Was Devin Kelley’s Atheism Responsible for His Rampage?

By Tom Gilson Published on November 14, 2017

Devin Kelley, the Sutherland Church shooter, was an atheist. The evidence for that is quite clear, even if you haven’t seen it in the mainstream media. People who knew him said he was an atheist, he featured a favorite atheist quote on his Facebook page (possibly attributable to Richard Dawkins), and he “liked” four atheist Facebook pages. The information for this is all nicely compiled at the Shadow to Light blog. So was his atheism responsible for his rampage?

When Christians commit crimes, unbelievers frequently blame it on their religion. Try to tell an atheist, though, that three of the great murderers of the 20th century, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, were motivated by their atheism. More often than not they’ll answer, “Atheism isn’t a belief. There’s nothing in it that would motivate a person to do anything like that.” Richard Dawkins once wrote,

What I do think is that there is some logical connection between believing in God and doing some, sometimes, evil things, but there’s no logical connection between them [Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot] being atheists and doing evil things. It’s just incidentally true that, say, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin happened to be atheists, but that wasn’t what drove them. What drove them was a political ideology. It had nothing to do with atheism.

Which led me to wonder whether atheists’ actions have anything at all to do with what they believe. Still the question arises, did Kelley’s atheism have anything to do with his motives. Discussion on atheist sites, including one that Kelley “liked,” the “Friendly Atheist,” is running really defensive.

Atheism Doesn’t Cause People To Do Wrong

So let’s look at this. Does atheism cause people to do bad things? 

I’d say no. I’d say no even though many of history’s deadliest mass murderers  were atheists.

Atheism doesn’t cause people to do bad things. It doesn’t have to. Christian doctrine teaches that we’re born with propensity to do wrong. We don’t need to be atheists to be that way.

Atheism doesn’t cause people to do bad things. It doesn’t have to.

Every parent knows they don’t have to teach their children to be selfish. Kids who aren’t taught not to lie or to steal grow up lying and stealing. Kids who grow up with some measure of physical or social power, who aren’t taught not to use that power to hurt others, often grow up abusing their power their whole lives long. 

But Atheism Doesn’t Give Any Reason To Do Right

Devin Kelley didn’t need atheism to be the kind of person he was. Here’s what he did need, though, and didn’t have: He needed a good reason not to kill. He needed strength of character to overcome his murderous urges. He needed to know that humans have more than just an eyeblink’s existence (as a quote on his web page said), that we all matter eternally. He needed to know life is for loving and serving others, not for harming and using them.

Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot needed the same things. Like Devin Kelley, they didn’t get it. Especially from their atheism. Especially if atheism “isn’t a belief,” as its proponents are fond of saying. Of course that’s not true, but it’s at least true that atheism is empty of any morality-producing content. That much isn’t there, at any rate. 

So atheism doesn’t cause self-centeredness, abuse of power, and murderousness. It merely allows it. To the one who wants to do wrong, it says, “Hey, do what you want; I’m not stopping you.”

Atheism doesn’t cause murderousness. We can come up with that well enough on our own. What we need is something to keep us from going there.

True Christian religion doesn’t permit any of that. Because it’s based on the loving, self-sacrificing character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, and on the truth that each person is created in God’s image, Christianity teaches us to love and to serve others for their good.

The Moral Guidance Kelley Couldn’t Find

Atheism has no such moral compass built in. Atheists may have good moral beliefs, but those beliefs don’t come from a belief that the life and the universe are a purposeless accident.

The so-called “Friendly Atheist” likes to list the sins of Christians on his blog. He probably thinks they show that what I’m saying here is wrong. No, what it shows is more of what goes wrong when people direct their lives by some principle other than Christian morality, some motivation other than that which God wants us to order our lives by. 

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Atheism doesn’t cause murderousness. We can come up with that well enough on our own. What we need is something to keep us from going there; something to teach us there’s a better way to live than seeking our own way.

The great majority of atheists know what’s right and wrong, but they didn’t get it from their morally empty atheism. They got it from somewhere else — the law of God stamped in their hearts (Romans 2:14-15), for one thing. 

I can’t get into the late Devin Kelley’s head. I don’t know how much his atheism contributed to his outrageous actions. I do know this much: When he most needed help to find moral guidance, his atheism gave him nothing. 

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  • KC

    The lack of a moral compass causes people to go in the wrong direction and then do wrong – so then you get to the question of whether atheists have a moral compass as Christians do. Christians read and study God’s Word for direction – just where do atheists get their direction on what is right and wrong?

    • Ken Abbott

      In the second chapter of Romans, Paul discussed the human conscience, part of the image of God that is in every man and woman, and that even unbelievers and pagans demonstrate through their behavior that God has written the requirements of his law on the human heart and their consciences bear witness to this. Of course, unbelievers are actively suppressing the truth in their unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), so they may deny its source or try to ignore it in order to fulfill their own wills.

    • stan schmunk

      So were the southern conservative Christian Democrats who supported slavery and segregation and based it on the Bible actually atheists? Falwell was a southern segregationist? Was he actually an atheist?

      • KC

        There are people who believe in God – read the Bible – and then use the Bible to justify what they do. Does that make them atheists – no. Does it mean that they use the Word to their personal advantage – yes.

        • stan schmunk

          Maybe they were fake Christians…

      • Thanks for the reply, KC. Right on the money, in my view. Jesus’most scathing criticisms were against the misuse of religion. Among other things, that shows it’s no news that true religion can be distorted. Personally I hate it, but it doesn’t jar my beliefs to know it happens. I mean, why wouldn’t it happen? People will use anything to justify wrongdoing.

  • GLT

    Sorry, Tom, I cannot agree with your conclusion that atheism does not cause people to do evil. I do agree our universal propensity to sin is at the root of all evil but atheism can be and is often a channel through which that propensity flows. Dawkins claim that politics was the motivating factor for Mao,Stalin, etc., is nonsensical as the basis of their political views were founded on the atheistic principle of man being the highest authority. The resulting logic allowed for the extermination of millions if they were deemed an obstruction to achieving political goals.

    • Maybe — but I’d be more inclined to guess that he adopted his atheism and the accompanying view of man to support his murderous desires, rather than starting with that view of God and man, and then turning into a monster after that.

      I could be wrong. Just my opinion.

      • GLT


        “I’d be more inclined to guess that he adopted his atheism,…”

        If you’re referring to someone like Devin Kelley, I would agree. My comments were in reference to people like Mao, Stalin, etc. In my view, atheism would be the starting point, with a desire to proselytise; what in their view was the supreme system of governance; leading to political action, which eventually led them to justify wholesale slaughter to accomplish their goals. It’s the same process under which religious zealots justify the committing of atrocities.

        Thanks for your response. I enjoy reading your articles and find them insightful and thoughtfully written, as I do many other writers on The Stream. Keep up the good work.

  • Trilemma

    Atheism can cause murderousness just as theism can. There are theists who believe abortion is wrong and harms children. There are atheists who believe religion is wrong and harms children. There have been theists who believed blowing up abortion clinics and assassinating abortionists were justified to protect children from abortion. There have been atheists who believed violence against theists was justified to protect society and children from religion. Karl Marx viewed religion as an ‘opiate for the people’ that perpetuates social inequality.

    Anyone convinced their beliefs are in the best interest of society and that opposing beliefs are harmful could justify violence to protect society from harmful beliefs.

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