Friday, February 12, 2010

Texas Church Arson

Eleven churches in east Texas have been destroyed by arson so far this year.

What if it is the case that an atheist is responsible? What would be implications of discovering that the culprit in this case has decided to target churches "for the harm they have do promoting faith and other groundless doctrines used by millions do to harm to others"?

From time to time I have challenged the notion that, while people commit violence in the name of God, nobody commits violence in the name of no-God. The main reason is because no-God never commands its followers to do violence. In fact, no-God never commands its followers to do anything.

I have challenged it on the grounds that God has never commanded people to do violence either. This is because no God exists to do the commanding. Whatever it is that causes people to engage in these types of violence, God is not and has never been a part of the actual causal chain.

There are people who have committed violence who have claimed that they have done so because scripture or some religious doctrine has told them that this is the right thing to do. However, this scripture did not come from God. It came from other human beings - and from the agent's own interpretation of what those other human beings (claiming to speak for God) wanted them to do.

Yet, putting commands to do violence into scripture that one claims to be the word of God is not the only way one person can inspire others to commit acts of violence. There are a great many other ways. Any statement that denigrates a group of people, identifies them as such-human and as perpetrators of injustice, and thus places them beyond the bounds of common moral constraints, can make those people the objects of violence.

So, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the arsonist in this case has read the words of atheist writers on the internet, developed a loathing for those who preach religion, and has decided to use this as a justification for committing acts of violence against them.

If it is not the case that this person has been inspired to do God by reading the statements of atheist writers, there is still the possibility that some other person, now or in the future, is feeding a hatred off of his interpretation of the claims made on atheist sites, and will commit some future act of violence in the name of atheism.

My question to my readers - particularly those who also write - is, "What have you done to promote or to inhibit that possibility?"

For my part I have stated countless times that the right to freedom of speech may not mean a right to immunity from criticism for what one says, but it does imply a right to immunity from violence. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions - where 'private actions' are those that one may perform without asking for permission from or justifying it to another person. Choices over what to watch on television, which movies to go to, which web sites to visit, what to eat, what to wear, who to invite to your child's birthday party, where to send your private charitable donations, all count as private actions. People are free to use these private actions to reward or punish others for what they say.

However, nobody is free to use a torch to communicate their disapproval of another person's words. People who do so are a threat to all of us. They are not only a threat to our property, they are a threat to our very lives. They are a threat to the lives of the first responders who show up to put out the fire, and they are a theat to the lives of anybody who may have been sleeping or staying in the churches at the times they were torched - including, potentially, children in need of shelter.

This arsonist is truly a despicable human being for what he is willing to cause happen to others. He exhibits desires that the rest of us have many and strong reason to inhibit through condemnation, or at best shows an absence of those aversions that many of us have reason to promote.

Our responsibility lies in knowing that despicable people like this exist. They are prone to violence and, even though they might select a target for their violence by reading scripture, there are other ways for such a person to select their victims.

They may select their victims from reading our blogs and articles, and through them determine that there is a class of people amongst us who fall beyond the realm of moral society, and who are deserving of the harms he seeks to inflict.

The idea that nobody does harm in the name of no-God is a dangerous delusion that some people may be tempted to use because they enjoy or otherwise find value in making mean claims about others while ignoring the possible consequences of their actions. Some people enjoy being mean, and they enjoy the cheers of an audience who find it entertaining to be a part of the crowd that is being mean (which is far better than being a part of the crowd that is being targeted with that meanness).

I know nothing about this case in Texas and I am not suggesting any theories about what the facts of the case are. However, what has been reported is enough to ask the questions, "Could you be making claims that risk inspiring such a person to such a level of violence?" and "What have you done, as a responsible writer, to help to ensure that you are not a contributor to these types of actions?"

Maybe this arsonist is a reader of our sites. Or maybe it is the next one.

What would you have to say to such a person?


Anonymous said...

This worries me as well. EVENTUALLY some atheist will do something like this. It has the potential to lead to a lot of fuss and it's going to be hard for those of us who try to speak out against religion. As you say, we must make people realize that there are no "atheist commandments" that tell people to be violence (or non-violent, for that matter).

mobathome said...

I'll tell you how it will happen because it's happened before. It will be an "atheist" who is angry at god. That is some religious person alienated from their church and, by the church member's acts, feeling rejected by the church's god. They will decide they have no gods and be, in essence, a non-worshipping theist who is angry at their god. (Is the young C.S. Lewis an example?) It'll be easy to call that person an atheist: they may do so themselves, and community members will certainly do so, as will MSM.

mobathome said...

Oh yeah! I forgot the request: "What have you done to promote or to inhibit that possibility?" I'm at a loss for finding an atheist parallel to the vitriol I've read aimed at atheists. What I've met are people who want to be let alone, and in return will let people alone. I've heard of Hitchens and others speaking of the bad influence of religions on society, but I haven't heard of any atheist taking actions against members of a religion in response. You should provide some examples of violent events committed by atheists where you can argue the presence of a plausible link between atheist criticism of religion or of particular religious figures and the atheists' actions. Otherwise, your entry is speculation that could in itself hurt the public image of atheists by providing a public atheist figure taking the idea seriously.

Anonymous said...

That report says one person of interest has an inverted cross tatoo, symbolizing... Satanism? I'm not very familiar with Satanism so I'm not sure if the inverted cross is a symbol of it. (Now watch FOX try to say that Satanists are atheists)

Anonymous said...

And I should add it's supposedly an inverted *burning* cross.

kshep said...

I'm not so sure that any proactive action is really required here. I'm fairly certain that should there be an act of violence at the level of a church bombing done in the name of "no-god" the leading atheists (Harris, Dawkins, PZ) would be quick to denounce it. Following that, the perpetrator of a crime such as this would be immediately bounced from any atheist groups, forums, etc. by his fellow non believers. Essentially, we'd all disassociate ourselves from him right away, because we simply do not condone that kind of behavior in anyone, believer or not.

This is a stark difference that atheists have from believers--there would be no rallying around the bastard like religious numbskulls do whenever one of theirs bombs an abortion clinic or something.

Lunatics who commit crimes against people to advance a cause of some sort or strike fear in innocent people are terrorists. No matter your justification, it's still wrong.

Tim said...

Most Christians don't rally behind anti-abortion activists that bomb clinics. I think your mistaken. I also don't see athiests committing violent acts on religions as most that I have met seem to believe that you should let people do their own thing.

I personally think the arsonists in Texas are satanists or they think they are vampires.

Tore said...

The people who burn churches are normally people who are particularly against the christianity for some personal reason, normally excessive indoctrination, someone who has suffered from the inherent evil in religion.

Jynx said...

Although I certainly share the concern that at some point in the future, an atheist might perform a very public criminal and/or immoral act and thereby damage the reputation (such as it is) of atheist groups in general.

While such an instance would doubtless be jumped on by religious fundamentalists in America as "proof positive" that atheists have no morals, or that religion breeds moral behavior, etc, it simply is not true that one could ever commit such an act BECAUSE of atheism.

One may attempt to justify vandalism or violence against a church due to its "damagin influence" to society...but such a belief is a seperate matter from atheism. There are certainly atheists who do not believe religion is damaging and there are clearly theists who believe other people's churches are damaging to society. The two simply do not necessarily go hand in hand.

It is logically impossible to commit an act of violence...or any act at all...based soley on one's atheism.