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

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