Slaughter, Science, and Fundamentalist America

What if Batman shooter James Holmes had been a seminary student instead of a science student?

The horrific shooting at a Colorado cinema on Friday has led to an understandable search for meaning.  Why did this man allegedly storm into a movie theater and open fire, killing twelve total strangers and wounding dozens?

We here at ILYBYGTH have a different question.  In our quest to understand Fundamentalist America without prejudice and without smug presumption, we must ask: What if Holmes had been a deeply religious person?  What if he had been a student at Liberty University or Bob Jones University instead of the University of Colorado?  How would the media have reported this story?

As it is, as details of Holmes eccentric history have been uncovered, coverage has often noted that Holmes was a scientist, BUT he still engaged in this bizarre atrocity.  The Huffington Post headline, for example, reported the following: “James Holmes, Theater Shooting Suspect, Was Brilliant Science Student.”  ABC News framed the story as an utter mystery.  In its report, ABC said police were “hoping to discover there clues to what would make a young man recognized as one of the nation’s ‘outstanding neuroscientists and academicians’ unleash a storm of terror in a packed movie theater.”  USA Today made this distinction explicit.  They noted that “Two Portraits” of the alleged shooter have emerged, one as an intellectually gifted neuroscience student” and another as a “suspected mass murderer.”

Here’s what we have not seen: “Science Drives Student to Murder;” “Fanatic Scientist Kills Twelve;” or “Science Killings on the Rise.”  We will not likely hear calls to limit the amount of neuroscience young people can study.  We will not listen to talking heads discuss the dangerous way scientists promote their ideas on young and impressionable minds.  We will also not see a rehashing of every story about violent scientists in recent years.  At least in the mainstream media, we won’t hear discussions of the ways a scientific worldview encourages this sort of nihilistic atrocity.

Yet it does not take an enormous leap of imagination to picture what journalists might say if Holmes had been instead a brilliant student at a conservative religious school.  There would doubtless be talk of “American Taliban,” or perhaps “Fundamentalist Massacre.”  The teachings of the religious school would doubtless be used as headlines, such as “Holmes’ School Taught Literal Interpretation of Bible, Young Earth” or some such.  Perhaps the diaries of the student would be plumbed eventually for religious references, such as God’s call to purify the earth.  If we recognize our prejudice against Fundamentalist America, we should recognize that such connections between one mentally troubled murderer and the education and training of that person are not necessarily causally linked.  In other words, if we don’t blame Science for the Colorado shootings, we should not blame religion for every atrocity committed by a religious person.

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  1. I think you make an excellent point, but the two things are not quite equivalent. Science is not generally an ideology. People have attempted to use science to support ideologies, but science itself is morally neutral.

    It’s easy to think of the “science” of eugenics, and intellectually honest scientists would not deny this. They would say, I think rightly, that eugenics itself was not science. Most scientists would say that science is mute on moral issues. I’m not aware of any science that would even provide a motivation to violence, but even if such data existed, it would be the individual’s response to the data that led to any resulting action.

    I have argued that a religious ideology could lead a fundamentalist to commit atrocities, but you are right to say that there is not necessarily is a causal link. I think some commentators have pegged Anders Breivik as a Christian extremist, but the evidence is mixed as to whether that motivated him.

    But I think religion is a more plausible candidate than science as a motivation for violence, because it provides believers with their moral and ideological views. It’s hard to imagine a believer committing any great pre-meditated act of violence if it were in conflict with their personal religion.

    • @Jonny, Good point, but as someone smart pointed out to me off-line, we DO have a very strong tradition of mad scientist/science run amok. All the way from Frankenstein through virtually the entire genre of science fiction, the notion that science can lead directly to atrocity DOES seem to have a very strong cultural momentum.

      • I guess so, but I’m struggling to think of a real life example. Science gave us the nuclear bomb, I suppose, but it wasn’t a scientist that pressed the red button.

      • Yes…strange, isn’t it? There are millions of literary examples, from Dr. Moreau to Young Frankenstein. But there aren’t a lot of real-life models that pop to mind. What about Mengele? We could call him a Nazi first, which would be fair, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him a real-life mad scientist, given free rein by the horrors of Naziism.

      • This is an excellent point, but at least more recently the narrative isn’t just one of science run amok, but rather science solving science run amok. Nowhere is this more evident than in popular science fiction shows such as “Eureka” where every episode follows the same formula: 1) Scientists discover something really cool; 2) That something cool has unintended consequences that threaten to destroy the community/world; 3) Scientists save the day at the last minute.

        I find portrayals of scientists in crime shows also to be quite revealing. They are almost always shown as extreme polymaths, often being quite eccentric and almost always aloof, detached and out of touch with the rest of the world. And, yet, they are doing big, important things like catching the bad guys.

        Taken together, I think all these portraits support an idea that science does have a very privileged position in society and that, despite its recognized dangers, people still subscribe to a narrative in which science is society’s greatest hope, not only for a better future but also to avoid chaos in the present. This allows us to forgive the worst of scientific transgressions and calamities, either by glossing them over as minor bumps on the road to progress or dismissing them entirely as not being “real science.” This is rather hauntingly similar to the way that religious people will often brush aside unfortunate episodes done in their religion’s name as having been committed by people who weren’t “real Christians” or “real Muslims” or “real Jews.”

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