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Murders of Atheists Because of Their Beliefs About Religion:

Last week brought two stories about such incidents, though the killings themselves were a year apart. Here's one from Michigan:

It was one of the five "most heinous" crimes Wayne County Circuit Judge Gregory Bill has ever seen.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Christina Guirguis called it the "most gruesome" crime she's ever prosecuted.

On Dec. 20, Bill sentenced Arthur Eugene Shelton, 51, of Taylor to 25 to 45 years in prison for the Oct. 18, 2004, shotgun and revolver killing of Shelton's friend, Larry Hooper.

"He blew the guy's head off," said Shelton's attorney, Seymour Schwartz.

Following a three-day bench trial, Bill found Shelton guilty Nov. 30 of second-degree murder for killing Hooper in the living room of his Taylor home, where Hooper was staying. . . .

Shelton [had] called Taylor police and told a dispatcher that he'd just blasted a man with a revolver and a shotgun because the man said he didn't believe in God.

The dead man was "the devil himself," Shelton told the dispatcher. . . .

Before the shooting, Hooper had told Shelton that Shelton couldn't say anything to convince him to believe in God, according to police[.]

Shelton left the room, took off his shirt, shaved his face and tried again to convince Hooper there is a God. But at that point, Shelton had a 12-gauge shotgun.

"How long would it take you to believe in God?" Shelton said he asked Hooper.

"Not until I hear Gabriel blow his horn," replied Hooper.

Hooper tipped his hat and Shelton fired the shotgun at Hooper's head.

"I did it because he is evil; he was not a believer," Shelton said.

Later, Shelton told cops he might have second thoughts about the existence of God. "Maybe there's not" a God, he said. . . .

Bill found him guilty of second-degree murder but mentally ill, Guirguis said. . . .

Here's the second, from Kentucky; I quote the Paducah Sun, Dec. 28, 2005:

[Mike] Doublin, 53, has been charged with the murder of [his longtime friend Gale] Yarbrough. . . .

Yarbrough, Doublin and [witness Paul] Powell — who had all been drinking — were the only people inside the shop building at the time of the shooting, Cooper said. Powell said Yarbrough and Doublin had been drinking whiskey there for several hours, Cooper said. . . .

Powell said the two men started fighting after Yarbrough said he didn't believe in God, the Masons or church and then wouldn't leave Doublin's residence, Cooper said. . . .

Doublin had [an] . . . estimated his blood alcohol reading was about .20 at the time of the shooting. . . . .

I'm always hesitant to infer much from isolated incidents such as these ones. I didn't think, for instance, that the apparently gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the racist murder of James Byrd were particularly telling about the amount or intensity of anti-gay hatred or racist hatred in America. What we know about such hatred we know from other sources, not these particular incidents. (Aside: I don't want to get into the controversy which later surfaced about whether the murder was in fact motivated by Shepard's homosexuality; I haven't followed the matter that closely, and it's not particularly relevant to my basic point here.)

Nonetheless, such incidents are concrete reminders of the hostility that we know is present; and to the extent that they are covered because of this, it seems to me that these murders of those who don't believe in God should be covered as well. The levels of hostility to atheists cited in earlier posts on this blog here, here, and here provide abstract statistics (not of murderous hatred, of course, but of hostility nonetheless, just as surveys that show that many people view Jews unfavorably or would refuse to vote for Jewish candidates are evidence of hostility towards Jews). The two murders here provide the concrete examples. A quick search, incidentally, suggests that the cases received no coverage outside their local newspapers.

Finally, I agree that these cases are somewhat different than the Shepard and Byrd killings — they involve friends, and killers who were either mentally ill or drunk. But if one friend murdered another when drunk because the other was gay, or because the other was a Jew who refused to accept Jesus Christ, I think we'd still think that this is indicative of bigotry: The drunkenness, we'd suspect, likely didn't create the hostility, but rather removed the inhibitions against acting on that was already there.

Thanks to Neil Reinhardt for the pointer to the first of these incidents.

Gary McGath (www):
"Because of their religion" isn't quite the right term.

Personally, I've encountered much more hostility for being a libertarian than for being an atheist.

[Volokh writes: Good point about "because of their religion" -- noticed it myself, and corrected it to "because of their beliefs about religion." I think I was too influenced by the legalese usage, in which discrimination against atheists is treated as discrimination based on religion, see, e.g., Reed v. Great Lakes Companies, Inc., 330 F.3d 931, 934 (7th Cir. 2003). In lay usage, it's better to be explicit and say "because of their beliefs about religion" instead.]
1.3.2006 2:24pm
fred (mail):
Oh, come on. One guy murdered because he was out of his flippin' mind, and the other because they were all drunk.

The failure to acknowledge the real cause of these isolated incidents is what is troubling here.

Drunks kill each other all the time - for looking at someone the wrong way, for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, for winning at cards, or because one guy likes Fords, and one Chevies.

Do we need to have a collective hand-wringing session about winning at cards? Or looking at someone the wrong way?

We need to stop passing the buck.

Maybe we need prohibition?
1.3.2006 2:29pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Fred is right. I am at a loss as to why Prof. Volokh has turned his attention to this topic.

I would add, though, that it speaks well for Prof. Volokh's intellectual honesty that he included the facts about drunkenness and mental illness in his post.
1.3.2006 2:36pm
Marcus1:
Gary,

>Personally, I've encountered much more hostility for being a libertarian than for being an atheist.<

That surprises me. I wonder if your atheism doesn't come up less often.

Either that, or if you don't have some rather unusual friends, or an unusually offensive strain of libertarianism (like it's important to let the children of the poor die so they have a stronger incentive to get a job...)
1.3.2006 2:37pm
Master Shake:
Bigotry towards atheists is remarkably (and disturbingly) acceptable in this country. I agree that isolated incidents do not tell much about the problem in general, but it is possibly the only form of bigotry that is socially acceptable to publicly endorse among a majority of individuals. Kind of ironic.
1.3.2006 2:37pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Hostility doesn't always need an object to exist. There's such a thing as "free-floating" hostility, which attaches itself to targets of opportunity. The gay or atheist who happens to catch the eye of someone who needs to act out his hostility catches a load of grief that may not have much to do with homosexuality or atheism.

Instances of exceptional violence like this one ought always be looked at as reflecting pathology rather than society. That's why they're exceptional.
1.3.2006 2:40pm
Marcus1:
Bobstein,

I think the very comments on this website reveal both the animosity towards atheists that exists, and moreover, people's stubborn unwillingness to recognize it.

And of course, this website is a relatively liberal and educated environment (if politically conservative for a liberal and educated environment).

Volokh's willingness to comment on it, to me, is very admirable. Atheists aren't used to being defended.
1.3.2006 2:48pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Well, Person, I agree that we need to avoid reading too much into the actions of psychopaths, and that Prof. Volokh's examples in this post are unconvincing, but I think you're taking it a bit too far. It does say something about us if our crazy angry people are much much more likely to target gays rather than, say, people wearing blue shirts.
1.3.2006 2:49pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Marcus1: Fair enough. I would have done better to say, "I am at a loss to understand why Prof. Volokh is turning to these two incidents as examples of hostility towards athiests," or that there are more pressing matters to deal with, or some such thing.
1.3.2006 2:52pm
corngrower:

Master Shake


Bigotry towards atheists is remarkably (and disturbingly) acceptable in this country.


Ahh,., Gee.,. How about Christians? (throw a bible on your desk and set a stopwatch to see how long it takes a supervisor to tell you that displaying a bible is not acceptable work place ettiquete.)

The only acceptable bigotry today is aimed at middle aged white fathers. All others are a protected 'class'.
1.3.2006 3:08pm
NickM (mail) (www):
There are far more people killed in the U.S. each recent year because they were wearing blue shirts than because they were atheists. Of course, we call most of the "blue-shirt murders" street gang violence.

As a general matter, I believe the hostility by atheists toward religious believers is as high per capita as the hostility by religious believers toward atheists - there are just far more religious believers, so their hostility is more noticeable.

Nick
1.3.2006 3:11pm
anonymous coward:
"there are more pressing matters to deal with..."

Indeed there are, but so what? There are more pressing matters to deal with than commenting to this post, yet we're both doing it.
1.3.2006 3:16pm
Nicole Black (mail) (www):
I'm inclined to agree that the shootings occurred as a result of alcohol consumption more than anything else. They could have disagreed re: the color of the sky and had the same result given their inebriated states. If there were sharp shooters roving around targeting atheists, much like the manner in which James Kopp killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, the abortion provider, then I'd be more concerned. But, as it stands, based upon what I've read in this post, it seems to me that they were isolated incidents, as opposed to evidence of an alarming trend.
1.3.2006 3:17pm
Unnamed Co-Conspirator:
NickM, consider that atheism is an irrational, faith-based belief just as surely as any belief that we usually call a "religion" (if you disagree, try proving that God does not exist), and the issue is no longer whether atheists are the victims of bigotry-inspired violence at the hands of religious zealots, but whether people with strong but different beliefs sometimes end up in violent conflicts, especially when one or both are drunk or mentally ill. Duh.
1.3.2006 3:30pm
John Jenkins (mail):
First causes are not subject to rationality because they cannot be evaluated (I could say that a purple giraffe willed the universe into existance and you couldn't disprove it: that's a silly challenge). Whether there is or isn't a God is simply outside the realm of reason. Despite the distressingly common belief that any form of religious belief indicates stupidity (an example of an actually irrational belief), faith is beyond intelligence.

I have to agree that these are typical drunk killings that you see all the time on criminal dockets. That these particular killers indicated that atheism was the reason for the murders just doesn't resonate. As noted above, if it weren't atheism it would have been something else.

As to abortion providers being murdered. I'd guess that is equally as prominent as these sorts of killings, which is not very. Disturbed individuals come in all shapes and sizes (not to mention states of inebriation). That some are sober and intentional in what they do doesn't change the fact of what they did, nor the danger they pose (which is again, not very much).
1.3.2006 3:45pm
JR (mail) (www):
"Finally, I agree that these cases are somewhat different than the Shepard and Byrd killings — they involve friends, and killers who were either mentally ill or drunk. But if one friend murdered another when drunk because the other was gay, or because the other was a Jew who refused to accept Jesus Christ, I think we'd still think that this is indicative of bigotry: The drunkenness, we'd suspect, likely didn't create the hostility, but rather removed the inhibitions against acting on that was already there."

EV: What about the mental illness? You mentioned both at the beginning of your paragraph but only drew a conclusion as to drunkenness.
1.3.2006 3:53pm
Houston Lawyer:
Both incidents appear to involve a man obstinately arguing with another man who was pointing a gun at him. Looks more like a Darwin award than a hate crime. When the ante gets raised that high, it's time to fold.
1.3.2006 4:07pm
Fishbane (mail):
As to abortion providers being murdered. I'd guess that is equally as prominent as these sorts of killings, which is not very.

I take it, then, that you consider cross burnings to be equally as serious to other sorts of petty vandalism?
1.3.2006 4:19pm
Taeyoung (mail):

Both incidents appear to involve a man obstinately arguing with another man who was pointing a gun at him. Looks more like a Darwin award than a hate crime. When the ante gets raised that high, it's time to fold.

I think that's . . . rather harsh. On the other hand, I wonder how many comparable murders there are -- involving drunk friends, that is -- over more trivial issues, like sports teams and whatnot. The circumstances here (inebriation, argument) suggest to me that it's not indicative of a larger animus. Not that I deny there is such an animus, but just contrast this with, say, lynchings of Blacks only a few generations ago, or the kinds of sensational cold-blooded crimes one still hears of committed today -- premeditated murders of Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, etc. Or even just mobs getting carried away.

On the other hand, if people in the community responded with sentiments, however muted, indicating that those atheists got their just desserts or something of the sort, that would definitely be a strong indicator of anti-atheist prejudice.
1.3.2006 4:23pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Actually --

Yarbrough said he didn't believe in God, the Masons or church and then wouldn't leave Doublin's residence, Cooper said. . . .

Both these murders seem kind of weird just taken alone, no? The first one apparently involves a madman, and the second . . . well, what are the Masons doing in there?
1.3.2006 4:29pm
Marcus1:
Unnamed Coconspirator,

>NickM, consider that atheism is an irrational, faith-based belief just as surely as any belief that we usually call a "religion" (if you disagree, try proving that God does not exist)...<

Of course it's impossible to prove that the vague notion of "God" doesn't exist. I've never heard anyone claim they could prove this. Does that make it irrational not to believe in it?

This misconception arises from non-atheists trying to define and pidgeon-hole atheists. Atheists simply don't believe in God. They may go as far as to say they believe there isn't a god. He may even say it sounds totally crazy. Only a very small number of professed atheists, however, would ever claim they could prove that no definition of god exists, and I think this could easily be classified simply as exageration.

On the other hand, your characterization isn't really relevant to your point, and I'm not sure why you stated it as a premise. Whether or not atheism is "faith-based" like religion, I'd agree violence against atheists is no different from violence against any other religious group. In fact, I think that's Eugene's whole point.
1.3.2006 4:41pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Only a very small number of professed atheists, however, would ever claim they could prove that no definition of god exists,

I think you seriously underestimate the number of atheists who think they can prove the nonexistence of God. There are probably as many atheists who believe Darwinian evolution disproves the existence of God as there are theists who believe the existence of God falsifies Darwinism. Expanding it to "no definition" only helps in that most people who think like that aren't going to bother considering all the possible definitions of God they could be disproving.

No wait, that's impossible.

Say rather the proportions are probably about the same. Which means that it's not a lot of atheists, sure -- "a very small number" -- but that's only because there are so few of us atheists around.
1.3.2006 4:52pm
The Warden (mail) (www):
As Artie Johnson used to say >insert fake German accent here< "Very interesting - but so stupid."

I would imagine that over the span of a couple of years you could find that crazy - or drunk -- or crazy AND drunk - people have murdered someone because of left-handedness, or big feet, or dumb t-shirts.

Comparing killings like this to the killings of abortion providers, or murder of people because of sexual preference or race, doesn't really fly.
1.3.2006 5:03pm
Marcus1:
>I think you seriously underestimate the number of atheists who think they can prove the nonexistence of God.<

My experience is fairly extensive. I have been active in message boards with hundreds if not thousands of professsed atheists over several years, in addition to talking with friends and reading a lot of books. The standard line, which I've heard over and over and over again is that atheism is the simple lack of theism. "a" being latin for without and "theism" being the belief in god. A theist believes in god. An atheist doesn't.

Now, some call themselves "hard atheists," which means they affirmatively believe there is no god. That still doesn't mean they think they can prove it though. How is it proved? You can't (but then, you can't prove the flying spaghetti monster doesn't exist either). Most will agree that one of the problems with religion is that the whole idea of god is so nebulous that it's hard to say anything definitively on it at all.

Nevertheless, because I've never heard an explanation for why I should believe there is a "God," I don't, and like a lot of people, I therefore call myself an atheist.
1.3.2006 5:13pm
KMAJ (mail):
The question that trying to categorize murders raises is why ? Murder is murder is murder, other than the legal subsections of capital, first and second degree and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, which go to action, motive and intent, what is the necessity of further breaking it down other than the injection of political correctness in criminal law. Is a murder more heinous because the victim is an atheist, gay or black than it would be if the victim is a caucasian or Christian ? If a gay kills a gay, a black kills a black or an atheist kills an atheist, are they not just as dead as if someone else killed them ? In my opinion, there is no need for the complexity being introduced into the criminal law. If you kill someone, you pay the price under the law, if it was planned and deliberate, you pay a steeper price than one who does it in the heat of the moment.

I think most reasonable people find bigotry of any kind objectionable, but when we start inserting special definitions for politically correct reasons, we are one step closer to criminalizing thought. I find that a much more dangerous avenue to be treading down.
1.3.2006 5:34pm
Splunge (mail):
Eugene does note, to his credit, that the decision to commit a violent act stems partly from positive motivation (a desire to commit it) and partly from an absence of negative motivation (a fear of committing it).

What he has neglected is the fact that both positive and negative motivation can hinge on the identity of the victim. That is, people might, as he suggests, have a greater general desire to beat up atheists. But it is equally true that people might simply have a lower general fear of beating up atheists, because they're held in lower general regard. Without further data, his examples support neither conclusion to the exclusion of the other.

Another way to put this: serial murderers of women often prey on prostitutes. Is this because they particularly hate prostitutes? Not necessarily. It's quite plausibly just because the hue and cry raised after a prostitute is murdered is much less than when a pillar of the community, housewife, and mother of two is murdered.

It's always been the case that if you are held in lower social esteem -- because you express views contrary to the dominant social mythology, because you practise things the majority finds distasteful, or just because you're ugly -- then you are more likely to be the victim of violence, simply because the threat of collective retribution against anyone who harms you is lower. This hasn't been news since Jesus sat down with the tax-collectors and whores.

Hence all I think Eugene has said here is that people generally find atheism distasteful. To which one can only reply: well, duh.
1.3.2006 5:42pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Some of the comments are a little mysterious to me. Alcohol decreases inhibitions. It makes you more likely to act on your prejudices---not to act on a whole new set of prejudices that you didn't hold before.

If Germans in the 1920s liked to get drunk and beat up Communists or Jews, are we supposed to blame just the beer?
1.3.2006 5:43pm
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):
"I think you seriously underestimate the number of atheists who think they can prove the nonexistence of God."

Telling is you use a capital G god. What angers many religious followers is not that an atheist doesn't believe in a god but that they don't believe in THEIR god. I would say all the magic sky father ones of Odin, Jehovah, Zeus, etc are easily disproven by their piecemeal historic origins and their adherence to the extremely unlikely idea there is a life after life.

Now did some extrauniversal being create the universe? Well by definition there is no way we can get outside the universe and check. An article on Slate about 6 months ago had a physicist talking about how relatively easy it is to create universes and we will probably be doing it someday. But would I worship some nerd with a pocket protector just because he created the particular universe I reside in? Don't think so.

Its the refusal to accept their particular god image as valid that pisses people off not a refusal to believe in 'god' in general.
1.3.2006 6:06pm
Rasi:


"Hence all I think Eugene has said here is that people generally find atheism distasteful. To which one can only reply: well, duh."



Well, I think that is the point. Replace the word atheism with Judaism or Christianity and you would clearly have bigotry. His point is that bigotry towards atheists is common and accepted in a way that no other religious bigotry ever could be. The question is why the country finds this hostility to be acceptable.
1.3.2006 6:33pm
Pete Freans (mail):
I'm not quite sure what to make of these unfortunate situations other than two mentally unstable individuals who probably didn't require the presence of an atheist to commit murder. While I agree that certain degrees of "hostility" exists toward atheists, I hardly think that it has risen to the level of an inquisition or mass extermination. Of course an organized (and mentally sober) effort to single-out and eliminate atheists would certainly warrant media coverage.
1.3.2006 7:12pm
minnie:
Prejudice against atheists far exceeds prejudice against any other minority. The fact is that it is so widespread, vitriolic, and hateful that most atheists never even open up their mouths to state their views, or to raise objections to religious people making the laws, manning the courts, staffing the schools, etc. Atheists, or agnostics, or "irreligious people", a politically correct term coined, no doubt, because the pejorative word "atheist" has become such a slur, accept that as the given, and they pass unobserved amidst the multitudes, until some Oh So Clever religious types form a hateful, "draw the fire" type front group, deliberately take universally repugnant positions which get covered by the press, and try to cast all non believers in the worst light possible. It's an age old, very effective tactic, effective because everyone keeps falling for it.
1.3.2006 7:59pm
Reg (mail):
I take Professor Volokh's point to be that such incidents are concrete examples of hostility towards atheists.

I don't think he gives any reason why these incidents should cause us to be worried over such hostility. I would be willing to wager that there are more drunk killings among friends arguing over sports, music, or politics than religion. Once we eradicate drunken arguments over whether Notre Dame belonged in a BCS bowl, whether the Republicans or Democrats are more evil, or whether Houses of the Holy is the best Led Zeppelin album, then I'd say we should work on eliminating drunken arguments over the existence of God. The only thing I'd take from these incidents is not to argue with a drunk who is prone to violence and passionate about the subject of the argument.
1.3.2006 8:03pm
Master Shake:

The only acceptable bigotry today is aimed at middle aged white fathers. All others are a protected 'class'.
Uh, yeah, atheism is a protected class.
1.3.2006 9:01pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Prof. Volokh,

Part of the adverse response to atheists in general was because they were our enemies in WWIII. It's only natural that less sophisticated people won't distinguish between "godless atheistic communists" and "atheists". They were the bad guys, the commies seeking to establish totalitarian hegemony over the whole of the earth. What's to like about them.

Obviously, libertarian atheists aren't commies but probably most atheists are (hard left, that is). So identification of atheist as enemy is a reasonable shorthand.

Now muslims are our enemy in WWIV. It's not easy for some people to make fine distictions. So there will be some slop over.
1.3.2006 9:04pm
Joshua (mail):
Rasi wrote:Replace the word atheism with Judaism or Christianity and you would clearly have bigotry. His point is that bigotry towards atheists is common and accepted in a way that no other religious bigotry ever could be. The question is why the country finds this hostility to be acceptable.

Two possibile answers:

1) Atheism is widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being in symbiosis with both leftist politics (they didn't call it "godless communism" for nothing) and political correctness (or at least its anti-Christian aspects) in public policy and law. While the Michael Newdows of the world who are actually driving this lunacy don't necessarily speak for all atheists in this country, the fact remains that in many people's minds, atheism and PC/leftism are in symbiosis. Since

2)
1.3.2006 9:51pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Joshua: Say that someone defended hostility by against Jews by saying that "Jews are widely perceived (rightly) as being mostly in symbiosis with leftist politics." Would that be much of a justification for hostility to Jews as such (as opposed to hostility to leftists), even if the hostility didn't turn into violence?

[Whoops, accidentally wrote "by" instead of "against" above, and didn't catch that until Joshua's next comment alerted me to this.]
1.3.2006 10:01pm
Joshua (mail):
D'oh! Stupid trackball. Anyway, to finish my thoughts:

1, cont'd) Since the Newdow-type activists and ivory-tower atheists, by and large, are not convenient targets those who despise the atheist/PC Left to the point of violence, I suppose it's sadly inevitable that they'll take out their frustrations on more accessible atheists, whether or not they share the PC/leftist mindset of the activists.

2) Atheism, like any religious belief (and for that matter any political persuasion) is the product of its adherents' free will. Yes, you can be born into a religion (or absence thereof), but you can also convert later in life. Therefore this kind of prejudice is a different animal from, say, racial or ethnic animus, which are based upon factors beyond the control of the "target".

While it is generally not socially acceptable to harbor prejudice on the basis of attributes beyond one's control (race, sex, ethnicity etc.), prejudice based upon one's chosen belief system(s) and/or behavioral proclivities is still, for the most part, fair game. (Actual discrimination on these grounds in the eyes of the law is, of course, another matter.) This is also presumably the main driving force behind the nature-vs.-nurture debate vis-a-vis homosexuality - the idea that one side implies that anti-gay prejudice is acceptable and the other does not.
1.3.2006 10:12pm
Smithy (mail):
I'm disappointed to see this kind of Christian-bashing going on on this blog. First of all, those murderers were both mentally ill and in no way representative of the larger faith based communities. Second, I'll bet you that the violent crime rate is much lower among believers than non-believers. Does anyone here know of any studies that might show that this is true?
1.3.2006 10:23pm
Joshua (mail):
Prof. Volokh wrote:

Joshua: Say that someone defended hostility by Jews by saying that "Jews are widely perceived (rightly) as being mostly in symbiosis with leftist politics." Would that be much of a justification for hostility to Jews as such (as opposed to hostility to leftists), even if the hostility didn't turn into violence?


First, I assume you meant to say "hostility against Jews" above. My finished thought above might answer your question. Another example is the anti-Muslim backlash (limited as it thankfully was) in the U.S. after 9/11/2001. It's safe to assume that those who partook in it didn't bother to check whether the objects of their violence, beyond merely being Muslim, actually subscribed to the same Islamic-supremacist ideology of the 19 hijackers - in their perception, there was no meaningful distinction to be made.
1.3.2006 10:25pm
magoo (mail):
Some of this "hostility" talk is a lazy smokescreen. If I don't want an atheist to be President, it's an unproductive flight to victimhood to claim that I'm "hostile" to atheism. Ideas have consequences. I don't want a solipsist to be President because I fear he might not have adequate concern for his fellow citizens, whose existence he doubts. If I don't want an atheist to be President because I view atheists as uncaring or for any other reason (good or bad), stand up and debate the issue like a man. Provide counterexamples; demonstrate a logical flaw; win the argument. But don't suck your victimhood thumb and vaguely whine about "hostility." Sheesh.
1.3.2006 10:51pm
magoo (mail):
PS -- That's EXACTLY what JFK did. The (unfounded) concern about Catholics was that they would take orders from the Vatican. JFK argued the point on the merits and convinced people he wouldn't. He didn't whine about "hostility."
1.3.2006 10:55pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Part of the adverse response to atheists in general was because they were our enemies in WWIII. It's only natural that less sophisticated people won't distinguish between "godless atheistic communists" and "atheists". They were the bad guys, the commies seeking to establish totalitarian hegemony over the whole of the earth. What's to like about them.

Obviously, libertarian atheists aren't commies but probably most atheists are (hard left, that is). So identification of atheist as enemy is a reasonable shorthand.


Good point, I usually don't volunteer my religious views during a political discussion because then it seems that I have to spend time distancing myself from the hard left atheist nutters who get their panties in a twist about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" on our currency, or insist on picking a fight with the religious majority under some phony "Separation of Church and State" dogma.

Frankly I'm quite comfortable living in an overwhelmingly Christian nation like the United States. If the majority wish to have symbols of their faith displayed on public buildings, let local school boards pick the curriculum or decide on whether to have invocations, or (shudder) acknowledge the nation's Christian heritage through voluntary ceremonies or speeches, good for them because none of that intrudes on my right to believe or not believe whatever I want.
1.3.2006 11:05pm
Marcus1:
Smithy,

I have only seen studies suggest that atheists are in fact highly underrepresented in prison populations. Here's one: http://www.holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm

Of course, it's possible an inmate would pretend to be religious in the hopes of getting leniency. Didn't work for Tookie Williams, but I'd guess it's not a bad move. The idea that atheists are overrepresented in prisons, though, seems to be without any evidence, and simply reflects, again, the bigotry against atheists that Eugene points out. Actually, I would guess that admitting to atheism in a prison would be very dangerous, unless you were the biggest guy there.

Here's a question to consider: I have a bumper sticker that says "GOD IS JUST PRETEND". If I put that on my car, how long do you think it would take before my car was vandalized? Who knows, maybe in Washington D.C. I might be ok, but if I tried that out in the heartland, do you think it would last long? As long as a "JESUS SAVES" one?

My experience says that if you're lucky, that kind of bumper sticker gets scratched off, and if you're less lucky, that car is pretty quickly going to be in the body shop.
1.3.2006 11:11pm
mcubed (mail):
Honestly, all these fine legal minds and you all miss the obvious culprit: the NRA. What were these bozos doing with guns? I say charge Charlton Heston. Maybe that judge in AZ who helped that poor woman being vitimized by David Letterman would be willing to hear the case.
1.3.2006 11:16pm
Rasi:
While it is generally not socially acceptable to harbor prejudice on the basis of attributes beyond one's control (race, sex, ethnicity etc.), prejudice based upon one's chosen belief system(s) and/or behavioral proclivities is still, for the most part, fair game.

I agree that behavior is the product of personal free will and thus inherently judgeable, but is it fair to categorize belief or nonbelief as a choice? Suppose, for instance, that a person follows all of the moral presciptions of religion but simply cannot accept the existence of a god. I have heard from many people who report that they would really like to have the comfort of faith but simply cannot. Is it still acceptable to harbor prejudice towards these people?
1.3.2006 11:17pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Here's a question to consider: I have a bumper sticker that says "GOD IS JUST PRETEND". If I put that on my car, how long do you think it would take before my car was vandalized? Who knows, maybe in Washington D.C. I might be ok, but if I tried that out in the heartland, do you think it would last long? As long as a "JESUS SAVES" one?


Yes I'm sure we're all shocked to learn that people who go out of their way to act like jerks and antagonize people sooner or later have bad things happen to them.
1.3.2006 11:18pm
Medis:
magoo,

I agree--it would be great for an atheist to follow Kennedy's lead.

Now, we just need to get an atheist nominated for President by one of the two major parties ...
1.3.2006 11:22pm
Marcus1:
Magoo,

It's a smokescreen, except to the extent that there actually is irrational hostility toward atheists in this country.

There may be a valid reason why a person should never vote for a Jew. My experience tells me, though, that if somebody takes that position, they're probably not basing it on some rational position.

Discussing the hostility is one way of also bringing up the underlyng issues. In truth, if Eugene wrote a post on why atheism is actually often perfectly compatible with the views of mainstream religious Americans, he'd probably lose a lot of readership. People would say, "Oh, it's another one of THOSE blogs." Pointing out the hostility is a way of calling attention to the issue, and allowing others to debate and consider the details. Which I'm glad he lets us do in the comments.
1.3.2006 11:23pm
FXKLM:
I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said "Born Again Atheist." I don't think that's a particularly obnoxious or offense statement, but my car was vandalized several times. One time, someone slashed my tires (maybe taking that particular car to a flea market wasn't such a great idea).

I have to disagree with all the commenters who say that the hostility to atheism stems from a hostility to communism. I think that's precisely backwards. For most Americans, the objectionable part of godless communism is the godlessness, not the communism.
1.3.2006 11:37pm
Marcus1:
Thorley Winston,

Well, there you go. By merely stating my religious beliefs in the most simplest terms: "God is just pretend," you think I am going out of my way to antagonize other people.

So why isn't a Jesus Saves sticker going out of someone's way to antagonize me? Or a Jesus fish? Or how about one of the hell fire stickers? Do those call out for vandalism?

Of course, they're not intended to antagonize me, and I don't feel that they are. The problem is, though, that simply stating that I am an atheist is considered antagonistic to most people. So what, I'm just supposed to accept it and shut up?

The thing is, if I did dare to put a sticker on my car, I wouldn't be trying to antagnoize people. I would be trying to raise awareness that atheists actually exist, and they're normal people just like you and me, something that a lot of people really don't recognize. I would be trying to enter atheism into the general social discourse, in the hope that the huge stigma that currently exists would slowly die away. And yes, I would be hoping to shock those, a little, who freak out at a simple, non-offensive statement of disagreement with a belief they hold.

If you are shocked by the simple statement, "GOD IS JUST PRETEND," -- which, honestly, I was myself the first time I saw it, which is why I liked the bumper sticker -- then maybe you need to be a little shocked. Imagine if people were so shocked when you said you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior (assuming you are Christian.) Would you just say, "Oh, well then I better keep quiet"?
1.3.2006 11:42pm
Smithy (mail):
Thanks for the link, Marcus. I'll check it out.
1.3.2006 11:42pm
randal (mail):
Yes I'm sure we're all shocked to learn that people who go out of their way to act like jerks and antagonize people sooner or later have bad things happen to them.

So it's fair game to vandalize cars with "JESUS SAVES" bumper-stickers? After all, they're jerks going out of their way to piss me off.
1.3.2006 11:51pm
Medis:
Marcus1,

I'm not sure that is a fair comparison (to something like "Jesus saves"). "God is just pretend" is not just a statement of your beliefs, but also a critical commentary on the beliefs of theists. Of course, all mutually exclusive religions implicitly criticize each other, but this bumper sticker makes that criticism explicit.

So, I think a fairer comparison might be something like, "Jehovah is the only true God", or maybe "All gods but Jehovah are false gods".

Of course, those bumperstickers would probably not get your tires slashed.
1.3.2006 11:57pm
Joshua (mail):
Magoo: It's one thing to not want an atheist to be POTUS. It's another thing entirely to regard atheists as second-class citizens, much less as scum worthy of being murdered solely for their beliefs (or beliefs erroneously attributed to them, such as leftist politics), which is closer to what this discussion is about.

As I and a couple of other commenters have already noted, those who are fearful enough of a given set of beliefs to harm their subscribers aren't likely to be in a hair-splitting mood. Thus "too close for comfort" becomes, unfortunately, close enough to be tarred with the same brush.

Rasi: I'll grant that the question of judgment of the person in your hypothetical does get sticky, but in the end s/he is still making a conscious choice (keep the moral prescriptions of the faith, lose the God stuff) as to what s/he believes, and to the extent that s/he makes those beliefs known to others, has to live with the consequences of that choice - although again, having to fear for one's safety goes way beyond what is reasonable in that regard. But then, that's why we have laws against violent crimes.

Even stickier, I might add, is the question of how to treat religions such as certain variants of Islam, that downplay or deny the existence of personal free will.
1.4.2006 12:05am
minnie:
Smithy: Second, I'll bet you that the violent crime rate is much lower among believers than non-believers. Does anyone here know of any studies that might show that this is true?

Can't help out with any studies, but why don't we take one group of people almost all of whom are churchgoers, examine their behavior, and go from there?

How about the Mafia?
1.4.2006 12:16am
Marcus1:
Medis,

Well, a few points come to mind.

1. Sure, it's a direct contradiction, but isn't that kind of the whole point of bumper stickers in general -- even if it's not expressly stated? Abortion stickers, gay rights stickers, gun control stickers, whatever else, I think they're intended to contradict people as much as state a view. And really, I think they're generally phrased as bluntly as possible.

2. I've certainly seen religious bumper stickers, particularly ones advertising hell fire for non-believers, that are blunt in their disagreement with the beliefs of others.

3. Even if this one is more explicit in its disagreement, would that normally justify vandalism?

4. The language is still almost comically mild. Just pretend? I mean, the shocking thing is that it uses kid language. There's no f-bomb or anything.

5. The real problem is that people assume that it's an attack on them, whereas they understand that a religious sticker is generally intended to help them, even if it is offensive. The idea of an "evangelical atheist" is unfathomable to the vast majority of people. How could anybody want to challenge religious belief except out of cruelty? The idea that open talk regarding religion is a good thing is incredibly foreign to most people, but since it's something I firmly believe myself, I try not to avoid it. That is, unless it's going to get my car vandalized.
1.4.2006 12:37am
Medis:
Marcus1,

I'm certainly not arguing that such a bumpersticker merits vandalism, nor for that matter am I arguing against explicitly criticizing the religious beliefs of others. So I don't disagree with your points--I just thought it was worth coming up with fairest possible comparison as a foundation for your argument.
1.4.2006 12:46am
minnie:
PS. As much as I am an admirer of Eugene Volokh, it seems that he originally entered a topic which was, to me at least, somewhat unsettling, and then posted a second one to demonstrate that he is, in fact, not against atheists (which he demonstrates by ---how? coming out against murder?)nor is he accusing them of being anti-semitic.

Or something.

Is anyone who thinks Washington is controlled by neoconservatives a bigot?

If a person chooses not to waste time debating others who are known to be antithetical to his ideas, is he a bigot?

Many thinkers whose time is valuable to them prefer to address largely sympathetic crowds, or crowds of neutral listeners with open minds.

What's the point of an Ann Coulter going somewhere she is not wanted and getting booed off the stage? Then appearing on a TV show shortly thereafter in a state close to complete mental breakdown while shrugging her shoulders and saying she didn't care. If she didn't care, how come the incident left her so shaken up she was not able to put two consecutive lucid sentences together?

Picking one's audience hardly makes one a bigot. It shows a rational concern for how one wants to spend one's time. I see nothing wrong with that. Celebrities have publicists who only grant interviews to sympathetic journalists. Are they bigots?

Exactly what is it that Ms. Moore said that proves she is a bigot. Sorry, I must have missed that.
1.4.2006 12:53am
Ken Arromdee (mail):
What's the point of an Ann Coulter going somewhere she is not wanted and getting booed off the stage?

Because she isn't "not wanted" by the audience, she's "not wanted" by disruptive hecklers, and those people don't make up all of the audience.
1.4.2006 1:50am
randal (mail):
I've always wondered how many "mainstream religious Americans" are actually athiests deep down. I'd guess a lot. Being a closet athiest is pretty simple (go to church, say grace). And I think it's pretty obvious to a lot of people that religious doctrine is probably made-up.

Which may explain a lot of the animosity. Closeted people don't like to see other people flaunt the things they're closeted about.
1.4.2006 1:55am
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):
"I'm not sure that is a fair comparison (to something like "Jesus saves"). "God is just pretend" is not just a statement of your beliefs, but also a critical commentary on the beliefs of theists."

No more so than implying spiritual 'saving' comes from some historical individual presented as being the son of a mythical figure rather than personal responsibility. (and of course technically there are a number of theisms that don't assume there is a god)

But again I think the two murders would have been just as upset if their victims had adamantly said their might be a god they just didn't believe it could be the christian god. Many christians are very hostile to anyone who refuses to drink the Kool Aid with them.
1.4.2006 4:57am
Taeyoung J. (mail):
Van Burkleo:

Telling is you use a capital G god.

Seeing as I'm an atheist myself, I'm not sure what's so telling about it, other than that my experience of fellow professed atheists is that they're much more concerned about monotheistic religions (principally Christianity, with Islam and Judaism coming in a distant second and third) than they are with other faiths, like Hinduism or Imperial Shinto. But again, I'd say that a good proportion of the atheists I have known are Pullman/Dawkins types, only less subtle in their hostility to religious faith.

I'd agree that the only thing that connects atheists is their common not-believing-in-God. But that most atheists reduce their own beliefs to a casual not-believing-in-God? That does not accord with my experience at all. Possibly, though, my experience skews younger than yours or Marcus1's.
1.4.2006 6:44am
magoo (mail):
Joshua (if you're still reading) -- I concur completely with respect to acts of violence motivated by the victim's worldview. But the discussion here has wandered far from the two murders to include presidential preferences, slights (real or perceived) allegedly suffered by atheist academics, and car vandalism. My car was vandalized too. My bumper sticker says I like to play golf. Hostility toward golfers? I think not. And the notion that college campuses are generally hostile toward secularists is difficult to swallow. Could it be that the atheist prof was denied tenure because he was unproductive?

All other things being equal, I would be more inclined to vote for a theist than an atheist because I believe the atheist is profoundly wrong about an issue that is important to our national character. If I'm wrong about that, let's have a discussion. But the "hostility" rhetoric is a substitute for analysis. Sure, anyone can denounce such voting preferences "hostility," but that's definitional fiat, not persuasion.
1.4.2006 8:52am
LINO_watcher (mail) (www):
Just throwing a couple points out here:

- For the record I am basically agnostic. This is quite different from atheism. It's funny how all the various sides like to lump them together. I guess its intellectual laziness or just "well he doesn't agree with me so his beliefs must not exist".

- One gets the feel that attacks on atheists by really religious people aren't just another murder. There seems to be a very hateful component to it - like they are subhuman or deserving of hate or abuse. Even from the limited information given above you get that feeling - one of the victims didn't believe so he was a or the "devil". It seems similar to the Middle Ages concept of "outlaw" - someone who offended the church and therefore was outside the protection of both church and civil "law". Very dangerous thinking, in my opinion, to have one group think that another group is outside or beneath the law.

- Tae, there does seem to be some kind of masonic angle to one of the murders. The freemasons require that anyone joining them believe in one God. Generally christians, jews, sikhs, muslims, etc. are OK, hindus and other polytheists aren't. (Although this might have changed somewhat or exceptions may have been made.) Don't know about various spiritualists or agnostics, but it seems to basically require affiliation with an organized religion. Atheists are forbidden from joining and there is rather derogatory language about them in either their rituals or writings - something about "damn athiests" or something similar if memory serves. Maybe someone being a mason had something to do with that incident, maybe not.

- I remember seeing some research recently that suggests that there is a "religious" gene. People possessing the gene tend to be religious, those who don't tend to not be. So in contradiction to one of the statements made above, whether or not you are religious might be a matter of biological inheritence rather than behavior. Of course this kind of thing might be very dangerous, as the religious might claim that those without the gene are "inferior", "subhuman", etc. and vice versa.
1.4.2006 9:48am
Marcus1:
Taeyoung,

>I'd agree that the only thing that connects atheists is their common not-believing-in-God. But that most atheists reduce their own beliefs to a casual not-believing-in-God?<

I don't mean to suggest it's casual. I think atheists tend to be quite certain in their beliefs. I'm simply maintaining that atheists don't claim to "know" that there isn't a god or that they can prove it. Rather, I think it's pretty well accepted that it's near impossible to prove a negative -- that something in particular doesn't exist anywhere in any way at any time or place -- especially when that thing refuses to be defined. How do you disprove something that means totally different things to different people? You can't, and I think few atheists are unaware of this.

The thing is, though, that a common attack on atheists is that they claim to know things that aren't knowable. But it's not true. We don't claim to "know." Rather, what we have in common is simply that 1. We lack a belief in supernatural gods, and 2. To varying extents and degrees of certainty we think all the religion talk is BS. I'm an atheist, but I don't think I can prove it.

Now, of course, there are certain things that some atheists try to prove. For instance, that god can't be omnipotent and benevolent considering the evil in the world, or that omnipotence itself is a meaningless idea. And when it comes to deconstructing specific religions, I think there is a lot more certainty. Many might claim to have "disproved" the veracity of the bible or other holy books.

So I'm not saying it's casual or insecure. I would say I'm equally sure the biblical god doesn't exist as a Christian is sure that Zeus doesn't exist. So that's pretty sure. Still, it's incorrect that by definition, atheism is claiming to know something that's not knowable. Humility and recognition of fallibility are variables that can exist with theism and atheism alike.
1.4.2006 9:57am
Marcus1:
(I'm not the author of that site -- I just ran accross it yesterday, and thought it made that point well.)
1.4.2006 10:03am
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):
"I'd agree that the only thing that connects atheists is their common not-believing-in-God. But that most atheists reduce their own beliefs to a casual not-believing-in-God?"

Oh I agree. Can I prove there isn't a Jehovah running around? Of course not, just like I can't prove I won't learn to fly in the next 5 minutes or that the universe is really run by the giant invisible pink unicorn I've heard about. The chances that any of these things are true is so low though that if I've spent more than 5 minutes wondering about it in my lifetime my priorities are probably out of wack. I mean the monotheistic religions especially are based on tribal myths that have been modified throughout history, dropping the provably erroneous claims until they are down to qualities they hold are true primarily because they can't, by definition, be proven.

Is my denial of the existience of the popular god casual? I guess because it is just an incidental outgrowth of my entire world view developed from a lifetime of personal experience. If people weren't running around saying there was some father in the sky, I'd have no reason to ever bring up the fact that there isn't. But because my POV is based on everything I know and not just childhood indoctrination in some mystical tome I would say my disbelief in god is actually stronger than most in the opposite side of the camp.

As I used to tell my family's lutheran pastor "You don't bring up god and and I won't say things that will make you want to yell'. Its easy to tolerate people that are doing what you think is right, the real test is when they are doing something you wouldn't. Theists expect their right to express their beliefs then I obviously can expect the same.
1.4.2006 3:04pm
NickM (mail) (www):
In certain areas with a fairly high percentage of professed atheists, a "Jesus Saves" bumper sticker (or the car it's on) will probably get vandalized as well. Anyone want to put one on their car and park in a campus lot at UC Berkeley, UW-Madison, or any other large university with a strongly liberal reputation?

Right now, it would not surprise me if America's best-known professed atheist is radio host Tom Leykis. If he is the face of atheism, it's hardly surprising that religious believers would be hostile toward atheists - he's quite hostile toward religious belief.

Nick
1.4.2006 5:05pm
minnie:
Having never heard of Larry Darby before he was mentioned on this site, I now have taken the time to read some of his words. So far, I personally see nothing hateful in them, nor does he strike me as a hateful person. He doesn't argue for violence against anyone, nor taking away anyone's rights. He certainly is not against Jews, but rather passionately rejects a certain type of neocon thought (Cheney) shared by many Jews and Christians alike. I agree with him. I reject it too. I cannot imagine why Eugene thinks that Larry Darby is a bigot, whose views do not deserve to be heard, unless Eugene wants to assure that great scholars like the Steven Speilbergs of this world are the only ones allowed to submit their versions of history. Racists reject people as members of a collective; they don't care what those people think, they hate them solely because they belong to that group. Anyone who judges a person as an individual based upon his beliefs is acting properly. If you don't like those beliefs, you're not going to like the person. If a group holds views you don't like, you're not going to like the group. What else is new?
1.5.2006 3:02am
Aaron:
Medis:
You've internalized the Christian ethic to such an extent that you failed to view the statement "Jesus saves" in a neutral fashion.

"Jesus Saves" marginalizes those who
a) don't believe in Jesus
b) don't believe that Jesus is the son of God
c) don't believe that Jesus is the fount of salvation

Thus, it is just as polarizing a statement as "God is just pretend".

Your post just illustrates Eugene's point of this post; we have all ingested so much religiosity that when we are exposed to irreligiosity, it is jarring. Hence, we are (unconsciously or consciously) biased against those who expose us to irreligious thought.
1.5.2006 1:49pm
corngrower:
Ahh. OK. How can any harass an athiest,,,,unless they proclaim their belief on high? (or is that non belief?) Oh Well. Just, that they only people that I am sur are atheists are the ones in my face trying to prove a non issue. Other than a few Jahovas that hit my door. not a single person of faith in a God has ever tried to address the issue of faith with me.

A premise. If there is no god. Why invest your energy into trying to fight the existence of something that does not exist? Just a Question.

Seems some people have a fear of something they know not to exist. Must be a term for that but it alludes me.
1.5.2006 2:21pm
Amy (mail):
Nick:

Do you really believe someone with a Jesus Saves bumper sticker will get vandalized in liberal areas??????? That seems ridiculous to me. I could MAYBE see a car with an really obnoxious Bush sticker getting vandalized in a liberal college town, but that's hard to imagine. I had a pro-choice sticker for a long time in a conservative area and I would have been absolutely shocked if someone vandalized my car (and no one ever did). Personally the only bumper sticker I've been offended by lately was on a car in my work parking lot, the calvin "Piss on liberals," but I'm sure they make an anti-conservative version of the same one. I rather like "Doing my best to piss off the heathen left" (same car). Heathen is just kind of a fun word.
1.6.2006 4:34pm