Mass Shootings: A contemporary form of Human Sacrifice

Metraca
8 min readMay 19, 2023
Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash

A mirror of ancient sacrifices

Recently, an article popped up on my social media about the Llullaillaco Maiden, a 15-year-old Inca girl sacrificed 500 years ago with two other children. Her body had been incredibly well preserved due to the burying and climate conditions where she was found. I couldn’t help but indulge in a bit of cringe by reading the post’s comment section. A common theme was to mention the primitive practice and beliefs of such a society that practiced human sacrifice and how we have passed that barbaric stage.

This article popped up during a week when several mass shootings occurred in the United States, where multiple children had died. In my mind, these prior inexplicable phenomena mirrored each other: Both mass shootings and human sacrifice are brutal acts of violence made in the context of absurd beliefs. But beyond that mirroring, could mass shootings be a form of modern human sacrifice?

Secular religions

Trying to make sense of this intuition, I couldn’t help to open up The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim’s work on the fundamental forms of religion, which I had read years ago. In my understanding, for Durkheim, religion, in its most basic observed form, represents the norms of society and society itself. As an extension, religious rituals are a way of reminding and reinforcing norms to keep the community, and its order, in place.

This simple idea allows us to separate religion from belief: A religion doesn’t necessarily need gods, metaphysical entities, or a complex dogma — a religion can be of a secular nature. A good example is the Cult of Reason that emerged from the French Revolution as an attempt to replace Christianity for the principles of the Enlightenment. Other examples of secular religions in the political space are Ultranationalism, Fascism, and Communist ideologies, with their unique rituals of mass concentrations, rallies, book burning, and military parades.

A religion doesn’t necessarily need gods, metaphysical entities, or a complex dogma — a religion can be of a secular nature.

If we can conceive the idea of secular religions, then we can imagine that these can be as barbaric as their supposedly primitive cousins, and that human sacrifice can be a part of their rituals. But, if we are going to consider the possibility that mass shootings are indeed a contemporary form of ritual human sacrifice, we first need to understand the religious context in which they occur.

Religious Nationalism

The American religion is not an institutionalized religion like Catholicism or Islam. Instead, it is a semi-secular blend of nationalism, myths, and fetishes — a messier, violent cult with diffuse boundaries, but more alive than any institutionalized religion. In a nutshell, it is Religious Nationalism, and its social order is hierarchical capitalism. This belief deifies the Nation and reduces individuals to purely economic beings who rationally pursue their self-interest on the one hand and views society in terms of hierarchical social Darwinism on the other.

This secular religion, understood as Religious Nationalism, is a product of the success of the United States as an economic, political, and military imperial project. Economic triumph, geographical vastness, and insulation in time create a self-referential and self-absorbed culture of religious nationalism that divinizes and fetishizes its founding components: The Constitution, individual liberty, Capitalism, and guns. The latter become not tools towards a political ideal, as first conceived, but religious objects with intrinsic value. For example, the Constitution and its amendments have ceased to be living documents that establish the framework of government and are open to extension and modification but have become immutable sacred texts that have to be interpreted at face value. Freedom from the government has ceased to be an ideal that protects people from tyranny, but it has become an end in itself that obstructs any attempt at collective action toward society’s problems, such as mass shootings, climate change, and health emergencies.

Capitalism and Hierarchy

This religion has two main components that will be significant in understanding the sacrificial ritual’s nature. The first one is economic: Capitalism, understood as the subordination of every aspect of human life to market forces, is the only possible economic order; all others are a form of perversion and ideological as they do not align with the economic nature of the individual, or Homo Economicus. In this view, Capitalism is not a specific form of historical economic order but an expression of human nature in itself.

As much as Capitalism, racial and class hierarchy is an intricate part of the ideal social order of religious nationalism. In it, wealthy white people are at the top of the hierarchy, working-class whites are a buffer in the middle, and minorities are at the bottom. This is a direct product of the foundational institutions kept under the rug in the official historical narrative: Genocide, colonialism, and slavery. These institutions are perpetuated in mutated forms to this day, like the police and prison industries that incarcerate and brutalize minorities in a disproportional way, the military-industrial complex that profits with perpetual wars waged against brown foreigners, and the endless forms of economic segregation practiced by housing, banking, and health industries.

Luckily, religious nationalism is not the only force at play in the United States, which has allowed progress. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful and persistent force and constantly looks for opportunities to expand its influence and roll back progress.

Preachers

As with any religion, Religious Nationalism has a cast of preachers acting on the faith’s economic and hierarchical dimensions. The economic preachers take the form of self-help and hussle culture gurus. All these Rich-poor-dad Gary Vs preach a contemporary version of protestant salvation, where financial success is the only form of social validation, and economic hardship is a failure of the individual’s character and the ultimate sin.

The hierarchy preachers, on the other hand, sermon on the natural order of the system. These are characters like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and the army of copycats in the manosphere. Their religious role is to discredit and mock any attempts to question the existing hierarchy and to reinforce existing structures. They do this by wrapping old ideas in a digestible, social-media-friendly format and language.

Heretics

Just like preachers and priests, Religious Nationalism also has witches and heretics. Minorities, the poor, and the powerless are the equivalent of Christian mythology’s original sinners who, for economic or hierarchical reasons, have a fallen nature. Their belonging to the nation-religion is always conditional and can be put in doubt if economic or political circumstances require it. They can always be used as an anger scapegoat, a target for persecution. As recent examples, Asian Americans are attacked because the pandemic started in China, Muslims are harassed because terrorists acted in the name of Islam, Central American migrants are put in cages because the good-old jobs disappeared, and Black Americans are constantly terrorized just for existing. Minorities are permanent targets of violence and, as we shall soon see, the primary sources of sacrificial material.

The Gun fetish

The American religion’s sacred object is, without a doubt, the gun. It’s a fetish, untouchable, worthy of worship. The Nation’s soul lives in it, a symbol of society itself, allowing the gun owner direct contact with the sacred dimension of the Nation. Consequently, no matter how much crime or violence it produces, the gun is beyond question. Blame will always fall on something or someone else. That is the ultimate reason mass shootings will never end; eradicating the gun is ending religious nationalism and its social order.

The American religion’s sacred object is, without a doubt, the gun. It’s a fetish, untouchable, worthy of worship.

The sacred relationship and divination of the gun help explain why the United States cannot implement minimum reforms when a mass shooting happens. On the contrary, other countries that do not have this degenerate fixation are quick to enforce reforms once these events occur, even when gun ownership is widespread. Examples of this are the reforms after the massacres of Oslo/Utoya-Norway (2011), Christchurch-New Zealand (2019), and Port Arthur-Australia (1996).

Mass Shootings as human sacrifice

So where does the mass shooting fit within the religious-nationalism and its gun fetish? Foremost, the mass shooting is a form of ritual human sacrifice. It is where the American Religion reinforces its ideology and publicly parades its domination with impunity. It is a necessary offering of blood to maintain the religious order of the Nation.

Like all rituals, the shooting has a clear structure, and we all know it: A shooting takes place in a public space by a young outcast man, usually white. Police respond or don’t, depending on who is being shot at. Next, politicians give their thoughts and prayers. The media focuses on the heroic police or bystanders instead of the victims, and the toothless public shouts to the wind in performative disapproval. Finally, it becomes old news, and nothing changes, except that people buy more guns, reinforcing its sacredness and impunity. And this last part is the most essential part of the ritual — nothing changes no matter how much death, mutilation, and cruelty. This is the whole purpose of the religious ceremony, the conservation of society as-is.

Beyond the symbolic role of the ritual discussed above, the shooting has practical effects that reinforce the religion of hierarchical Capitalism. First, it is a tool of social atomization, as it dissuades people from going to public spaces, trusting others, and forming bonds. Anyone can be a shooter, so no one can be trusted. It reminds us that we must stay separate and can do nothing about it. Collective action and trust are the most effective weapons against hierarchical Capitalism, so atomizing society is one of the most effective ways of preserving its order.

Mass shootings are also a tool of domination through targeted arbitrary cruelty. Most of these acts are against the powerless: Racial and sexual minorities, the poor, students, and children. The impunity of terrorist action reinforces the underlying hierarchy. The shooter may die or be captured, but his death or the prison punishment that follows will never be proportional to the pain inflicted on the massacred, injured, and their families. Many times, the deferential treatment the murderers receive from authorities, compared to the brutal beatings and killings done to petty offenders from minority groups, add a macabre element of mockery to the spectacle.

An insane act?

[…] the dead in mass shootings are sacrifices to the social order, a ritual purge, and a public reminder of the powerless’ subordinate place in the social hierarchy.

From outside the religious nationalist prism, mass shootings and the inaction that follows are incomprehensible. For victims and decent human beings, the deaths are in vain, as they don’t make any difference and are quickly forgotten if ever acknowledged. Insanity is the only word we use to describe it, knowing that the shooter is never insane. On the contrary, from the dominant religion’s perspective, the dead in mass shootings are sacrifices to the social order, a ritual purge, and a public reminder of the powerless’ subordinate place in the social hierarchy.

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