Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why He Did It

Dylann Roof did what he did for the same reason that James Holmes (Colorado movie murderer), Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook school murderer), the Columbine school killers, and, before people get too far down the road of blaming white racism as uniquely responsible for Roof's atrocity, let's remember Colin Ferguson who murdered six and injured nineteen whites on the Long Island Railroad in Garden City, New York in 1993, whose motive was "black rage." These were people who, whatever their mental health might have been, were seeking to make themselves noticed, to attach some significance to their otherwise meaningless, pathetic lives.

As another mass murderer, serial cannibalist Jeffrey Dahmer, once said: "If a person doesn't think there's a God to be accountable to, then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That's how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from slime. When we died that was it, there is nothing."

A society that has expunged God from its consciousness and rendered him irrelevant has also eliminated any hope for objective meaning and moral value. Everyone of these killers lived or lives a life empty of meaning and moral value because they had been raised without any sense of a relationship with, or a responsibility to, a transcendent, personal, moral authority.

Atheists get angry when it's suggested that atheism leads to the conclusions I've mentioned, but it's hard to avoid it and most thoughtful atheists admit it. An atheist can seek out subjective purpose or impose subjective moral duties upon himself, but there's no adequate objective basis for either. Atheist philosopher Julian Baggini wrote about this in a column in the Guardian a few years ago. He noted that:
The problem with the "atheist" moniker has been recognised for decades. It's too negative, too associated with amoral nihilism. It's understandable then that many would agree with Richard Dawkins that we need a word like "gay" which "should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright". So why not "bright"?

One reason, which I mentioned right at the start of this series, is that it sounds too smug. But there's an even more important reason why we should not choose a word that is "positive, warm, cheerful": although many atheists are all those things, atheism itself is none of them.
Atheism, in other words, gives no reason why anyone should be happy and pleasant aside from their inherent disposition to be so.
Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we've massively overcompensated, and in doing so we've blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that's "can" not "is" or even "should usually be". And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.
Baggini is right to say that atheists can live happy, meaningful, moral lives. Indeed, they can live any kind of life they wish, but on atheism there's no ultimate meaning to anything we do. On the atheist view, we're all like the band on the Titanic continuing to play while the ship is sinking. It's a nice gesture but pretty meaningless, all things considered. Likewise, the atheist can be "moral" as well, but the point is that, on atheism, one has no duty to act in any particular way. If one works in a soup kitchen on behalf of the poor or massacres people in a Bible study it makes no moral difference.

Dylann Roof can be viewed as a modern embodiment of Camus' character Mersault in his novel The Stranger who gratuitously shoots a man on the beach. Whether he chooses to shoot the man or chooses not to it all means the same, absolutely nothing (in the words of The Cure's Robert Smith):
Baggini continues:
Anyone who thinks it's easy [on atheism] to ground ethics either hasn't done much moral philosophy or wasn't concentrating when they did. Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail. In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that's exactly what will sometimes happen.
In fact, it's what would often happen if atheists were to follow their atheism to it's logical, nihilistic conclusions. We can be thankful that most atheists don't.

To answer the question implied in the title of this post in a slightly different way, one could say of Dylann Roof that he murdered those people because a) he desired to be significant, to achieve notoriety, b) because he could achieve his desire by committing an infamous atrocity and, c) if he was a young man without God, he had no moral duty not to.