The terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, gave religious and Social Justice™ pious the opportunity to join their voices in a chorus to indict New Atheists and make them responsible for the massacre, instead of (or in addition to) the real perpetrator. It’s a knee-jerk reaction by now: if someone ever said anything remotely critical about the special-needs set of ideas, apparently it follows that they are calling for violence against people who believe in those ideas (?).
This idea that words can be violence is magical thinking, and so is it’s —for lack of a better word— ‘logical’ conclusion that critics of any ideology are to be held vicariously responsible for the actions of other people. Words don’t have such power!
This, I thought, was something that atheist and secularism advocacy organizations understood. It is a no-brainer: if you seriously believe that words can have such an influence in the course of events in the material world that people who engage in ideas are to answer for the actions of others, then you’ve played yourself, you have just given up the only one argument you got to stand up for the right to criticize any set of ideas, to start conversations about what praying really is, and to mock beliefs such as the virgin birth.
And yet, that is exactly what American Atheists did just after the events in New Zealand. Their official statement called for atheists to examine “our own words and actions to ensure that we are not contributing to a climate where these attacks are even conceivable“… which is weird, to say the least. A number of us will give Islam the same treatment we give Christianity, Hinduism, or Jainism, yet it looks like no one is interested in all those words we have dared to utter to contribute to a climate where the systematic attacks against Jains in their places of worship happen — it’s almost like criticizing ideas is not the same as calling for people to kill other people or something!
Not satisfied with veiledly suggesting that the very people whose best interests they claim to have at heart had something to do with the Christchurch attack, American Atheists shared on their social media a PuffHo post in which Rowaida Abdelaziz, Akbar Shahid Ahmed and Nick Robins-Early blamed Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins for the senseless act that took place in New Zealand (!). The intellectually lazy and dishonest charge of Islamophobia was all over the piece, though that is par for the course.
Had they not suggested (some) atheists had somehow contributed to these attacks being conceivable, I would have given American Atheists the benefit of the doubt: maybe they were just sharing with their followers some of the far-fetched things people said and how they were leveraging the death toll to shut up those they disagreed with; maybe it was an invitation to politely comment on the original article about how Abdelaziz et al are wrong about words being violence and vicarious responsibility; but now I can’t help but wonder whether American Atheists is even on the side of atheists and our rights, among which is that to criticize, mock, ridicule, question, and challenge any claims about metaphysical realms. What good is an atheist organization which is against that right? What good is an atheist organization that is not 100% on board with atheists fully exercising our rights? What good is an atheist organization that thinks maybe we have too many rights and that if we are going to exercise them, we should do so scarcely?
Maybe American Atheists is courting a new target audience? A year and a half ago, the American Atheists’ magazine printed a strong condemnation of bigotry within the atheist community. Strangely enough, in their rejection of intolerance, the bigotry of low expectations —which has been rampant in atheist circles for the last decade— was conspicuous by its absence. And now this. Well, if that’s the case they wouldn’t be the first atheist organization to give up the fight for secularism and the rights of atheists in order to pursue more fashionable endeavours, and they certainly won’t be the last, but it would be nice if they were upfront about it instead of just spreading their newfound faith in magical thinking pretending they are still committed to critical reasoning.
If that’s not it, they’re certainly taking their sweet time before setting the record straight on what their stance on magical thinking and vicarious responsibility is. And mixed signals don’t help.