July 24, 2011

Before You Dismiss Breivik as Crazy...

Anders Behring BreivikI would like to caution my fellow atheist bloggers against jumping to the conclusion that Anders Behring Breivik, who has now confessed to the mass-murder in Norway, must be mentally ill. I was disappointed to see some prominent atheist bloggers making this mistake. As I will explain here, there are at least four good reasons to avoid making such claims at this point in time.

First, we do not yet know enough about Breivik, his history, or his mental state at the time of his terrorist act to draw conclusions about his mental health. Seeing people who hold themselves up as rational scientists already making up their mind that Breivik is "delusional and insane" is disappointing to say the least.

The second reason to avoid making such claims until all the evidence is in is that they serve to reinforce the already present stigma against people with mental illness. Despite considerable research showing that persons suffering from mental illness are, on average, less likely to be commit acts of violence than the rest of us, damaging public misconceptions and stereotypes abound. If it turns out to be true that Breivik was mentally ill, there will be plenty of time to discuss it. But why strengthen the stigma without first having the evidence?

Third, there are many reasons why someone might do what Breivik apparently did that do not suggest mental illness. As Ibrahim Hewitt pointed out in this article for Al Jazeera,
Interestingly, this criminal is described by one unnamed Norwegian official as a "madman". He may well be, but this is one way that the motivations for heinous crimes can be airbrushed out of the story before they have the chance to take hold in the popular imagination.
Before we dismiss Breivik as crazy, there is potentially much to learn from fully examining his motives.

Finally, I come to the reason I would expect most atheists to appreciate most of all. When the media thought that the perpetrator had to be a Muslim extremist, the discussion focused on Islam. As soon as it turned out that the perpetrator was likely a Christian extremist, talk about religion vanished and was replaced with wild speculations about mental illness. As Ben Tegland (Atheist Underworld) noted,
So if a radical Muslim kills it’s an act of Islamic terrorism, but if a radical Christian kills it’s the act of a madman?
This is a double-standard in which rational atheists should be embarrassed to participate.

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