Serial Killers and the Bible

Ever notice how the media loves it when a serial killer or mass murderer is caught and an investigation of his home reveals that he was a real “Bible thumper”? How he used quotations from Scripture to justify his crimes? Remember how Son of Sam and others have gotten their orders to kill through messages from “God” (In Son of Sam’s case, “God” was speaking to him through his neighbor’s dog)?

Actually, there aren’t as many cases like that as the media might lead you to believe, but Hollywood certainly likes the concept, given the number of Bible-spouting serial killers in film and TV.

Here’s an example from history that I think might be relevant:

Back in the 1950’s, there was a lot of controversy about comic books and how much harm they were doing to young, impressionable kids who were reading them.

Enter Dr. Frederic Wertham, who wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he “proved” that comic books were responsible for corrupting the morals of young kids. His method of proof? He went to prisons and asked the adult criminals held there whether they had read comic books as children. An overwhelming percentage had said yes, they did read comic books as kids. Whammo!! There you have it! Criminals read comic books; therefore comic books cause people to become criminals. It’s logical, right?

Does anyone detect a departure from the scientific method here?

You see, Wertham had never bothered to question upstanding citizens as to their comic book reading habits as kids. Had he done so, he would have found that the percentage of law-abiding citizens who had read comic books as kids was almost exactly the same as the percentage of criminals who had done so. In fact, in those days, nearly every kid read comic books, because they were cheap entertainment, and television hadn’t been invented yet. Adult criminals in the 1950’s would have been kids in the 1940’s and before – a period that is still known among comic book collectors as the “Golden Age of Comics”. Today, a really hot comic book might achieve a circulation of a few hundred thousand copies. Back then, circulations in the millions were not uncommon.

So for Wertham to approach the situation as he did back then would be the equivalent of asking criminals today whether they watched television as kids, and, because the vast majority responded in the affirmative, concluding that it was TV that caused them to go astray.

Can you say post hoc, ergo propter hoc? If you don’t speak Latin, that literally means, “after this, therefore because of this”, and its a term used to denote a fallacy of logic in which the fact that one event follows another in time is distorted into an assumption that the earlier event is the cause of the later one. This fallacy attempts to draw a relationship between the two events or conditions without recognizing that other factors may be in play. Here are a few examples of the post hoc fallacy taken from the book, With Good Reason, by S. Morris Engel:

Example 1: “Since every major war in which we have taken part during the last few generations has happened when we had a Democratic president, we ought therefore to think twice before voting for a Democrat in this presidential election.”

Example 2: “More and more young people are attending high schools and colleges today than ever before. Yet there is more juvenile delinquency and more alienation among the young. This makes it clear that these young people are being corrupted by their education.”

Example 3: “Twenty-five years after graduation, alumni of Harvard have an average income five times that of people of the same age who have no college education. If a person wants to be wealthy, he or she should enroll at Harvard.”

Obviously, in each of these cases, other factors are in play. But if one wishes to attack the Democrats, put down the educational system, or to create false expectations about a Harvard education, its easy to see how such fallacious argument can serve as a tool of propaganda.

And if one wishes to cast the Bible in a bad light? The post hoc fallacy can be a powerful tool.

So, it may be that some few violent criminals are devoted to the Bible in their twisted way. But many good, law-abiding, upstanding citizens are also devoted to the Bible, and benefit greatly from what it says. The fact that some loonies become fixated on the Bible says nothing bad about the Bible, any more than John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan says something bad about Jodie Foster.