Bad explanations of the Oregon killings

By Leonard Hitchcock

The recent killings at a community college in Oregon have, understandably, produced attempts to explain why that tragedy happened. In the absence of any real evidence regarding the motives of the shooter, these explanations are, inevitably, highly speculative. Often they are not merely wrong, but harmful.
A theory has circulated that what caused the killer’s homicidal act was that he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. This is a dangerously mistaken account, for there is no evidence at all that autism, in any form, produces an inclination to violent behavior. Sufferers from autism are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Spreading this theory is likely to have the effect of making life more difficult for those afflicted with autism by planting suspicion and fear in the public’s mind.
Another theory, published as a column in this newspaper (Oct. 4), used the Oregon incident as an opportunity to castigate liberals. The columnist seized upon unverified reports of the shooter questioning his victims as to whether or not they were Christians before killing them, and leaped to the conclusion that the victims were killed because they were Christians. He then claimed that liberals showed no sympathy for the victims, or at least less sympathy than they have shown for murdered non-Christians. In other words, he took the opportunity to drag out his long-standing conviction that liberals hate Christianity and are out to destroy it.
Another theory, also published by an ISJ columnist, but in the Faith section of the newspaper (Oct. 10), deserves to be taken seriously. The author, a local minister, has thought carefully about the matter and is apparently a person of some intellectual integrity.
He, too, takes note of the report of the killer questioning his victims, but his hypothesis regarding the incident is much broader and, not surprisingly, it focuses on a theme often encountered in religious circles: a decline in religious belief. According to this columnist’s analysis, “Hatred of God, and of people, lies at the root of the problem.” It’s hard to quarrel with the assertion that hatred of people is involved, but the minister seems to believe that it is hatred of God, which he also calls “closing God out of our lives,” that produces hatred of people, and leads to criminal acts. That, I think, is an untenable viewpoint.
He proposes something resembling a hydraulic theory of morality, according to which, if the level of God’s presence in our moral interior drops, the resulting vacuum will fill with evil and immorality. And he claims that “the trend to remove God and his values from our society, both in our private and public lives, has been increasing,” with the result that, “the statistics reporting crime and violence show that both are trending worse and worse in our nation.”
He’s certainly right about the first trend, at least in our private lives. The most recent Pew survey on the subject reveals a decreasing proportion of Christians in the U.S. and an increasing proportion of atheists, agnostics and “unaffiliated” citizens. God’s presence in public life seems also to have decreased, though that is largely because of more careful enforcement of the U.S. Constitution, which many regard as a God-inspired document. But he’s wrong about the second trend, for the national crime statistics do not show increases; instead, there has been a steady decline since the early 1990s. In other words, there is apparently no correlation between a decline in Christian belief or practice and criminal behavior.
The minister seems to believe in a tidy moral world in which: 1) if you are “filled with God” you will not commit criminal acts and 2) if you aren’t, you are, to some degree, immoral and evil and inclined to do wrong. The first claim, I suspect, is not actually about the facts, but is an article of faith. Would the minister really entertain the possibility of a counter-example, i.e. an actual person — let’s say the man who shot an abortion doctor in 2009 — who, when committing that violent crime, was arguably “filled with God”? I doubt it. I suspect that, for the minister, those two things are, in principle, incompatible, and he would simply deny that the person was really filled with God. How would anyone prove him wrong?
The second claim, I would argue, is factually false. Why, if someone “closes God out of her life,” or never lets him enter in the first place, must evil fill up the space? Is it inconceivable that someone might actually accept, and abide by, “God’s values,” i.e. a proper sense of how it is appropriate to treat other beings, e.g. the Golden Rule, yet not believe in God? I think there are a great many such people, and that I, as a matter of fact, am one of them.
The minister warns us that there are no “simplistic” solutions to the problem of violent crime, then proposes a stunningly simplistic analysis of why it occurs: God alone makes people moral so nonbelief in God makes them evil. Can anyone but a minister take that view seriously?
It is disconcerting to have someone tell you that if you aren’t filled with God you are evil, immoral and prone to criminal acts. There are no statistics to back up that claim. And the widespread acceptance of that view is why we nonbelievers are as discriminated against as several other minorities. That’s the harmful side-effect of the minister’s unconvincing and self-serving, though undoubtedly sincere, viewpoint. One might have hoped that the ambassador of a God who taught forbearance and understanding would display a little less bigotry toward the unconverted. But then again, what minister worries about offending atheists?

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.