Dr. Hector Avalos Responds to Claim that Sandy Hook Massacre Was Result of Banning Prayer, 10 Commandments in Schools

Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University.

Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University.

My colleague, Dr. Hector Avalos of Iowa State University, has written a letter to the Editor of the Des Moines Register that swiftly exposes the fallacy of claiming that “a lack of prayer in schools, along with a refusal to display the Ten Commandments in schools” allowed the Sandy Hook Massacre to occur.

Dr. Avalos writes a well-reasoned argument that is succinct and rooted in facts. He writes:

Second, there is no statistical correlation between the exercise of prayer, or respect for the Ten Commandments, and some immunity to mass shootings. Perhaps Austin forgot that 10 Amish girls were shot in 2006 at an Amish school in Lancaster County, Pa. Amish schools allow prayer, and respect the Ten Commandments.

Give it a read.

15 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, Dr. C.

    When in Catholic grammar school, we prayed for this and that, and were taught to believe in “the power of prayer”. We were also taught — stop me if you’ve heard this — NOT to ask tough questions, about prayer or anything else, so we didn’t.

    It is sad that there are people who live in this or that version of an Enchanted Forest, but that type of existence is what religion demands, and believing in the supposed consequences of prayer or in the consequences if one doesn’t pray is, to them, believing in “real” things.

  2. […] in his name would about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Hector Avalos, a religious studies professor who happens to be an atheist, has written a letter to the editor […]

  3. I’m not here to argue that we don’t need better gun laws in this country. We do. But the argument about prayer in schools or supporting clear moral guidelines like the Ten Commandments aren’t based on God’s retribution. The concept is that our children aren’t being taught that they are accountable to a higher power for their actions. Therefore some grow up acting with very little restraint, which might affect violent outbursts in general, which eventually might show up in mass shootings. I think the article misses the point. People who argue that God is angry and therefore shootings happen are clearly not orthodox in their theology. But what about the idea that moral ambiguity creates a vacuum to be filled by the darker side of human nature? Could that be one contributing factor?

  4. Public schools DO teach children that they are accountable to a higher power, be it their teachers in authority in the classroom, their parents at home, the police, the principal – ALL higher powers that the students are taught to respect and to whom they are accountable. Students are taught to respect their classmates, be kind, and treat others like they would want to be treated. Children ARE taught to be accountable to higher powers at public schools.

    You seem, however, to imply that public school students should be taught to be accountable to an EVEN HIGHER power, an invisible deity. The question then becomes which one? (Or which interpretation of a singular higher power are we to teach them to obey?) At this point, an argument breaks out between the Jewish parents wanting a certain god to be obeyed, while the Christian parents want another, while the Hindu parents want another. This is why those who founded our nation had the foresight (and our courts have upheld) the wisdom to decide that issues of religion (especially a particular religion) should not be taught in the public classroom. Children can be taught not to be violent toward one other without teaching them the teachings of Ba’al or Apollo or YHWH or Jesus or Mani. Children can learn the simple moral implications of “don’t do to others what you don’t want them doing to you” without attributing that reasoning to a deity. Kids can learn that there are consequences to inappropriate actions without the punishment for those actions being damnation in a fiery hell taught in a Zoroastrian holy book.

    So, no, the lack of having the collected teachings of a god taught to school children does not add to or take away from their ability to learn how to be nice, responsible, or not shoot each other.

  5. It would be really, really helpful if “God” would simply give instruction from Up Above, as he sometimes was supposed to do in the OT; sadly, since the Bible is folklore, none of those supernatural events actually took place, but . . . it’s a nice thought anyway.

    In any event, moral ambiguity doesn’t necessarily lead to violence, and moral certainty sometimes does (like convincing yourself that “God” is instructing you to do this or that, etc. … if there is a Thorazine shortage, sometimes such people can act on the basis of such a delusion).

  6. This is actually in reply to Dr. Cargill…most cultures do have something close to the Ten Commandments as part of their moral outlook. So I don’t agree that it would be a mess to simply inform kids of this key Judeo-Christian guideline. But I wasn’t speaking just about public schools. It’s much bigger than that. Parents are not even supporting public teachers in their effort to teach responsibility and discipline to students. Administrators are often focused on political expediency rather than actually helping kids develop character. My wife has taught public school for 20 years and I see it firsthand.
    On top of this, society has an overly idealistic view that values can be passed on without connection to God. It’s not really working in my opinion, but such things are difficult to prove one way or the other. On the other hand, there are definitely examples of people who are religious for selfish or escapist reasons. But in my experience, there are far more people who want to avoid religion for these very same reasons. Selfishness, demand for immediate gratification, and unrestrained anger all feed into destructive patterns. For those who are vulnerable mentally this overall societal trend can lead to tragedy. For many, understanding that God will evaluate us all based on the standard of love might just make a huge difference.
    I don’t think public schools are the place to primarily pass this stuff on to kids. But public schools are fast becoming a place where kids are barely restrained at all. Maybe not in Iowa City, but in larger metro areas the trend isn’t good. And it’s usually not due to teachers.
    Moral certainty could be just as deadly but complete ambiguity has never really been taught by previous cultures. Even Asian cultures with concepts of yang and yin have extremely strong traditions of filial piety which put such ambiguity in context.
    What we’re trying to do in North America may be better than having a punitive state religion or totalitarian atheism, but something deeper than gun laws is wrong. And we better figure it out soon.
    In my opinion if we decide for sure that God cannot be part of our culture’s moral vision we will not rise above our current decline. Most people will not love their neighbor if they haven’t learned how to receive God’s love. I’m arguing for a way forward that acknowledges 90% of people believe in a good God who wants us all to love and serve each other. Better gun laws will help keep weapons away from some of the most vulnerable. But a person getting to the point of desiring to do such an act reveals a deeper problem mental illness alone cannot account for. Gun laws will not adequately restrain a person who puts no self-restraint on their behavior.
    My anecdotal experience seems to imply that more of us are operating with little or no self-restraint than ever before in my 45 years. I could be wrong. So far I don’t think I am…

  7. Much to his credit, Dr. Avalos provided an example of why the argument that “there being no mandatory prayer in public schools is the cause of the Sandy Hook School massacre” is right-wing, religious nonsense.

    If people wish to pray for this or that, that is fine … outside of a mandatory, publicly-enforced setting. After all, prayer has no effect upon anything (except possibly the frame-of-mind of the one who is praying).

  8. Does the fear of burning in hell for eternity make us choose to do the right thing? Maybe for some people but for the most part, we do the right thing because we are able to empathize. We are able to understand how it would feel if we were to harm another person because we have the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We do not steal because we can imagine how it would feel if someone stole from us.

  9. I agree that this type of empathy is what needs to be passed on in a much more robust way in our culture. This is the minimum that must be addressed and religion is one avenue which should not be discarded in addressing it…

  10. The ability to recognize the emotions that are experienced by another cannot be taught. Studies suggest kids develop empathy when their own emotional needs are met. When kids have secure attachment relationships they are more likely to have the ability to empathize. Children as young as 18 months can exhibit empathetic responses. By the time the child is 4 years old, their empathy skills are firmly established. This has nothing to do with religion.

  11. My comments have apparently been banned by Register. I attempted to comment to Avalos’ letter. I let Hector know about this by email and have not heard back.

  12. if your comments made sense . . . that would explain the banning. Religious folks really dislike that sort of thing.

  13. I believe I have been banned without explanation. Free expresion advocate liberal press and academics do not seem to care.

    What does not make sense about stated facts? Does cd assume I am religious? Religious folks dislike what sort of thing–explained or unexplained banning? .

    Register’s Rox Laird had opinion on free press today. Sent him email, also. He motivated my f/u with you guys.


    You’ll have to ask Register. They have the answers.

  14. Larry,

    I have no idea what you’re talking about. I haven’t banned you. If some else banned you somewhere else, what good will it do to complain about it here?


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