Within a week’s time in 2019, three mass shootings occurred: in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California. In most media coverage, two of the killers were described as white nationalists, while the third shooter’s Leftist politics and hatred of religion were mostly downplayed.
The entire reasoning behind ascribing a racist motive to the Gilroy shooter was that he had praised the book Might Is Right on Instagram. While the book does contain racist and sexist content, it’s not a book about race. It’s a philosophical screed against religion and the Bible, written in the style of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Might is Right is the book Anton LaVey copied (without giving credit, of course) for his 1969 work of plagiarism, The Satanic Bible.
That means two of those three mass shooters were anti-religious nihilists. Most Americans, by contrast, identify as Christian in some way, and only a very small percentage are openly hostile to religion.
This made me wonder: could that anti-Christian, nihilist worldview be common among all mass shooters? If so, the rise in mass shootings in recent decades may be related to the sharp decline in faith over that same period.
Using Wikipedia’s list of American mass shootings with 10 or more victims, and using 1999 (the year of the Columbine massacre) as the cutoff date, I put serious effort into tracking down the worldview or religious beliefs of each of the worst mass shooters, as stated by them in their own words. I won’t use the killers’ names, but here are the results by location, in order of number of victims:
- LAS VEGAS (2017, 58 victims)
According to police quoted by The New York Daily News: “[the shooter] described himself as an atheist, and would often say things such as ‘your God doesn’t love me’ and tease [his girlfriend] for making the sign of the cross…”
His family members also described him as “uninterested in religion or politics.” So, atheist.
- ORLANDO NIGHTCLUB (2016, 49 victims)
The shooter was a devout Muslim who pledged allegiance to ISIS, as was widely reported.
- VIRGINIA TECH (2007, 32 victims)
The shooter “railed against his parents’ strong Christian faith” (The Telegraph, 4/19/2007.) In a manifesto mailed to NBC news, his rantings include, “…you Christian Nazis…by the power greater than God we will hunt you down.” The full text, available at schoolshooters.info, makes it clear that the so-called “power higher than God” is the shooter himself, and other humans like him: “I say we’re the Jesus Christs.”
- SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2012, 27 victims)
In a document entitled “Me” this killer explained his atheism and nihilism, using arguments commonly heard in the New Atheist Movement:
“Why do I oppose religion, as distinct from culture? It requires actions and encourages types of behavior which are based on delusions which don’t have any basis in reality…The more delusional you are, the less you’re able to be happy.”
“Morality seems no different than religion to me…all of it is contrived sophistry.”
This and much more is catalogued under the shooter’s name at schoolshooters.info.
- SUTHERLAND SPRINGS CHURCH (2017, 26 victims)
As was widely reported, those who knew this shooter described him as an outspoken atheist. As one acquaintance said, “He was always talking about how people who believe in God were stupid and trying to preach his atheism.”
On his Facebook profile, verified screenshots of which are on the web, he was part of the group “Atheist” and followed popular atheist pages including “The Friendly Atheist” and “The Atheist Republic.”
6. EL PASO WALMART (2019, 22 victims)
This very recent shooter shared a far-right “manifesto” online. There is no mention of religion in it, and no reliable source names his religion (although his divorced father was the author of a New Age book on the “power of universal energy.”)
However, screenshots of his Twitter account, show a reference to “God’s will” in one post. For that reason I am going to describe him as “Christian.”
- STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL (2018, 17 victims)
Transcripts and YouTube videos are available of this teen shooter’s interviews with police. In them, he claims not to believe in God, but heard a “demon voice” which he later described as coming from his “evil side”:
DETECTIVE CURCIO: Do you believe in God?
[SHOOTER]: I don’t believe in God.
DETECTIVE CURCIO: What do you believe in?
[SHOOTER]: I feel like there’s something.
DETECTIVE CURCIO: …When you say the word demon, do you think it’s an evil spirit or what do you think it is?
[SHOOTER]: A voice, demon voice.
DETECTIVE CRUCIO: Okay. But you never when to church or anything like that?
DETECTIVE CRUCIO: Why not? You don’t believe in God? You believe there’s something, right?
[SHOOTER]: I don’t believe there’s a god. I believe there’s something.
In a self-recorded home video, the shooter said, “My life is nothing and meaningless…I hate everyone and everything.” He also mentions hoping to see a particular girl in the afterlife. In letters sent from prison, the shooter explains that he believes the afterlife to be “sleep” and “eternal darkness or a flash of light.”
So we have a young atheist nihilist who thinks that there might be a vague, sleep-like afterlife, and may also believe in demon voices (to be frank, it’s clear from all sources that he is not at all intelligent.) Atheism, however, does not require clear reasoning— only a lack of belief in any gods.
- SAN BERNARDINO (2015, 14 victims)
The two shooters were a married couple, both of whom were Islamic extremists who wanted to become martyrs, as was widely reported.
- FORT HOOD (2009, 14 victims)
A military employee, this shooter was a religious Muslim who grew to hate the United States. (Bizarrely, the attack was officially declared “workplace violence,” although no one disputed the terrorist motivation.)
- COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL (1999, 13 victims)
The killers, both high school students, made home videos, now called “The Basement Tapes” in which they plainly talked about their atheism, as well as their justification of murder as part of natural selection. The transcripts, and their notebooks and writings, are archived at schoolshooters.info:
“Religions are gay…for people who are weak and can’t deal with life.”
“We’re not exactly human— we have human bodies but we’ve evolved into one step above you…We actually have [expletive] self-awareness.”
In a rare audio clip released from the tapes, the following exchange can be heard:
SHOOTER 1: “I don’t like you, Rachel and Jen, you’re stuck up little…Christian, godly little whores.”
SHOOTER 2: “Yeah, ‘I love Jesus! I love Jesus!’ Shut the [expletive] up!”
SHOOTER 1: “What would Jesus do? What the [expletive] would I do?” [pantomimes shooting a gun, makes gun sound.]
SHOOTER 2: “I would shoot you in the [expletive] head! Go Romans! Thank God they crucified that [expletive.]”
One of the duo created a t-shirt to wear during his murders, on which he wrote “NATURAL SELECTION.” The shirt design has been copied by other shooters.
- BINGHAMTON IMMIGRATION CENTER (2009, 13 victims)
The killer was an ethnically Chinese immigrant from Vietnam who believed the government was conspiring against him. His suicide note made no references to religion. A New York Times article from April 11, 2009, describes his family as Buddhist, although I could not learn to what extent the shooter himself practiced that faith, if he did at all. I have to go with “unknown” here.
- AURORA, CO MOVIE THEATER (2012, 12 victims)
On an online dating profile, this shooter listed his religion as “agnostic.” In his personal notebook, which can be viewed at themarshallproject.org, he dismissed the Bible as “mythical” and echoes the moral relativism of other mass shooters:
“Any and all action have no impact on anything…Evolution, the biological program’s codes is [sic] very difficult to fight.”
“The reason why life should exist is as arbitrary as the reason why it shouldn’t exist…”
- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD (2013, 12 victims)
Though African-American, this killer was known to be a practicing Buddhist, as reported by multiple entities, including the LA Times ([Shooter’s Name]: An Adept Buddhist Chanter and an Angry Man With A Gun, 9/16/13.) His motive is unknown.
- 1000 OAKS (2018, 12 victims)
Despite an exhaustive search, I have found no reporting on this California shooter’s personal beliefs. But he did make these posts to social media, DURING his rampage:
“It’s too bad I won’t get to see all the illogical and pathetic reasons people will put in my mouth as to why I did it. Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought….[expletive], life is boring so why not?”
“I hope people call me insane [laughing emojis] wouldn’t that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah.. I’m insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’.. or ‘keep you in my thoughts’… every time… and wonder why these keep happening…”
Here we have a young man wearing all black, mocking the concept of prayer and willing to kill “illogical and pathetic” people because “life is boring” and “why not?” Hard to see any belief other than nihilism there. A New York Times article quotes a former soldier saying that years earlier, the killer had given him a Bible, but detailed descriptions of his life after his military discharge and divorce make no mention of religion, only his interest in electronic rave music and dancing. Without a clear declaration of atheism by the shooter (and to avoid any accusations of bias) we will also categorize this one as “unknown.”
- VA BEACH (2019, 12 victims)
No one seems to have any info about the religion or worldview of this shooter, a 40-year-old African American man who attacked his workplace. His only statement was a polite letter of resignation from his job, he had no social media, and he was solitary and rarely seen outside of work. Since this massacre was very recent, new information could emerge when investigations are completed. For now, it’s “unknown.”
- PITTSBURGH SYNAGOGUE (2018, 11 victims)
The shooter was a white nationalist, whose Twitter profile featured the phrase, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Once again we will describe this shooter as “Christian.”
- GENEVA COUNTY, AL (2009, 10 victims)
The killer’s suicide notes mention nothing spiritual or religious, and no reference to a religion, church, or personal belief was found in other reports about him either. Some news outlets describe a legal battle with relatives over an old family Bible, but it is implied that both parties wanted it for its monetary value. With no data, I will conservatively call this “unknown.”
- SANTA FE, TX HIGH SCHOOL (2018, 10 victims)
According to his own Facebook page, the shooter described himself as an atheist, and also said, “I hate politics.” According to a 5/18/18 article by the L.A. Times, he was also obsessed with the occult.
This completes the list of all shootings with 10 victims or more. That’s 18 shootings, with 20 perpetrators. Now we can look at the religious breakdown of the worst American mass shootings of the past 20 years, by order of casualties:
- Christian (White Nationalist)
- Atheist (New Age)
- Christian (White Nationalist)
- Atheist (Occult)
Although the sample size is small, remember that these are ALL of the mass shootings of the past 20 years with double-digit victims; the worst of the worst. These 20 individuals are responsible for a combined 364 dead innocents.
Looking at the above data, the big takeaway is that the ideological makeup of these mass shooters is very different from that of the general population. Outspoken atheists, a minority in this country, are the largest subset here, outnumbering all other ideologies combined.
In a country filled with religion, the most common ideology among the worst mass shooters is no religion at all.
To create the previous post, I spent an unhealthy amount of time learning about the inner thoughts of mass murderers (including dozens who were not included in my sample due to the shootings being older or having lower casualties.) It’s only right that I share a few big takeaways from this unpleasant deep dive:
— People who describe themselves as having no specific religion but NOT as atheists — the infamous “nones”— are not represented at all on this list (although some of the shooters marked as “unknown” are probably “nones.”) Self-described atheists—not “nones”— make up the largest single ideology among high-casualty mass shooters.
— Whites are represented by 12 of the 20 shooters, which is right in line with the percentage of Whites in the general U.S. population. The rest of the shooters are a very diverse mix, with Latino/Hispanics not represented at all and nationalities from Islamic countries a bit overrepresented. This suggests that race is NOT a determining factor in the making of a mass shooter, but ideology is.
— Nearly the entire list is composed of people holding to just 4 fringe ideologies: nihilist atheism, occultism, white nationalism, and Islamic extremism.
—The only self-described Christians on the list are the two white nationalist shooters. However, an expanded list of white nationalist terrorists reveals a wide variety of philosophies among them, including atheism, agnosticism, and paganism, as well as unorthodox forms of Christianity. The white nationalist in Norway who murdered over 70 people, for example, worships the god Odin. My sample was limited to the United States, so he is not included.
— The high percentage of atheist and agnostic shooters persists when you expand the list to include high-casualty shootings before 1999, when mass shootings were much less common. Of the three deadliest mass shootings pre-1999 (Luby’s, San Ysidro, and the University of Texas) the shooters were non-religious, atheist, and agnostic, respectively.
—The pattern also holds if you expand the list to include fewer than 10 casualties. In fact, of the handful of mass shootings with 9 victims, 3 of them (in Dayton, Red Lake, and Roseburg) were not only anti-religious, but actively practiced Satanism or the occult. I gave up on including mass shootings with 7, 8 or 9 victims due to the list becoming prohibitively long; however, the ideological pattern remains.
— Although standard Protestants and Catholics are nearly nonexistent on the rolls of mass shooters, they seem to make up the vast majority of the victims, with religious Jews also overrepresented among the dead. In one account after another prayer circles, churches, synagogues, and individual Christians are targeted by mass shooters. In two distinct school shootings, the killer targeted a female Christian classmate who had attempted to befriend and be kind to him, but had then turned down his sexual advances.
— It also appears to be a myth that school shooters are commonly bullied by peers. In the cases where school shooters even attend the school they target, they are more likely to have been bullies themselves, acting cruelly to others for no reason. It is also very common for school shooters to have delusional fantasies of persecution with no bearing in reality. The myth of the “bullied school shooter” has caused a great deal of harm, as aspiring school shooters often idolize and romanticize past shooters, who they mistakenly view as martyrs fighting back against mistreatment.
— I didn’t collect hard data on this, but everything I’ve learned about mass shooters has also confirmed the reports by others that white mass shooters tend to be effeminate or physically weak males, often with no father at home. Claiming that “traditional masculinity,” “machismo” or “gender conformity” is behind mass shootings seems not only inaccurate, but downright dishonest, seeing that masculine qualities were in much more abundance in past eras, when mass shootings were nearly unheard of and boys shot pellet guns with their dads while pretending to be John Wayne. Given the facts, it is much more likely that a lack of healthy and natural masculinity may be a contributing factor to mass shootings.
— Gun control, and a focus on gun ownership, is something of a red herring. Most violent crime, including gun murder, has been declining since the early 1990s, at the same time that private gun ownership has greatly increased. In earlier decades, it was common for guns such as hunting rifles to be on school grounds (some of the earliest “school shooting” incidents were accidents involving actual guns used as props in school plays) because the idea of mass-murdering classmates was simply unthought of. Until the mid 1930s it was even possible for children to buy actual submachine guns through the mail, no background check required. What seems to have enabled the recent increase in mass shootings is not access to guns, but a willingness to use them to kill random people; a willingness that simply wasn’t there in the past.
— The plea to focus on mental illness also seems illogical, given that mental illness has always been present, and treatment for mental illness is believed to be much more effective than in the past, when mass shootings were rare. If these shootings are the result of increased mental anxiety, then what’s making us all go crazy in such a specific way all of a sudden? And how is it that most religious Americans are immune to this illness, which only produces mass-shooting affects in radical Islamists, nihilist atheists, occultists and white supremacists?