It is the measure of the world we live in that my poor wife is always worried that some comment of mine will provoke an unstable student to shoot me, and periodically she tells me to be careful. Shootings on campuses were nearly unheard of forty-odd years ago when the notorious Charles Whitman killed 14 people from the University of Texas bell tower back in 1966. Since that time, there have been a growing number of such cases on high school campuses, with the Columbine shootings having perhaps the most impact in the popular culture. The severity of the problem is greatly exaggerated, however, by what one researcher has termed the Rashomon Effect: high-profile cases have been recounted by so many witnesses in so much detail that it reinforces an impression that such cases are common, or even a growing problem. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Without regard to that, however, much has been made of the fact that some shooters have expressed disbelief in God or hatred of Christians, and the latest such incident (directed at a church) is discussed by conservative Vox Day here, while PZ Mwahaha clearly wants to disassociate himself and his fellow atheists from any culpability, as discussed here.

My view, as one who participates in school lockdown drills and who knows what it's like to be a social misfit, is as follows: yes, the kind of kid who goes ballistic with his classmates or his congregation is likely to express hostility/rejection of religion--but belief systems themselves, even the absence of belief, are not the culprit. The killers in mass shootings are less defined by their beliefs than they are by their targets: they are typically filled with rage over the imagined rejection and humiliation they experienced in their failed attempts to gain acceptance with whatever group, an acceptance to which they felt entitled.

That is why school gun violence is predominantly committed by alienated white males of relatively-high socioeconomic status within their communities, rather than members of minority groups. Don't believe me? Profile the kids who commit these crimes, and you'll see. It's a striking trend, especially when you consider that statistically poor people of color are much more likely to be charged with a firearms-related crime than rich white males---and yet virtually all of the Columbine-type incidents are the latter.

Given these facts, it seems that the role of theism vs. atheism is probably secondary at best. Human beings are social organisms, and traumatic social failure can lead to pathological responses, especially during adolescence. One pathological response is to develop a private belief system defined in terms of one's enemies. This is, of course, toxic belief. Or, in the case of a few (not most) atheists, toxic unbelief. But let's not make the mistake of thinking that latching onto anti-God, anti-church sentiments causes events like Columbine. At worst, all such things do is to provide a secondary justification in the shooter's mind for their rage. Which, ultimately, is really directed at themselves and people like themselves....


Anonymous said...

I know you did the debate with Vox Day, and were far more polite about his tactics than I would have been. But he's about as worthy a pundit as Fox News, and at least they have the excuse of reading from pre-written autocues most of the time.

The man is simply not interested in thoughtful analysis. He's a spinner of Limbaughian proportions who really isn't worth the saliva it takes to denounce him.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

I tend not to agree with Vox, as in this case. The 'mass shooters are atheists' is a trope that largely serves to whip the choir that the Right preaches to into a frenzy of imagined persecution, and as I attempt to argue, is hardly (ahem) fundamental to the question of what causes these tragedies.

But, in Vox's defense, his thought on this and other issues is quite a bit more nuanced than many of his fans appreciate. And I would say that Vox has a distinctive voice (sorry), which distinguishes him from the cuecard readers. At any rate, it's my spittle....:)

In the meantime, thanks for dropping by and feel free to comment again...Sh

Stan atheism-analyzed.net said...

For once I agree with you Scott, to a degree. The religious / nonreligious aspect of these shooters is not primary, at least at this level.

However, There is no real data that I am aware of that addresses the secularity of the enforced government schooling as an issue. The Columbine shooters were avowed Nietzscheans. Was their cirriculum limited to such "secular" philosophies or did they include nonseculars too? How skewed was the environment?

I think that it is apparent that when a shooter takes off like this, that his hatred has suppressed any and all ethical influence. In that sense then, the shooter is "a"-theist, or more properly, "non"-theist. But Atheism is not the driving factor. As always, Atheism is a default position (catch basket) after Christianity, in particular, has been rejected.

But as a philosophy, Atheism is not the fuel for the anger. Bullying and entitlement are.

Entitlement works for the lower class shooter, too. This shooter has joined a protective group and is entitled to shoot both rival group members and bystanders (collateral damage). The real difference is that the upper class shooters frequently kill themselves, too. The lower class memebers do not, maybe because they are protected by their own kind.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Hi, Stan. As I understand it, the Columbine killers sought out Christians during their rampage, but not because they were driven to nihilism by the curriculum. Rather, they were social outcasts in a community that was more religious than most. I think upper-class kids are more likely to be involved in one of these tragedies than lower-class kids, because the former are more likely to have the sense of entitlement that fuels rage.