Here’s how some prominent writers and scholars weigh in on the topic of evil versus mental illness. Thanks to freelance religion writer Andrea Useem for collecting some of these on her blog,

The “National Review Online” published these responses:

From Matthew J. Franck, professor and chairman of political science at Radford University:

“Professional explainers will soon be setting to work on this case, analyzing what happened (or what they speculate might have happened) to the perpetrator of the horror to prompt him to it. ‘Evil’ is not likely to be in their vocabulary. Pathology of this sort or that will be diagnosed; maybe even a brain-chemistry explanation will be advanced. I mean no disrespect to my friends in psychology when I say that all such accounts, however true they might indeed prove to be, can never be more than partial. Human beings are responsible moral agents with free will, and in the end a willing actor had to pull that trigger. Do we really have a better explanation than our ancestors who believed a man could be possessed by evil–even by Evil Incarnate? C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape tells his young apprentice Wormwood: ‘Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves…. [W]hen they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.’ Modern university education seems bent much of the time on making students materialists and skeptics. Did yesterday make that easier, or harder? Think it through. We have seen what evil does.”

From Anne Hendershott, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego:

“While mental health experts are already medicalizing the behavior of what they are calling a “sick” individual, and liberal politicians and pundits are blaming our social inequality, it is difficult to make moral judgments. We are told that this student just “snapped” and could not have controlled his behavior. We are told that he was violent because of factors beyond his control–just like in previous school shootings when drugs, bullies, violent song-lyrics, and inequality made them do it. Biology was destiny–or the out of control capitalism that relegated some to the margins. The parade of psychological practitioners on the television news is already suggesting that there are uncontrollable hormonal factors or biochemical causes behind actions like this. Some sociologists will blame society, or capitalism.

The continued attempts to psychologize and ‘understand’ such deviance–even in the face of evil such as that which occurred on this campus–show the distance some will go to avoid applying moral categories of judgment. Sociologists in the past cautioned us that the medicalization of deviance would eventually shroud conditions, events, and people and prevent them from being confronted as evil. The suggestion that the student who did this act was deranged but not evil demonstrates the lengths some will go to avoid moral judgments. We need to look at the virulent class envy that this student appeared to hold as a serious character flaw–one that may have led to his impaired thinking and his evil act. And, most importantly, we need to acknowledge that human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity.”

From Fr. Thomas Berg, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person:

“The tragedy at Virginia Tech, we should hope, will provoke a profound process of national soul-searching. And rightly so. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Crime Victimization Survey, while in 2005 the rate of violent crimes decreased nationally to its lowest level, homicides and suicides at schools actually increased between 2000 and 2005.”

In a blog entry for “On Faith,” a collaborative conversation hosted by the Washington Post and Newsweek, R. Albert Mohler, Jr, president of the South Baptist Theological Seminary, said this:

“In taking moral evil seriously, the Bible affirms that we are responsible creatures. Our Creator will hold us fully accountable for our actions. All are sinners. Some sinners embrace evil with virtual abandon–leading to horrors such as these killings on a university campus. We dare not attempt to minimize this moral responsibility. Then, as C. S. Lewis so powerfully reminded us, we must trust that God’s perfect justice will destroy evil and reset the moral equilibrium of the universe…. Christianity does not deny the reality of evil or try to hide from its true horror. Christians dare not minimize evil nor take refuge in euphemisms. Beyond this, we cannot accept that evil will have the last word. The last word will be the perfect fulfillment of the grace and justice of God.”

And Jennifer Geddes, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, about using the term “evil”:

“[Mental illness is] why we can talk about behavior as evil. That doesn’t muddy the water at all. To murder people is an evil thing to do. Now, what brings someone to do evil can be a whole range of factors: psychological problems, biochemical problems, past abuse that that person has suffered. When something this tragic and horrifying happens, we need that word to name it. So many people, when they are interviewed about this event or other events we could compare it to, there’s this sense, ‘We just don’t understand how this could happen.’ There’s a real desire to make sense of it. The word gives us at least a way to name what happened. But if we stop there, we’re not doing the thinking this event calls for us to do.”

What do you think?

More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad