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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.

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