Hector Avalos on God and School Shootings

Hector Avalos, author of such works as Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, had a response in the Letter to the Editor column at the Des Moines Register. I think it’s worth spreading around:

In his letter of Dec. 21 (“We Need to Get God Back in Our Daily Loves”), the Rev. Charles Austin argues that a lack of prayer in schools, along with a refusal to display the Ten Commandments in schools, has removed restraints that could prevent mass shootings such as the one in Newtown, Conn.

Austin claims that “Forty years ago there were no mass shootings in our schools,” and presumably because he thinks we had more godliness in schools then. His arguments are wrong on multiple levels.

First, we did have mass killings in our schools over 40 years ago. On May 27, 1927, Andrew Kehoe blew up the school in Bath Township, Mich. About 45 persons, mostly children, were killed. Some regard it as the deadliest mass murder in an American school to date.

If we count only mass murders by firearms, then consider Charles Joseph Whitman, who killed over a dozen people at the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 1966.

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.

Theologically, Austin’s arguments are interesting. His view of God seems to be that if you don’t pray to God, He might let your children be slaughtered with assault weapons. This is a view of God as a hostage-taker and terrorist, and many Christians, who believe in a God of love and forgiveness, disagree with such a view.

But if prayer is not statistically correlated with gun violence, what is? Austin is overlooking the most obvious correlation: access to a gun has a 100 percent correlation with gun violence.

Whatever one thinks of gun laws, it is clear that prayer is not the answer to the question of why we have so much gun violence.

— Hector Avalos of Ames, professor of religious studies

  • kessy_athena

    One other thing The Rev. Austin is wrong about: 2013 – 40 = 1973. School prayer was struck down by the US Supreme Court in two landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963. So, what do you guys think, does he fail arithmetic or US history forever?

    • Reginald Selkirk

      “Forty” is one of those magical numbers for religious people, like 3 and 12: it rained for forty days and forty nights, lost in the desert for 40 years, etc. I think we could generously write it off as rounding error.

  • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

    This malicious, petty god is being touted by a lot of Christians lately, and it’s troubling that they aren’t getting the message. Aside from Austin being plain ignorant about certain historical facts, he is yet another in a steady stream who doesn’t seem at all worried about portraying his god as being willing to kill scores of children in a fit of pique. And I’m seeing surprisingly little pushback on this meme from mainstream Christianity. I’ve seen some very liberal Christians complain about the idea, but they’re mostly concerned with the cover it provides to the NRA and the gun lobby. The number of moderate Christians I’ve seen take this ball and run with it on twitter and facebook is astonishing. Jesus really does need new PR, because his followers are making him out to be truly awful.

    I keep asking why they think this makes their god good or why they think it’s a good idea to argue from this place, and they tend to just get angry and shut down any discussion. What’s going on? I’m curious what is behind this slavish devotion to tying god into this shooting, to the point of making him look really, really bad.

    • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

      I find that religious people often deal with tragedy by seeking some form of justification for the event that relates to their faith. It’s a way of trying to deal with and explain the terrible things in life. But when you try to explain a horrible event as being some way a part of god’s plan or a punishment for wickedness or an attack from Satan, you automatically end up saying that god is a sociopath who allows or even causes horrible events. I don’t think a lot of religious folks fully recognise what a problem this is for their belief system.

  • Sue Blue

    Here’s a question for the god-botherers: Why are only men responding to the lack of God in this way? Every mass shooting, every school shooting – males. Why aren’t women, in response to stress and the supposed Satan-filled societal vacuum, grabbing their guns (plenty of trained female gun-owners out there, after all – including Adam Lanza’s mother), cramming hundreds of rounds into magazines, and heading out to the nearest school or mall or theater?
    I’m 100% for strict gun and ammo regulations and enforcement, but we also need to address mental health issues – including why men are so much more likely to respond to stress with other-directed violence, especially with guns. “God” and belief in “God” certainly hasn’t ever quelled any violence – in fact it’s been an overwhelming cause of violence, and, for whatever bizarre religiopolitical reasons, American Christian fundamentalists actively promote the idea of gun ownership and use as being a good and necessary part of Christianity.

  • smrnda

    I love it when some ignoramus says something like ‘there were no school shootings before’ – pure BS, there were plenty, if the body counts are higher now it’s only because guns hold more rounds. The evidence is that society is getting less violent, not more, though a de facto unquestionable belief in ‘the fall’ must come with it an unquestioned belief in the good old days.

  • Andy

    My only quibble with the above is “access to a gun has a 100 percent correlation with gun violence”. The sentence is meaningless as it puts the correlation into the definition of the item it is correlating with. You might as well say that there is a 100% correlation between humans and human violence. Plus it doesn’t take into account the 100’s of millions of guns that exist in the US that are not involved in gun violence. (much like the humans in the other statement). Lastly it doesn’t take into account the number of other factors where there is at least as high of a ratio of # of incidents to # of items in the category like age, gender and mental health issues.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      I don’t think that sentence was meant to be taken as any kind of evidence, it’s just a rhetorical retort to the equally meaningless assertion that prayer (or lack thereof) is correlated with gun violence. It wasn’t meant to take anything else into consideration because that kind of denseness is what is being lampooned – totally missing any other factor whatsoever in order to prop up somebody’s preconceptions. Except with guns, they actually have a point, because the guns are causing the gun deaths, whereas prayer is irrelevant to the point of comedy.


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