A clergyman was quoted on the radio this morning claiming that the proliferation of massacres like yesterday’s horror at Virginia Tech are due to an increase in nihilism among the populace. Although he knew nothing about the South Korean student that went on a shooting spree, he did know about the Columbine High School murderers. He said that they were capable of committing such a crime because “they had neither a hope of heaven nor fear of hell.”
A quick glance at the 20th Century reveals that the century’s most horrific atrocities were committed under the banners of irreligious regimes. But you don’t have to look very far to find people that have heinously murdered and maimed innocents while holding in their hearts a firm belief of heaven and hell. Islamic radical suicide bombers regularly affirm their conviction that they are on their way to an unsurpassed eternal paradise. Early sponsors of the Crusades were surprised by how vociferously their troops engaged the cause when infused with religious zeal.
Religious belief will only deter one from engaging in bad behavior if that bad behavior is perceived as having negative eternal consequences. If one can be brought to believe that evil is actually a moral good that will garner rich eternal rewards, he/she can be convinced to perpetrate evil with a clear conscience.
Nihilism does not have a corner on the market on evil. Nor is there evidence to back up the clergyman’s claims. Americans' churchgoing habits have changed over the decades, but 95% still profess a faith in God. And roughly the same percentage of Americans say that their faith in God is a central facet of their life as did Americans of two generations ago. There is certainly a lot more garbage available in the entertainment world than ever before, but there is not much evidence that acceptance of nihilism is growing substantially among Americans.
We are still stinging from February’s Trolley Square massacre, but a review of this list of massacres reveals that events such as this are not generally on the rise, particularly when considered on a percentage basis. What we do have are far more efficient news mechanisms than anytime in the past. Instead of hearing about a horrific event on the radio or reading about it in the newspaper like former generations did, we see it live, up to the minute, in living color, and in your face. The magnification can seem like multiplication.
Society has its problems, but evil is in the hearts of its perpetrators. We have a responsibility to properly define evil and to root it out of our own hearts. We should encourage others to do the same for themselves. We have a responsibility to point out evil and to say that it is wrong, especially when it is carried out under the banner of a cause in which we believe. We have a responsibility to combat evil using appropriate means.
But even when we are vigilant, evil people will succeed in acting out their evil fantasies. This is not a reason to turn away and hide. It is a sign that we need to do more.