-as-such as normative, making no distinction between atheism and pro-atheist activism. You can say they’re wrong to do so, but they do exist. Atheism is not a static term. It used to refer primarily to strong atheism, which is why agnostic was coined. In recent decades it has been rather successfully redefined to mean weak atheism, rendering weak agnosticism redundant. For some people it does mean pro-atheism.

        I’d like for atheism to mean weak atheism forever and to everyone, but it doesn’t. Also, most people would argue that there are moral implications from atheism, like the necessity of humanism. Anyone motivated to extremism by moral implications of atheism could be said to be an atheist extremist in the same sense as a Muslim extremist.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        “Is this just linguistic prescriptivism vs descriptivism?”, you ask. Well, yes, except for the “just”. This is an important issue, although it may seem like a minor semantic quibble. Let me simply ask: if one describes oneself as an atheist, does that necessarily require one to believe that everyone should be an atheist, or that atheism is superior to other positions?

        Clearly the answer is no. Some atheists may ALSO hold those normative beliefs, but many do not. Many atheists are atheists but are perfectly happy that others believe what they believe. Others may be an atheist but actually think religious belief, were they able to achieve it, would be superior (I have spoken with individuals who wished they could still believe). So it is clear that atheism does not imply any prescription to atheism. To suggest otherwise is simply to misuse the term, which will lead to significant confusion.

        I take your point regarding the shifting meaning of term “atheism”. which is well made. But regardless of which portion of the non-believing world the term encompasses, it should never be used to imply a prescriptive belief.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        If one describes oneself as an atheist, does that necessarily require one to believe affirmatively that God does not exist?

        No. There are atheists who only lack an affirmative belief that God does exist. So atheism does not imply any affirmative belief. Does this mean to suggest otherwise is only to misuse the term?

        See, this line of argument breaks strong atheism just as well as it breaks pro-atheism. But you’d obviously be on very weak ground to claim that strong atheism is an outright misuse of the term. A form of argument which implies strong atheism is a misuse is a flawed argument.

        If enough people use atheism to mean normative pro-atheism, then that is what it will mean. Some already use it that way. If you can find a way to deny them that usage that won’t equally deny the legitimacy of strong atheism as atheism, then you might have a case.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        Well the problem is that I AGREE that to use the term to mean “strong atheism” is also a misuse of the term. You say that “you’d obviously be on very weak ground to claim that strong atheism is an outright misuse of the term”, but this is not obvious to me at all. The fact that the argument I present “breaks strong atheism” is by design, and I am happy for it!

        Sometimes people use terms in unhelpful ways which confuse rather than clarify. “Atheist” is a term that has been much abused in this manner. I think the only hope is to assert the “weak” meaning of the term, because this is only defensible position and because it has the benefit of staying true to the etymology of the world. While language does change, not all changes are beneficial, and the expansion of the term “atheist” tends to confuse, I think.

        I thank you for the replies on this – it is very helpful to me to work through these issues with a smart interlocutor!

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        But strong atheism was the earlier definition of atheism (so far as words had “definitions” before dictionaries). Its usage in English has not conformed to its etymology until very recently, on the order of a few decades.

        While I would agree that weak atheism is the more defensible usage, it’s not worth doing for etymology’s sake. And while we should assert the preferable usage, I do not think this can throw out the earlier usages. We are stuck with them as long as we have libraries.

        Atheism as pro-atheism is an expansion. But atheism as weak atheism is actually a contraction. Had atheism meant weak atheism during Huxley’s time, he wouldn’t have needed to coin agnosticism.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        We could go round the houses on this forever ;) ! I’d just restate that my central point is that suggesting “atheism” implies some normative belief in the superiority of atheism or some prescriptive believe that others should become atheists (which is a whole other step) is an unhelpful use of the term and is legitimately contestable, such that the phrase “atheist extremist” is of little value and does not denote anything real. I don’t think this position has been damaged by any of our wrangling here =D

    • http://nonprophetstatus.com Chris Stedman

      James,

      I understand what you’re saying, though I’d like to suggest that some do in fact treat and adopt atheism as such a category. Could one not be an “atheist extremist” if she or he were motivated by their lack of belief in God, and cited this as their reasoning? (As an example, someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, who said: “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”).

      I guess my point of this post is that we ought to be careful about the rhetoric we use and how we are connecting identity and action. I did not intend to suggest that we forfeit the field, and certainly not that we should turn a blind eye to some of the motivating beliefs of extremists. I meant to suggest that calling James J. Lee an “atheist terrorist” would be dangerously misleading as he was motivated by much more than his lack of belief in God and corresponding disgust for religion, though those things were connected to some of the motivating beliefs he held; likewise, the terrorists of 9/11 were obviously motivated by their twisted interpretation of Islam, but primarily as a way of accessing their deep-seated frustrations about foreign policy and the oppression they experienced in their lives, and so “Islamic terrorist” is also misleading, especially when it makes Muslims who believe something radically different guilty by association. Not a perfect parallel, of course, but I think it is apt. Does that help any?

      I guess in trying to caution about how we identify others, I wasn’t quite as cautious as I could’ve been, ha.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        I entirely appreciate the motivating spirit of your post, as I understand it: that we should not seek to reduce people’s motivations in a simplistic manner, such that we attribute the actions of certain individuals wholly to their religious faith. To do so does indeed distort unhelpfully, and lead to a mistrustful public discussion in which people are demonized due to their adherence to a particular faith.

        Your Jeffrey Dahmer quote is truly challenging, as it does seem to suggest that in some sense people can be motivated by their atheism to do terrible things. There are, I think, two reasonable responses to this: first, we could accept that, indeed, Dahmer could be called an “atheist extremist”, and have an honest and bracing discussion of the implications of that for the atheist movement (this is essentially what Lewis argues in his comment on Facebook); second, we could question the extent to which this is an intelligible position. In other words, Dahmer poses a question, and we could seek to answer it – there are MANY good reasons why we might wish to modify our behaviour, and we could question the legitimacy of his implied response.

        Notice that neither of these options is what you seem to propose here: that we stop calling people “Muslim Extremists” even though that may well be an accurate moniker for some, though not all.

        I’m also intrigued by the

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        …suggestion that the terrorists of 9/11 were motivated “primarily as a way of accessing their deep-seated frustrations about foreign policy and the oppression they experienced in their lives”. I’m not sure I accept this view. Many peoples live with frustration and oppression without expressing it through violence. The fact that these individuals followed a religion that explicitly promotes violence, and promises to reward violence, is surely of consequence, and we have a responsibility to discuss it.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        second, we could question the extent to which this is an intelligible position. In other words, Dahmer poses a question, and we could seek to answer it – there are MANY good reasons why we might wish to modify our behaviour, and we could question the legitimacy of his implied response.

        This is interesting. It also allows that we have to question whether any “Muslim extremism” is an intelligible position. Until very recently I would have said yes without hesitation.

        But last week I had a fruitful conversation on Twitter (imagine that) with Anushay Hossain regarding her statement that “We need to stipulate that those men who brought down the Twin Towers were not Muslims. People who park their cars packed with explosives and abandon them in Times Square in the name of Islam are not Muslim. They are terrorists and they terrorize Muslims just as much as anyone else. They are not us and we are not them. And there is no better time for moderate Muslims to reclaim their faith from the terrorists than now, during Ramadan.”

        I gave my standard replies, No True Scotsman, and this standard prevents us from talking about the murder of George Tiller as Christian terrorism. She responded that it was nevertheless necessary to deny murderers any religious or political recognition, so that others cannot hope to follow in their footsteps and also be regarded as legitimately Muslim or Christian.

        There’s a good argument there, I think. There are some people for whom being regarded as good Muslims or good Christians is all that’s really important. And if those people understand that they will forfeit such recognition through murder, that may restrain them from violence. This apparently has been the policy of the US State Department for some time, at least since 9/11. The rhetoric is actually an anti-terror tactic, and you’ll notice it quickly if you start searching old Bush speaches from that period.

        I wasn’t entirely happy with the way she worded it, which suggested to me that Muslims and Christians would never commit violence. But I think there’s a compromise wording which can have the effect of denying terrorists religious legitimacy while also allowing us to discuss dangerous trends within sects. That would be to say that “these men were Muslims once, but they renounced Islam when they chose to murder.”

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        Well, yes, except for the fact that those promoting and carrying out violent acts in the name of a particular religion are perfectly capable of providing scriptural justification for what they are doing which has precisely the same level of legitimacy as an interpretation as those who espouse non-violence. We cannot simply wish this away because it would make interfaith dialogue easier – religious texts of many major world religions do as a matter of fact sanction, even demand violence and adherents to a particular faith have to explain why a non-violent interpretation is any more valid than a violent one. So it is simply dishonest to claim that violent Muslims cannot legitimately consider themselves Muslim – they are following certain scriptural precepts which they deem to be important, just as non-violent Muslims are, and I see no honest way to declare their interpretation necessarily out of bounds.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        Well, yes, except for the fact that those promoting and carrying out violent acts in the name of a particular religion are perfectly capable of providing scriptural justification for what they are doing

        They are capable of reciting scripture. This is not the same as providing justification.

        which has precisely the same level of legitimacy as an interpretation as those who espouse non-violence.

        No, it doesn’t. Religions are not defined by texts, they are defined by what adherents actually practice. And if large majorities of practitioners teach that violent interpretations are illegitimate, then violent interpretations are illegitimate.

        religious texts of many major world religions do as a matter of fact sanction, even demand violence and adherents to a particular faith have to explain why a non-violent interpretation is any more valid than a violent one.

        And so they do.

        So it is simply dishonest to claim that violent Muslims cannot legitimately consider themselves Muslim – they are following certain scriptural precepts which they deem to be important, just as non-violent Muslims are, and I see no honest way to declare their interpretation necessarily out of bounds.

        The honest ways are by those methods which non-violent Muslims already declare the others out of bounds, by taking note that the sum of the Quran and hadith prescribe peace, that the few exceptions involve very specific instances of self-defense, and that those exceptions do not apply today.

        Another honest way is a humanist route of noting that religions should serve human lives rather than obliterate them, and when religions are twisted otherwise they have ceased to accomplish any legitimate purpose.

        Interfaith dialogue is not one of my top priorities. Delegitimizing terrorists is rather more important. Consider that real people’s lives may be saved if this works.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        This is the only thing you have posted which deeply troubles me, bih. It is typical, frankly, of those trying to make excuses for religious groups to argue in this profoundly confused way.

        You seem to wish to make two distinctions: first, between simply citing scripture and providing legitimate justification for a scriptural reading; second, between religious texts and religious practice, and the varying levels of legitimacy conferred on certain actions either by practice or by scripture. You also wish me to consider “those methods which non-violent Muslims already declare the others out of bounds”.

        Let me take each of these in turn. First, on citing scripture. You suggest that citing scripture “is not the same as providing justification.” This relies on accepting what we might term a liberal view of scripture, in which some greater level of argumentation, other than “it says so in scripture”, is required to justify a particular action. The obvious problem with this position is that people of many faiths simply do not accept that position and do not relate to their religious texts in that way. Rather, they take literally every or most element of what is written. For these people, there is no distinction between “it says so in scripture” and a “legitimate justification for action”.

        I wish this were not the case, but it manifestly is so – I pass individuals every day outside Harvard who take this view, and on what grounds am I to say to them “your interpretation of scripture is worse than mine”? If you accept the fundamental premise that the texts were in some important way composed by God, then it makes MORE sense to consider them literally and as a whole than to pick and choose bits that are acceptable to modern sensibilities. At least that way one is being consistent. So I cannot see there is any justification for your suggestion that there is necessarily a difference between quoting scriptural precedent and giving what is considered by the believer to be a legitimate justification for action. For some believers these are one and the same.

        The distinction between religious text and religious practice is of course a distinction worth making, but it does none of the argumentative work you seem to place upon it. You say ” if large majorities of practitioners teach that violent interpretations are illegitimate, then violent interpretations are illegitimate.” This is either manifestly false or dealing oddly with the word “legitimate”.

        First, taking “legitimate” and “illegitimate” to apply to the legitimacy of a certain interpretation of scripture, and the related legitimacy of certain actions taken on the basis of such an interpretation, the idea that because “large majorities” teach a certain interpretation and practice of a text or religion does nothing to illegitimize the arguments of other practitioners. Interpretations of text, in any discipline, are not performed by majority vote. Rather, they are considered on their own merits in relation to the text itself.

        If every single Muslim except one practised their faith in a non-violent manner, and only one argued for a violent interpretation, that individuals interpretation is not lessened in the least by his membership of a tiny minority group. Rather, we would judge the quality of his interpretation of his religion by his adherence or not to scripturally mandated actions. And in this case, horrifyingly, we may have to admit that the violent practitioner was taking better account of certain aspects of their religion than the non-violent practitioner, since they would be erasing less of the founding texts. You would see this clearly if the situation were reversed, and only one individual were pleading for a non-violent interpretation of Islam. You would not, I think, call her interpretation illegitimate on the basis of its minority.

        Now, you could be suggesting that the non-violent practices of the majority of Muslims confers some sort of social illegitimacy on violent Muslims. This may be the case. But this say NOTHING as to the legitimacy of their interpretation of the faith. That has to do with the arguments they can provide in relation to the scriptural basis of that faith. And it is a simple fact that an awful lot of violent action is sanctioned and demanded in the Qur’an and in the Hadith (as it is in the Old Testament and parts of the New).

        The “honest” ways of dealing with this problem you suggest are, to my mind, both inadequate and not sufficiently honest for my liking. Taking the Humanist route is of course the route I myself would take, but will have little purchase on those who are not themselves already humanistic in outlook. It is worth noting that no religion I know of sees as its primary purpose the service of human lives in this world.

        Further, “those methods [by] which non-violent Muslims already declare the others out of bounds” clearly do not work sufficiently well (otherwise there would be no Islamic terrorism), and are flawed since they come from a fundamentally religious perspective and therefore come down to differing interpretations of religious texts – an area where there can and will be no ultimate adjudication.

        The only way out is to say clearly and openly that the religious texts of all major faiths contain horrific calls to violence against others, and as such are quite barbaric by modern moral standards and should be abandoned as guides to moral action. Prioritizing non-violent interpretations of any religion over violent ones only serves to reinforce the acceptability of arguing from scriptural premise, which is the principle which causes the problem in the first place.

      • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

        The obvious problem with this position is that people of many faiths simply do not accept that position and do not relate to their religious texts in that way. Rather, they take literally every or most element of what is written. For these people, there is no distinction between “it says so in scripture” and a “legitimate justification for action”.

        This is a tempting premise, but the evidence does not bear it out. For if they really were taking their scriptures literally, there would be at most one literalist interpretation per translation. In fact there are many, constantly engaged in competition with each other over the “best” literal interpretation, as well as what they should even mean by literalism, inerrancy and infallibility.

        What’s going on behind the scenes, though supposed literalists are obliged to deny it, is they are imposing their personal and inevitably modernized views upon the texts, and then using common rhetorical tricks to cover the evidence of their meddling. At some level they all know it, too, which is why each group accuses their competitors of placing their own egos above God, as though anyone was really capable of anything else.

        Literalism isn’t.

        It’s just an advertising tactic. You will not find real literalism in practice if you go looking for it. The internal contradictions of the texts render this impossible even if they were genuinely dedicated to trying, though I’d caution we should understand the literalist rhetoric as a case of “protesting too much.”

  • Hitch

    Atheists are squeezed. We are treated as category externally. I.e. believers label un-believers are coherent group.

    So category error is imposed on us.

    We have as that imposed category an bad image, so like any stigmatized group there are attempts to own the category and lift it out of that bad image.

    And then of course we can be charged as actually adopting the category, so indeed things can be used to stereotype the group.

    Maybe it’s not a squeeze, but more of a vicious loop.

    If you do not own the category, others define it and can still load it with negative meaning.
    If you do try to own the category, then people say oh, you ascribe to this group so you are responsible by guilt-by-association charges.

    But I have very strong objections to these two statements:

    “This obviously can be taken to an extreme.”
    “Could one not be an “atheist extremist” if she or he were motivated by their lack of belief in God, and cited this as their reasoning?”

    These are hypotheticals. Surely it is possible that someone is a violent extremist out of their sense of atheism. But that hypothetical can be said about any real or imagined group or individual, hence it is questionable why it is mentioned explicitly with respect to one group, as if that was a surprise.

    It is the wife-beater question and an implied guilt-by-association. I hope you understand why I strongly reject both.

    People routinely try to imply that radical atheists exist and that the new atheists are extremists like radical religious extremists. Yet I know of no militant atheist organization that commits atrocities. The people who are branded like that use curse-words on occasions and hold strong opinions.

    We have very poor differentiation between very critical voices and extremism, and this conflation is intentional to scare people of atheists.

    And then we get these hypotheticals. Oh, there might be atheist violence! It is really troubling to me to engage in this, because it’s a hypothetical that feeds directly into a branding narrative that is already present.

    But I recognize that Chris in the bulk of his text indeed argues against making that association, but I think we have to be doubly careful, not only with atheists but any individual to do this especially of branding narratives on real or supposed groups are present.

    • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

      I agree entirely – we have to control the narrative that is told about atheists, Humanists etc. which means being extremely careful about how we portray ourselves, as well as taking back the power to portray ourselves from others who have had free-reign to mischaracterise and smear our movement for far too long.

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Chris Stedman

    @James – I think we are in agreement (at least, I agree with what you’ve put forward in your comments). Perhaps I too am guilty of oversimplifying – I’d be remiss if I was unwilling to allow that I have not been guilty of this, though I do try my best to avoid it when I can. My intention with this post was to suggest we look at ALL motivations behind violence rather than limit our explanation to a single descriptor, and that we enter into a deeper discourse about why people act in violence and which communities should be held accountable, if any. I am of the mind that Islam was a vehicle used by the extremists of 9/11, and thus it is unfair to call them “Muslim extremists” as their extremism was informed by a narrow interpretation of Islam that is not shared by many Muslims. And those “bracing conversations”? Well, many Muslims are having them, to be sure, which is why perhaps your idea about a parallel conversation among atheists isn’t such a bad idea.

    In any event, I suspect you and I may have the opportunity to have such a deeper discourse about this in person (soon, I hope), perhaps over coffee, where such conversations are best had and there is less chance for miscommunication (the risk you run when running a blog, to be sure!). Thanks for your thought-provoking responses – they’ve given me a lot to consider. I hope my clarifications have been helpful.

    • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

      Your responses have indeed been helpful and illuminating! I would not want you to feel at all guilty for expressing your opinion in an eloquent and forthright way – this is how we move forward! Keep up the good work!

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com Chris Stedman

    @bloggingishard: Your last comment – ending with “That would be to say that ‘these men were Muslims once, but they renounced Islam when they chose to murder.’” – is spot on. Thank you for it.

    • http://bloggingishard.wordpress.com bloggingishard

      Thanks, Chris. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to run that phrasing by Anushay. I think I was a bit more of a chatterbox than she could handle. But I think it captures as many of my and her concerns as possible, so I’m going to run with it.

  • http://www.verumserum.com John

    I want to applaud the spirit of your post and the excellent back in forth in your comments. I think there is a good case to be made for not tying violent individuals to movements, though I’ll admit I don’t find it ultimately convincing.

    One can easily go too far in tracing consequences back to ideas, but I do think there is usually some connection. I would say that’s true of Muslim jihadists, Christians who shoot abortionists and, probably, of James Lee. With the exception of the truly insane, everyone’s behavior more or less follows from their genuine beliefs.

    Of course, in each case we might argue that the person in question has missed the point, e.g. pro-lifers shouldn’t be assassins seems to go without saying to me, but I don’t think it makes sense to divorce people’s actions from the milieu in which they came to them the moment they resort to violence. I’m more interested in understanding where things went wrong.

    That said, it is encouraging to see a group of atheists taking a principled stand. If disbelief is to grow, I’d much prefer it be your variety than some of the more militant strains I’ve encountered.

  • John Stanford

    The 9/11, Mumbai, London, Madrid, Christmas Day Undibomber, and Times Square bomber, etc, were actually Muslim extremists, sad to say.

    Their own religious views (not the views of the Muslim community at large, persee, but their own views of Islam) drove them to commit those attacks, and they continue to drive people to commit attacks. You can’t solve a problem without first identifying it and one of those things you need to identify is the motivation.

    In fact, religion has been the cause of much violence throughout the world thorughout history. Of course you have the crusades and the Spanish inquisition… Imperialism has often been supported by religion with some Christians saying they need to spread Christianity and save all the non-believers from their own non-belief.

    Now we have religion motivating some people to fly planes into buildings. And other religious people, who might not take their religion all the way to the violent extreme, but who take it to a radical extreme, who will say that women must be forced to cover up their entire body in burqas or that woman have no property rights.