Leaders in Arizona's atheist community gathered Wednesday to strongly condemn the fatal shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina.
Much has been made in the news that the shooting suspect, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, had a history of anti-religious comments, but the local atheists wanted to make it clear there's no link between a lack of religious belief and a heinous act of violence.
"There's never an excuse for this ignorant kind of murder," state Representative Juan Mendez says. "As a humanist, we value all lives."
Andre Salais, who runs an atheism-based media company, acknowledged that members of a group who commit an act of violence tend to cast a shadow over that entire group, however unfair that may be.
"Ideas have to be something that we are able to freely discuss," Salais says. "And any individual who exercises violence to silence a group that they disagree with . . . ought to be condemned in the strongest terms."
The atheists who gathered Wednesday at the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix were also joined by Johnny Martin, a Muslim who leads an interfaith group at Arizona State University called Sun Devils Are Better Together.
"After attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS and other extremist groups, many of my atheist and humanist friends stood up to me, to defend my faith, and remind others that not all Muslims are violent people," Martin says. "I wish to remind my fellow Muslims, likewise, that this murder is in now way representative of the feelings or sentiments of the mainstream secular population."
Some news stories published about the killings focus solely on Hicks' anti-religious beliefs. One story from the Huffington Post, for example, is completely dedicated to anti-religious Facebook postings on Hicks' account. Here's one post, for example:
However, based on news reports, police have not declared a motive in the case. The Los Angeles Times did report an officer's statement that the dispute between Hicks and the Muslim students appeared to stem over a long-running parking-spot disagreement at the apartment complex where they lived, although national Muslim groups have demanded that this be investigated as a hate crime.
According to news reports, one family member called the victims -- Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19 -- "gems of their community," who were involved in volunteerism efforts. For example, Barakat, a dental student, helped provide free dental supplies for homeless people in Durham, North Carolina.
Despite the lack of clarity on the motive, the local atheists wanted to address the shooting immediately Wednesday.
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"Your loss is our loss," says Evan Clark, who's on the national board of directors for the Secular Student Alliance. "And as a member of the secular community, our heart goes out to the family and all those affected by the tragedy."
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