Overview:

Hey, kids! Have you wondered why school imposes the drudgery of learning to make coherent, convincing arguments? You’ll be scared straight with today’s example.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Catherine Aird observed, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” Today’s horrible warning is “The Link Between School Shootings And Atheism” by Robert Clifton Robinson. Let’s pick apart this shallow, biased argument to see how strong the connection between school shootings and atheism actually is.

No one likes atheists

Robinson starts with a quote from a 2012 Scientific American article:

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to.

Yes, Christians are unfairly biased against atheists, but this says nothing about atheists’ actual goodness. We don’t start with prejudice and then conclude it’s true.

The most charitable interpretation I can put on this is that it’s an “if there’s smoke, there’s fire” argument. That is, Christians wouldn’t distrust atheists so much without a good reason. Which, of course, is nonsense. Prejudice is hardly scientific evidence.

Some Christians wonder, how can atheists be trustworthy if they don’t imagine the Christian god looking over their shoulder? That reminds me of this bit of wisdom from Penn Jillette. The last line brilliantly turns the tables on the sanctimonious Christian.

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

Atheism remains a crime in 25 Muslim countries today, for which about ten assign it the death penalty.

Atheists and school shootings?

Robinson makes his central claim, and it’s startling. Under the heading, “Atheists Are Responsible For A Majority Of School Shootings,” he says,

In the period from 1998-2018, there were 69 school shootings in the United States, all but four were committed by atheists. The four killers not specifically identified as atheists, claimed to be Christians. Upon investigation, these four individuals were Christian in name only, not as genuine Biblical Christians defined by Jesus in John 3:3, as “born again,” and possessing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Wow. Let’s unpack this neutron star of nonsense.

Robinson’s source is “What Is The Religion Of Mass Public Shooters?” by John Lott (2018). But Lott doesn’t say there were “69 school shootings” but 69 shooters in 66 mass public shootings. Already we see a less-than-fastidious dedication to the facts.

Does 66 mass shootings in 20 years sound right? It’s a radical undercount according to the Boston Globe: “There have been at least 314 mass shootings so far in 2022. There have only been 186 days.” The Globe is careful to define “mass shooting” as any shooting with four or more people shot (excluding the shooter), while Lott doesn’t define the term. So is it 3.3 mass shootings per year (Lott) or 1.7 per day (Boston Globe)? Lott’s statistics are either made-up nonsense, or he has a radically different definition of “mass shooting.” I can only guess that Lott meant school shootings, not mass shootings, but since he doesn’t define the term, we can’t know.

And given all the whining atheists and other liberals make against guns, they’d be the last group you’d expect pulling the trigger. Does it make sense that 65 out of 69 participants (94 percent) in a collection of U.S. mass shootings were atheists when only 3 percent of the overall population are atheists?

Next, let’s consider the source. Lott’s article appears at the Daily Caller web site, about which Wikipedia says, “The Daily Caller is a right-wing news and opinion website based in Washington, D.C. It was founded by now-Fox News host Tucker Carlson and political pundit Neil Patel in 2010.” It also notes, “The Daily Caller has published false stories on multiple occasions,” so it’s a questionable source.

Finally, I can’t ignore that last sentence. Robinson won’t stop until his set of Christians has been purged of any immoral actors. Even those last four shooters who claimed to be Christian couldn’t have been, because how could they be since True Christians don’t do that?

Robinson’s poor thinking gets worse when we see what he makes of the Lott article. It cites another article written by Lott that identifies each of his 69 shooters. In this list, two are “anti-Christian,” one says he resented his parents’ strong Christian faith, one is an atheist, and one says he’s no longer Christian. That means that one self-identified as an atheist. About 46 of the shooters, the article says, “No mention of Religion in any news article.”

Now Lott’s sample has one atheist, a few who are some kind of “not Christian,” a few Christians, and a big pile of “Unknown” in the middle. That doesn’t give him what he wanted, so here’s how he spins the data.

The media goes into great depth about all sorts of aspects of these killer’s lives and religious views if they can find any information on them. If interviews with the killer’s family and friends don’t reveal anything about their religious views and the press can’t find the killer’s being affiliated with any religion, at the very least they don’t have significant religious views.

No, it doesn’t follow that if the press said nothing about the killer’s religion then religion couldn’t have been important to that person.

Returning to the Robinson article, this is the flimsy foundation on which he makes his grand conclusion, “In the period from 1998-2018, there were 69 school shootings in the United States, all but four were committed by atheists.” No, there was one atheist, not “all but four.”

More irrelevant papers

Next, we pause again to consider two papers that conclude, according to Robinson, that “a majority of people in human society hold atheists primarily responsible for capital crimes and feel it is likely that most serial killers are atheists.”

Again, these conclusions make Christians look bad, and Robinson shows no motivation to push back against the bias to show the truth.

It’s curious that Robinson is so fixated on atheists’ (supposed) lack of trustworthiness despite his use of a Daily Caller article. About that site, Wikipedia said, “In an October 2018 Simmons Research survey of 38 news organizations, The Daily Caller was ranked the least-trusted news organization by Americans.”

Robinson’s conclusion to these papers highlights Christian bias:

So much for the claim by atheists that one does not need God in order to be a moral person. Scientific research confirms that a majority of atheists are neither moral, nor held as good people by the majority of people in the world.

He’s done nothing to show that most atheists are immoral or that prejudice is the same as fact.

Atheists and good works

There’s more. Robinson tells us that Stalin murdered millions, and he was an atheist (to which I’ve responded).

Next up is modern healthcare. Robinson says,

In an essay published by the National Library of Medicine, it has been documented that over 70 percent of all healthcare in developing countries, is provided by people who are followers of Jesus.

But here’s the actual quote from the paper,

Faith-based organizations play a substantial role in providing healthcare in developing countries, cited in some publications as up to 70% of all healthcare services. 

So (1) not just Christians and (2) “in some publications … up to 70%,” not “over 70 percent.”

The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

Penn Jillette

Robinson next gives an anecdote about his charitable work in the Philippines before and after Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6,300 people there in 2013.

Every home on the isolated island I lived at that time was devastated. Many Christians began rebuilding homes for the poor over the next year and we successfully completed the rebuilding of over half those destroyed. In all of that time not a single atheist organization came to help us.

Were these “many Christians” local Filipinos? That wouldn’t be surprising because the country is almost 90 percent Christian. Were they working on their home island? That wouldn’t be surprising because they’d be working with their neighbors to rebuild their own neighborhood.

Robinson complained about the lack of atheists helping:

Not a single atheist organization gave money to help provide materials to rebuild homes, provide medicine, or provide food for those decimated.

Is he complaining about U.S. atheists? They help in proportion to their fraction of the U.S. population when the federal government provides aid. The Obama administration gave $37 million in disaster relief after that typhoon, a good example of secular assistance, not explicitly Christian or atheist assistance.

What does Robinson expect? Christianity has had two thousand years to get organized, and atheism was a crime (in the form of blasphemy) in Scotland up until last year. Atheism remains a crime in 25 Muslim countries today, for which about ten assign it the death penalty. Nevertheless, Humanist organizations like GO Humanity (née Foundation Beyond Belief) do exist and are trying to make a difference.

I respond in more detail about Christian’s contribution to healthcare in “Yeah, but Christianity Built Hospitals!

Robinson’s article shows how a combination of wishful thinking and sloppy scholarship can invent a ludicrous conclusion. I hope this can be a good reminder to not give blanket trust to remarkable conclusions and to read the cited works. It should also remind us to maintain high standards for our own work.

Being an atheist means
taking personal responsibility for your actions,
as opposed to carrying around
a “get out of hell free” card
that you wave around every single time
you give in to temptation.
Barry Goldberg, Common Sense Atheism

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...