Mass Shooters: Nihilism On The Margins

With the latest mass shootings–in El Paso (22 dead) and Dayton (9 dead, not including the gunman)–we are now getting the obligatory calls for gun control, with new focus on “mental health” issues. We’re getting the same old arguments:

  • We have a white supremacist problem. (The El Paso shooter was a White Nationalist).
  • The El Paso shooter was a Trump lover, so it’s Trump’s fault.
  • Access to firearms is too easy.
  • We must have a better way to keep mentally-ill people from obtaining firearms.
  • We need to ban “assault weapons”.
  • We need “Red Flag” laws: laws which allow for the rollback of Second Amendment rights–even allowing firearm confiscation–from people who might be violent, even if they otherwise have no criminal record.

So far, I have yet to hear anyone–not on the news, not in either political party–take notice of a large elephant in the room: Nihilism.

Let’s get a few things straight:

  • While many “mass shooters” indeed have mental problems–the Sandy Hook and Aurora shooters are perfect case studies–mental illness is not what drove them to kill people. People who are depressed, bipolar, and even schizophrenic function without slaughtering people. When you flip that switch to plan and execute a mass assault, it is not mental illness, but rather a character issue.
  • As abhorrent as racism and white supremacism are, such views alone do not move a person to walk into a store and mow people down. Does such a person have an ideological motive? Sometimes. But killing innocent people at a store or a festival or a concert usually requires more than just a lower view of another race of people.
  • Economics has nothing to do with this. Mass shooters tend to be middle-class.

And here’s the thing: look at the largest mass shootings–Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas (MSD), Santa Fe, El Paso, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, San Bernardino, Dayton, Pittsburgh (Tree of Life), Wisconsin (Sikh temple)–and you will find a common thread.

It’s not ideology. Two (San Bernardino, Orlando) were Islamist; two were death worshipers with Nazi leanings (Columbine); four were white supremacists (El Paso, Charleston, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh); one was hard-left/Antifa (Dayton); two were mental cases (Sandy Hook, Aurora); two were alleged bullying victims (Santa Fe, MSD).

Nor is it mental illness, as every mass shooter was not mentally ill.

Here’s the commonality: Every single one of them has/had a Nihilistic outlook on life.

What is Nihilism? To put it simply: it’s a line of thought that rejects the premise that life, or anything about life, has meaning. In the mind of a Nihilist, there is no objective morality.

While there are philosophers–most notably Nietzsche–who develop this framework, one does not have to study philosophy to be a nihilist; one only has to reach the conclusion in one’s own mind that life has no meaning and that there is no objective morality.

Can one suffer mental illness and reach that conclusion? Yes. But depression is not a new phenomenon; some of the best people in the Bible suffered from depresssion. No, Nihilism seems to be an epidemic among younger folks.

A friend of mine, a longtime therapist who has counseled mental health patients and trauma survivors for years and who is opposite of me on gun control, puts it this way: “Mentally-ill people barely overcome themselves; to say mass shootings are a mental illness issue ignores the real problem.” He and I don’t agree on the problem–he says it’s the guns–but we agree that it isn’t a mental health issue.

Can one suffer other traumas and flip the Nihilism switch? Yes. But trauma alone doesn’t explain the growth of Nihilism among the general population. Otherwise, our country would have been a big free-fire zone at the end of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

No, what we are seeing today is a completely different animal.

Even worse, I don’t think there are easy, pat answers to this. I realize that many Christians will point out: “we’ve taken God out of classrooms”, “we’ve rejected God as a society”–and they’ll point to abortion, gay marriage, the whole LGBTQIAWTH brouhaha as examples. And while that may be part of the answer, I don’t think this completely explains the problem.

I would submit that it comes from a number of factors:

  1. Societal trends have taken a large number of people away from meaningful relationships, including with the opposite sex. This includes social media, porn, community structures, and even the degradation of the nuclear family to name a few. As a result, an increasing number of men are growing up to be “incels”: men who are smitten with profound hatred and anger toward women, as they lack even the most basic social skills necessary to have even platonic relationships–let alone any romating relationship–with women.
  2. The Church is losing her standing in society due to a mountain of scandals and other “own goals”.
  3. As the Church has lost ground in society, other elements have risen to fill the moral void.

Over the last 20 years, America has seen the growth in the “nones”: those identifying as atheists, agnostics, or otherwise having no religious affiliation. As the Church has declined, those identifying with the Head of that Church have declined as well.

No, I’m not suggesting that all mass shooters are atheists–although many of them are.

I am suggesting that in a society in which Atheism and agnosticism are more popular, some of the tangential ideas that come with those outlooks–among them the premise that life, and elements of life, have no meaning–also become increasingly popular.

And no, I am not suggesting that all Nihilists are going to become mass shooters; most, in fact, do not.

I am suggesting, however, that if I have a Nihilistic outlook, then it’s a lot easier for me to rationalize going there. And on the margins, that is exactly what is happening.

How do we fix this problem? There are no pat answers.

I can tell you that it’s not simply about “getting God back into schools”. God isn’t worshiped in most Christian homes. Posting the Ten Commandments on a school wall isn’t going to solve this issue.

How many Christian families read the Bible at home? How many pray with their kids? How many parents teach Biblical principles without making it the death of a thousand dogmas? How many live out their faith with minimal hypocrisy?

I can also tell you that it’s not just a matter of getting more conservative theology in the churches. The evangelical world is largely conservative in her theological outlook. The availability of solid Biblical study information for every American–including Bibles of every translation imaginable, Greek and Hebrew study guides, theological commentary, apologetics resources, Church history, all for free via the Internet–is unprecedented in history.

None of those things can account for a Church stained–in Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical sectors alike–with terrible scandals that span all levels of Church life from the local church body to the highest offices. In a world desperate for a meaning to life, the Church could not be weakened at a worse time.

While the SBC and other conservative sectors have declared Complementarianism as the hill to die on–even as their denomination drowns in sex abuse/coverup scandals–they miss out on a chance to provide a real answer to much larger problems in this world. Youth ministers are often shallow in their Christian walk, lacking the depth to provide substantive answers to teens who search for answers. Single adults are largely ignored by the Church, offering no hope to the incel who will never see the love in the Body of Christ, therefore never appreciating the meaning of that Ironman triathlon known as life.

The liberal denominations are busy offering the world a watered-down version of itself, conservatives are offering a robust theology soiled with abuses by wolves, who in turn get their cover from the masses.

Meanwhile, a significant subset of younger adults are deciding that life has no meaning, joining the ranks of the Nihilists. And while 99% of them are otherwise harmless, that one percent is flipping the mother of all switches.

At this trajectory, we are well on our way toward the breakup of our nation.

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