Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The cause of violence: evolution or religion?

Care to guess?

Heads up to PZ for this one. In the wake of the Viriginia Tech massacre, when deranged student Seung Hui Cho mowed down 32 people, right-wing commentators wasted no time in laying the blame on liberalism, secularism, and the teaching of evolution. Among the more brainless remarks was this one from — surprise surprise! — professional idiot Ken Ham.

We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes. In these classrooms, students are taught that the whole universe, including plants and animals--and humans--arose by natural processes. Naturalism (in essence, atheism) has become the religion of the day and has become the foundation of the education system (and Western culture as a whole). The more such a philosophy permeates the culture, the more we would expect to see a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness that pervades people's thinking. In fact, the more a culture allows the killing of the unborn, the more we will see people treating life in general as "cheap."

Blah blah blah. Well, guess what it turns out was really on the mind of the VT killer? (Emphasis added.)

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called "Ax Ishmael" before his rampage.... Investigators think "Ax Ishmael" is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of Hagar, a maidservant to Sarah, and the prophet Abraham. Ishmael lived as an outcast, and his brother Isaac was favored. Writings that Cho left in his dorm room, sent to the Virginia Tech English Department and mailed to NBC reveal twisted references to religion as part of his identity.

Cho, 23, of Centreville, whose family was religious and had sought help for him from a Woodbridge church, repeatedly made religious references. He said that he had been "crucified" and that, as with Jesus, his actions would set people free. He called himself a "martyr" who would "sacrifice" his life. He wrote that he would go down in history as the "Jesus Christ of the Weak and Defenseless." He thought his actions would inspire others to fight back and get even.

Ah, so! Lessee here. References to the Holy Babble and Jeebus: lots and lots! References to Charles Darwin: zippo!

Now, I confess, the title of this post has a high snark level. For me to say that religion was the "cause" of Cho's rampage would be every bit as stupid as the claims of uneducated creationists who say it's the fault of teaching proper science and of not forcing religion down the throats of students every day. Mental health is a complex issue, and there are numerous factors that lead to madness.

However, it's telling that we have frequently had accounts of all-out acts of wanton violence in society in which fanatical religious delusions reared their frazzled heads, and none in which science and evolution did. It's also telling that religious mania is a known psychological disorder, whereas no one has ever been diagnosed with "evo-mania". Possessing knowledge about how the world really works simply does not move a person to violence. Indeed, violence is most frequently perpetrated by people who are angry that the world isn't working the way they feel it should, and the way they feel it should is most often dictated by a religious or political ideology.

Also disgusting is the way in which especially fanatical religionists make heroes and martyrs out of those who kill for their interests, all the while rushing to vilify science and "Darwinism" when people kill for reasons that don't support extremist agendas. The most egregious display of pro-murder religiosity lately has been the announcement of "Paul Hill Days," sponsored by the anti-abortion terrorist organization (that's not hyperbole, people) Army of God, to whom I refuse to link. This repugnant farce, scheduled to be inflicted upon the citizens of Milwaukee, will celebrate executed murderer Paul Hill, who gunned down abortion provider John Britton and his clinic escort James Barrett. Hill also wounded Britton's wife in the attack. Here's how the sick minds sponsoring this "memorial tour" — during which they plan to re-enact Hill's murders — distort the situation: "On July 29th, 1994, Paul Hill boldly defended 31 babies from unspeakable violence by killing a paid assassin and his bodyguard. He was arrested, given a sham trial, and executed as a martyr."

One simply does not have the warped view of reality presented here, and in the case of Cho, unless one has bizarre beliefs dictating that you have the right to kill and wreak havoc if reality isn't flattering those beliefs. It's no different than what motivates Islamist suicide bombers. And it doesn't happen in the minds of atheists and rationalists with good educations in science and a firm grasp, not only on reality, but on the fact that reality isn't obligated to revolve around them.


  1. Some religions remove personal responsibility from individual actions. Christianity is not the only religion that does this. On the surface, it appears to stress personal responsibility: Do the wrong thing, and you’ll be annihilated or punished for eternity; do the right thing, and you gain eternal reward. What could be more of a motivation to take responsibility for your actions?

    The problem is that the actions are not self-dictated (demolishing the “personal” in personal responsibility for those on the outside looking in). From my perspective, they have a grasp on the “responsibility” part—but they define “personal” differently. If you look at it more deeply, the individual is not the one ultimately deciding the course of his or her actions.

    In religion, what happens is that the adherent subverts their own will to what they believe is a better will: someone or something they perceive as being the _real_ (often “ultimate”) authority. In the mind of the Christian, he ceases to be the real authority in his own life. From a non-Christian perspective, this creates a paradox: The Christian claims he is doing the will of god, but also claims to be personally responsible for his actions (even though he’s “just following orders”).

    A recurring example of this that most atheists have encountered firsthand, is when a Christian indicates that the atheist will not go to heaven, or will go to hell, or will be annihilated, or expresses to the atheist whatever negative penalty he will suffer for his disbelief. When the atheist asks why the Christian is OK with someone going to hell (or, fill in the blank), the Christian replies, “It’s not _me_ saying this—it’s God.” The adherent tells the atheist he’s going to hell, then points to God as the _real_ authority behind the statement—much like Adam did to Eve in Eden. “Don’t blame ME, God told me I had to say it!”

    To make it more clear, it helps to step back from Christianity and fill in another belief system, like the Waco camp or Jim Jones’ followers: To the Christian (and to most of the rest of us), these cult followers are considered to be “brainwashed” individuals. They’re no longer personally responsible for their own actions—they’ve submitted their will (their minds and lives) to a higher authority who is telling them what to say, what to do, how to live, and so on. In such cases, most of us—Christians included—feel either sympathy or contempt for such people. We say that they need to be deprogrammed, that they are no longer individuals, that some external authority has subverted their wills and taken advantage of them, gaining mental control over weak, vulnerable individuals.

    The only difference between these cult followers and Christians is in their choice of higher powers to which they submit. It’s as ludicrous for a cult follower to say, “I am personally responsible—for doing what Master X tells me to do,” as it is for a Christian to say, “I am personally responsible, for doing what God tells me to do.”

    To the rest of us, that’s not personal responsibility. It’s the sacrifice of one’s will and mind. Christians have an oft-repeated prayer that says “not my will, but Thy will, be done.” What does that mean if not that the adherent is utterly relinquishing personal responsibility? Whatever happens—it’s god’s will, not mine. To the rest of us, that’s not personal responsibility. These types of Christians interpret: “I am responsible for doing what god tells me to do” as “I am exercising personal responsibility”; but to those of us on the outside looking in, it’s just as confusing to hear such a claim from a Christian as it is for the Christian to hear the cult follower make that same claim.

    There is no comparison between doing what a book tells me to do and actually putting in the time and energy to think a problem through and come to a personal decision about the right course of action based on my knowledge of reality and an assessment/analysis of the full implications and impact my actions could produce. It’s night and day. When I was a Christian—I wouldn’t have grasped this. Nobody could have convinced me that I wasn’t the epitome of personal responsibility; but since coming to the conclusion that I must answer TO myself FOR myself—I now recognize what responsibility really means. To the Christian, I’m letting myself off the hook—I’m rejecting god because I don’t want to live up to his rules; but that’s such a complete misconception of what actually happens when you cut the cord of your superstitious beliefs, dive into a free fall, and realize that if you don’t catch your own ass, nobody else out there is going to catch it for you.

    The same Christians who believe atheists are taking the easy route need to remind themselves of how many times they say or hear other Christians say how much easier tough challenges are when you have god in your life. They can’t have it both ways: Either life is easier with god or it’s harder. I submit it’s harder—but for some of us, it’s worth it to know we’re living in reality—even a very challenging reality. It was scary to come out of Christianity and then realize that if I don’t step up myself, no caring spirit being is going to come down and see me through the challenges with which life presents me. I need to knuckle down and do the work myself in order to achieve results. And if I fail, I can’t blame some spirit’s will. I fail for one reason alone: I was unable to achieve what I wanted. _I_ fell short—god didn’t stop me. THAT’S personal responsibility. And whether I fail or I succeed, just knowing that it was _me_ who was responsible for it—for any outcome—is all the reward I need. That’s a reward no superstition can match. No mythical heaven could ever come close to the feeling I get from knowing that my life was actually _my_ life—good or bad, beautiful or ugly, success or failure, pain or joy. It’s mine. I claim it. I embrace it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If Heaven exists, and truly is a realm without challenges, I can’t imagine I’d enjoy it all that much, anyway. Go on an annihilate me in that case. I’m better off for it.

  2. Excellent article! Tracie's comments (above) were excellent as well. Forwarded both along.

  3. >It was scary to come out of Christianity and then realize that if I don’t step up myself, no caring spirit being is going to come down and see me through the challenges with which life presents me. I need to knuckle down and do the work myself in order to achieve results.

    Just to add to this that it was much easier when I considered that it was always just _me_ doing all the work all along. Knowing that I _had_ come through all of my life's challenges so far on my own (even though I was thinking there was a god there with me the whole time)--made me realize that I am capable of getting through my life based on personal responsibility in the form of self-reliance (and I don't believe there is any other form of personal responsibility).

  4. Let me first state, that on balance I agree with tracie's point of view that she is personally responsible for here life:

    "...my life based on personal responsibility in the form of self-reliance..."

    However, I would add a few ifs, ands, and buts.

    Someone cutely summarized my ifs, ands, and buts in the form of the statement:

    "DNA is destiny"

    You probably already see where this is going. Some people are born smart (high IQ), tall (potential basketball star), one of the beautiful people (potential movie star), musical talent (think about the story line of the movie "Amedeus" with Antonio Salarie vs Mozart), etc...

    I'm sure tracie agrees with what the above implies --- we have limits imposed on us in the form of the cards we have been dealt (in the form of the DNA we have been passed down via evolution).

    Now, what if you don't believe in DNA and evolution? Ahhh...that leads us to all those religious fundies and their convoluted notion of personal responsibility that tracie described so well.

    Well, thats my two cents worth.

  5. >we have limits imposed on us in the form of the cards we have been dealt...

    I would agree, for example, nobody would call a severely retarded person "self-reliant."

    Covey discusses the difference between dependent, independent, and interdependent.

    Dependent would be someone who uses others to do things they should be doing for themselves. Codependent people would be in this category--they use others to make themselves be happy or angry, for example: "you make me so mad," or "you make me so happy," would be the warning signs of a codependent (or as Covey defines them, dependent) attitude.

    Independent is when a person fends for themselves and doesn't rely on others. They are far more functional than dependent people--who are really a drag on others.

    Interdependence is what happens when independent people come together for a common cause. They will find that as a group, they are able to accomplish more than any of them can accomplish alone.

    The difference between interdependent people and dependent/codependent people is that the interdependent crowd operates on mutual respect and understanding of each one's inner autonomy.

    When I use others as a means to get things I should be capable of getting for myself, I shortchange everyone--me and the others that I am using. I don't respect myself or anyone else and I fail to understand that (a) I _can_ do things for myself, and (b) I need to be responsible for myself.

    As you point out--nearly all of us will find ourselves in situations where we need the help of others--that's what societies are for. But when I use someone else to do for me what I need to be doing for myself--to express myself as an autonomous individual, then I'm behaving in a very weak fashion. I'm not exercising my full strength as an individual.

    When I rely on "god" to provide for me what I should be providing for myself, then I'm not being independent, I'm being dependent; and unless there is a god, this is just a huge shame and waste of human potential.

  6. Quote: "religious mania is a known psychological disorder, whereas no one has ever been diagnosed with 'evo-mania'. Possessing knowledge about how the world really works simply does not move a person to violence."

    Point taken. But theists and naturalists alike have become murderers.

    If theism can incite violence, it can also incite against violence. Naturalism does not incite either way; it would simply allow for the observation that violence is sometimes advantageous and sometimes disadvantageous. The two philosophies are not precise opposites or direct substitutes for each other.


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