A thought on “Not Owning It” and Craig Hicks

I am going to get social sciency in this post, so if you want to read something a tad more elegant, check out “The Chapel Hill murderer was not inspired by atheism” over at StudentGonzo.259308B600000578-2948803-In_court_Craig_Hicks_46_is_pictured_as_he_enters_the_courtroom_f-m-9_1423673885002

I don’t know what motivated Craig Hicks, but you have to do a lot of work to draw a straight line from his atheism to violence. Let me be clear: atheists can be violent, but atheism is not an ideology in the sense of representing a powerful set of beliefs that motivate action. Nevertheless, atheists may individually have a set of beliefs about the social world that conform to a particular worldview, e.g., libertarian atheists.

Religion is a political resource and an identity marker in a way that atheism is not. Although atheists engage in the same in-group/out-group behaviour of other groups, atheism is not as central as religion in the creation of symbolic worlds. Religion is also implicit in many ways that atheism is not, meaning that identifying with a particular religion suggests a cultural system that provides moral order. For example, although Muslim extremists and moderates may show disagreement when it comes to terrorist actions, they have a great deal of ideological overlap.

Atheism does not have a coherent ideology. It resists cultural and ethnic specificity, and does not offer the same resources that religion does, even for those with nominal religious identities. If we’re going to look for an atheist “theory” we’re going to run into some issues because atheism is not a belief or disposition. Many atheists in the West may at least flirt with liberal values, and some leaders have been accused of being scientistic, but to suggest that atheism is ideological in the same way that religion is ideological just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Much of the confusion around this issue lies in how we view the relations between ideology and action. Many people take a individualistic view of action across the board. They approach the world through the lens of folk social psychology. Religious ideologies don’t do anything; they’re mere abstractions. People do things, and if they claim to be motivated by religion, they are either deluded or drawing from a moral repertoire to serve their own self ends. You can see why atheists might be viewed the same way as theists according to this approach. Atheists who kill are just as complicit in abusing abstractions as the religious people who kill, and Dawkins is just as likely to be an extremist as the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The only real counter we have to the individualized approach that I just mentioned is to constantly repeat that people take action based on concepts anchored at the societal level, and that we have many sources of evidence for this fact from multiple disciplines including neuroscience, psychology, history, sociology, and anthropology. We know that ideologies shape social life and social institutions, and that religion is a unique influencer and pillar of identity that happens to be highly successful at forming totalistic organizations. Atheism, however, does not engage in the same system justification and it does not have the same potency when it comes to an individual’s self-development.

So, yeah, atheists don’t need to own anything.