The Devil Didn't Make Him Do It: Or, Why Atheists Can't Read

The Devil Didn't Make Him Do It: Or, Why Atheists Can't Read

By Scott P. Richert, GuideJuly 31, 2012


In "The Devil and James Holmes," I discussed the shootings at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, from a standpoint that I assumed would be somewhat controversial. I wanted to clear up widespread misconceptions regarding demonic possession that have made their way into popular films and novels. The worst of these mistaken ideas, as I explained, is that those who are possessed have no control whatsoever over their actions and therefore cannot be held accountable for them. To put it in shorthand, much of popular culture presents demonic possession as "The devil made him do it." But that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church.

I thought that the main opposition to my article would come from Christians who have been taken in by these popular misconceptions. I was wrong. Most Christians who commented on the piece understood perfectly well what I was saying, even though some disagreed with it intelligently and respectfully. (Only one self-identified Catholic completely misunderstood what I wrote.)

But after the article was picked up by Google News, all hell broke loose (no pun intended). A massive influx of atheists began leaving comments that were not particularly intelligent and not at all respectful. (Some, in fact, were so vile that I could not approve them for display, since they would be offensive to this site's main audience.)

And, to a man, every one of the atheist commenters got the point of my article exactly wrong. Indeed, if reading comprehension were an accurate test of intelligence, I would have to conclude that the Christian commenters on that post were, as a whole, much brighter than the atheist ones—a rather amusing turn of events, since the atheists who usually waste their time attacking my articles tend to pride themselves on being more intelligent than those of us who believe in "sky fairies."

I have a theory concerning why every atheist was incapable of understanding what I wrote, but before we get to that, here's a short version of the argument in "The Devil and James Holmes," for those who found 700 words too much to read:

  • Some Christians have argued that James Holmes is possessed (or was possessed at the time of the shootings) and, therefore, is not responsible for what he did.
  • Possession, however, is not something that just happens to people; it occurs because people willfully engage in behaviors that open them up to demonic influence.
  • Such people may (and usually do) engage in these behaviors without intending to expose themselves to demonic influence, but that doesn't matter; what matters is what they have chosen to do of their own free will.
  • There are four stages of demonic influence; the one usually portrayed in popular culture is demonic infestation (the third), not possession (the fourth).
  • By the time a person is actually possessed, he has chosen to conform his will to that of the demon, and thus is morally culpable for his actions.
  • Therefore, if James Holmes is possessed, the devil didn't make him do it; he chose of his own free will to do what he did.

Those Christians who disagreed with what I wrote had problems with the final two points, and I understand that; it is hard to break out of the grip of the popular portrayal of possession and to understand the role that free will plays.

Not a single atheist, on the other hand, managed to engage with a single point of the argument. Every one failed the most basic test of reading comprehension: At no point did I say that I thought James Holmes was possessed, and yet every atheist who commented assumed that I had done so.

This is the rest of the article .

Views: 182

Comment by matt.clerke on August 1, 2012 at 7:57pm

So what your saying, is that demons can possess you and make you do things after you have already decided to do the things? Why bother calling it demonic possession at all? I'd just call it "being homicidal". It shows that theists actually do invent things to fit in gaps that don't even exist.

Comment by Tom Holm on August 1, 2012 at 9:33pm

Ummm, Hi.

Comment by Brian Daurelle on August 1, 2012 at 10:37pm

The great thing about 'atheists' as a group is that we're not really a group.  Members of this website constitute a group, people who go to church are a group, people who are Catholic are a group, but atheists (not Atheists) are not.  Thus no one needs bother denying that some atheistic people undoubtedly posted stupid or misinformed comments on your article.  The rest are not guilty by association. 

Disregarding any previous responses to your article though, I'd like to make the point that whether or not you think JH was posessed by a demon, you still believe in demonic posession.  I think that much is clear from both your article and your comments here, or I have wildly misunderstood.  This, I immagine, is what any atheists posting on your article were talking about when they slung whatever mud has gotten your proverbial feathers so ruffled.  For those of us who have long since stopped believing in sky faries (as you're right to call them, sarcastically or not), it comes as a bit of a shock when an educated person from a relatively trusted source takes to the op eds to describe at length such an outdated notion as demonic posession. 

Personally, I find you're article fascinating; as someone who has made a more-or-less lifelong study of how and why religions emerge and evolve, I am delighted to gain such well-articulated insight into the process. You've certainly arrived at a new high point, in terms of inventing elaborate details to support a capriccious and outdated belief, regarding the subject of posession. You may be surprised to find that we of the modern world have been having a debate that parallels the one you outline in your article, and does so without resortive to primitive superstition.  It goes like this; was JH criminally insane? Did his brain (read; genes, chemical imbalances, upbringing, etc.) make him do it? Most importantly, even if he was 'crazy' in some way or another, doesn't he still deserve a lot of blame for the well-planned, callous malintent evident in his crime?  Same debate, different terminology. 

And, in case you were going to say so, 'different terminology' doesn't imply a matter or preference, opinion or choice.  There is no reason we shouldn't dispose of notions such as demonic posession, invented to explain acts such as the Aurora shooting before we had the biological and psychological tools to offer up any better, in favor of the best evidence we have available to us.  Demonic posession, and its corollary, exorcism, have proved to be an ineffective paradigm for dealing with people like JH.  Thus, it is not only silly and fanciful to propound the notion of posession, but downright irresponsible and dangerous to discourage the further investigation into the nature of such people's minds.  Again, whether or not you specifically believe JH was posessed or not is irrelevant; what is relevant is that you would even bring up the possibility, and that you would furthermore lay out such a detailed explanation of the thing that you're not really suggesting, giving the impression that you know many things that you can't possibly know and implicitly lending those things undeserved credence. 

Comment by Doc Feral on August 2, 2012 at 12:32am

Brian.. if you're referring to me.. I just posted it from another source. And I did quote the source up top and I did give a place to find the original. Also in the article is a link to the original one to which the author refers.... As for me personally, I am an atheist going on 30 years now. :) 

Comment by Doug Reardon on August 2, 2012 at 1:23am

It used to be said of drunk drivers that killed someone: "He was drunk, it wasn't his fault!"

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on August 2, 2012 at 6:14am

@Rob - thanks for posting this article - it is good to know exactly what tripe is going on in the catholic church. The bloke who wrote this blog is catholic - it is ambiguous and just badly written.

It is when a Christian mentions devils and spirits that really gets an Atheist despondent, that in todays world, there is still this dangerous attitude taken that the devil exists. To put this fear into children, which  is what religion does, is unforgivable. Where does anybody hear about the demon, but from the church. Why anybody would mention the devil where any massacre occurred is stupid and dangerous. Thank the lovely white unicorn that neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry has made great strides in these areas, and actually help people. 

The devil made him do it - But that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church -

Since when - I was bought up catholic, and I heard many times that a person had been taken over by the devil - and that is what made her do something dramatic. 

What are the myriad of exorcisms in the catholic church all about.

No god, no devil, no fear.

To refresh the memory -

Comment by John Kelly on August 2, 2012 at 2:02pm

I think this article is a perfect example of how people read opposing opinions with bias, and then that disregard causes them be less understanding and expect the worst. Subsequently, they interpret the worst.  Religious people do that with atheists a lot.  Like comparing belief in God to Santa gets taken as an insult instead of a valid comparison.

If this is the Catholic position, that demon possession is a gradual process caused by free-will decisions, then he is just repeating it.  Seems what he was saying is "Demons make you more okay with doing bad things until they are eventually in control, but the individual is still morally responsible because the individual allowed it to happen at each step that the corruption occurs."  This can indeed cause what Suzanne says "demons causing you to do something dramatic".  We have real-life examples of this sort of thing such as drinking and driving.  You still choose to drink, and are responsible for the consequences, but the alcohol makes you crash.  

None of that really has anything to do with whether or not the author believed it was a demonic incident.  I think it indicates the author is interested in having people understand the position of the Catholic church on the matter in light of people bringing it up.  Catholics have historically been very keen on crushing heterodox opinions among the faithful.  I am guessing this was the intent of the article. 

One of the fallacious thoughts I notice atheists having a lot at the link relates to proximity.  How ridiculous the acceptance of a position someone has, relates to their reasons for accepting it based on prior experience.  There is the difference between a ridiculous belief, and what it is ridiculous for a specific person to believe.  Even if an idea is ridiculous to believe overall, it is never ridiculous for a person to believe an idea if all the present evidence points them in that direction.  This is especially true in the case of misinformation.  It is an oversimplification and bad logic to think someone is ridiculous just because they hold a ridiculous belief.

Comment by Brian Daurelle on August 2, 2012 at 11:14pm

Rob-- I appologize for directing that at you; it struck me as a little odd that Mr Richert would take to this particular forum to bash on atheists, but I clearly blew past that inconsistency in my haste to take him down. I stand behind everything I wrote, but it's (clearly) directed towards Mr Richert, not you. Thanks for posting this innane bit of nonsense to give the ol' outrage a trip around the block.  I fear, however, I may have inadvertently proven his point about atheists not being able to read. More likely, I have just proven that I get too excited about bashing on theists to take the time to read details about who wrote what when.

Comment by Doc Feral on August 3, 2012 at 12:00am

Brian -- no worries. We all have moment like that. :) 


You need to be a member of Think Atheist to add comments!

Join Think Atheist

© 2018   Created by Rebel.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service