In the wake of the mass shooting in California last month, committed by a killer who left a long, misogynist manifesto vowing to punish women for not dating him, many pundits and commenters have strained to blame something other than sexism for his rampage. The most common claim is that the shooter, Elliot Rodger, was mentally ill, that the illness was the real cause of his killing, and the misogyny is just what his disturbed mind happened to latch onto as an excuse; if not for that, it would have happened anyway, just with a different justification. Disappointingly, even some atheists are making this argument.
For an atheist to disregard Rodger’s own explanation of his actions is a gross double standard. After all, we’ve often made the point that extreme religious ideology inspires violence in the real world. But this same logic would lead us to conclude that we have no right to criticize the bloody passages in the Bible, the Qur’an and other religious texts, because they never cause anyone to commit violence; that’s only an excuse seized upon by people who would have been violent anyway.
I’m not claiming the UCSB shooter was an emotionally healthy or stable individual. But by the legal standard of responsibility – does the person understand what they’re doing, and can they tell the difference between right and wrong? – there can be no question about his guilt.
In my essay “A Ghost in the Machine“, I wrote about a person suffering from Capgras syndrome (a rare, strange disorder in which the victim becomes convinced that friends or loved ones have been replaced by impostors) who killed his father because he believed he was a robot duplicate. That‘s an example of killing caused by mental illness.
But this kind of disconnect from reality didn’t occur with Rodger. His rhetoric was narcissistic and grandiose, but he wasn’t in the throes of delusion. He knew what he was doing, why he was doing it and what consequences it would have. He planned his rampage in detail and bluffed police officers when they came to his door at one point. That premeditation ought to convince us that he was of sound mind, just as the planning and premeditation of the 9/11 hijackers should convince us that they weren’t seized by a sudden delusion, but planned to commit violence in awareness of the consequences.
It’s also relevant whether a person belongs to a community that praises, condones or supports violent acts. Most of us take our cues from our surroundings, and a steady diet of extremist, violent rhetoric can’t help but weaken moral norms. It makes violence seem justified and legitimate, and paves the way for a person leaning in that direction to do something they might otherwise not have.
For example, the Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph drew support from a racist, militantly religious community. When he went on the run, he was regarded as a folk hero by some in the town where he absconded. Local businesses sold T-shirts and mugs that read “Run Rudolph Run”, and a local restaurant put up a sign reading “Pray for Eric Rudolph”. The Anti-Defamation League noted that extremist bulletin boards praised him as a hero.
The MRA/PUA community has a long history of cheering on violence. For example, one of the most prominent sites, Paul Elam’s A Voice for Men, has posted a “satire” about beating women and called for “inflicting enough pain on the agents of hate, in public view” until their demands are met. He’s written an essay titled “When is it OK to Punch Your Wife?”, and hosted a terrorist manifesto, by an MRA who committed suicide, urging others to firebomb police stations and courthouses.
And just as violent religious rhetoric begets real-world violence, this kind of hate can’t help but leak out and influence the way that men treat women. Rodger’s rampage was an unusually horrible example, but it’s far from unique. On average, 12 murder-suicides happen in the U.S. each week, and according to the journalist Soraya Chemaly, “women are 85% of those killed, and men 95% of those killing”. We can also add the many stories collected on this site, of men who lash out violently when they’re rejected or dumped. Are all those men mentally ill?
If a religious terrorist left a 100-page manifesto arguing that sin can’t be tolerated and the earth must be cleansed of infidels, and if he belonged to a community that routinely posted threats of violence, cheered on his threats, and valorized him after his death, you can be sure that the atheist community wouldn’t respond by talking about the urgent need to improve mental health services. We’d have no trouble at all putting the blame where it belonged. Now we need to build on this sound principle, and recognize that there are other ideologies besides religion that are equally driven by rage and hate, equally violent, equally bent on dehumanizing the other. Then we need to ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it.
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