02/20/2015 04:54 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2015

An Atheist Reaction to the Chapel Hill Tragedy

I was horrified when I heard of the tragic murders on February 10 of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My sorrow was compounded when I learned that Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were shot by an atheist, Craig Stephen Hicks.

Media, of course, tried to learn as much as possible about Hicks and his motive for these senseless killings. Speculation included his hatred of religion, disputes over parking spaces, and whether it was a "hate crime." In Facebook postings, Hicks said, "I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do." Hicks might be more pro-Second Amendment than anti-religion, because one post included a photo of a revolver and the warning, "If you are anti-gun, defriend me NOW!!!" (Several people said Hicks would show up at their door, gun on hip, to complain about a visitor who had parked in someone else's spot.)

While the atheist community and the rest of the country are unified in condemning this terrible act, there is no such unanimity about hate crimes. When Congress was planning to expand hate crime laws to add "sexual orientation," I got a lot of pushback from my liberal friends for opposing this legislation. I was also in the unfamiliar position of being praised by a blogger for the Wall Street Journal who said, "Herb Silverman eloquently articulates what we've written before -- that at best, the law could be merely symbolic and, at worst, the law could lead to strange outcomes."

He then quoted from my piece:

A crime is a crime, regardless of the victim's race, color, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. A murdered white heterosexual male is no less dead than a Hispanic, gay Christian. Suppose three murders occur: one for money, another out of jealousy, and a third because the victim is a black, gay Wiccan. If the first two murderers are sentenced to 20 years in prison and the third is sentenced to 30 years, would the families of the victims in the first two cases feel they had received equal justice under the law?

I'm less interested in speculating on the motives of Hicks than in seeing that justice is served. Atheist and Humanist organizations have been quick to strongly condemn the murders and offer condolences to the victims and their families. See, for instance, statements by American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, and the Secular Coalition for America. Particularly noteworthy is the reaction by the nontheistic organization Foundation Beyond Belief, which observed that Deah Barakat was pursuing his doctorate in dentistry at UNC Chapel Hill and planned to travel to Syrian refugee camps this summer to perform emergency dentistry for refugee children through the Syrian Medical Society Foundation. Foundation Beyond Belief is collecting funds from the atheist and humanist community that will go directly to the Syrian Medical Society Foundation to honor the lives and celebrate the memory of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.

No large group should be held responsible for the actions of a deranged person who just happens to belong to that group. A mathematical colleague once worried needlessly that mathematicians would not be trusted after Ted Kaczynski was discovered in 1996 to be the Unabomber. That colleague, Kaczynski, and I were in the same mathematical field of geometric function theory, and I published several joint papers with a mathematician who was on Kaczynski's dissertation committee (Kaczynski was a much better mathematician than I am, but a much worse human being.).

No mathematicians support the actions of Kaczynski and no atheists support the actions of Hicks. We must take special care not to stereotype all individuals in a community based on the acts of its worst members -- be they Muslim, atheist, or mathematician.