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Why Atheists Like Me Grieve for the Chapel Hill Shooting Victims

02/12/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

The execution-style shooting of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill is tragic, disgusting, and should be denounced by every human being of conscience.

The killer, who was reportedly motivated by a parking dispute, also happened to be a vocal atheist.

Being an anti-theist who grew up in three Muslim-majority countries -- as part of a Muslim family I love, respect, yet frequently disagree with -- I want to tell you why I'm grieving today for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and their families.

I rejected religion precisely because I wouldn't accept "holy" books like the Quran or Bible that prescribe killing, fighting, and eternally torturing those who think or believe differently.

Atheists who adopt the same approach to others are no different from the violent religious groups they claim to be opposed to. And if there were a "holy" book of atheism that prescribed killing others (which there isn't), I would unequivocally condemn and reject it too.

This is why I repeatedly stress how crucial it is to distinguish between anti-Muslim bigotry (which targets real human beings) and legitimate criticism of Islam (which targets ideas in a book).

Again: human beings have rights, and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs aren't.

Many of my friends and family are religious, wear the hijab, or fast during Ramadan. We disagree on ideas, often vehemently, but we don't hate each other. We engage in dialogue, we argue, we learn from one another -- and then we go out to dinner. Most human beings are much more than what they believe. We all have much more in common as human beings than not. That basic principle, by definition, is what lies at the heart of humanism.

The right to believe freely is universal. I don't want to engage with people who think the right of anyone to live, think, or say as they want -- whether believer or atheist -- is negotiable. I want to call out bad ideas, not blanketly demonize an entire people. That's why I rejected religion in the first place.

Does this incident mean we should stop criticizing irrational beliefs? No. The idea that we shouldn't criticize religion because it may encourage hate crimes against the religious is as absurd as saying we should never criticize U.S. foreign policy because it could lead to attacks on innocent Americans overseas. We should call out bad ideas everywhere -- whether they come from holy books that instruct us to kill, or from the mind of an atheist murderer who, in this case, thought it was okay to kill those who believe in them.

Atheism is not a belief system or a doctrine. It is simply a rejection of irrational beliefs. Those who treat it as anything more, as Craig Stephen Hicks may have, should be condemned by all -- no excuses.

My thoughts are with the three young victims of this horrific crime.