The Chapel Hill Murders & Hate Crimes

In this post, Mediha Din explores what a hate crime is, types of hate crimes, and sociological explanations of prejudice.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha
Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha

On the evening of February 10th, calls started coming in to police of shots fired in a neighborhood just off of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When police arrived, Craig Stephen Hicks was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (all of whom were Muslim Americans). Police believe Hicks was angry about an on-going parking dispute. The victims’ family members however, feel that the murders should be investigated as a hate crime. According to CNN, Craig Hicks has a history of parking disputes with neighbors. He also allegedly identified himself on Facebook as an atheist and ridiculed different religions, including Christianity and Islam.

From a sociological point of view, a hate crime is an unlawful act of violence motivated by prejudice or bias. It is a crime that in whole or in part is connected to hatred of a particular group. According to the FBI, a hate crime is “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” The bias can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or other factors.  If a crime is determined to be a hate crime, the punishment can be more severe. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that it can be difficult to prove a hate crime because there is often no evidence of a criminal’s motive or state of mind. Potok also notes that not all states have laws protecting the same groups from hate crimes. Some states for example, do not prosecute a hate crime based on sexual orientation….

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#ashtag: The Sacred and Profane of Lent

The season of Lent has become popular among the non-religious population and has gained steam this year with the help of social media. From last week’s hot trending tweet of #ashtag to smartphone apps that help with Lent, the ancient practice begs a more modern, sociological interpretation. In this post, Ami Stearns discusses the sociological reasons behind participation in Lent.

Ash Wednesday

Did you catch all the ash selfies on Twitter on last week? The Twittersphere blew up March 5th and 6th with the hashtag #ashtag (get it?). #Ashtag posts featured a selfie of the tweeter’s forehead ash. That now-famous Oscar picture taken by host Ellen DeGeneres was even altered to promote the hashtag. In case you didn’t know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent season for Christians who identify mainly with the Catholic faith. During the Ash Wednesday ceremony, the pastor or priest marks parishioners’ foreheads with ash in the form of a cross to signify penance, humility, and mortality.

This year, Lent began on March 5th and will end on April 17th. It’s a 40-day period of observation, self-reflection, and sacrifice that has been observed since as early as the 3rd century C.E. (some argue 5th century C.E.). In the Catholic tradition, Lent is typically marked by fasting or abstaining from certain foods. While a uniquely Christian observation, Lent has been “co-opted” by more and more people, including those outside of the Catholic faith, former Catholics, and even non-believers. In fact, the opportunity to try out a 40-day resolution appeals to nearly everyone (how long did your New Year’s resolution last anyway?). So how can we use sociology to explain the secularization of Lent?

Social media is playing a strong role in this year’s Lent. If you weren’t in on the #ashtag phenomenon, maybe you’ve had your Facebook feed clogged with people’s intentions for Lent. I’ve seen people cutting out certain food groups, giving up complaining, and logging off social media for 40 days (after proclaiming it on social media, of course!). Some people are using the Lent observation to begin a new habit, like writing a daily blog post or being thankful every day. If anyone needs help getting through Lent – there’s an app for that!…

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The Rise of the Non-Church Church

Can a Sunday gathering meet the social needs of a community while leaving out religion? In this post, Ami Stearns documents a surprising new trend, The Sunday Assembly. These godless churches have taken off like wildfire across the globe, built on the existing structure of a typical religious organization, but leaving God out of the formula. This begs the question, what defines a church? As Finke and Stark suggest in The Churching of America: 1776-2005, churches have expanded in new ways to fill a huge variety of social and civic needs, which may be why a religious organization like the megachurch has relevance in today’s secular society. The Sunday Assembly shows that a “church” need not be based on religion in order to meet social and civic needs.

An auditorium full of people clap and sing along with the leaders on a Sunday morning. There’s time for an inspirational reading and quiet reflection. While this sounds like a service at any one of a number of large “megachurches” around the country, this gathering has attracted hundreds of atheists. In November of 2013, the first of these services, called The Sunday Assembly , debuted in the U.S. after having success in the U.K.


Begun in January of 2013 by two U.K. comedians (really!), The Sunday Assembly is not anti-religion. Instead, these gatherings leave religion out of the social and civic experience of going to “church.” The Assemblies are godless, but celebrate life and learning, and strive to help individuals reach their full potential, with the motto “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

As of January 2014, there are over thirty Sunday Assemblies operating worldwide, from Los Angeles to Melbourne. The Sunday Assemblies offer humanitarian opportunities similar to other religious organizations, like picking up trash around the community, collecting coats for underprivileged families, planting trees, and volunteering with food banks. The Sunday Assemblies also incorporate civic activities like book clubs, philosophy clubs, small group sessions, reading books to elementary students, and donating blood.

In 2005, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark co-authored a book called The Churching of America: 1776-2005. The work challenged the notion that religion was losing relevance in American society, suggesting that a new form of religious institution, the megachurch, was having a significant impact on civic and social life, mainly by offering a myriad of social services to the surrounding community.

Channeling televangelist Jerry Falwell’s motto that a cheap church makes God look cheap, megachurches began appearing on the religious landscape in the 1970s. Using the modern shopping mall as their architectural inspiration, megachurches like Saddleback Church in California, Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, and A Community of Joy in Arizona were designed to meet not only the spiritual needs of the surrounding community, but also (and perhaps more importantly) the social needs.

Megachurches foster strong ties with the community by offering schools, daycare centers, GED courses, food banks, recreational facilities, sports leagues, fitness classes, 12-step programs, grief and divorce support groups, working mothers’ brunches, coffee shops, food courts, concerts, pageants, and small group sessions. In other words, these megachurches are a source for “one-stop shopping” to meet a community’s social needs.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that religious adherents in America are decreasing. One-fifth of Americans today are not affiliated with any specific religion (five years ago, 15% of adults reported no affiliation, but today 20% of adults report no affiliation with a religious organization). This one-fifth includes atheists, agnostics, and those who say they are affiliated with “nothing in particular.” However, of those unaffiliated adults, nearly one third of them report themselves to be spiritual. The biggest issue with religious institutions today, the unaffiliated say, is too much focus on money, power, rules, and politics. So where does someone turn who is spiritual but not necessarily religious?

For those individuals who don’t miss church, but do miss the social and community aspects of attending church, the Sunday Assemblies might be a new way to connect with others, take time to reflect, and serve the community.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is your initial reaction to something dubbed an “atheist church?”
  2. If you have ever attended church, describe what social needs the church met.
  3. Listen to this NPR story and make a list of how the Sunday Assemblies are similar to a “typical” church and how they are different. Compare lists with a classmate to see if the lists are alike.
  4. Have you ever been inspired to be a better person or live a fuller life by a person other than a religious leader? In what way did this person inspire you?

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Praise the Lord & Pass the Ammo: Duck Dynasty & Civil Religion

A&E’s record-shattering show, Duck Dynasty has been lauded by religious groups and conservatives as wholesome, family functional reality television. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that the iconic show can be used to illustrate Robert Bellah’s concept of civil religion in America.

Need a Halloween costume idea? Dress up as a Duck Dynasty family member! Out of dog dental treats? Duck Dynasty to the rescue! Need a fun new distracting game on your iPhone? Duck Dynasty’s Battle of the Beards should fit the bill. This show is not only incredibly popular, but its cast members are instantly recognizable in their long, ZZ-top beards, fatigues, and bandanas. Merchandise from the show is everywhere from Bass Pro Shops to Target. Recently, my friend’s daughter’s entire softball team dressed up as Duck Dynasty men for a game, complete with beards.

I literally can’t escape from Duck Dynasty, though- believe me, I’ve tried. Members of the Duck Dynasty family even showed up on my campus in Norman, OK, at a recent football game. I watched the record-shattering A&E show to figure out what all the hype was about and couldn’t determine the “lure” (you may substitute “duck call”) until I started thinking about the reality show in the context of religion.

Billed as a reality show that is, funny, functional, and family-filled, the premier of Season 4 broke records for viewership and became the most popular unscripted show in cable history.In case you’ve been living under a rock, the show follows the exploits of Phil Robertson and his Louisiana clan. Robertson created a duck call that became quite successful and made the family into multi-millionares.Duck Dynasty has become the poster child for American conservatism. Hallmarks of the show include the cast members sitting down to dinner as a family, praying before meals, refraining from cursing, teaching moral lessons, and exhibiting virtually no drama. What’s a reality show without screaming, profanity, and emotional breakdowns? The formula for a very popular show, it turns out.

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah published his theory of civil religion after analyzing the speeches of several presidents, from George Washington to John F. Kennedy. This concept disputes the notion of “separation of church and state” by claiming that political leaders invoke generic religious symbolism as part of expressing what it is to be an American. Examples of civic religion in America include the phrase “In God We Trust” on our money, and the addition of the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Bellah suggested that civil religion encompassed the veneration of the flag, moral lessons learned from leaders, national myths, and the practice of leaders invoking the name of God in public.

Although Bellah’s concept of civil religion was intended to apply to political leaders, I would argue that American celebrities, such as the Robertson clan, also fill the role of national leaders. From Willie Robertson’s iconic red, white, and blue headband to the strong presence of fundamental conservatism that the show is famous for, Duck Dynasty is reflective of the civil religion that has become part of the national landscape.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask someone who watches Duck Dynasty what it is they like most about the show. Does their answer relate to conservatism, family, or religion?
  2. Compare Duck Dynasty to another conservative, religious show: 19 Kids and Counting. What are some reasons why Duck Dynasty is more commercially successful?
  3. Watch the following clip from the show. Does Phil’s opinion about today’s generation reflect current popular opinion?
  4. Read the following article. Describe how the beards in Duck Dynasty symbolize traditional family values, conservatism, and civic religion?

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Advertisers Needed A Hero “So God Made a Farmer”

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains a few of the ways in which the American farmer is socially constructed using the recent Dodge Ram commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. She explores the ways in which the commercial lives up to the realities of farming. 

Dodge Ram paid tribute to the American farmer in their ad that played during the Super Bowl last week.

Dodge resurrected Paul Harvey’s 1978 ‘So God Made a Farmer’ Speech for the commercial. It certainly got my attention. I was otherwise distracted and paid attention to the TV when I heard what sounded like an old man’s voice talking about God and farmers.

Mythical Image of the Family Farm

Harvey begins with

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

The farmers portrayed in the Dodge Ram commercial fit within a particular narrative about farming, that is, who farmers actually are. The commercial shows how farmers and farming are socially constructed. By social construction, sociologists mean how society defines a particular phenomenon. In this case, how does society define and understand farmers and farming?

Dodge Ram pairs Paul Harvey’s words with powerful visuals to illustrate how American farmers are caretakers, deeply religious, hardworking, family-oriented, rugged individuals, community leaders, and mostly white men….

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Religion, Mourning Rituals, and Football

After tragedies like the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and at Sandy Hook elementary, you might think that a football stadium would be the last place you’d find a ritual to mourn the loss of life. However, it’s not uncommon at all. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath illuminates how sports are like religion by considering mourning rituals, which are present in both.

A social institution is an abstract concept used by sociologists to describe how certain things get done in a society. Social institutions include education, economy, politics, medicine, religion, and more.

Social institutions persist over time and perform various functions in society. Consider education. It seems to simply exist whether I am personally involved in it or not. My life is intertwined quite extensively with  education. I spent many years as a student, now work as a college instructor, and will soon be the parent of a kindergartner. Education serves several functions: passing on skills and knowledge to the next generation, creating jobs, and providing childcare.

Now let’s turn to religion as a social institution, which many of you will also be familiar with….

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Subcultures & Within-Group Hate Crimes

What exactly is a hate crime? And while we are at it, can a person commit hate crime against someone who is the same race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc.? In this piece Sarah Michele Ford answers both of these questions by exploring the recent case where 16 Amish men and women were convicted of hate crimes against other Amish men and women.

Last month, sixteen Amish men and women were convicted of committing a series of hate crimes. While this already conflicts with the conventional image of the Amish, the details of the case are even more surprising. The victims of these crimes were also Amish, and the attacks took the form of home invasions followed by the forcible cutting of the victims’ hair and trimming of their beards. The attackers are members of a breakaway Amish sect led by Samuel Mullet.

This case has received significant media attention not only because these events fly in the face of our stereotypes about the Amish, but also because it challenges the conventional definition of a “hate crime”. The 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act, under which the attackers in this case were charged and convicted, ” criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, a firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when: (1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, of any person or; (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce, or occurred on federal property. ” The prosecutors in this case were able to convince the jury that Samuel Mullet and his followers had, in fact, been motivated by the victims’ religion, although to “the English” (Note: This is what the Amish call non-Amish Americans) world, they all appear to belong to the same religious subculture.

So the question becomes, can we hate our own?…

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What Makes a Holiday?

Why did Leap Day and Dr. Seuss’ Birthday become holidays? In this post Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the rise of Leap Day and Dr. Seuss’ Birthday along with the decline of Casimir Pulaski Day illustrates how are socially created.

The Lorax

The past few days have been a holiday-filled time period. February 29 was Leap Day, March 2 was Dr. Seuss’ Birthday, and the first Monday in March was Casimir Pulaski Day.

This year, several sitcoms built storylines around Leap Day (e.g., 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Middle, and Modern Family). I attended an employee luncheon on Leap Day and the tables were decorated with bowls of blue water complete with fake lily pads and plastic frogs. The ambient music playing in the background was, I kid you not, the sound of frogs.

So what makes a holiday in the first place?

Holidays typically commemorate something (e.g., Fourth of July), serve to honor a historical figure (e.g., Martin Luther King Day), server to honor a group of people (e.g., Mother’s Day), or is a religious celebration (e.g., Christmas).

Leap Day is more of a glitch than anything. A long time ago, some really smart people figured out that the way we measure time would be continually thrown off if we did not add an extra day to the calendar every four years. It does not commemorate or serve to honor anything or anyone….

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Haters Gonna Hate: Tebow & Sub-Culture Identity Theory

This past Sunday Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to an improbable playoff victory after leading them through and improbable regular season. All the while Tebow vocally attributed his success to his evangelical Christian faith which drew him equally vocal supporters and critics. In this post Nathan Palmer uses sub-culture identity theory to suggest that both the hate and the love Tebow garners reaffirms and strengthens his faith and that of his fellow evangelical Christians.

Tim Tebow

Osama Bin Laden didn’t stand a chance. When Denver Bronco’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught Tim Tebow’s pass on the first play of overtime in NFL playoff history for the game winning touchdown, Twitter exploded with over 9,000 tweets per second; a mark that well surpassed the previous Twitter traffic record generated by the death of Bin Laden.

But don’t be mistaken, the flood of tweets were not all showering Tebow with love. To some Tim Tebow is a legend on the field and a hero off it. To others he is self-righteous, pompous, and pretentious. Love him or hate him, right now, it’s likely you are talking about him.

The Hoopla Surrounding Tebow

In case you’ve been saying to yourself, “who is this Tebow guy everyone keeps talking about,” the last few weeks, let me fill you in. Tim Tebow is best known for winning multiple NCAA national championships with the Florida Gators, but despite his success his quarterbacking style was not expected to translate well in the NFL. Despite the numerous and vocal critics of his ability to play QB at the professional level, Tebow was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos in 2010. This year Tebow took the starting QB position away from Kyle Orton (the Broncos record was 1–4 with Orton) and led them on an unlikely win streak and into the playoffs. The Broncos were huge underdogs in the game they won Sunday versus Pittsburg (who had the number one rated defense in the NFL). You can say a lot about Tebow, but you have to acknowledge that he’s a winner….

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What Do Jesus & Aliens Have In Common?

“The world is coming to an end!” that is what a Christian radio host guaranteed this spring. He said massive earthquakes would bring about Judgment Day on May 21st. So what did he have to say for himself on May 22nd? In this piece, Bridget Welch explores how failed doomsday predictions can help us understand cognitive dissonance and how people respond when their deeply held beliefs are challenged – by digging their heads in the sand and trying to get you to come along for the ride.


In September of 1954, a report of an impending doomsday appeared in the news. According to the news article, the Great Lake would overflow its banks and destroy everything in its path “to form an inland sea stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico.” Further, “a cataclysm” was predicted to “submerge the West Coast” from Seattle to Chile. The source of such dire predictions was a housewife who received messages from “superior beings from a planet called Clarion.”

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