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Don't blame the shootings on Darwin (or on God's wrath)

Jason Hatfield / Reuters

People hold a prayer vigil for the victims and first responders as police investigate an overnight shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight premiere of the new "Batman" movie in Aurora, Colo., on July 20.


Why did a dozen people die in this week's "Dark Knight" shootings? What was going on inside the head of James Eagan Holmes, the former neuroscience student who's suspected of killing those people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.? Questions about Holmes and his motives are the big unanswerables right now — but some folks are already suggesting that higher powers are at work. Higher powers like ... Charles Darwin?

"When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it," Rick Warren, the mega-church pastor and inspirational author, observed in a Twitter update just hours after the shootings.


That tweet came amid a flurry of homespun aphorisms and Bible quotes, so it's not fully clear that Warren was specifically blaming the violence on the teaching of evolutionary biology in schools. But the comment stirred up a hornet's nest among the theory's champions, including the University of Chicago's Jerry Coyne.

"I doubt that religion had anything to do with these murders, but religion is so quick to point the finger at science and evolution when they happen," Coyne wrote on his "Why Evolution Is True" blog. "So much for Rick Warren, the man Barack Obama chose to give the invocation at his inauguration in 2009."

'Where was God in all of this?'
Warren's comment wasn't the only one that seemed to touch on the link between godlessness and divine retribution. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, brought up the link when he was asked about the Colorado shootings on the "Istook Live" radio show:

"We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country ... and when ... you know ... what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place," Gohmert said, according to a transcript on his House website.

"You know, when people say, where was God in all of this?" he said. "Well, you know, we don’t let ... in fact, we’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God’s name that they’re going to be jailed, we had a principal of a school, and a superintendent or a coach down in Florida that were threatened with jail because they said the blessing at a voluntary off campus dinner. I mean, that kind of stuff ... where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present."

Those comments drew a denunciation from the American Humanist Association — an organization whose slogan is "Good Without a God."

"Rep. Louis Gohmert truly tortures logic when he concludes that this violence had something to do with perceived attacks on majority faith in America," said Roy Speckhardt, the association's executive director. "At a time when families are mourning in the wake of this tragedy, Gohmert used it as an opportunity to push a religious agenda."

Christian? 'What a scary thought'
On the flip side, some atheists suggested that Christianity was to blame, capitalizing on reports that Holmes came from a Presbyterian family. On the "Debunking Christianity" blog, Cathy Cooper argues that Christian belief encourages the idea that all people are sinful, but that all believers are saved by faith alone. "Christianity provides believers with a basis for the belief that they are absolved from taking responsibility for their own bad behavior," she writes.

"Yes, James Holmes was a 'normal Christian boy' — what a scary thought," Cooper says.

Comments like that cause P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris who describes himself as a godless liberal, to hang his head in shame.

"Christianity is piss-poor at doing more than providing lip-service against violence, but it’s at best a passive enabler." he wrote on his Pharyngula blog. Myers said the blame should instead be directed at a culture that glorifies violence, at laws that make it easy to acquire deadly weapons— and most of all, at the person who did all the shooting.

"Anything else is a distraction from correcting the real causes," he wrote.

As Ecclesiastes says...
There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to blaming God or godlessness for a disaster. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once said that the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado happened “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud."
  • After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alabama state Sen. Henry E. "Hank" Erwin Jr. observed that the region has "always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. ... It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God."
  • Evangelical preacher and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson blamed a number of disasters on God's wrath — including 2010's catastrophic Haiti earthquake, which he attributed to that country's "pact to the devil."
  • Later that year, when an oil spill hit the Gulf of Mexico, Christian doomsayer Hal Lindsey cited the environmental catastrophe as "evidence that when you turn your back on Israel, especially when you've been a supporter, you're gonna see judgments come from God."

Natural catastrophes, and especially human-caused catastrophes like the one that took place this week, do pose a huge challenge for believers: Why does God allow the existence of seemingly senseless evil? If the power of prayer can save some believers, why would He be so cruel as to leave others unsaved? Do believers really think that the dead were more sinful than the living?

God doesn't own a gun
Marie Isom has a unique perspective on these questions: Not only is she a Christian and a blogger — she's also a survivor of the theater shootings. In a gripping post to her blog, "A Miniature Clay Pot," she recounts how she and her daughters were caught up in the chaos, threw themselves to the floor, and scrambled out of the theater when there was a break in the gunfire.

The blog posting is titled "So You Still Think God Is a Merciful God?" Here's the answer she gives:

"Yes.

"Yes, I do indeed.

"Absolutely, positively, unequivocally.

"Let’s get something straight: the theater shooting was an evil, horrendous act done by a man controlled by evil.  God did not take a gun and pull the trigger in a crowded theater. He didn’t even suggest it. A man did.

"In His sovereignty, God made man in His image with the ability to choose good and evil.

"Unfortunately, sometimes man chooses evil."

If you're looking for some appropriate Sunday reading after a horrendous couple of days, you couldn't do much better than Isom's essay and her follow-up posting. I realize there's not much science in it, but that's why we call it Cosmic Log rather than Science Log.

Feel free to leave your comments and condolences in the space below. 

Update for 1:15 a.m. ET July 22: There's more blame to go around. Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries said in a commentary on the shootings that "we're reaping as we're sowing in this society."

"We said to God, 'Get out of the public arena,'" he wrote. "Lawsuit after lawsuit, often by misguided 'civil libertarians,' have chased away any fear of God in the land — at least in the hearts of millions." The result, Newcombe said, is that young people no longer dread the loss of Heaven or the pains of Hell.

"I don't think people would do those sorts of things if they truly understood the reality of Hell," he wrote.

The news director of the American Family Association, Fred Jackson, followed up with Newcombe on the "AFA Today" radio show. About 10 minutes into the show, Jackson said this:

"In the community there were community standards that reflected biblical principles, whether people knew it or not, the standard in the community was based on scripture. In that short period of time, roughly 40 years, we have seen such a transformation in values in our communities, whether it’s rural or whether it’s big city. I have to think that all of this, whether it’s the Hollywood movies, whether it’s what we see on the Internets, whether it’s liberal bias in the media, whether it’s our politicians changing public policy, I think all of those somehow have fit together — and I have to say also churches who are leaving the authority of scripture and losing their fear of God — all of those things have seem to have come together to give us these kinds of incidents."

Later in the show, around the 44-minute mark, Jackson added to the list of contributing factors:

"I think the source of this is multifaceted, but you can put it all, I think, under the heading of rebellion to God, a rejection of the God of the Bible. I think along with an education system that has produced our lawyers, our politicians, more teachers, more professors, all of that sort of thing, is our churches, mainline churches. ... The AFA Journal has been dealing with denominations that no longer believe in the God of the Bible, they no longer believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation, they teach that God is OK with homosexuality. This is just increasing more and more. It is mankind shaking its fist at the authority of God."

The Right Wing Watch and Gawker websites both picked up on these observations, and Right Wing Watch helpfully provides audio excerpts of the relevant quotes. (However, you can listen to the whole 54-minute show on iTunes for free.) Gawker's Louis Peitzman writes that "this message isn't just offensive: it's impossibly muddled," and he wonders whether anyone believes this sort of thing anymore. I think there are a lot of people who do. But what do you think? 

Related content from NBCNews.com:


For a completely different take on the questions surrounding the "Dark Knight" shootings, God and even Batman, check out Paul Asay's essay on The Washington Post's website. Asay is the author of "God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach Us About God and Ourselves."

Tip o' the Log to my colleague at NBCNews.com, Bill Dedman.

 Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.