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.
And, moreover, every atheist who commented concluded, therefore, that I was excusing James Holmes' actions, when, in fact, I was doing precisely the opposite.
So what accounts for such unanimous error among the atheists who commented on my article? I would say that the devil made them do it, but unfortunately some people cannot take a joke.
Rather, I suspect that what they exhibited is an intellectual inability to deal rationally with any discussion that touches upon religion. If Pope Benedict says the sky is blue, Richard Dawkins would likely feel compelled to explain why the Holy Father is wrong. Dawkins is a very bright man, but his intellect is distorted by his hatred for all things Christian (and particularly all things Catholic.) Under the influence of men like him, atheism has become more than simply a lack of belief in God; it is now defined by a nearly complete antipathy toward those who express what atheists regard as mistaken beliefs.
A truly logical atheist might well have welcomed an article such as mine, because it clears up a misconception about demonic possession and emphasizes the role of free will. But conceding even that is too much for the modern atheist. He cannot understand how anyone who can believe in God, much less in demons and possession, could possibly believe in free will. Mention possession in relation to James Holmes, and you must be saying that the devil made him do it—even if a second-grader in a Catholic school could see that the clear language of your article says otherwise.