This past January, 15-year-old Gabriel Ross Parker fatally shot two of his classmates at Marshall County High School while wounding several others. His trial is currently underway, and because he’s now 16 and being charged as an adult, some of the court documents and videos have been made publicly available.
It’s disturbing to read about the case because there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for what happened. Parker apparently just wanted to see his classmates’ reactions to his carnage and know how police and the community would respond to his deadly “science experiment.”
One of the videos that’s now public is a conversation that lawyers for both sides had with Marshall County Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Hilbrecht, who investigated the crime, two days after the shooting. Listen to what Hilbrecht says when asked about the shooter’s motive around the 4:40 mark.
… In fact, we tried to talk at length to be able to understand ourselves how this happened. [Sigh] You know, the biggest thing he gave me was that he said he was an atheist and that life had no purpose. Had no meaning. His life had no purpose. Other people’s lives, also, had no purpose.
He talked about wanting to, kind of, further society through science. He’d been studying science. But he said he was failing the science course and basically his purpose in life is, kind of, no reason. So he had no purpose. He also said, he used the term, he wanted to “break the monotony.”
Just to get this out of the way, there’s no issue with Hilbrecht. By all accounts, he’s a professional, just relaying the facts of the case. If that’s what Parker said, then that’s what Parker said.
So what are we to make of it, knowing that it’s the sort of response religious conservatives will use as “proof” that atheists are morally bankrupt?
The most obvious thing to note is that atheism isn’t synonymous with nihilism. There’s a difference between not accepting religious explanations for why we’re alive and jumping to the conclusion that life is meaningless. Plenty of atheists can tell you exactly what gives their life meaning. You don’t need God to have a purpose.
I don’t know what Parker was thinking. I don’t know how he jumped from atheism to the kind of lonely, empty shell of a human found almost nowhere in the real world yet features predominantly in every God’s Not Dead movie. We give our lives meaning. This kid hadn’t figured that out yet.
Anyone eager to blame atheism for this shooting, however, has to explain why the vast majority of atheists don’t follow the same path. They have to explain why one of the most religious countries in the world also has the highest rates of gun violence while the least religious countries have the lowest rates of violent crime. They have to explain why stories like this one are rare, while stories of Christians committing violent crimes are a daily occurrence.
This guy didn’t kill in the name of atheism. His own testimony says as much. If anything, you could argue that someone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife would be eager to make the most of this life rather than cutting it short for himself or anyone else. Whether this shooter was clinically depressed or mentally ill, I don’t know, but it would be ignorant to pretend he was guided only by godlessness.