Are School Shooters and Social Justice Extremists on the Same Spectrum?

Birgit Pfeifer of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences and Ruard R. Ganzevoort of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam published an article entitled The Implicit Religion of School Shootings: Existential Concerns of Perpetrators Prior to Their Crime.  (HT: John Branyan)

The researchers looked through the writings and videos of school shooters to determine if there are any patterns.  They conclude their analysis as follows:

One can, of course, argue (correctly) that mental disorders, antisocial personality disorders and/or severe bullying can lead to school shootings, but that may not be the whole picture. Our study suggests that the school shootings may be understood as trans-ethical violent actions driven by existential concerns and framed in the language of implicit religion.

The existential concerns are as follows:

Existential concerns, as addressed in this paper, are related to views of life and death, the freedom of the individual and responsibility for one’s actions, the awareness that one is fundamentally alone, and the problem of meaning. Experimental studies have confirmed that existential concerns have a pervasive influence on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions (Koole, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 2006).

As for implicit religion:

Indicators of the implicit religion of school shooters are the religious terminology they us in their documents to justify their horrendous acts of violence. They use religious themes in their documents, such as the fight between good and evil; they create apocalyptic scenarios, and act like martyrs.

So implicit religion does not mean they believe in God and are killing because of some theistic mindset.  It just means they see life in terms of good and evil, create apocalyptic scenarios, and act like martyrs.  Like New Atheists do.

Basically, school shooters are boys struggling mightily with existential concerns through a secular framework.  This secular framework fails them in some instances:

It is clear from the analysis that in these school shooters’ writings they explicitly struggle with such existential concerns as their own mortality, isolation and identity. Fanaticism and cruelty are interconnected with existential concerns. They function as a defense mechanism to deal, for example, with the fear of death (Koole, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 2006). Killing others creates an illusion of being invulnerable and immortal (Becker 1973). The fact that school shooters are not able to find answers to these concerns backs them into a corner of extreme desperation and anger. Apparently, they come to the conclusion that they have no options left.

Yet, in other instances, the secular framework empowers them.  Since there is no objective meaning to life in an atheistic reality, atheists often dismiss this by insisting we have the power to make meaning for our lives.  School shooters agree:

In a similar vein, Pekka writes: “Life is just a meaningless coincidence . . . result of long process of evolution and many several factors, causes and effects. However, life is also something that an individual wants and determines it to be. And I’m the dictator and god of my own life. And me, I have chosen my way. I am prepared to fight and die for my cause.”

As is also clear from Pekka’s statement that reality does not meet the shooters’ expectations, and they argue that life, as most people live it, is meaningless. Sebastian writes: “I can build a house, get children and who knows what else. What is the point? The house will be demolished one day, and the children will die one day. What is the point of live? There is no point. So you have to bring meaning to your life”

Another existential theme aggravated by secularism is the desire to be noticed, a desire to think one is significant.  School shooters know their killings will bring them fame and also know there is even a community out there that will admire them:

Remarkably, school shooters discussing their plans with their online contacts received positive feedback for their plans from others (Kiilakoski and Oksanen 2011). After a school shooting, fan websites pop up. Oksanen et al. (2014) identified 113 school shooting fan profiles and found that school shooting fans share language, cultural codes and a group identity.


Choosing the time, place and circumstances of their own death, as well as choosing who will live and who will die seems to provide school shooters psychologically with the power and the freedom they so desperately want, expressed in their documents. They know that their deed will receive significant media coverage and make them immortal, at least for the families and friends of their victims.

It would seem to me the researchers have put their finger on a very significant aspect of the school shooting epidemic.  As more and more young people become non-religious, they become more vulnerable to the type of extreme desperation and anger that comes from an inability to process the existential concerns that are universal to humanity.  Social media and mainstream media then make possible the cult-like adoration of previous school shooters.  A good indicator that the researchers are on to something is that while this article was published in 2014, a recent NYT article about the 2018 Santa Fe shooting echoes many of the same themes.

Lastly, I think the authors missed one common theme.  The school shooters have rationalized their killings as a form of social justice.  In essence, their crimes are premised on the logic of “punch a Nazi,” a form of ethics both promoted and celebrated by social justice extremists.  Consider the following excerpts:

Revenge is prominently present in the documents as motive for the killing. Sebastian writes in his suicide letter: “I do not want to run away any longer! I want to do my bit in the revolution of the outcast! I want REVENGE!” In some cases the shooters present themselves as martyrs. Seung-Hui, for example, writes, “Thanks to you, I die, like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” He also refers to the Columbine shooters: “Generation after generation, we martyrs, like Eric and Dylan, will sacrifice our lives to f* you thousand folds for what you Apostles of Sin have done to us.”

The feeling of isolation is expressed as feeling lonely and rejected by others. Shooters argue that they are being treated as outcasts by other students, teachers and society. Luke writes that “no one ever truly loved me. No one ever truly cared about me. . . . And all throughout my life I was ridiculed. Always beaten, always hated.”

They also see themselves as avenging angels. Luke writes “I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society ‘push us and we will push back!’”

The school shooters see themselves as champions of the oppressed.  In their minds, they are doing something good.  So I wonder if social justice activism is on the same spectrum as school shootings.  Might such extreme activism be “actions driven by existential concerns and framed in the language of implicit religion?”  After all, the social justice extremists likewise “see life in terms of good and evil, create apocalyptic scenarios, and act like martyrs.”  And when their secular framework (our actions will bring heaven on earth) fails them (they want it NOW(!)) and deplorables elect someone like a Trump, that framework ultimately “backs them into a corner of extreme desperation and anger.”  Luckily, most use social media as their weapon of vegeance.

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11 Responses to Are School Shooters and Social Justice Extremists on the Same Spectrum?

  1. nsr says:

    It seems to me that atheism can work for a person who is already healthy and successful when they adopt it, or who believes they can remain healthy and become successful as a result of doing so.

    But for a person who isn’t in a good place and has no realistic prospects of improving their situation, it offers nothing. The only logical outcome of atheism is nihilism, and the only responses to nihilism are to pretend it isn’t real (which most atheists do) or destroy oneself and possibly others too in a fit of utter despair.

  2. TFBW says:

    The only logical outcome of atheism is nihilism …

    It seems to me that there’s nihilism and there’s nihilism. If I were a nihilist, I’d certainly lean towards the dark, despairing type. This seems to be the less popular alternative, however. In some sense, Secular Humanism is also a form of nihilism. It takes the attitude that there is no God and no innate purpose to being (thus nihilism), but in response to that takes the attitude, “so we had better step up and fill the void.” It appeals to hubris — to the idea that humanity is clay to be moulded into one’s image of what it ought to be, and that said image is a wise and enlightened one which will bring about paradise on earth. It’s nihilism for optimists.

  3. unclesporkums says:

    And of course, only the smarterest and bestest of the nihilists on the politburo would be in charge.

  4. TFBW says:

    It’s why the Communist dream is never going to die, no matter how many times it ends in starvation, bloodshed, and tyranny. Too many people think it would work if only they were the one in charge. It’s only hubris when other people think it.

  5. nsr says:

    Even nihilism for optimists seems to depend on an implicit assumption of the value of human life and human happiness. If you’re a cynical misanthrope like me, there are no grounds for that assumption in the absence of God. It seems to me that’s a point we (Christians in general) ought to make more often, because without that unfounded assumption every secular approach to ethics collapses in an instant, and because it reminds us that actually we aren’t that great, God is.

  6. TFBW says:

    Even nihilism for optimists seems to depend on an implicit assumption of the value of human life and human happiness.

    Not necessarily. It can be based on personal desires and proclivities. Indeed, in the absence of objective value, what greater reason is there for doing anything than, “I desire it?” Bear in mind that it’s actually quite rare in humans for them to generally prefer abstract reasoning over emotional motivation.

  7. nsr says:

    Indeed, that’s where the pretending nihilism isn’t real comes in. Convincing themselves emotionally that they can achieve lasting joy and significance through the pleasures of life. But of course that only works for those in a position to obtain and hold on to such pleasures.

  8. TFBW says:

    For a nihilist of the Secular Humanist variety, the goal doesn’t have to be “lasting joy and significance,” but merely the maximisation of the pleasures available to one during one’s limited existence. That goal is entirely rational from a nihilistic perspective.

  9. nsr says:

    Agreed, I meant “lasting” as in “lasting throughout one’s life”. My point is that humans always want more. Any pleasure gets boring eventually and we need something better. But we delude ourselves that the next pleasure upgrade will be the one that doesn’t get boring and doesn’t need replaced.

  10. FZM says:

    They use religious themes in their documents, such as the fight between good and evil; they create apocalyptic scenarios, and act like martyrs.

    It just means they see life in terms of good and evil, create apocalyptic scenarios, and act like martyrs.  Like New Atheists do.

    It’s striking how apt a description this is of the core of the rhetorical tendencies and presentation in Dawkins, Sam Harris etc.

  11. Michael says:

    Reblogged this on Shadow To Light.

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