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Three Murders in Chapel Hill

As probably all of you know, we have experienced a heart-wrenching tragedy here in Chapel Hill, as three young, happy, and good Muslim students were murdered on Tuesday, point-blank, in their home.   The issue is tangential to the topics I normally deal with on the blog, but I did want to take time out to reflect a bit on what has happened.

On Wednesday I did something that I’ve never done before in my 30 years of university teaching.   I blew off the lecture for the day and discussed the issue with my class of 240 students – giving them my thoughts about the matter, having one of my teaching assistants, a graduate student who is an expert in Islam, say a few words from his perspective, and, mainly, letting the undergraduate students emote and express their views and concerns and ask questions.  For many of the students it was a welcome catharsis.

The big issue that is being posed in the newspapers – at least the local ones (less so the national ones, and not at all, so far as I can tell, the international ones) – is whether this was a religious hate crime or a dispute about parking.   Frankly, most of the people that I have had contact with can’t believe we’re having that conversation.   Parking?!?  Are you serious?    Someone murders three Muslims in cold blood and you want to talk about parking regulations?

OK, so we do know that this guy who has turned himself in for the shootings was an exceedingly angry vigilante who prided himself with wearing a gun on his hip.  (The only ones who seem to be completely incredulous that very angry vigilantes are entitled to wear guns on their hips are my European friends, all of whom – to a person – have, as their first reaction, “Why is he allowed to have a gun???”  For most Americans, the question doesn’t come up.) (Let me stress, I’m not taking a position on second amendment rights.  I’m pointing out that most of the rest of the civilized world thinks our gun laws are crazy.  We have every right to think that *they* are the ones who are crazy.  But we ought at least to be thinking about whether they are right instead of simply letting our knees jerk every time they raise the point) (which is every time yet another tragedy hits….).

But back to the guy with a gun on his hip.  Yes, he was angry and mean-spirited, and was known to be caustic and threatening, and not to like people, especially when they committed misdemeanors in his parking lot.   But really.   He murdered three Muslims.  Most of us simply do not believe that if this was not from beginning to end a violent act meant to rid the world of three Muslims, then at the very least the fact that they were specifically Muslim was not peripheral to his (to us) unthinkable act.  And that local Muslims – and Muslims throughout the country – have every right to feel targeted.  Of course they are targeted.  (Just as in other parts of the world Christians are targeted;  But do we want these other parts of the world to dictate our moral values and behavior???)  As risible as it seems to many (most?) of us, I can see why the local papers would want to paint the tragic incident as a parking dispute.   We have the issue of community image.  We have the issue of not wanting to stir up more animosity.  We have the issue of not wanting copy-cat murders.  We have lots of issues.

But we also have the issue of the truth, and whatever that truth is, we should not be afraid to get to the bottom of it.

It does appear that the self-confessed murderer is a hater of all things religious.   He is not simply an atheist (he is avowedly that as well).  He is an anti-theist.  It’s important to keep that straight.  He is not a live-and-let-live atheist who does not believe in God but does not have major problems with anyone who does (i.e., *my* kind of atheist).  He is opposed to people who are theists.  He thinks religion is dangerous and does a lot of ill in the world (now *there’s* an irony…), and he would be happy to stamp it out.  And so he is not even your run-of-the mill anti-theist.  He is a violent anti-theist.

So he may not like parking violators; but he *hates* people who are religious (i.e., most people).  And most of all, quite obviously, he hates Muslims.

I told my class that even though our course dealt with early Christianity, I thought it did have relevance to the murders.   I have never told a class this before, but I do indeed have a particular and important reason for teaching the New Testament and the history of early Christianity the way I do.  It is this:  I stress throughout the entire semester, and try to get my students to see (sometimes they are highly unwilling at first to see it), that early Christianity was a highly diverse phenomenon, with different early Christians having astoundingly different points of view and perspective, all of them thinking that they were “right” and all the others were “wrong.”   The focus in both my research and teaching for the past decades has been largely on the diversity of the early Christian movement.  I have wanted, and continue to want, to stress this diversity not only for antiquarian reasons (i.e., just because it is historically true) (which it is), but also for another purpose.

It seems to me that if modern Christians (the VAST majority of my students) can see that there was not simply ONE form of early Christianity, but lots and lots of different forms of early Christianity, it should show that the religion is diverse BY ITS VERY NATURE.   Recognizing that there are, and always have been, diverse forms of the Christian religion should help us be more open to the variety and diversity of Christian belief and practice.   Which should open us up to the rich variety and diversity of all belief and practice.  Which should make us less centered on the view that OUR view is the only right one, and help us see that other people have other views that deserve to be considered just as much as the one we were raised with or that we subscribe to.   Recognizing religious and cultural diversity in all its rich texture can help us be more sympathetic to and empathetic with people who are different from us.  In other words, it is one of the ways to help fight religious and cultural intolerance.

Intolerance surrounds us.  And we need to do all we can to fight it – not with guns on our hips, but with forgiving, caring, and loving alternatives.   We do not solve the problems of hate with more hate, or problems of violence with more violence, or acts of ignorance and prejudice with retaliatory acts of ignorance and prejudice.  We need loving, peaceful, and informed responses to the intolerant violence so massively surrounding us.

But for now we are simply sad and mournful.


Debates For A Price
My UNC Seminar Tomorrow



  1. Avatar
    Stephen  February 13, 2015

    Well…our gun laws ARE crazy. We wouldn’t have to care so much about other people’s thoughts and prejudices and manias if everybody wasn’t packin’ heat.

  2. Avatar
    doug  February 13, 2015

    Your reflections are good food for thought and, at least as importantly, for empathy.

  3. Avatar
    alienvoodoo  February 13, 2015

    Beautifully stated…thank you for sharing this.

  4. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 13, 2015

    Bart, we did learn of this tragedy a few days ago here in the UK and one question I have and know about the second amenment allowing citizens to buy and own guns etc. But generally is it normal for ordinary people to just carry a gun around even unconcealed? Or do they need a special license?

    President Obama wanted this gun control debate after thiose terrible slaughter of school children in Cincinatti but as is usual didn’t get very far. The NRA seems more powerful than congress.

    Just to add that banning guns like w do in the UK is one thing but stopping idiots and maniacs from getting hold of them and using them is another as we had the Hungerford massacre of school kids as well by Thomas Hamilton is another. But is does amaze us that a law that was useful at the start of your great country aka wild west etc but in the 21st century? I understand its a policy to defend oneself against an over powerful government? I don’t know the extent of this?

    Tolerance is needed by everyone but 9/11 has made a huge difference to peoples fears and anxieties in the US and most places even in Europe and the civil wars going on in Iraq and Syria and utmost barbarity being carried out in the name of religion seems like a nightmare that never ends. Some people rightly or wrongly argue that all religions have blood on their hands and all in the name of their God whatever that name is. Maybe secularism is not the total answer either and just maybe religion is just an excuse for people to kill each other either because they have nothing better to do or as I heard in one film, that thet LIKE doing it. History shows nothing is really gained by killing or by wars but they keep doing it.

    • Avatar
      MikeyS  February 13, 2015

      I just wanted to add that it would have been very useful to have seen your students discuss all this by video or sound only to see how that affects people who are starting off in life and religious study and a means of further discussion for future classes etc. Are there any muslims in your classes? ie eager to learn about early Christianity and its struggles as you alluded to and how its grown up so to speak (Sort of). Some people think Islam are going through the same birth pangs that will eventually free itself of many misconceptions and disagreements they had. That is not to say that a thousand Christian Cults and faiths that have appeared is a perfect model.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 14, 2015

        I sometimes have Muslims, but I frankly don’t know if I do this semester or not. I tend not to ask students about their personal religion.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 14, 2015

      To carry a concealed weapon requires a license. But it is dead easy to get one. I will occasionally walk into a restaurant and someone will have a gun on their hip in the open. Sometimes you feel like you’re in the wild west around here.

    • Avatar
      madmax2976  February 21, 2015

      I wouldn’t say it’s “normal” for ordinary citizens to carry guns on a regular basis, but I’ve seen figures in the neighborhood of 12 million across the entire US who have such licenses. The difficulty of obtaining such a license varies depending on the state. I believe it was the state of Florida that first enacted the “shall issue” policy where, as long as a person meets certain criteria, the state is obligated to grant them a carry license. At that time, many did complain that there’d be wanton mayhem in the streets, shootouts every day, etc.. None of that came to pass, however, at least not where licensed carry persons were concerned. License holders were shown over a period of many years to be extremely law-abiding, decent people. After Florida, many states followed suit, like Oklahoma where I currently reside. I think now all but 1 state issues carry permits of some kind, with perhaps 3 or 4 of them making it difficult if not impossible to obtain.

      I happen to have a carry license myself and I do carry regularly. That said, I generally refrain from discussing the issue with others because I’ve found that people on both sides of the topic tend to be almost religiously devoted to their point of view on the topic, perhaps including myself. What I would point out though is that license or no, anyone is capable of carrying/hiding a firearm under their clothing. And if a person is intent on murder then it’s not likely any law against him/her carrying is going to restrain that person. They’ve already decided to commit murder so breaking a firearm law is hardly something to concern themselves with.

      So with that in mind, the issue would come down to the being able to own a firearm at all, including confiscation of all or most firearms. Changing anything on that front would most likely require a repeal of the 2nd Amendment, which would be a very difficult thing to achieve, not because of the supposed power of the NRA or any other pro gun group, but ultimately because of the many people who support such groups,without which they would have no power.

      It saddens me (and I suspect all license holders) that a cowardly individual would commit such a crime, but I also recognize that a persons license status is essentially irrelevant if they intend to commit harm in any case.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 21, 2015

        Thanks for your comments. Yes, everyone has missionary zeal on this one!

  5. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 13, 2015

    It’s way too early to be calling this a hate crime. The media does a good job of trotting that horse out there early and often. Cooler heads need to take a step back. All the local channels are now showing an interview with the local tow truck company saying that they had banned this guy from calling them because he called so often to have people towed from various parking spots. I’m not saying if these kids hadn’t been Muslim he wouldn’t have shot them, but to lay this entirely at the feet of anti-religious fanaticism is a bit much given how early in the discovery process this event is. The guy was nuts. Let’s acknowledge that first and then see where we go from there.

  6. Goat
    Goat  February 13, 2015


    Here’s a link to the StoryCorps interview given by Yusor Abu-Salha in May. Razan Mohammade Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha R.I.P.

  7. Jonathan_So
    Jonathan_So  February 13, 2015

    You make a good point, Dr. Erhman regarding diversity in religion.

    A question I find myself often posing in regard to belief in X is the ONLY correct view, be it religion, politics etc. is, to ask people to think about if their ‘correct’ view was the only one, how incredibly boring (In this case I suppose, as opposed to your rich texture) the world would be.

  8. Avatar
    Judith  February 14, 2015

    Indeed intolerance does surround even those privileged with lovely, refined, educated family and friends. All that is necessary to know this is true is to go beyond what is generally acceptable. Then it’s frightening to see how we’ve not come all that far in being tolerant toward those who are different. Here in a small southern town in the Bible Belt, shouldn’t we be more caring toward everyone?

  9. Avatar
    Gearyman  February 14, 2015

    Very well said Professor Ehrman. My thoughts go out to you and all teachers and students at Chapel Hill who have been touched by this tragedy.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 14, 2015

    AMEN!! to everything you say!

    About that horrific crime…of course, if the man hates all religions, the young Muslim women’s dressing in a way that “announced” their being religious would have set him off. Maybe neither that nor the parking dispute would have been enough in itself to make him turn violent, but it was a combination of the two?

    The whole thing is…hard to believe. Killing three people execution-style, shooting them in the head? Then not even trying to deny it, or get away? There has to be some degree of insanity involved.

    I read or heard something about there having been disputes over not just parking, but “loud music” as well. Is that true? I live in an area where college students’ loud music *does* aggravate neighbors. But it rarely leads to serious problems.

    I have to say, though… I’m thinking of this because it was in the news again recently. A few years ago, in a city near mine, a young woman – who, I think, had a baby trying to sleep – went upstairs to ask the tenant there to turn the music down. And the tenant – another young woman – stabbed and killed her! The killer’s been sentenced to, I think, only sixteen years in prison. (No religious issues here – but the victim was black, the killer white.)

  11. Avatar
    Jason  February 14, 2015

    Is a person really more or less evil if they kill someone over religion or parking? Mental illness aside, murder in cold blood is absolute, not scalar. If he had killed three Baptists, would anyone be saying “Oh, well, thank God at least he didn’t target any minorities.” This guy was going to kill someone some day. Glad it wasn’t yours or mine.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 14, 2015

      I suppose one difference is that you can choose not to park in one space or another — it’s a trivial decision. But being who you are lies at the heart of existence.

  12. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 14, 2015

    I’m very sad to hear of the loss of life. I’m on the other side of the world and hadn’t heard about it. Must be hard to feel safe in a country where those who are willing and capable of using a gun are allowed to carry one.

  13. Aleph82
    Aleph82  February 14, 2015

    My thoughts are with the families of the victims. I can’t even imagine the pain and rage that they must feel. This guy makes my blood boil. The reports from the neighbors say he was an armed menace who frequently pulled his gun during arguments that he somehow always found himself having. It’s clear from his online postings he had no respect for anyone else and then, after breaking into their home, he murders 3 people who had the audacity to violate his parking space. How misanthropic can you get?

    I’m sure the fact that the victims were muslim somehow factored into his warped thinking. He certainly was influenced by the anti-theist movement, a movement that would be attractive to the sociopaths of the world since, as indicated in this post, most people are religious. I’d like to think that one day something will switch on in this thug’s brain and make him realize the terrible pain he has caused in the world, but I don’t think that will happen. In the end I think he’ll just feel sorry for himself.

  14. Avatar
    gavm  February 14, 2015

    seems like religious violence will always happen as long as there is religious diversity.

  15. Avatar
    Sharon  February 14, 2015

    Wow. Simply WOW! So well said. Thank you, I wish I was as courageous as you. This is exactly how I think and feel, but hesitate to share it.

  16. Avatar
    Matilda  February 14, 2015

    It is so sad and so unnecessary. I feel terrible about this. What more can be said except I’m so, so sorry. It’s a bad day for us all. Thanks for addressing it Bart.

  17. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 14, 2015

    Hey Bart…

    I haven’t heard of this… How sad and shocking for all of us.
    Yes, recognizing diversity is wonderful tool to amplify our radius of tolerance, acceptance and less judgment.

  18. Avatar
    Lehrerin1  February 14, 2015

    I have those of you directly suffering this atrocity in my heart. Such a waste of talent and young lives! ….not to mention a travesity for our society. I have spent my entire 44 year professional career fighting for equality for all, and cultural acceptance. It is with great sadness that I don’t see a lot of progress where I live, in my country or my world.

  19. Avatar
    Steefen  February 14, 2015

    Bart Ehrman: Which should make us less centered on the view that OUR view is the only right one, and help us see that other people have other views that deserve to be considered just as much as the one we were raised with or that we subscribe to. Recognizing religious and cultural diversity in all its rich texture can help us be more sympathetic to and empathetic with people who are different from us. In other words, it is one of the ways to help fight religious and cultural intolerance.

    Steefen: This is absolutely horrible. It is worse than forcing all students’ efforts onto a bell-curve. Here, all religions are being hammered down or pushed up to one level of worth.

    Second, in other fields of knowledge, different schools of thought yield different results. Some schools of thought surpass others. There is merit and merit is recognized and lower standards are abandoned for higher standards. So, religion never gets anywhere because merit is undervalued and low standards are overvalued.

    It is horrible to value Newtonian Physics and Quantum Physics of equal merit.
    It is horrible to value Creationism and Evolution of equal merit.
    It is horrible to value Islam and Christianity of equal merit.
    It is horrible to value the Jesus and James led Christianity and Pauline Christianity of equal merit.

    People make serious effort and serious sacrifice to advance, to be connoisseurs, to shed ignorance and dysfunction, to see through wool pulled over their eyes and minds. So, it is horrible to not incentivize religion while other fields are heavily incentivized.

    Religion can enrich or impoverish a culture and even a civilization. Sacred scripture is the User’s Manual. That User’s Manual can be constructively criticized and the software of religions can be judged on their merits.

    It is horrible that people can be respected in the “equality of diversity” for the most unjustifiable belief systems–so many emperors wearing no clothes. Jesus felt this horrible tragedy of devoting one’s life to a belief system that in the end proved weak and unworthy of a devoted life. In the end, Jesus did exactly what needed to be done to separate himself from his God and his God’s people: any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood—I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people: Jesus made up a consumption of blood remembrance.

    If Christianity teaches us anything, if communion with Christ teaches us anything, it teaches us devote one’s religious life to what is justifiable and true. Build one’s house of religion not on sand but on rock, not on failed belief systems but on better engineered religions with higher quality materials. Beliefs are good raw materials but their are stronger raw materials than beliefs, especially failed beliefs. That the Star Prophecy was meant for a man of Jewish descent rather than a man from the Roman or Parthian empires. Was Israel to give birth to a third empire which would surpass both Parthia and Rome? The Jewish Son of Man over a temporal kingdom within one generation of Jesus, fulfillment of all Hebrew Scriptures lost merit points.

    In business, even business, in entrepreneurship, failures lead to alternative approaches which could be the successes. In religion, the failures are preserved not for caution but for reverence?!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2015

      My view is that it is very, very dangerous for you to think you are right about God, and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Surely history should teach us *something*. Humility, at least.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  February 18, 2015

        Dr. Ehrman, Christianity needs to advance given the work that has been done in New Testament Studies. If we do not advance to, say, Christianity 2.0, its software will be and is being hacked and people are being recruited away from Christianity. This video is proof (and has more than 2.5 million hits): http://youtu.be/YNGqrzkFp_4 or “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Muslim Version || Spoken Word || Response” by youtube subscriber Talk Islam.
        With a more historically accurate Christianity (2.0), constructive criticism from Muslims (such as the video recommended for informational purposes) would not recruit people away from Christianity.

        Second, God is not even up for discussion. Why? There is some truth in what Michael Newton relayed in “Journey of Souls” and/or “Destiny of Souls”: We are the direct responsibility of spiritual guides, not the direct responsibility of God. Spiritual guides remain with us over thousands of earth years to assist in our reincarnations. In our conscious state we blame God. But when we are put in a subconscious state of past life regression or regression between incarnations, in our soul state, it is our personal guides who take the brunt of our dissatisfaction. // So, with God out of the picture and spirit guides in the picture, I would add to the picture ancestors, deities, sages (ex., the I Ching), and Astrology (not just East and West time of birth astrology but locational astrology, too).

        Wherever I (if you’re criticizing me personally) or wherever we (if you’re using “you” generally) are incorrect about God, then in the places of ideas (libraries, discussions, videos, books, research institutions–all educational endeavors) let us learn to be more correct in the fields of study where spiritual software is composed.

        With the bread and wine metaphor remembrance of Jesus Christ linking to Leviticus 17: 10, where the Hebrew God turns His face and His people away from that act, there is no longer a healthy belief in that God; hence, agnosticism and/or atheism with respect to that God OR areas addressed above, or the Solar System deity to whom Emperor Vespasian gave thanks for victory over the Jewish revolt: Jupiter.

        People need to be boldly secure in who their Helpers are. Psalms 121: 1-2. My help is as strong as the mountains? No, even stronger.

  20. Avatar
    Jana  February 15, 2015

    One hardly needs a “Creator God” for evil to exist. Humans alone do a very good job of it … for whatever their rational … and especially the human who callously ended these three lives. You are of course absolutely correct … and in my own words, the antidote is firm compassion and acceptance. Reflecting more last night on this tragedy amid so many others filling the front pages, the germ of evil is within each of us whether it is in the form of greed, selfishness, arrogance or self hatred. Reading your blogs and better understanding the Christian “world view” (matrix/dynamic/clock workings ? I search for the right word) has forced me to arrive at my own which is considerably different than the Christian model. As far as “open carry” … this heinous genie is out of the bottle.

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