Atheism, Islam and Evil

02/19/2015 03:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

I ignored, at my peril, my friend/editor's kind warning: "Don't begin your blog with satire because some people won't read past the first two paragraphs and won't understand that you're being satirical." She was right. In the satirical opening paragraphs of my most recent blog, "Is Atheism Evil?," I (satirically) argued, based on Craig Stephen Hicks' murders of three Muslims, that atheism is evil. I thought what I wrote was so clearly false and morally vicious, every reader would get the point. But they didn't. My bad.

Evidently quite a few readers stopped reading either at the title or after the opening paragraphs. Responses varied enormously but fit a common pattern. Godless Mom tweeted her thousands of followers that I am an absolute tool; it went downhill from there. One of her followers, Mr. Badguy (I am concealing Mr. Badguy's first name), retweeted with a photo and a fart (use your imagination). I received an email, one among many, that called me a certifiable bigot.

To Godless Mom and Mr. Badguy and everyone else who did not get past the first couple of paragraphs, I hope you'll go back and see that later I wrote, without satire, "Is atheism evil? NO." "Are atheists evil? No." Moreover, I argued that it would be both factually and morally wrong to judge otherwise based on the case of Craig Stephen Hicks (even if you throw Mao and Stalin into the mix).

Finally, I hope you'll go back and see that the essay was not at all about atheism or atheists. Instead the essay was really about us: white, Western, privileged non-Muslims (and media) who make hasty judgments about the motives of people who happen to be Muslim, and tarring all Muslims with the violence of a few. I wrote:

With respect to discerning the intentions of Islam, we should resist judging a religion and its adherents by its worst representatives. It would likewise be wrong to form opinions of atheism and atheists by the actions of atheist Craig Stephen Hicks. He does not represent.

I used the case of Craig Stephen Hicks simply as an occasion to illustrate and condemn our Western biases against Muslims. I hoped that we'd see that it's obviously wrong to judge all atheists based on the Hicks case, and so we would then see that it's obviously wrong for us to judge all Muslims based on ISIS or the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Here's my worry and why I'm taking the time to reply. Many people responded asserting that Islam is evil, Muslims are evil, and/or, thus, religion, especially Islam, needs to be eradicated.

And some claimed that I said we should never attribute religious motivations to Muslims. I did say that we should not do so instinctively (as we do) because that is simply prejudice, and I said that, in many cases of violence, religion may not be the primary motivation. Even if the terrorist tells us that he's motivated by the Quran, it does not follow that his faith is his only or even his primary motivation to violence. And failing to understand those deeper motivations and their root causes, usually ones that involve a justified sense of oppression and hopelessness, prevents us from grasping our own responsibility in creating those conditions.

If poverty, oppression, injustice, joblessness and hopelessness are the deeper causes of motivations to violence, ridding the world of religion won't lead to less violence. Human beings, as such, are tempted to violence when lacking food, land, security and hope. Absent religion, human beings will find new causes to rally around, as they always have, in their quest for food, land, wealth and power (heck, they may start judging based on skin color). Rather than focusing on ridding the world of religion, then, I suggest that we--atheist and theist alike--should focus on ridding the world of injustice and oppression. That will probably start by recognizing and then working to overcome our instinctive biases against people who are not like us.

I suspect that people who are well fed, sleep soundly and securely, are gainfully employed, and have reasonable hopes of better lives for their children are very unlikely, religious or not, to become terrorists. Moreover, I suspect that people who are starving, insecure, jobless and hopeless, religious or not, are more likely to become terrorists.

Religion/atheism, then, is not the issue. Injustice/oppression is the issue.

I invite my atheist friends/critics to stand beside our Muslim friends of peace in our joint fight against injustice and oppression.