Mass shootings are on the rise in the United States. A 2014 Harvard study indicated that from 1982 to 2011, on average mass shooting incidents (defined as four or more people were murdered by firearms in one incident) occurred every 200 days. But since 2011, the trend has been turning upward sharply: there has been a mass shooting incident every 64 days on average.
In the same time period, American society became more secular. According to the 2016 Gallup tracking poll on religions in America, while nearly three-quarters of American describe themselves as Christians, roughly 18 percent say they are atheist or agnostic, the highest since 2008, when Gallup started the daily tracking poll.
In contrast, 9 in 10 American identified as Christian in the 1940s and 1950s, with most of the rest identified as Jewish; only 2-3 percent of people reported they had no formal religious identity.
Pew’s ARIS survey basically tells the same story. There is little doubt that Americans are leaving the Judeo-Christian religions. The faithful has been slowly but steadily slipping away from the reach of the church.
Could the rise of the mass shootings and the increasing secularization of America be related? Correlation is not necessarily causation. But based on the history and past studies on violence and religions, it is possible to infer the effect of secularization on the rise of mass shootings.
Let’s examine an extreme example first. In countries where atheists sought to exterminate Christianity and Buddhism, some of the worst mass killers in human history emerged: Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It is estimated the atheistic communist regimes in the 20th century killed more than 100 million people, according to The Black Book of Communism.
Another study put the human death toll caused by atheistic communists somewhere between 40,472,000 and 259,432,000 from 1900 to 1987.
How did human beings turn into mass killers under communist regimes? Russian novelist Dostoevsky summarized it the best: “Without God, everything is permissible.”
In comparison to violent communist revolutions, the secularization in America is more measured and subtle. But the end result is the same: people stop believing in God.
When people leave their Judeo-Christian faith, they tend to be less bound by the religious doctrines, church teachings, and moral codes. The offspring of these atheists and agnostics, with no or little exposure to religions, would likely have no constraints at all.
Research has established that Judeo-Christian religions can help reduce violent crimes. In one study, investigators analyzed crime and religion data from 182 counties in California, New York, and Texas. One of the findings is if more county residents belonged to Christian congregations or were regular churchgoers, black and white violence decreased significantly.
In addition, communities with higher percentages of evangelicals had lower rates of white violence; similarly, Latino violence was significantly reduced in communities with a large proportion of active Catholics residents.
Finally, religions seemed to be able to counteract the negative impact of socioeconomic factors on black violence, such as poverty, unemployment, and poor education. In communities where a large number of black residents were active church attendees, black violence decreased substantially.
A separate study indicates that adolescent religiosity is associated with the decreased likelihood of fighting, group fighting, and violent attacks in the United States.
Religiosity was found to be associated with lower lifetime alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana consumption, and less frequent recent alcohol and cigarette use in adolescent Americans with Mexican heritage.
Judeo-Christian religions were demonstrated to have a positive impact on happiness, stress, depression, and suicide prevention. A happy person tends to be more content with life, more likely to have a positive attitude facing rejection and hardship, more likely to marry and stay married, and less like to exhibit aggressive and antisocial behaviors.
According to a 2017 analysis of the National Opinion Research Center’s “General Social Survey,” people who regularly attend church services (for Judeo-Christian religions) and Buddhism rituals (for Buddhists) are more likely to report a high level of happiness. In contrast, people who have no religion are less happy.
Another study examined the relationship between American women’s happiness and church attendance. Using the comprehensive data file of the General Social Survey for the years 1972–2008, it was found that the decline in happiness among women is attributable to the drop in church attendance over the period. The study also discovered that church attendance acts as a mechanism that protects women against various factors lowering their self-reported happiness level.
Involvement in Judeo-Christian religions turned out to be good remedies for stress and depression. After reviewing about 80 studies that examined the association of religion and religiosity with depressive symptoms and disorder, researchers concluded that people with no religious affiliation are at an elevated risk, in comparison with people who are religiously affiliated, while people with high levels of religious involvement are at reduced risk for the disorder.
Many psychologists and behavioral scientists believe mass shooters have a consistent profile. For example, most mass shooters had abusive upbringings and failed marriages; they are depressed and feel rejected constantly, with some showing signs of mental illness; many are loners and gravitate toward violent video games. These are exactly the problems that can be mitigated or prevented by religious involvement, according to research.
What does the future hold? Will there be more mass shootings? One statistic in the aforementioned Pew’s ARIS survey had me worried: over one-third of millennials say they are religiously unaffiliated. Following this trajectory, in a couple of generations, America could become a secular nation with an atheist or agnostic majority.
Judeo-Christian religions, as a defense line to prevent crimes and social breakdown, would become insignificant. If this conjecture is correct, we will probably see more mass shootings in America.
Guns in the hand of God-fearing people are a means of self-defense and tools for hunting. But in the hands of irreligious, depressed loners, guns could be used to create destruction and devastation.
The right to bear arms can be a blessing when Americans believed in God and redemption; the combination of more than 300 million guns and faithless people, however, can only be a recipe for disaster.