Sam Harris: Atheists have no ‘blood on their hands’ for Chapel Hill murders

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By Scott Kaufman

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

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

“You can sense that people have just been waiting for a crime like this that could conceivably be pinned on atheism.”

“The analogy between militant atheism and militant Islam is a terrible one,” Harris continued. “It’s an anti-analogy. It is false in every respect. Atheists are simply not out there harming people on the basis of their atheism. Now, there may be atheists who do terrible things, but there is no atheist doctrine or scripture; and insofar as any of us have written books or created arguments that have persuaded people, these books and arguments only relate to the bad evidence put forward in defense of a belief in God. There’s no argument in atheism to suggest that you should hate or victimize or stigmatize whole groups of people, as there often is in revealed religion.”

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


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49 COMMENTS

  1. Someone could send a spidering bot out to look for atheists calling for murdering others and Christians calling for murdering others and Muslims calling for murdering others.

    It would be interesting to see the relative percentages, even adjusted for number of adherents.

  2. The problem is that “believers” simply cannot understand “unbelief.” When you tell them that you don’t believe in anything “supernatural” they just look at you and are confused… “You must believe in something— isn’t evolution a religion?” They’d have less difficulty understanding that someone believes in the wrong god than in no supernatural being at all. It just really confounds them. Thus, when something like this tragedy happens, they have to look for an ideological answer while, at the same time, they deny that religion is the motivation for violence on the part of religious perpetrators. These are people that have suppressed critical thinking on nearly every issue– particularly religion. So they look at someone who is an atheist (supposedly) and ascribe his behavior to the influence of it even though atheism proscribes no such position or view. Another day where I really miss Christopher Hitchens who would squash this nonsense. Sam Harris needs a bigger “voice” and a bigger media presence so he can get the word out!

  3. Apparently none of his social media postings express hatred or desire to hurt religious people. So the claim he was motivated to kill is at best unproven.
    I wonder if theists would be happy when ever a person of their faith committed a murder were told it was because they were motivated by their faith. There is clearly a difference between groups following doctrinally inspired violence and individuals “going postal”.

  4. I wonder if theists would be happy when ever a person of their faith
    committed a murder were told it was because they were motivated by
    their faith.

    But from a muslim point of view, that is exactly what is happening. I think Sam should fess up to being part of the straw bale if not the final straw. May not have been his intention but still the straw grows.

  5. Why should Sam do any such ” fessing up? ”

    Islam may not motivate some to commit murder ( or it may ) but it certainly leads murderers to use that faith as a rationalization, justification and just plain excuse for murder. The other big Abrahamic religion, christianity, would do the same ( a strong minority would ) save for the power of the state. The christians like this do say islam, in and of itself, motivates murder. The state makes sure they are ” just saying. ” Very little difference between state and religion in islam.

    Sam’s intention is to critique islam and he has done so without calling for violence.

  6. Any any human society, culture, group – what percentage of the group has to be radical and violent before it tips the group toward radical. In each family a radical must be protected and hidden from the authorities after a crime of violence is committed. How many peaceful mothers would aid and abet a child after they are persuaded to mayhem. Each family touched by impassioned pleas to right terrible wrongs. What is that percentage? Is it reached in many modern Islam groups? How do we combat this?

  7. “It increases the risk to me and my family.”

    Did he not think it through? Was money and fame the only goal? He should have asked me, I would have told him the dangers to him and to the muslim families. If he had then said he knew the dangers and went ahead then fine but to complain and plead ignorance is just wrong.

    Very little difference between state and religion in islam.

    When you bomb and kill hundreds of thousands of people and then go and kick in the doors of family homes pinning family members to the ground, you do not give the separation of religion and star much of a chance.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWH-RVM8hnU

  8. The difference is pretty much just whose side you are on. If you are an atheist you look at this example and say “bad apple” if you are religious you look at it and say “inevitable result of atheist worldview”. Just like so many atheists who DO jump on every act of violence, especially Islamic violence, and assume that Islam is the main cause of the violence where as the Muslims react and say “bad apple that doesn’t understand what Islam is really all about”.

    I realize you can make more subtle distinctions and clearly a worldview that is essentially irrational at its core as all religions are is more amenable to being distorted than one based on reason like atheism. But ultimately, I just think the whole keeping score stuff is bullshit. I’m not an atheist based on how many atheists vs. Muslims “go postal”, essentially an evil asshole can grab on to any world view, including atheism, to justify being an evil asshole.

  9. He should have asked me, I would have told him the dangers to him and to the muslim families.

    He doesn’t need you to tell him the dangers to him and his family of the misrepresentation of his views by Glenn Greenwald etc.

    If he had then said he knew the dangers and went ahead then fine but to complain and plead ignorance is just wrong.

    ?? What are you talking about, he is not pleading ignorance. Are you pretending to be Greenwald? Here are the paragraphs you took that sentence from:

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

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

    “And if you tell them, as Greenwald and Aslan repeatedly have, whether in their own words or by circulating the lies of others, that I want to nuke the Muslim world, or that I want to round Muslims up for torture, or that I’m a genocidal fascist maniac, or that I want to profile dark-skinned people at airports, or that I want to kill people for thought crimes, or that I have blood on my hands for the murders of three beautiful young people in North Carolina, this is dangerous.”

    He knows perfectly well the dangers of criticising Islam. What he is complaining about here is the danger of journalists deliberately misrepresenting his views. Or did you mean that he should have known his views would be misrepresented?

  10. Which is exactly what I said????

    Did he think it was going to all his own way or could he possibly of thought that people he calls violent will turn violent against him. It’s not rocket science.

  11. He knows perfectly well the dangers of criticising Islam.

    Indeed he does. He has published rather curious and detailed articles on the matter of self defence having taken professional guidance/training himself. His odd (and for me disappointing) position on guns I suspect is entirely due to his suspicion that he may need one oneday.

  12. @ Olgun

    Fallacy of the false comparison.

    Even if none of the US actions in the Middle East had taken place that region would still be the hell hole of theocracy it is today.

    The enshrine islam in their constitutions readily, and just as readily oppress women, homosexuals and apostates.

    That video is a red herring in this discussion.

  13. Most used to look to the west for help. Now they look to the west as a target. Our newspapers would have different headlines had it not been for those actions in the video. I have never said anything else.

  14. Did he think it was going to all his own way or could he possibly of thought that people he calls violent will turn violent against him. It’s not rocket science.

    From that sentence, it’s obvious that it was not “exactly what I said????”. Read my post again. I said Harris was complaining about journalists misrepresenting his views. He was NOT complaining about the possibility of violent reaction from Muslims to his writing, he was complaining about the increased risk due to the misrepresentation.

  15. The traditional response to statements like this are questions like, “What is the penelty for aposticy?” or “What part of the Koran do you believe is not the word of god?” On a global basis, while the vast majority of muslims don’t like ISIS, a consistant 20-40% agree with many of their ideas. It is somewhat absurd to say that all these muslims are too stupid to understand their own religion.

    A somewhat comparable statement would be that the tea party isn’t really for cutting taxes and government spending, and those who claim it is don’t really understand the tea party properly.

  16. Mark,

    Again, if he was not expecting that then he needs a better advisor. I have never heard him criticise any of the media for putting muslim lives at stake, but I could be wrong.

  17. Again, if he was not expecting that then he needs a better advisor. I have never heard him criticise any of the media for putting muslim lives at stake, but I could be wrong.

    We got there in the end – you think he should have known journalists such as Greenwald would misrepresent him and you also don’t have sympathy with his complaint because he has not (as far as you know) criticised the media for putting Muslim lives at stake.

  18. Many critics of atheism were quick to point out that if atheists condemn Islam for its connection with terrorism, then they should likewise condemn atheism for its connection with the Chapel Hill murders. Now, we don't know what motivated Hicks. But even if he was influenced by atheism, that does not put the blame on atheism – for the very simple reason that atheism does not command anyone to kill. After all, suppose the motive does turn out to have been nothing more than a parking dispute. Does that mean that the blame for the murders should fall on the concept of reserved parking spaces? Should we in that case end the practice of allotting such spaces because it might lead a deranged individual to violent acts?

    [Link to user’s website removed by moderator.]

  19. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are heros of mine. I have most of their books donated to me by my children but they sit on the shelf alongside the books that I read at their age, the greats.

    I don’t think creationism v evolution is what we should be talking about today. 1. there are no creationist in the UK and 2. evolution is only our history and “history is bunk”.

    The theory of evolution, owing much to the polymath Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, may have been a storm in the Victorian tea cup 150 years ago when it was an alternative to Adam and Eve. But today it is no big deal except in the US. It is no longer a theory. It is not even science as it fails the falsification criteria. It is just our history and history is bunk.

    There may be atheists in the US but in the UK and much of Europe there are only those with “no position” on the existence or otherwise of an absolute being. Just as they have “no position” on having a favourite colour or on the existence of UFOs. They have better things to do with their time than check out the “argument from design” or the “ontonological arguement”. Indeed, they have never heard of them or the schoolman Thomas Aquinus.

  20. Dear Sam,

    I have been all over your podcasts with my “epistemological arsenal” and Hume’s guillotine.

    With all respect, isn’t it about time you responded to the “body of knowledge”, “standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing further” and respecting that epistemology is the king or enquires and dictates what all enquires can and cannot do.

  21. ” It is not even science as it fails the falsification criteria. It is just our history and history is bunk. ”

    Do tell me how the theory of evolution by natural selection fails the falsification criteria?

    If some molecular geneticists have their way ( or win on the evidence ) then neo-mutationism ( one fringe science example ) would falsify natural selection, but you just can not say the theory of evolution by natural selection fails the falsification criteria without showing that assertion to be supported by evidence.

  22. Great stuff, Sam.

    You are a beacon of good sense and clarity in a world still much darkened by the bad ideas of religion.
    If only more of us were like you and brave enough to speak out for freedom.

    I look forward to reading the book on Islam that you’re co-authoring.

    Bob Green

  23. Our newspapers would have different headlines had it not been for those actions in the video.

    Here is a headline from the Guardian. Looks like IS latest revenge for actions in the video is to destroy ancient artefacts in the Mosul museum:

    Isis fighters ‘destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum’

    They claim “Our prophet ordered us to remove all these statues as his followers did when they conquered nations”.

    And I hear they recently burnt down the Mosul library. That’ll teach those marines.

  24. I am sure they will be absolutely gutted.

    They were of course otherwise detained kicking in doors of drug barons in their own country. No wait! That’s illegal isn’t it?

  25. I am sure they had all the paperwork necessary to kick in their doors. I am also pretty sure that that rest of the neighbourhood doors were left intact. Travelling half way around the world without the proper paperwork traumatising children is not quite the same.

  26. Projecting your faults on to others? Here is another news headline for you:

    US-Bangladesh blogger Avijit Roy hacked to death

    He says he received threats from Islamist hardliners in Bangladesh last year when his book, The Virus of Faith, was released at a book fair. ….
    Prominent writer Taslima Nasreen had to leave Bangladesh after she received death threats from hard-line Islamists in the mid-1990s. She wrote on her blog: “Avijit Roy has been killed the way other free thinker writers were killed in Bangladesh. No free thinker is safe in Bangladesh.”

    Of course, in your reality Olgun, US marines are to blame for this. And anyway he should have known violence would result from criticising violent people?

  27. No Mark, US marines are the ones that are kicking in the doors in someone else’s country. These are murderous people who I don’t attempt to make excuses for like you are. I prefer facts and if one thing links with another then I tend to go with it.

  28. Of course you don’t.

    Most used to look to the west for help. Now they look to the west as a target. Our newspapers would have different headlines had it not been for those actions in the video. I have never said anything else.

  29. If atheists are not to be blamed collectively for the Chapel Hill murders then neither should theists be collectively blamed for murders committed in the name of God (as they are in the ridiculous atheist leaflet entitled “Imagine no religion” featuring the World Trade Center towers). And if the argument goes that theism per se encourages murder (which it does not), then it could equally be argued that the philosophy of naturalism implicitly encourages oppression through the concept of the fight for survival, in which the strong dominate the weak. If, as atheism implies, we are all just soulless machines thrown together by a mindless universe, then clearly there is no objectively valid injunction anywhere that states that we should regard murder as ‘wrong’. The atheists who are horrified when murder is committed are not horrified because of their atheism, because atheism relies on a philosophy, which provides no moral guidance. They are horrified because they have a moral conscience, which is a fundamental part of reality. This aspect of reality cannot be explained by the philosophy of naturalism. It can easily be explained within a non-atheistic worldview. Another reason why the philosophy of naturalism is deeply irrational and does not fit reality. Ergo, it is not true.

  30. they [atheists] have a moral conscience, which is a fundamental part of reality. This aspect of reality cannot be explained by the philosophy of naturalism.

    Oh but it is and richly so. Even Richard Dawkins writes about Hamilton and Trivers and altruisms genetic roots. (If you want to nit pick that altruism is not morality we can certainly go there if you wish.) You could start your exciting voyage of discovery on the subject with Frans de Waal, an ethologist, with his book “The Age of Empathy” revealing the deep evolutionary heritage of such-like attributes. Or you could look at the neuro-science of it all and the extensively co-opted neurotransmitter, oxytocin, the “Cuddle Chemical” how and why it is triggered creating bonding not only between mother and child but between kin and as-if-kin.

    Here’s a little taster for you.

    And, lest you think science is shut out from minds and anything else you wish to remain sacred and mysterious, it is not. Wiki is your friend to get you started.

  31. clearly there is no objectively valid injunction anywhere that states that we should regard murder as ‘wrong’.

    And yet the godless murder less, (knowing that one brief life is precious, perhaps?) Five godly Americans are murdered for every godless Swede.

  32. If you really think eloquent rhetoric, even misquoted and self contradictory verbiage, somehow gains a measure of persuasively stated logic, you are dismally in error. The Theory of Evolution has long been established as the Law of Evolution, the essential evidence being that no earth or physical science makes any sense except under the guise of Darwin’s gift to mankind. To argue against what science functions under is so foolish it makes all the pompous and superfluous hyperbole just that.

  33. Well, there are more than five times the number of Americans as there are Swedes. But the point is taken. As for the previously stated absurdity that atheism is a philosophy with no moral basis, that is a ridiculously twisted logic that has no merit or meaning. Atheism is nothing more than the belief that no deity exists. Evolved mankind has always devised his own morality, and religion, although the two are mutually exclusive except for those of a most righteous bearing. In Western society morality is thought to have spawn from religion, but the ancient Hebrews had a strong sense of right and wrong long before Moses brought down those ten Commandments. There is even a type of morality that can be seen developed in the higher primates. No religion required. Although non-theists do not accept the existence of god, we certainly recognize the evility and wrong in murder or any other heinous crime. Morality is as much about civil order and accepted belief in social contracts as it is about instructions from some holy text. Many psychologists believe that there is an innate need for order, certainly evolved over the eons of time. Those that are diagnosed as sociopaths have little or no social conscience, and they may have very well been exposed to a high degree of religion in their lives. There is no pathology that declares someone devoid of religion, only one that explains the effects of having no social bearing. Most would call such social bearing morality. I can accept such a definition as some of the most moral people I have ever met are atheists.

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