How religious teaching fundamentally impairs psychological development, creating a mass shooter like Robert Aaron Long

“He was big into religion.”

So said a student peer of 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, son of a youth minister and member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia. On March 16th, 2021, Long went on a shooting spree in which he shot and killed eight people and wounded another at two massage parlors in the greater Atlanta area. Six of his murdered victims were Asian women, one was a white woman, and one was a white man. The injured man was Hispanic. Long also told authorities he planned on heading to Florida after the Atlanta shootings to “do more acts” there.

Long had been in rehab twice (at two different facilities), seeking treatment for what he called “sexual addiction” and “an issue with porn.” Tyler Bayless, who roomed with Long at one of the rehabilitation centers, said that on multiple occasions during his stay, Long told Bayless he had “relapsed” and “gone to massage parlors explicitly to engage in sex acts.” At least one of the massage parlors where the attacks took place was linked to illegal prostitution and 11 massage therapists had been arrested in previous years.

Bayless said Long felt “tortured” and described him as a “deeply religious person — he would often go on tangents about his interpretation of the Bible.” In the fall of 2019, after one relapse, Long called his roommate “into his room and asked him to take a knife from him, saying that he was worried he would hurt himself.” Bayless added, “I’ll never forget him looking at me and saying, ‘I’m falling out of God’s grace.’”

Robert Aaron Long in his high school yearbook

Most of the attention in the fallout of Long’s murder spree focused on its being an Asian hate crime. It’s been called an act of white supremacy or misogyny, although not all the victims were Asian, or women. Based on what Long has said, as well as the testimony of those around him, it’s far more likely the murders had a religious motive at their root. And a religious mentality can be as toxic as any racist one. Internalized religious belief — and all it represses — is a traumatizing and psychologically-impairing way of perceiving the world, and one’s place in it.

The Church

Crabapple First Baptist, the conservative church Long belonged to, is a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the world’s largest Christian denominations, holding to strict standards of biblical interpretation, including that women are meant to be submissive and cannot hold positions of leadership, and strictly prohibiting sex outside of marriage.

After news of Long’s crimes swept the nation, Crabapple deleted their social media accounts and published an FAQ on their site in response. It includes a condemnation of Long’s “perverse sexual desires” and labels his actions as “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.” But what if it’s a mind they helped create or shape? They state that Long “alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires,” which is true, but it’s unclear if by “desires” they mean his killing spree or his pornography use. Crabapple says Long’s actions were “antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church,” but if what Long was doing was already considered punishable, and, after trying for years to correct it, the young man saw no way out, is taking such extreme measures to rectify or blot out temptation and sin really all that extreme, much less truly antithetical?

A since-removed video of Long on Crabapple’s social media

They also assure visitors they’ve “completed the process of church discipline to remove Robert Aaron Long from membership since we can no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.” What kind of loving community rejects a member when he is most in need of compassion? Their mission statement describes all human beings as having a default (and God-given) setting of “guilt, danger, and helplessness.” If that’s what they truly believe, on what grounds can they so easily dismiss Long’s actions? Did he just not pray hard enough?

“Many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place — that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn’t a real Christian… If only he had really been saved — then he would have experienced the peace that passes all understanding,” wrote Dr Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion.

The most basic psychology will teach you that you are of value, and worthy of respect and love. Fundamentalist religion teaches the opposite: that love is conditional, that it’s something to be earned, that you are born wicked and deserving of suffering and punishment, that thoughts are as bad as actual crimes, and that intuition and feelings are never to be trusted, as they’re likely the voice of Satan. It wants you to punish yourself for having desires, and grovel in abject worship.

Religion preaches personal responsibility under impossible standards, “wherein we are created sick, and then commanded to be well,” as renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens said. Paradoxically, this is often accompanied by a self-righteous savior complex, stemming from the belief that you’re “more right” than those who haven’t been “saved” or don’t “have Jesus in their hearts.” From there, the need to “mission” to others and save souls fuels intolerance and judgment.

Believing oneself to be “more right” than others is a downfall in thinking. Psychologists call it “belief superiority.” It contributes to what science historian Michael Shermer described as “the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong.” Internalizing superiority alongside feelings of utter worthlessness, compounded by the belief that every stray thought that doesn’t fit within the rigid structure of what’s “allowed” is punishable by eternal damnation, leads to either megalomania or self-loathing and self-destructive behaviors. In extreme cases like that of Long, that becomes projected outward, with devastating consequence.

When held to impossible standards (keeping one’s thoughts “pure,” for instance), it’s easy to see how despair can take hold, and, from that despair, a depressive state of thinking. Fear and anger can only be directed at oneself for so long before it surfaces in other ways: self-harm, suicide, addiction. It might start off as coping mechanisms gone awry, but it isn’t difficult to see how this can easily escalate into criminal activity. Including, yes, murder. The actions Long took were no less than the wrath of God personified.

Sexual Repression & Shame

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Those are Jesus’s own words in the Bible. “That passage,” wrote Ruth Graham, “has contributed to a worldview in which inappropriate sexual thoughts are just as sinful as wrong actions.”

Long was so intent on avoiding pornography he blocked websites from his computer and only used a flip phone, going so far as asking one roommate to take his computer away from him entirely. The night before the shootings, Long had been kicked out of his home by his own family because of this so-called pornography addiction.

Dr Samuel Perry, a sociologist with a background in researching the role pornography plays in the lives of conservative Protestants, explained that many Christian men “boil down how they’re doing spiritually to how often they have looked at porn recently.” Spiritual wellbeing isn’t measured through love or acts of generosity, but whether or not they’ve masturbated. By those standards, it’s hard to say whether Long’s “addiction” was really that, or simply a normal (and healthy) curiosity around sexual exploration that he was led to believe was sinful.

It’s likely the latter, as HopeQuest, one of the evangelical Christian treatment centers where Long went in an attempt to rectify his behavior, believes no amount of pornography use whatsoever is acceptable. “Using pornography is both morally wrong and dangerous to our minds and our hearts,” their FAQ reads. Long’s attempt to break his porn usage by using software to monitor his activity probably led him to something like Covenant Eyes, an accountability site that flags pornography use and alerts people in your life when you slip up. They use bold taglines like “Porn Is the Ultimate Villain” and promise, “No matter how long you’ve suffered silently, trying desperately to break free, there’s hope.” All this, for only $15.99/month.

Denying sexuality doesn’t work, though. Surveys of hundreds of teenagers in a study found that religious adolescents report greater preoccupation with unwanted sexual thoughts and fantasies than secular adolescents. Religious adolescents are also more likely to report suppressing these thoughts, which in turn is associated with more compulsive sexual behavior and lower overall well-being. Sociologist and sexologist Dr Carol Queen, founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, describes sexual repression as a “powerfully-felt restriction, often inculcated by family or community, and based in shame, disgust, or fear of one’s own sexual interests.” It gets to the point where any or all sex might provoke negative feelings, no matter the circumstances.

When all sex is viewed as problematic, it makes room for truly troubling behaviors to arise. “Having repressed all physical desire, uniformly categorizing it as ‘sin,’ they can’t — or don’t — differentiate between healthy sexuality and sexual harassment, assault or even rape,” explained Linda Kay Klein, author of PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. “So when the repression dam breaks, any one of these things can come spilling forth.”

Klein’s book centers around “purity culture,” a particular evangelical, faith-based movement that promotes abstinence and sexual purity. It places most of the pressure on women, teaching that how they dress or behave determines men’s desires. This creates outward-directed blame, in which men fighting “inappropriate” thoughts blame the opposite sex for their struggle. With this belief, it’s easy to see why Long viewed the massage parlors he visited for sex “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Christopher Hitchens argued the dangers of “needlessly protracted” sexual innocence, believing them to be “corrosive and repulsive in the mature adult.” In his seminal work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens discussed the results of unnecessary sexual frustration, often manifesting as sexual abuse or violence toward oneself or others, writing, “When the artificial inhibitions really collapse, as we have seen them do, they result in behavior which no average masturbating, fornicating sinner could even begin to contemplate without horror.”

Sometimes this collapse comes from a compounding of shame, wherein guilt around sexual desire feeds into self-loathing. Shame is a core component of religious teaching, stemming from sexual and emotional repression, belief in one’s badness, and a guilt complex over mere thoughts. “Guilt is presumed to be the person’s behavior whereas the target of shame is presumed to be the whole self,” wrote Dr Gershen Kaufman, author of The Psychology of Shame.

Shame isn’t always a bad thing, as it plays a role in the development of our consciousness, aiding us in self-correction. It’s not until an imbalance of internal regulation (too little or too much shame) occurs that things go wrong. Imbalance happens when emotions like disgust or contempt become directed inward, leading to self-hatred and rage, which, when directed externally, manifests in violent, criminal behaviors or abuse.

“Rage is probably the most naturally occurring cover-up for shame,” wrote John Bradshaw in Healing the Shame that Binds You. And there is profound psychological relief found here. “When we are raging, we feel unified within — no longer split. We feel powerful. Everyone cowers in our presence. We no longer feel inadequate and defective.”

Religious Upbringing

The psychological abuse of teaching anyone they are inherently evil is despicable, and for religious people, this starts in childhood. Normal psychological development is stunted by being taught that one’s “whole natural personality is corrupt,” said Roger Stott, who was a researcher and producer of religious programs for the BBC. Children are taught that “common sense is worthless, self-respect is wrong… Normal development of the mind, body and personality is to be dismissed and condemned. The child’s discovery of its own physical body, its likes and dislikes, its own kind of curiosity, its instinct to rebel and be independent, is crushed and dismissed by the constant reiteration of the ugliness and the worthlessness, the darkness, of ‘the natural man’.”

Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, explored the various forms of child abuse running rampant and unchecked in religious communities. In Heimlich’s view, a religious model of life centers around authoritarianism, isolation or separatism, and fear. With this model, it’s inevitable that a fundamentally religious worldview will cause serious psychological damage to a child, raising them with a belief system that is punishing, shaming, demoralizing, and defeatist.

Psychologist Jill Mytton has been vocal about the developmental trauma she experienced as a direct result of being raised in a religious cult. She compares its severity to forms of more textbook abuse like molestation, “because it is about abuse of trust; it is about denying the child the right to feel free and open and able to relate to the world in the normal way…it’s a form of denigration; it’s a form of denial of the true self,” with similar long-lasting consequences.

In his lecture at Amnesty International, “What Shall We Tell the Children?”, arguing against religious education for children, Nicholas Humphrey stated that “children are made of the words they hear.” Making the direct correlation of teaching to behavior, Humphrey went on: “They can be hurt by words. They may go on to hurt themselves still further, and in turn become the kind of people that hurt others.” In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins called religious teaching child abuse for this very reason, which can only sound extreme to someone with no experience or background in fundamentalist religion.

Jesus Camp (2006)

Just watch the 2006 Academy Award nominated documentary Jesus Camp as it follows children as young as six years old at an evangelical summer camp (“Kids on Fire School of Ministry”), where they are taught to be soldiers in “God’s army” to “take back America for Christ.” Fear tactics are used to motivate and manipulate the children into becoming aggressive warriors for Jesus, in turns morally superior to others and unworthy slaves to a God for whom they’ll never be perfect enough. Can any thinking that stems from a “foundation of fear” (as Dr Winell describes it) lead to healthy, well-adjusted behavior?

Religious Violence

“Guns don’t kill, people do,” is a refrain we hear from weapons enthusiasts anytime a mass shooting occurs. And, like a gun, religion can be used as a tool. But to deny it’s more than that is ignorant. Any guiding philosophy or belief system is the reason why we do what we do. It might not be crime or outcome, but it’s certainly a motive. Sam Harris argued this when he wrote about the mentality behind the jihadist terrorist attacks of 9/11: “The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe… It is rare to find the behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation?”

Eliminating sin through violence is justified all throughout the Bible, wherein a volatile god continually punishes human aberration and instructs his followers to do the same. Reverend Dr. Christopher Spotts, who received his PhD in religious studies, calls this “the myth of redemptive violence” which includes a “core metaphor of a cosmic, transcendent battle between good and evil.” This us vs them mentality has infiltrated our pop culture (movies, video games, books) and from there our psyches, which then bleeds into our actions.

Conclusion

In trying to be respectful of all beliefs, we lack critical thinking around the severely consequential ways belief informs behavior. Hate doesn’t magically appear out of nowhere, and neither does shame, rage, or violence. Exploring what makes someone like Long disconnect from empathy and from self is important. Clumping all killers under the umbrella of “psychopath” is overly simplistic. Perhaps it makes us feel superior to label someone as a terrorist or a racist, because doing so creates separation, and helps us feel secure in our own identities as “caring” or “law-abiding” or “good.”

None of this excuses Long’s actions, but seeking understanding gets us closer to root, not just outcome. And understanding behavior is key to correcting it. Writing something off as “hate” isn’t going to get us closer to real answers for why people do the things they do. (For more on the psychology — and psychological draw — of group-hate perpetuated by groups like the jihad or the KKK, I’d encourage the reader to check out the work of Deeyah Khan.)

“What is the sum cost of having millions of people holding to a misogynist, authoritarian, fear-based supernatural view of the universe?” Dr Winell asked. As she studied this very question, Winell coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome, citing the emotional abuse caused by living in authoritarian religious groups, attending mind-controlling churches, going to religious school or homeschooling, and conforming to strict codes of belief and behavior for years at a time. Winell compared the resulting psychological impact to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD. It doesn’t help that within these communities, mental health issues are often dismissed as sins, i.e. “evidence of not being right with God.”

Doubt, introspection, and self-examination are healthy. Our thoughts don’t define us (see: the way religion urges for an impossible mental purity), but they do inform us. If Long had sought help from non-Christian facilities and doctors, maybe he would’ve received different insight into his own mental anguish. What if he’d been the beneficiary of trauma-informed therapy, EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, or even one of Dr Winell’s religious trauma support groups? Neuroscience and neuroplasticity show we can rewire the brain to create new patterns that allow us to make different decisions and change our behaviors and feelings well into adulthood.

Long’s story is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the murderer himself. May it serve as a wake-up call to interrogate our own beliefs, where they’re coming from, why we cling to them, and whether they need adjusting. Beliefs have ramifications. The ramification of Long’s was devastating.

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Erin McIntosh resides in Los Angeles, where she works as a writer, actor, and producer.