Why Rick Warren Is Wrong Several Times Over to Blame the Aurora Shooting on Evolution

Why Rick Warren Is Wrong Several Times Over to Blame the Aurora Shooting on Evolution July 21, 2012

I already posted today on Rick Warren's inaccurate as well as unhelpful tweet, blaming the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado on teaching students that they “are no different than animals,” which seems to be a lame jibe at evolution, even though it shows a failure to grasp what biology actually says.

Warren is wrong about what evolution and other elements of modern biology say. We are animals, but no biologist I know of says that we are no different from the others. Indeed, the very act of biologists writing about us as animals sets our species apart from all other animals.

But Warren is also wrong about other things.

He is wrong to suggest a correlation between the teaching of evolution and mass murder. As Paul Braterman pointed out in a comment on Facebook, the United States is weaker on the teaching of evolution, both in terms of the number of people who deny it and the number of biology teachers who skip it to avoid controversy, than any other major industrialized nation. We are, on the other hand, the leaders when it comes to the number of shooting deaths and mass murders that take place each year. There may be no actual connection between science education and shooting sprees, but if there were, it would presumably have to be due to our relative failure to teach evolution, rather than with our teaching it.

Warren is also wrong to try to put the blame on teaching about our origins from a scientific perspective. The stories in Genesis 3-4 blame the first murder, and much else that is wrong with human society, on human misuse of our free will, on jealousy, and on the breakdown of human relationships with God and one another. That has nothing to do with whether we are modified mud or modified primates. And this very shifting of blame away from individual personal responsibility that Warren engages in is depicted in Genesis 3 as a consequence of humanity's alienation from God. And so there is a profound irony in the way Warren's tweet sets him at odds with precisely the part of the Bible that features most prominently in the controversies over creationism and evolution.

Warren is also wrong to claim that understanding our origins scientifically somehow automatically leads to mistreatment of others. Most animals, including humans, on most occasions treat others of their kind better than James Holmes treated the people in that movie theater. Being animals is not the problem, nor for that matter is being human. But one can always blame what someone does on what they believe about other human beings, and one can even do so in a way that turns the tables on Christianity's own stories. As one commenter quipped on Reddit, “When kids are taught people are dirt they treat them like it.” The allusion, of course, is to the description of humans being made from the soil in Genesis 2. If what we are made from is what matters, then Christianity cannot endow human beings with value any more than science can. Valuing of persons always means seeing the ways in which we are more than the sum of our constituent parts.

We can always try to use science or religion or anything else to devalue and demean others. But whether one views people in a way that is scientifically well-informed, or based on ancient stories, or some combination thereof, the choice to value and treat others with respect still lies with us as individuals. I find it unfortunate that Rick Warren chose to devalue and disrespect scientists and educators, and to do so in the midst of a tragedy when our attention ought to have been on comforting our fellow human beings.



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  • VorJack

    There’s something I don’t get. Since animals aren’t afflicted with original sin, shouldn’t “acting like an animal” be preferable to acting like a human? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard at least one evangelical sermon that makes the point that animals are not the fallen creature that humans are.

    • There is indeed ambiguity about this. The Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, as well as those of Jesus, often point to the natural/created world for examples. I think that, the more we’ve learned about the natural world, the less comfortable most people have been assuming it provides good examples to follow. But even in antiquity at least some people were aware of this – hence the origin of the name of the Cynics. 🙂

      But your point raises a good question for those who don’t accept evolution. If behaving in certain ways is not good for humans, then why on earth did God supposedly program other living things with the instinct to do things that aren’t good?!

  • Kubricks_Rube

    A word of advise for Rick Warren and anyone else to whom it applies: If your response to tragedy is to get on Twitter not to offers prayers for the victims, consolation and solace for the mourners, and help of whatever kind might be needed, but to instead take ignorant potshots at an straw version of evolution, then you are a demagogue, not a pastor. Please update your business cards.

    ETA: Per his explanation below, I apologize to Mr Warren for my comment on his tweet.

  • tomlosangeles

    Dr. McGrath, I think a gentleman of your erudition could find a more charitable reading of Rev. Warren’s tweet. The problem isn’t teaching evolution, it’s the material-mechanical view of man, stripped of all transcendence, no more than the sum of his atoms and synapses.

    Rick Warren deserves more than a driveby sneer here. [For the record, I’m no creationist.]

    “If what we are made from is what matters, then Christianity cannot endow human beings with value any more than science can. Valuing of persons always means seeing the ways in which we are more than the sum of our constituent parts.”

    The second sentence is what Warren’s talking about. Your first sentence denies that Christianity [or even a mere theism] is or can be the difference. Do you really want to defend that? Even if so, must Warren be mocked for disagreeing?

    • Please read it again, rather than offer what presumably you would yourself describe as a “drive-by sneer.” I said that if whether we are made from mud or from animals or from atoms matters, then that we are made from basic constituent parts that are also found elsewhere is undeniable, and nothing can change that. But it is precisely as a Christian, and as someone who accepts mainstream science, that I say that what human beings are is far more than the sum of our parts. Our lives do not have to be non-animal or non-material in order to be endowed with transcendent meaning.

      Do you know of any evidence that the shooting in Aurora had something to do with James Holmes or anyone else being told that we are only animals? I know of few people who actually think that our material existence or the characteristics we share with animals detracts from our significance. But I do think that Warren’s own “drive-by sneer” offered nothing that was clear, comforting, constructive, or for that matter, Christian.

      • tomlosangeles

        Do you know any evidence that Rev. Warren was specifically talking about teaching evolution? Let’s not play the parsing game, Dr. McGrath.

        A more charitable reading would indicate he meant what I explained and what you say you also believe—that the Christian view of man is as more than an animal.
        Is this view of man taught in our public schools? My reading of Warren’s tweet is that this view is NOT taught, and it’s part of the problem with modern society.

        At present, you’re being used as ammo by the anti-religionists against Rick Warren, although it’s possible you’re in agreement with him on this point.

        What I’d like to see is you asking Rick Warren what he meant. Your latest posts looks like you want to play the evolution-creationist thing instead, so I imagine this is the end of it. But I don’t think you gave him a fair shake.

        • I would be delighted to hear from Rev. Warren, and will gladly retract or alter what I wrote, if I find that I in any way misrepresented him.

          My conclusion that he was making a reference to evolution was based on what I have heard him say about his views in the past, and what I have heard other creationists say using the me sort of language.

          But even if it turns out that Rev. Warren was not referring to evolution, I still don’t think the tweet was meaningful or helpful in the circumstances. I do not think that there are many science educators who teach our children that we are nothing but animals and that as a result, it is OK to kill who,ever you want. Even looking at the animal world and basing one’s life on it would not naturally lead to a shooting spree. And so whoever Rev. Warren was aiming at with his tweet, I don’t see it as on target, or as offering anything that genunely addresses what happened.

          When a prominent Christian does something like this, I think that the best that another Christian can do if they disagree is to make that known. I don’t think that my own treatment of this is causing Rev. Warren to get criticism that he would not have received otherwise. But I do think it helpfully illustrates to anyone paying attention that not all Christians think his comment was appropriate.

          • tomlosangeles

            I don’t think that my own treatment of this is causing Rev. Warren to get criticism that he would not have received otherwise.”

            I believe the “evolution” charge began with you, Dr. McGrath.

            “I do think it helpfully illustrates to anyone paying attention that not all Christians think his comment was appropriate.”

            That was my point from the first. I saw Rev. Warren get dragged through the mud elsewhere on the internet on the evolution/Aurora grounds that appear to have originated with you.

            “My conclusion that he was making a reference to evolution was based on what I have heard him say about his views in the past…”

            Not appropriate, then, as it turns out he was speaking of another context [human sexuality] completely.

          • That is what he says now, after the fact, but provided nothing to clarify at the time, when he posted something that sounds just like what critics of evolution say all the time, and did so as everyone except apparently him had their minds on a national tragedy. I am quite happy to take Rev. Warren at his word, that this is what he meant and not an attempt to change the meaning after the fact. But the attempt to blame others for his injection of an ambiguous statement into a context of tragedy doesn’t seem either fair or plausible, in my opinion.

  • rmwilliamsjr

    similar statements are coming from lots of conservative theological bloggers


    Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robotsI don’t know how much more we’ll learn about the shooter’s motivations. Right now he’s lawyered up, so maybe he won’t volunteer any more incriminating information. But perhaps the police will find incriminating statements on his computer files.One thing I’d note is that neuroscience has a very reductive view of human nature. In Daniel Dennett’s catchphrase, “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”If Holmes imbued that philosophy, then it might explain why he places so little value on human life.

  • jay

    I believe the extent of killing in Aurora has more to do with the evolution of the weapon used. If the weapon was a club or spear the death toll would have certainly been lower. However, the more relevant question is whether there is such a thing as free will and does it all really matter?

  • Someone made a chart illustrating one of the points in this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2012/07/evolution-and-homicide.html

  • Simon Cozens

    He’s also wrong about grammar. It’s “different to.”

    (Or “different from.” I don’t mind which. But “different than”?)

  • TWITTER’S limit on words allows no context for statements. A lack of contxt causes misinterpretation. So when you tweet what’s on your mind, people preassume (incorrectly) that you are talking about what’s on THEIR mind. This is a clear example. My tweet was a brief response to a question to me about SEXUAL PROMISCUITY. It had NOTHING to do with the tragedy in Colorado.! I had received this email from a dad: “Pastor Rick, my daughter told me her teacher said in class “There’s nothing wrong with sex with multiple partners! Sex is a natural, inate drive, and any attempt to limit it to one, single partner is a manmade construct.” THAT is what I was commenting on. Unfortunately, you also incorrectly presumed the context.

    • Steven King

      Your still an idiot. Please do not misinterpret that. That is exactly what I mean.

    • Rev. Warren, thank you so much for taking the time to respond here, and to do so so very graciously. I apologize for the commenter who chose to be insulting rather than actually engage in useful conversation.

      I have replied at length in a separate blog post, not least because I wanted your comment to be seen by a wider audience, and not only those who may already be subscribed to the comment thread here.

    • Kubricks_Rube

      Mr Warren, my apologies for my earlier comment. I took your tweet as many others did and responded in anger. I’m sorry.

    • This seems like a great challenge to any public figure who uses Twitter. If I make some offhand comment on Twitter only my friends, who know me well, read it and generally know the context. When you are a public figure hundreds to thousands of strangers read what you write.

    • blue_hubbard

      “Preassume”? And why the parenthetical “incorrectly”? What’s wrong with, “people incorrectly assume”?
      I notice that tweets are like bible verses, context is in the mind of the beholder.

  • Does it say anything that Colorado Springs with its wealth of mega-churches and evangelical ministries like Focus on Family is only about an hour from Aurora and Columbine? I’m not suggesting any sort of responsibility, but if any of their beliefs were true, you’d think that the influence of all those godly people praying all the time might have a sixty-five mile radius.

  • coreypaul

    one thing is true, most animals know when to stop eating, at least those in the wild. apparently, Rick Warren needs to evolve on both his animal characteristics, which include greed, sloth, a god sized hole only a hot deog seems to be able to fit and his mental reality that in fact, humans are considered animals. next thing you know he’ll be trying to hitch a ride on that noah’s are amusement park ride our taxes are paying for.