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Texas Thunder
The Shootings In Ft. Worth

by Conrad F. Goeringer

A disturbed, lone gunman kills seven people in a Texas church. Should Atheists apologize? Should Christians blame it all on the devil?

My friend (we’ll call him Randy) sent the first e-mail. “Tell me he’s not one of us...” he wrote.

Randy was talking about a man named Larry Ashbrook, a 47-year old resident of the Ft. Worth, Texas area who last night walked into a Baptist church and went on a senseless shooting rampage which left 7 people dead. Ashbrook then calmly sat down in a rear pew, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Already, the shooting is being compared to the April 20 slaying at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, or a more recent attack at a Jewish Community Center in California. Religious institutions aren’t the only focus of such random mayhem; but increasingly, in the national debate over issues like violence and gun control, there are voices heard -- loud and insistent -- who interject a distinctly religious component into all of this. They point to Columbine, and claim that “people of faith” were the targets of the two teenage gunmen. They also point to one of the victims there, a 17-year old girl, Cassie Bernall, as a modern-day martyr for her Christian faith. Somebody told the news media -- and this has never been clear -- that moments before being killed, Bernall was asked by one of the gunmen if she believed in god. When she replied that she did, Bernall was shot to death.

Bernall has been embraced as a martyr for her cause of religious belief. Her status is rendered more poignant by the fact that she was once a “troubled youth” who supposedly ran with a bad crowd, dabbled in the occult, and was contumacious with her parents. Her mother, Cassie, says that she discovered threatening letters her daughter had written, and after informing the local police promptly packed Cassie off to a Christian youth camp. There, Cassie underwent an adolescent religious conversion, and was rendered “a bad girl turned good.”

But back to my friend Randy, and this guy Larry Ashbrook.

Randy was clearly worried. Was there any possibility, any way, that Larry Ashbrook was “one of us,” an Atheist? For the record, Ashbrook’s name does not show up on any membership list belonging to American Atheists. I would hope that Randy would also ask this same question of other groups, too, including Humanists, skeptics and freethinkers. I would hope that he, and others, did not feel that there was “something” about American Atheists that predisposed its members to be more likely to walk into a church and commit mass murder than any other group of people, certainly any other kindred organizations.

But why do this at all? What is it that makes some of us (and I’ll admit that I, too, wondered if Ashbrook was “one of us.”), Atheists, feel that we have to exonerate ourselves every time some lone nut walks into a church or opens fire and utters something that the news media interprets as being “anti-religious.”? What’s going on? I know for a fact that Randy wasn’t the only one asking about Ashbrook; e-mail was buzzing with the question, “Does anyone know this guy in Texas?”

The fact that the shooting took place in a church, infuses this story with a special significance for some; but would the lost lives mattered less had the murders taken place in a shopping mall, in somebody’s private home, or in an office building?
There is nothing whatsoever that suggests to a rational observer that Ashbrook was an Atheist. Maybe he was -- which simply suggests that like everyone else, people who are atheists can also be mentally off balance and careen out of control into some tormented netherworld where they act out the sickest and most inhumane fantasies. But why would strutting into a church and opening fire with a small arsenal automatically suggest atheism? If I claimed that all Christians were the moral equivalent of the Inquisitors from the middle ages, or the Ustashe terrorists of World War II, I would rightly be branded a bigot.

Being an atheist -- or not being an atheist -- would likewise not affect the horror of this action. Victims are victims whether they believe in a god or not; the Texas and Colorado shootings are rendered all the more horrific since they involved young people who ordinarily would have the bulk of their lives ahead of them.

Perhaps it is that, unconsciously at least, Atheists still feel a need to apologize for their own convictions, to constantly reassure themselves -- and the religious community -- that we are “just like them” when it comes to decent behavior, even though we may disagree on other points. How many Atheists lurk behind labels such as secularist, or humanist, or freethinker? And get any group of atheists together (especially when they gather under one of these obfuscating monikers), and one of the first things you’ll hear is a plea for us to “Adopt a Highway,” donate blood, start a drive for canned food, or engage in some other altruistic work. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but often these “good deeds” become a sort of public penance by Atheists seeking to prove their self worth to the large community and, I suspect, to each other.

It’s not Larry Ashbrook “The Possible Atheist” that should concern us here. It is how religious leaders and groups are capitalizing on the tragedy in Texas, just as they have shamelessly exploited the shootings in Littleton and elsewhere. The shootings are being cited as evidence that we must deep-six the First Amendment separation of church and state, and immediately institute prayer in public schools in order to reverse the alleged moral decay of American society. The violence also becomes a weapon against free expression -- witness the denunciations of the movie, television and music industries, and the clamor for government intervention. And these unfortunate events are also used to support the claim that “evil” is loose in the world, that only turning toward god and accepting religious salvation can ameliorate this problem. The words aren’t mine -- they belong to people like the Rev. James Robison who told CNN that the Texas shootings prove that the “forces of darkness” are turning their wrath against the churches.

This is all heady and disturbing stuff. Do we really want to send the message to youngsters that the world is becoming an arena for some apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, and that they are likely victims at any moment? Statistics say otherwise; as sociologist Barry Glassner is trying to inform us, rates of violence in schools are actually declining. Schools and public venues are often safe places; but like stepping on an airplane, public perception and human psychology are another matter. Glassner told CNN today that in gathering material for his book The Culture of Fear, he found that while the murder rate had declined by almost 20% during one period he measured, news reporting of murders in the major media soared by 600%.

No doubt, the fact that Larry Ashbrook, for some reason we may never know, decided to walk into a Baptist church and begin shooting is sure to fuel claims that those “forces of evil” are indeed targeting religious places and victims. It may be just as easy to blame the deaths of seven people in Texas on the devil as it is to note that six other people have died as a result of Hurricane Floyd -- a natural event. The fact that the shooting took place in a church, infuses this story with a special significance for some; but would the lost lives mattered less had the murders taken place in a shopping mall, in somebody’s private home, or in an office building?

The Columbine shootings have already become fodder for the political campaigns of the year 2000; hardly any hopeful for public office --and this include Gov. George Bush of Texas, the GOP front runner, and Vice President Al Gore -- can resist the temptation to not gush forth some homily or remonstrance linking their political platform with the Littleton tragedy. Many religious groups are shamelessly exploiting the memory of dead youngsters, upholding Cassie Bernall as a heroine and role model for youth. And while warning that the evening television or video games are contributing to a “climate of violence,” many church officials paint a far more terrifying vision -- that persecution of religious believers is becoming commonplace, that even the young are cannon fodder in a growing war of supernatural adversaries.

It’s just as well that Larry Ashbrook wasn’t a member of some Atheist organization; there would be no end to that in the news media, and it would confirm the worst phobias and claims of the Pat Robertsons and others who have a vested interest in promoting a bunker mentality amongst their flock. The fact is that American Atheists, and other groups too, don’t advocate using assault rifles to solve cultural problems. We are also convinced that it is religion which is a major social problem, not the answer.

And for that, we should make no apology.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.