While it is certainly reasonable to surmise that Devin Kelley nursed a hatred of religion and this hatred was likely a contributing factor to his mass murder of religious people, another contributing factor appears to be an underlying domestic dispute with his mother-in-law. It has been reported he sent her threatening texts prior to the murders.
While we don’t have all the details, and probably never will, we can use the information we know to reconstruct a plausible scenario. Kelley was mentally unstable and had a history of rage and violence. He abused his first wife, her child, and a dog. He married a second woman and had two children. In 2014, there are reports he physically abused his second wife.
While it would help to have more details, I think it reasonable to surmise the nature of the domestic dispute centered around Kelley’s history of abuse and violence. Put simply, he was beating and abusing his second wife and the wife’s mother was doing what she could to protect her daughter and grandchildren. This would make her a target in Kelley’s mind. Also, given that the mother-in-law was friends with the pastor’s wife, and church members would have been supportive of the victim of abuse, we can see how Kelley would come to hate this particular church.
So it is not hard to envision how a domestic dispute centered around Kelley’s violent and abusive ways would provide the trigger for this mass murder.
But I don’t think we need to play the domestic dispute against Kelley’s anti-religious views. There is no need to frame the causal influences as either a domestic dispute or anti-religious animosity. Both can be in play. In fact, both can exist in a synergistic fashion.
A simple way to see this is by considering the mother-in-law. Kelley clearly hated her because she was “getting in the way” of his need to dominate and abuse his wife. Now, given Kelley’s militant anti-religious views, let’s ask two simple questions.
- Would Kelley think it irrelevant that the mother-in-law was religious?
It’s hard to believe that a man obsessed with preaching against “stupid Christians” would overlook the fact that his hated mother-in-law was an example of a “stupid Christian.”
- Since it is unrealistic to think Kelley would overlook the mother-in-law’s Christian beliefs, would the fact that she was religious make Kelley hate her less or more?
If you understand human nature, you will understand that Kelley’s anti-religious views would deepen his hatred of his mother-in-law. In fact, the whole situation is set up for synergy, where the hatred of his mother-in-law could be externalized to other Christians, facilitated by his consumption of anti-Christian web sites, and the anti-Christian web sites giving him even more reason to hate his mother-in-law, weirdly convincing him that she was the “bad one” in the dispute. It can clearly work as a positive feedback loop, where hatred of the mother-in-law fuels hatred of Christians and hatred of Christians fuels hatred of the mother-in-law. And a positive feedback loop would nicely explain the extreme and horrendous nature of this crime.
So the problem with the atheist websites is not that they encouraged Kelley to commit acts of murder. No website can do that without receiving all kinds of blow back. It’s that they facilitated a positive feedback loop of hatred. And once the hatred and anger reached the boiling point, all it would take was some new angle on the domestic dispute to create the spark for the consuming fire (for example, maybe the mother-in-law convinces the daughter to leave him and take the kids).
A question worth considering is whether the domestic dispute alone explains why Kelley chose to kill so many religious people while they were in church on a Sunday morning. One thing is clear – Kelley intended mass murder. Considering how he dressed and how much ammunition he had with him, he clearly set out to murder more than his mother-in-law.
“I think he came here with a purpose and a mission,” Freeman Martin, regional commander of the state Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference Monday evening.
Martin disclosed that at least 15 empty 30-round ammunition magazines were found at the church, along with “hundreds” of shell casings” — more than he would ever need, Freeman said, to “take care of the mother-in-law.”
Furthermore, how would Kelley even know she was in the church? She wasn’t. If it was simply a domestic dispute, wouldn’t it have followed the common pattern of such cases – Kelley would have sought her out personally (likely at her house) to carry out the crime. The vast majority of domestic disputes that culminate in murder don’t involve mass murder.
And then there is this interesting account from Kelley’s former Air Force colleague :
After Kelley served jail time for the assault and was discharged from the Air Force, Edwards said he reached out to her on Facebook to be a job reference.
“I wanted to help him, and I really wanted him to succeed,” said Edwards, who by that time was also out of the military.
But their conversations made Edwards increasingly uncomfortable. At one point, Edwards said, Kelley praised Dylann Roof, the man who entered a South Carolina church and killed nine people during a bible study.
“He would say ‘isn’t it cool? Did you watch the news?'” Edwards said. “He would say he wished he had the nerve to do it, but all he would be able to do is kill animals.”
Wouldn’t “it be cool” to kill a bunch of Christians??? Kelley wanted to copy cat Dylann Roof’s mass murder of Christians. Only in Kelley’s case, there isn’t any racial motivation. The only common denominator is the targeting of religious people in a church. Clearly, Kelley had long been fantasizing about killing Christians in a church since June of 2015.
So while the domestic dispute likely played an important role in this mass murder, I don’t think it was a sufficient cause by itself. I would argue the domestic dispute escalated into mass murder and such escalation was facilitated by anti-Christian bigotry , which in turn was facilitated by anti-Christian propaganda.
This situation reminds me of one that many seem to have forgotten – the case where New Atheist Craig Hicks murdered three Muslim students (two of them execution style). As I explained back then:
Once it became clear that Craig Hicks was a huge Richard Dawkins Fan, Dawkins began furiously trying to distance himself from the apparent hate crime. He even went into one of his Twitter meltdowns trying to pin the blame for the crime on a parking dispute.
What Dawkins doesn’t comprehend is that there is no need for such simplistic either/or thinking. For both the parking dispute, coupled with a primal hatred of religion (fueled by the rhetoric of people like Dawkins), could very well have been in play. In other words, what began as a parking dispute ended as murder, with hate acting as the catalyst along the way. The parking dispute generates the anger. The fact that the three people triggering the anger were Muslims brings the hate into play. The hate mixes with the anger, resulting in a murderous rage. The hateful rage then causes Hicks to make the final step, resulting in murder.
The big difference with the Hick’s case is that Kelley’s positive feedback loop of hate ran for a longer time and was probably guided by a desire to copy cat the actions of Dylann Roof. Instead of a parking dispute, we have a domestic dispute. But both disputes were marinated in anger and hate directed at their victims and their “stupid” religions.
So the issue here is not atheism; the issue is hate. Whether it is hatred of racial minorities, hatred of women, or hatred of Christians, all such hate can explode into acts of extreme violence in a mentally deranged person consumed with rage.