Lessons of Chapel Hill

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In the crucible of 9/11 and its aftermath, Americans flocked to their traditional houses of worship by the millions, moved by the spirit described in Alan Jackson’s anthem, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)”

“Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers?” asked the country singer, who proclaims his Christian faith in inclusive language. “Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family? Thank God you had somebody to love?”

The world did not really stop turning, even metaphorically, that day. Within months U.S. politics resumed its normative shape, partisan and uninspiring again. Church attendance also returned to usual levels—except, tellingly, in New York City. There, at Ground Zero of the new war against freedom, the spike in church-going continued.

“The research shows that spiritual change can and does happen, even in large population centers like the New York media market,” George Barna, author of a study on the subject, said 10 years later.

Many reacted in a different way, the opposite way. The mass murder of innocent civilians on September 11, 2001, was carried out by committed Muslims acting under color of their faith. The world, some people concluded, would be better without Islam—without religion of any kind, for that matter. “Imagine there’s no heaven,” John Lennon had sung 30 years earlier. “No hell below us, above us only sky.”

Here was a much different kind of song than Alan Jackson’s hymn, and just as evocative: “Imagine there’s no countries … nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

After 9/11, the same forces that drove some back to the Old-Time Religion, drove others to seek solace in the logic of the secular world. Although my own inclination is to find comfort in the spiritual rather than empirical world, I understand the other reaction. Killing strangers is not an act of reason, and if religion is the proximate cause for such barbarism, what good is it?

This point is made repeatedly by prominent atheists emboldened by 9/11. In the ensuing years, a spate of books attacking belief in God zoomed to the bestseller list. These included “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins; “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” by Christopher Hitchens; and "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris. Comedian Bill Maher rode his anti-God shtick to a regular television show, a book, and a movie, “Religulous,” that one critic aptly described as “funny and offensive in equal measure.”

“The New Atheism” it was called, which is a bit of a misnomer. These men are proselytizers of a relatively new faith, “anti-theism,” a phrase Hitchens used himself. Anti-theists don’t just dismiss religion as silly. They attack it as dangerous. Richard Dawkins often uses the word “evil,” but he’s an evolutionary biologist by training and when he passes such moral judgments he’s essentially practicing medicine without a license. Dawkins also compares religion to “smallpox” and says that parents who raise their children in a faith tradition are subjecting them to “child abuse.” Not to be outdone, Sam Harris proclaimed, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

Religious scholar Reza Aslan, a professor at the University of California, has noted that when anti-theists use this kind of language, they are characterizing religion “with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism.” 

Thus did the most prominent would-be debunkers of faith go from scoffing at religion and merely denying the existence of a deity to attacking people of faith with the kind of intemperance they ascribed to religious fundamentalism. They became evangelists, which is a paradox. But they also became intolerant, which was another thing altogether. They became what they professed to detest. They became haters.

Did any of this motivate 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks to knock on his neighbors’ door and shoot three people, all young Muslims, to death? That’s the allegation against him. Hicks has described himself on social media forums as an anti-theist, although he seems have had more animus for conservative Christians than Muslims. After the Chapel Hill shootings, the normal “civil rights leaders” dispensed their typical and tiresome slogans about “hate crimes” and anti-Muslim bias, but Hicks is not a man who lends himself to easy classification.

He has expressed support for legalized abortion and gay marriage and antipathy for Republicans and conservatives. He’s also staunch supporter of gun rights. His current wife, Karen Hicks, says he wasn’t a bigot in any way. But he didn’t have much of a career and his first wife says he was obsessed with the 1993 movie “Falling Down,” in which a struggling white male who resents immigrants and racial minorities goes on a shooting rampage. Hicks was also obsessed, according to neighbors in his Chapel Hill condominium complex, with parking issues, and had previously threatened the people who were killed over parking spaces.

The “Falling Down” angle suggests that the great promise life held for the three high-achieving young Muslims only added to Hicks’ resentment. Their scholarly ways and successful career paths were more maddening than a head scarf.

Maybe it’s not that complicated. One of the most reasoned comments made in the days after the shooting came from Robert Maitland, Karen Hicks’ lawyer. He suggested that Hicks’ deteriorating mental health is the most likely culprit. “Obviously it’s not within the range of normal behavior for someone to shoot three people over parking issues,” he said.

Still, it’s not unfair to wonder whether the demonization of Christians and Muslims by the political left’s secular stars helped create a climate—at least inside the troubled mind of Craig Hicks—that ignited this terrible act.

But as Alan Jackson’s song asks us to do, I’ll look for wisdom this week in the words of two people of faith. One of them is my niece, a freshman at UNC in Chapel Hill, who is a gentle soul and a believing Christian. She posted a picture on Facebook of the three slain students and said her heart goes out to all of those hurt by this crime.

The second is Atif Chaudhry, a North Carolina imam who counsels students at a Charlotte college. “This is something that everyone with a beating heart should feel pain about,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “Whether it was over religion or a parking spot, this was a tragedy. And it wasn’t just a Muslim tragedy; it was an American tragedy.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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