Irrational Behavior? Columbine Revisited

October 1, 1999

By Stephen R. Welch

I read with great interest Mr. Carrier's article describing the latest developments in the Columbine story. Given what they experienced, it's no surprise that survivors' accounts of the massacre are confused or contradictory. And given the urgent need of the community to salvage meaning from a largely meaningless tragedy, it's no surprise that the myth of Cassie Bernall's "martyrdom" was so eagerly embraced. That the myth would be deflated by fact was inevitable, and I appreciate Mr. Carrier for bringing these developments to our attention. Living only miles from the proposed site for a school to train a new "Christian Vanguard" (see the Sept. 26 posting on the II News Wire), I'm relieved to see that reasoned inquiry-- elsewhere in the country, at least-- has not been altogether abandoned. It's also heartening to see that organs of the media, having participated in promoting the myth, do not now balk at debunking it.

I must disagree, however, with Mr. Carrier's characterization of Cassie Bernall. For one, I cannot find fault with her "irrational behavior." Her cries of "My God, my God," were more likely exclamations of shock and fear than supplications to her deity. Under moments of outrage or stress I myself sometimes shout the words "Jesus Christ" (occasionally garnished for emphasis), a wholly useless exercise for an avowed apostate. But that really isn't the point. Having the tranquility of our day unexpectedly violated with the blast of pipe bombs and the spectacle of our friends getting blown away around us, any one of us could be expected to shout, cry, or lose control of our bodies. Irrational? Of course, but so what. And if Cassie was praying to her god? In that case, we shouldn't accuse her of acting irrationally--if she sincerely believed in such a being, praying to it would not have been an unreasonable thing to do under the circumstances. Prayer is the perk she bought with her faith, so let her have it. Whatever intentions were behind Cassie's last words, it's unlikely that she afforded much more than the desperate wish to simply "go home" to safety. No doubt her schoolmates had similar thoughts during those moments.

While I agree that religion is not "good for you," I object to Mr. Carrier's suggestion that there is any special lesson to be drawn here by atheists. This sort of rhetoric has the whiff of righteousness about it, and resonates too closely with the reactionary "I-told-you-so" of those who are quick to blame the massacre (and everything else bad in the world) on the dearth of faith. And it is disingenuous, I believe, to characterize Cassie's behavior as "suicidal," even if she had in fact died a "martyr." If the story was reversed--that is, one of the students had instead been asked, "do you believe in evolution?" and was shot after saying "Yes" -- I would not consider the behavior "suicidal," or a "sad example" of anything. On the contrary. For a true example of how religion is bad for you, we should look to the likes of Buford Furrow, not any of the victims of Columbine. What was bad for Cassie, what was bad for Isaiah Shoels and the others, was not religion, or atheism, or skin color, or violent video games. What was bad for them were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

So, Cassie Bernall's last moments do not, after all, stand out as a shining example of faith. She was not any more or less special than the others who were murdered at Columbine High School. There is nothing edifying here, except that perhaps the cynical maneuverings of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al. may have been temporarily set back by the facts. The mythical martyrdom of a teenage girl is not a threat, but the same can't be said of the religious nationalists who would further their political and social agendas in her name.

[Stephen R. Welch maintains the Argument to Design page in the Theism section.]

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